As gambles go it was an enormous one, with no guarantee of success. There was little or no public appetite for military intervention in Libya, and even the generals told David Cameron that it could be a grave mistake. There was no visible enthusiasm from Barack Obama for the cause, at least initially.
And when the invasion was put to a vote in the House of Commons, the voting figures – overwhelmingly in favour – belied a deep sense of unease about where the mission would end up.
Recall the comments of Rory Stewart, the Tory MP, who warned that when you dip your toe into such engagements you can soon become up your neck: “I think the no-fly zone is the correct thing to do but this is a 20-30 year marathon with a very complicated region,” he said.
Labour has given muted support throughout, while giving the impression of discomfort with the duration and cost of the campaign.
Without Nicolas Sarkozy, the British prime minister would have seemed isolated in his call for robust action against Colonel Gaddafi; together they drummed up the crucial UN resolution which paved the way for a unified international response.
But after several months – and only until a few days ago – it seemed as if the mission could get bogged down into a costly and expensive stalemate between the rebels and the Gaddafi government. One senior Foreign Office source told me today he was astonished by how fast Tripoli appears to have fallen.
If today does mark the end-game for Gaddafi, Cameron will be remembered in a positive light for his decisive intervention; so long as Libya emerges as a coherent, secure new country. That is far from guaranteed.
That is where the government now needs to focus; helping the national transitional council rebuild Libya’s institutions and governing structures and pursue a shift towards democratic elections.
The Chilcot report comes out this autumn and my understanding is that there will be heavy criticism for Tony Blair over the issue of post-war planning in Iraq before the 2003 invasion. In Iraq, winning the military victory turned out to be only half the struggle; the celebrations were horribly, devastatingly premature.
Libya and Iraq are different countries, but there are parallels: both are oil states, both have tribal/ethnic rivalries, both have the potential for anti-western sentiment to develop.
As such the government needs to consolidate its gains. That means more focus on fixing Libya and less focus on encouraging rebels in other countries, whether Yemen or Syria, from trying to overthrow regimes; certainly not unless there is any concrete assistance that can and will be offered.
In a speech today Nick Clegg upped the ante on the Syrian regime, saying: “It’s time for Assad to go. He is as irrelevant to Syria’s future as Gaddafi is to Libya’s”. He also said of Yemen, “that situation can’t be allowed to continue, not in Yemen or anywhere else”.
The language on Syria echoes Barack Obama from a few days ago. But what do they mean exactly? In a Q&A after his speech, Clegg admitted that no action was on the table against Assad:
“When people say there is an international comunity calling for Assad to go, there is no question of military intervention … but does that mean we have to observe a Trappist vow of silence on events?”
But if there is a lesson from Libya it is that when events are moving fast, political interventions often end up in a far more concrete position than they first begin. (Remember the talk of a ‘no fly zone’ – how many people envisaged that it would mean Gaddafi’s overthrow at the time?)
For now Cameron is a hero, feted by his own backbenchers and others: Mark Pritchard, the often rebellious Tory backbencher, told me that the PM had behaved in a “courageous” and inspirational way.
He will be under pressure, however, to turn his attention back to events at home; the riots, Hackgate, the cuts and the economy.
Some argue that the mistake made by Tony Blair on foreign policy was to take some significant gambles – Kosovo in 1999 and Sierra Leone in 2000 – which paid off enormously. That gave him the courage of his convictions to try out liberal interventionism, once again, but on a bigger and vastly different canvas; Iraq. That campaign, as we now know, was almost his political undoing.
Cameron’s aides point out that the big difference with today is that the Libyan hostilities had already broken out; that tens of thousands of lives in Benghazi were at risk; and that the UK and France secured much wider international backing.
But it is time for the prime minister to be much more clear about whether Britain has the inclination or resources for another throw of the dice elsewhere; despite today’s glad turn of events, many still hope the answer will be no.