Libya: David Cameron’s other misjudgment unravels
If you think Cameron shot himself in the foot hiring Coulson, try his Libyan debacle
David Cameron can thank Rupert Murdoch, even the wretched Andy Coulson, for one ironic blessing. The Prime Minister's appalling misjudgment and obstinacy in hiring Coulson has so dominated headlines these past days that an equally staggering misjudgment in the international theatre is escaping well-merited ridicule and rebuke.
The issue here is Nato's efforts to promote "regime change" in Libya, whose failure after two and a half months of bombing and arms supply to various rebel factions is now glaring.
Obviously Nato's commanders are still hoping that a lucky bomb may kill Gaddafi, but to date the staying power has been with the Libyan leader, whereas it is the relevant Nato powers who are fighting among themselves.
When Cameron vied with French president Sarkozy in early May in heading the charge against Gaddafi, no weighty hand of caution seems to have disturbed the blithe mood of confidence in Downing Street. It was as though Blair's blunders and miscalculations in Iraq, endlessly disinterred in subsequent years, had never been.
Cameron presumably had intelligence assessments of the situation in Libya from the Foreign Office, the secret services and the military. Did any of them say that Gaddafi might be a tougher nut to crack than the presidents of Tunisia or Egypt, might even command some popular support in Tripoli and western Libya, historically at odds with Benghazi and the eastern region? If they did, did Cameron pay any attention?
The western press, along with al-Jazeera, was no help. The early charges of Gadaffi committing "genocide" against his own people or ordering mass rapes were based on unverified rumour or propaganda bulletins from Benghazi and have now been decisively discredited by reputable organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Any pretensions the International Criminal Court might have had to judicial impartiality has been undermined by the ICC's role as Nato's creature, rushing out indictments of Gadaffi and his closest associates whenever Nato's propaganda agenda demanded it.
The journalists in Benghazi became cheerleaders for what was evidently from the start a disorganised rabble. The journalists in Tripoli were reluctant to file copy which might be deemed by their editors as "soft" on Gaddafi, a devil figure in the West for most of his four decades in power.
On the other hand, history shows that to drop thousands of bombs and missiles, with whatever supposed standards of ‘pin-point accuracy', is not going to win you the enthusiastic friendship of the civilians you are supposed to be protecting.
Recent pro-government rallies in Tripoli have been vast. Libya has a population of about six million, with four million in Tripoli. Gaddafi barrels around the city in an open jeep. Large amounts of AK-47s have been distributed to civilian defence committees. Were they all compelled to demonstrate by Gaddafi's enforcers? It seems unlikely.
Another pointer to Cameron's misjudgments was Downing Street's heavy-handed dismissal of charges from African, Russian and even leaders of Nato countries such as Germany that the mandates of two UN security council resolutions passed in February and then March – the protection of civilian populations – were being brazenly distorted in favour of efforts to kill Gaddafi and install the ramshackle "provisional government" in Benghazi – a shady bunch from the get-go.
Illusions were equally great the other side of the channel, where Sarkozy, languishing in the polls, believed the counsel of "new philosopher" Bernard-Henri Levy, after the latter's early March excursion to Benghazi, that Libya and its oil were up for grabs. On March 11 Sarkozy took the astounding step of recognising the Benghazi gang as the legitimate government of Libya and awaited Gaddafi's collapse with a confident heart.
Le Nouvel Observateur has recently disclosed that French intelligence services assured Sarkozy and foreign minister Alain Juppe "from the first [air] strike", thousands of soldiers would defect from Gaddafi.
They also predicted that the rebels would move quickly to Sirte, the hometown of the Gaddafi clan and force him to flee the country. This was triumphantly and erroneously trumpeted by the Nato powers which even proclaimed that he had flown to Venezuela. By all means opt for the Big Lie as a propaganda ploy, but not if it is going to be discredited 24 hours later.
When collapse did not arrive on schedule the French government breezily confirmed earlier this month it was shipping and air-dropping arms to Libyan rebel groups. We can safely assume Britain has its own clandestine operations in train, though the capture of the SAS/MI6 unit by Libyan farmers was not an inspiring augury.
The coalition is now falling apart. French defence minister Gerard Longuet gave an interview at the end of last week to a French TV station saying that military action against Libya has failed, and it is time for diplomacy: "We must now sit around a table. We will stop bombing as soon as the Libyans start talking to one another and the military on both sides go back to their bases." Longuet suggested that Gaddafi might be able to remain in Libya, "in another room of the palace, with another title".
If Longuet's startling remarks were for local consumption on the eve of an Assembly vote, it clearly came as a shock to prime minister Cameron and US secretary of state Clinton. To heighten the impression of a civil war within Nato, Cameron and Clinton rushed out statements asserting the ongoing goal of regime change, and that Gaddafi's departure was a sine qua non, as demanded by the Benghazi gang.
But Berlusconi, his country the objective of tens of thousands of refugees from the fighting and from economic dislocation in Libya, is now saying he was against the whole Nato adventure from the start. He may decline to renew in the autumn current basing agreements in Italy for Nato planes. Germany has always been unenthusiastic. Initially France and Britain nourished hopes of close military liaison but that soon collapsed for all the usual reasons - inertia, suspicion and simple incompetence.
America is playing a double game, reflective of domestic pressures. At the start, the rush to the UN Security Council was very much Hillary Clinton's initiative. In political stature, early to mid-February, President Obama was at his nadir. There was growing talk of a one-term presidency. Clinton rushed into what she perceived as a tempting vacuum. Obama, still fighting the "wimp" label, swiftly endorsed the Nato mission.
In terms of equipment, the US has been crucial. According to one French general cited by Le Nouvel Observateur, 33 of 41 tanker aircraft used in the operation are American, most of the AWACS as well, all the drones, and 100 per cent of the laser guidance kits for bombs. And that's not all.
The main means of command and control of Nato as the huge bandwidth for transmitting all the data is American. The director of military intelligence, General Didier Bolelli, revealed that over 80 per cent of the targets assigned to the French pilots in Libya was designated by US.
Those whose memories stretch back to the Suez debacle of 1956 might recall that Eisenhower simply ordered the British, French and Israeli forces to abandon the effort to overthrow Nasser. We could well be seeing a less overt rerun of that conclusive demonstration of post-World War II US dominance, with the Obama administration making the point that any effort at asserting European primacy in the Mediterranean region is doomed to failure.
Before his retirement US defence secretary Robert Gates took the opportunity to twist the knife in a speech in Brussels: "The mightiest military alliance in history, is . . . into an operation against a poorly-armed regime in a sparsely populated country — yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference."
He said ominously: "Future US political leaders . . . may not consider the return on America's investment in Nato worth the cost."
Even if Obama is in fact wholeheartedly for regime change in Libya, the political temperature here does not favour the sort of escalation – hugely costly and much against the public mood - required in the wake of the failure of the bombing campaign.
There's no evidence that Ed Miliband, lion-like in his eagerness to seize the reins of the anti-Murdoch bandwagon, has the political agility to toast Cameron for the Libyan farce. By disposition he's probably keener on "humanitarian interventions" than Cameron and can only reproach him for not trying hard enough.
But the bill of indictment is not hard to draw up. Brash and inexperienced, Cameron committed his country to a hugely expensive military operation currently in a shambles, with serious long-term consequences for his country's credibility and pretences to respect for international law – and to what end? Did Cameron think that the post-intervention shambles that could well be Libya will somehow devolve to Britain's advantage?
Yet one more miscalculation to add to the pile. ·
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