Libya: Cameron teaches the generals a lesson
Whatever happens next, the PM is vindicated – but let’s hope he doesn’t make a habit of it
The Gaddafi family are not the only losers in Libya. David Cameron has put the military chiefs of staff firmly back in their box. His position relative to the admirals, generals and air marshals has been immeasurably strengthened.
It is too early to tell whether Operation Ellamy, the MoD's code name for intervention in Libya, turns out to be in the British (or even Libyan) national interest. Or if British voters will eventually think it worth the money and effort. Certainly, the next few weeks could be very messy indeed. The fight does not seem to have gone out of the Gaddafi family and its henchmen quite yet. And the idea that everyone in the National Transitional Council will go back to reading the Guardian once the fighting is over belongs with the tooth fairy.
Nevertheless, David Cameron has been vindicated in one, narrowly military, respect. Many of his senior commanders said Gaddafi could not be brought to his knees without putting British 'boots on the ground'. But he has been, more or less, if you accept that a heavy sprinkling of spooks and special forces don't count as boots.
Others, mainly air marshals and admirals, like the overpaid leaders of a bloated quango whined that it could not be done because of the 'defence cuts'. In the end we had enough planes. And we didn't need an aircraft carrier – not even to hang a 'Mission Accomplished' banner from.
The generals never liked the idea. Conditioned and trained to take orders from American commanders, they were nervous of the Pentagon's lack of enthusiasm. It also distracted attention from the MoD's main effort in Afghanistan. As operations in Libya reached an apparent stalemate in May/June, the background briefing against the prime minister from some senior military figures was 'running hot', to steal a phrase from that arch-practitioner of the art, Gen Lord Dannatt.
In May, Lt General James Bucknall, the UK's top soldier in Afghanistan, openly challenged the prime minister's judgment after Cameron indicated that he would withdraw a few hundred REMFS (support and admin staff in polite English) from Afghanistan immediately. "This is not the time to send conflicting signals on commitment to the campaign," was how he put it, brazenly, to the press.
When the prime minister visited the troops in June and was stuck in Camp Bastion as all available helicopters searched for the missing Highlander, Scott McLaren, the army top brass saw another opportunity to quietly rubbish his Afghan exit strategy back in London.
Interestingly, ever since Bucknall's public insubordination there have been persistent but unsubstantiated rumours that the regiment of which he is colonel, the Coldstream Guards, the oldest regiment in the British army, is scheduled for the chop after 2014. Someone on Cameron's staff certainly knows how to go for the jugular.
Cameron certainly has the whip hand now. His military judgment and drive has proved superior to that of his military commanders. As a result, the defence review is likely to go ahead as planned. More importantly, Cameron is more likely to get his way on withdrawal from Afghanistan. As he said in reply to Bucknall et al: "2014 is a deadline – be in no doubt. This is a matter of judgment. It is my judgment that it is right." Quite.
We should be relieved and proud at a success for British or, more accurately, Franco-British arms. To many, including possibly the prime minister, an 'entente cordiale militaire' with our old ally France is more useful and attractive than the poodle status of the Special Relationship.
But we should also be worried. Aerial bombardment in support of a rebellion in a far-off land without the need to commit ground troops, Cameronkrieg, looks as though it has worked against a crazy like Gaddafi. But it was a "damned near run thing" and took five months. Let us hope that Cameron does not acquire a taste for it. ·
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