Zeidan's kidnap farce shows reality of post-Gaddafi Libya
The Anglo-French military intervention has brought neither security nor stability to Libya
EARLY yesterday morning 150 gunmen, apparently employed by the Libyan ‘government’, drove in a convoy of pick-up trucks to the Corinthia Hotel, the grandest in Tripoli with a prime site on the Corniche overlooking the Mediterranean, and kidnapped the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, from his suite on the 23rd floor.
According to the hotel’s security manager, one of the gunmen had an arrest warrant for Zeidan from the interior ministry.
They and many other Libyans are furious at what they see as government collusion with the Americans, whose Delta Force seized the al-Qaeda bigwig - and former Manchester pizza worker - Anas al-Libi from his car on a Tripoli street on 6 October.
Prime Minister Zeidan was released unharmed six hours later, after a different group of gunmen, also apparently employed by the government, barged their way into the interior ministry where he was being held.
William Hague, who along with David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy is one of the architects of the new Libya, modishly tweeted: "I welcome release of Libyan PM. We will work with Libyan gov on ensuring the transition remains on track and insecurity is addressed."
I love the "on track" – it would look good on the cover of Private Eye. There is nothing "on track" about post-Gaddafi Libya. The Keystone Cops farcical elements of this affair conceal a deeper, more worrying reality.
Much of Libya has become that neo-con nightmare - "an ungoverned space", infested with armed thugs, many with Islamist credentials. Gaddafi’s weapons stockpiles have been dispersed across the Middle East, including up to 3,000 shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles and shells and rockets containing, guess what – sarin.
This is certainly not what was meant to happen. When Cameron and Sarkozy toured Tripoli on 16 September 2011, the prime minister said this at the press conference held, of course, at the Corinthia Hotel: "This is a moment when the Arab spring could become an Arab summer and we see democracy advance in other countries too.”
(Incidentally, if you are ever in Tripoli, the food in the hotel’s Moroccan restaurant, Fes, on the top floor is extraordinarily good – even with non-alcoholic beer.)
When Cameron said this he was obviously sincere and he must have been reflecting the collegiate view in Whitehall of the likely trajectory of the Arab Spring. The policy disagreements were largely over how difficult it was going to be to get rid of Gaddafi, not about the sunlit democratic uplands that would follow.
How could so many clever men and woman get it so wrong? Are there any lessons to be learned?
The decision-making behind any British foreign policy adventure is invariably supported by a series of written analyses prepared by officials in the foreign and cabinet offices using both secret intelligence and open sources setting out what HMG wishes to achieve and the likely course of events on the ground.
The arguments are then tested in a series of top-level meetings, that are always professionally minuted (except for some of Tony Blair’s crucial pre-Iraq meetings). In other words, there is a paper trail – useful to ministers and officials in keeping their bearings in a pacey, unfolding crisis. Such records have become fuller and more revealing with the advent of email.
These fuller modern records will, in 30 years or so, be a treasure trove for the next generation of historians. But they could be very useful also to contemporary politicians, allowing them to audit their recent decisions – not a public inquiry, or anything too heavy, but a short, sharp internal review.
Getting rid of Gaddafi was a close-run thing. Interestingly, we now know that at one point HMG became so desperate that MI6 was instructed to make a plan to assist Gaddafi into an honourable exile in Equatorial Guinea.
The Anglo-French military intervention has brought neither security nor stability to Libya. Ultimately, we did not succeed in our aim. Instead, we have been contributors to an arc of instability and brutality that stretches along much of the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean.
The mistake lay not in our intentions but in our naïve and panglossian view of a post-Gaddafi Libya. This wasn’t something Cameron dreamt up for the hell of it or should be particularly blamed for. His instincts and judgments were feeding off briefings provided by the Foreign Office whose institutionalised optimism and restless activism has been the cause of much mischief and tragedy since the turn of the century. ·