David Cameron looked comfortable and at ease in the House of Commons chamber on Monday afternoon when updating MPs on what has happened in Libya over the summer.
And well he might: the rebels have overtaken Tripoli, Gaddafi is on the run, and the one major controversy – the discovery of papers suggesting British intelligence colluded with the Gaddafi regime in the rendition of terror suspects – happened under the last government.
But as soon as one set of questions about the conflict ends (even Richard Ottaway, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, who has always been sceptical of the conflict, gave the prime minister credit for the way it has turned out), another begins: namely what happens to our troops now?
The revelations in the FT and elsewhere that MI6 appeared to have a close working relationship with the Gaddafi secret services is providing something of a dilemma for the current government.
One one hand, this is an open goal for the coalition to plunge the knife into Labour: to accuse them of collusion with the Gaddafi regime in torturing Libyan dissidents. And there are signs that Tory MPs are doing just that.
Patrick Mercer, the former chairman of the House of Commons subcommittee on counter-terrorism, said over the weekend:
This document seems to indicate that our intelligence services were getting unhealthily close to practices that the British government at the time and its successors rightly condemn.
I trust that the Foreign Secretary will look into this, despite the fact that it did not happen on his watch.
When the western coalition invaded Iraq the problem was not the initial military campaign; Saddam Hussein was toppled in just days. It was instead the lack of adequate planning for the post-invasion scenario, with insufficient thought given to how the country would be run after the invasion.
Most news channels are focusing this morning on William Hague’s comments (on the Andrew Marr Show) that Gaddafi’s time is running out. (Some defecting officers, never the most reliable of sources, also told a Sunday newspaper that the regime is crumbling).
The question of whether Gaddafi is a target for airstrikes has hung over the Libya campaign. The convoluted explanations from ministers can appear dry and legalistic. That’s because they are. But it is worth imagining the terrible indigestion this causes Foreign Office lawyers.
The problems started the moment General Sir David Richards said the Colonel was “absolutely not” a target under the UN resolution.
Since then, there have been strikes on command and control facilities in Tripoli. In public ministers have been opening up a bit, offering a slightly less legalistic response to questions. Take this quote from Liam Fox from an interview on the PBS NewsHour on Tuesday:
“If you look at it from Gadhafi’s point of view, [this] has been something happening at arm’s length, something happening in Misurata, something happening in Ajdabiya or out towards Benghazi.
What we’ve seen in recent days [is] attacks on Tripoli to increase the psychological pressure, apart from anything else, on Gadhafi, to make him realize that this is something that he is involved in.”
Sounds rather targeted to me.
When David Cameron dispatched “military advisers” to Libya, he crossed an important line. It is a relatively small military contribution that carries with it a heavy burden of extra responsibility.
The prime minister is taking part-ownership of rebel actions, whether he likes it or not. The barbarity of the Gaddafi regime is well documented. But small wars like that in Libya usually involve both sides committing atrocities. Now that British officers are involved in helping the rebels, Britain will be more answerable for what they do.
William Hague insists the officers won’t be involved in planning or executing operations. But when they are providing advice on “military organisational structures, communications and logistics” they are bound to find out more about rebel military preparations.
What happens if they discover something unsavoury is afoot? This will be a question taxing the minds of lawyers in Whitehall. Should they attempt to stop them? Withdraw support and defence materiel that has been provided? Inform Nato so strikes can be prepared to protect civilians?
When Colonel Gaddafi accused the eastern rebels of Al-Qaeda links there was a presumption that this was merely propaganda from the Libyan dictator.
Now, however, a Nato US commander has suggested that intelligence reports indicate a potential “flicker” of al-Qaeda within the resistance. James Stavridis, Nato’s supreme allied commander for Europe, was speaking during Senate testimony today. Here is the relevant transcript:
“We have seen flickers in the intelligence* of potential Al Qaida, Hezbollah. We’ve seen different things. But at this point I don’t have detail sufficient to say that — that there’s a significant Al Qaida presence or any other terrorist presence in and among these folks. We’ll continue to look at that very closely. It’s part of doing due diligence as we move forward on any kind of relationship.”
The Conservative chair, Baroness Warsi, was asked about this on Sky today; her reply wasn’t exactly reassuring. To quote Politicshome.com:
Baroness Warsi responded to reports that there are “flickers” of Al-Qaeda in the Libyan opposition by saying it was “very concerning” but she is confident that the Interim National Council’s “vision of Libya” is not a “post-Gaddafi Libya that includes Al-Qaeda”. “That is the first I’m hearing
So far there has been a solid display of cross-party unity over the military action in Libya, designed to save the lives of rebels in the east of the north African country. The Labour leadership is firmly behind the coalition on its swift action in maintaining a no-fly zone and protecting Libyan citizens.
But this afternoon’s ongoing debate - it began at 3.30pm and will last six hours - has shown that the consensus is not quite as firm as it might appear at first glance. Instead, having talked to MPs in private, and having watched the first few hours of the debate, I would say the overwhelming feeling is one of pride at the initial intervention but unease about how events will now pan out.
Concerns are shared among MPs of all parties, under these categories:
1] End game. There is concern about the lack of an exit strategy for the Libyan intervention. Does it end with an uprising that extinguishes the Gaddafi regime? Could the country be split into west and east? Could the allies pull out before either side wins? Could this be another Vietnam/Iraq? How does the alliance attack Gaddafi’s troops and tanks – from the air – if they enter suburbs and urban areas. As Dennis Skinner said – in a point accepted by the prime minister – with wars it is “easier to get in than get out“. Or as Emily Thornberry asked: “What would be a successful outcome?” For now the answer of David Cameron – and of a supportive Ed Miliband – it is to uphold the UN resolution which allows the protection of Libyan citizens. That may, in reality, only be phase one.
Rory Stewart, the Tory MP, 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.
Hillary Clinton yesterday signalled that a no-fly zone in Libya should be led by the UN rather than by the US. (“I think it’s very important that it is not a US-led effort because this comes from the people of Libya themselves…We think it is important that the United Nations make that decision.”) The secretary of state clearly does not want it to look as if the US is flexing its muscles unilaterally once again.
The British position is slightly more subtle, however. As the Downing St spokesman said this morning at lobby: “Our position is as set out by the foreign secretary statement; it said we needed international support , a clear trigger and an appropriate legal basis.“
David Cameron’s opposition to the release of the Lockerbie bomber is plain. But he has a more nuanced position on Tony Blair’s deal to bring Gaddafi in from the cold.
Cameron is privately rather relieved he was spared having to take the decision. From his public statements, it seems he backs the principle behind the pact. But in hindsight he thinks Blair gave a bit too much away.
There were some fascinating exchanges in the Commons after David Cameron’s statement on Libya. Here are some of the highlights:
– Britain may arm the opposition: Cameron said that his top priority was deposing the Gaddafi regime: “If helping the opposition would somehow bring that about it is certainly something we should be considering.” He added that he was “trying to establish contact with the opposition to find out what their intentions are”.
Britain’s defence industry has no better friend than David Cameron, at least when it comes to exports.
Given the dramatic turn of events in the Middle East, the prime minister has certainly not opted for the path of least resistance.
We’re still at the beginning of this trip (as I write this I’m sitting in the Kuwaiti parliament). But it is already absolutely clear that he really does believe in commercial diplomacy – and that means promoting defence sales, come rain or shine.
(I first published this last October but thought it could be of renewed interest).
The following documents, obtained by my freedom of information request, refer to a contract signed in early 2008 between General Dynamics UK (the British arm of the US company) and the Libyan government to supply a communication system for its military.
The $165m deal was the first major defence deal between a British company and the north African state since an embargo was lifted in 2004.
The letters provide an interesting insight into the way that the Foreign Office provides help in assisting British business overseas – which is one of William Hague’s top priorities.
The redactions are by the FCO, which did not provide the dates of the letter. General Dynamics confirmed that the correspondence refers to the communciations deal.
Letter from General Dynamics United Kingdom Ltd to His Excellency, Sir Vincent Fean KCVO, Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador to Libya
As I sit on the aeroplane back to London after my first visit to Libya, I wanted immediately to write to thank you, not only for your extremely generous hospitality, but also for your personal interest and support on the rocky road towards success in the […] programme.
I am convinced that we would not be in the optimistic position in which we find ourselves without […] that your involvement […] and neither would we be able to make suggestions