Victory in the air
Critics of our intervention in Libya said that Colonel Gaddafi’s treatment of his people was not Britain’s direct concern. They argued that a prime minister’s job is to defend the national interest, not the rebels in Benghazi. When David Cameron called for a no-fly zone, he was ridiculed at home and outvoted in Brussels. Why interfere in a civil war? Why lose ourselves in another maze of Islamic tribal conflict?
The Prime Minister saw it in more simple terms. The West had the means to prevent a massacre, and very little time to do so. It needed to act straight away, and worry about an exit strategy later.
There was nothing inevitable about the Nato campaign. Had Cameron not pushed Barack Obama so hard for intervention, it is unlikely that the mercurial Nicolas Sarkozy could have convinced the United Nations on his own. This was a moment of great peril. Had Gaddafi been able to proceed with a siege on the rebels in Benghazi, it would have sent a message to every dictator in the world that they had nothing to fear. The ‘international community’ would have looked like a debating society: it would have seemed that the West could rattle the sabre, but was too war-weary, exhausted and bankrupt to fight.
We will have to wait many months, perhaps years, to see what type of country Libya will become. But a massacre in Benghazi was averted, and the West has proved itself capable of working with new Arab allies. As James Forsyth reveals on page 12, British ministers now believe that Jordan, Qatar and the UAE will jointly oversee Libya’s post-Gaddafi transition. The idea of three Arab monarchies acting as handmaiden to a new liberal democracy is bound to result in a host of complications. But an uncertain future is better than the certainty of Gaddafi’s vengeance.
While it is too soon to draw lessons from a war which has not yet been won, we can draw a few conclusions. The first concerns the value of Nato. For some time, the European Union has been keen on supplanting the Atlantic alliance with a European Defence Force. Brussels has even commissioned a needless satellite navigation system, called Galileo, just so that our military does not have to rely on the Global Positioning System, which the Americans supply to the world for free. Brussels already has its own foreign minister (Baroness Ashton) and it dreams of a common military.
But the possibility of a common European foreign policy now looks remote. After
Cameron saw it in simple terms. The West had the means to prevent a massacre and little time to do so
Gaddafi’s forces had crushed rebels in Zawiya and closed in on Benghazi, the Germans made it clear they would veto any action against Gaddafi — just as the French had done with Saddam Hussein. Each European country has its own view of the world, and a different definition of national interest. But as modern history shows, there are two world powers who can be relied upon to confront dictators: Britain and America. With Libya, as with Bosnia, it took a British prime minister to put steel into the spine of an American president. But the Atlantic alliance proved itself once again.
We can also put paid to the idea that Britain should succumb to the politics of decline, degrade its military and learn to look the other way. At present, Cameron’s government is cutting the defence budget by £2.3 billion as it increases the overseas aid budget by £2.6 billion. Yet, as the hundreds the spectator | 27 August 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk celebrating in Benghazi will attest, the most effective foreign aid was delivered by British air power, not British NGOs. The image of grateful crowds carrying pictures of Cameron, Obama and Sarkozy is a reminder that our armed forces remain our greatest tool for doing good in the world.
We have also seen the value of Britain’s diplomatic service. Cameron did not wait for a United Nations ambassador to do the work. He seized the initiative himself, helping to build an improbable alliance, and was ably assisted by our embassies in Africa and the Gulf. Britain still punches above its weight on the world stage because it has the best diplomats in the world.
For its part, the European Union can do something to redeem itself. Despite its gas reserves, Libya remains an agrarian society, and the greatest help we can give its people is to trade fairly with them. Dropping all tariffs and including North Africa in the EU free-trade zone would be the surest way to bring the prosperity that guarantees stability. It would be a good chance for the EU to prove that it can do more than preach about poverty in the third world while slapping tariffs on the African farmers.
There are reasons to be optimistic for Libya after Gaddafi. The rebels have so far shown a remarkable willingness to restore order quickly. Nevertheless, as we are seeing in post-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia, Islamist factions can rise simply by being the best organised. No one would be bold enough to rule out such an outcome in Libya. But the British intervention was intended to forestall a massacre, not create a new democracy. It was also meant to show that the West is not, yet, a spent force. It was a crucial moment in our history, and David Cameron can be proud of the role he played.