It took just 24 hours for the media to start talking splits and exits over Libya. Cameron’s gamble looks bigger by the day
It is whiz-bang time again, deeply thoughtful whiz-bangs. The prime minister feels he needs a carefully considered kapow. It is a moment for roar, zoom, zap, shock, awe, flames, body parts, front pages, mad dogs, all in sober parliamentary moderation. The boy in the bunker has been told by the boy in the bomber that he can win. The story is the same since time immemorial. The bomber never wins. It delivers death, destruction, mission creep, entrapment, escalation, in that order.
The domestic front is the most whimsical element in any war. Today it cheers, tomorrow it moans. The House of Commons knew what it was doing on Monday night when it voted 557 to 13 to support David Cameron’s war to remove Gaddafi of Libya from power. It was saying, we are behind you, but a long way behind. You are on your own. The press did the same. It gave Cameron 24 hours of jets, bangs and glory before talking of scepticism, exit strategies and splits in command and control.
This is the most “political” war since Gladstone was goaded into sending Gordon to his death in Khartoum. The tabloids were universally enthusiastic. Blown to Brits, cried the News of the World. Top Guns I: Mad Dog O, said the Sun. Gaddafi on his knees, echoed the Daily Star. The Times was gung ho: “No time must be wasted in halting him … the coalition has made a good start.” Barrack Obama was castigated for “missing his moment”. The Telegraph was supportive, with a soldierly concern for the viability of a no-fly zone. The Guardian was more sceptical but not dismissive, adding “it may not be pretty“.
BBC interviewers invariably showed an interventionist bias, pressing ministers on why they were not doing more, intervening sooner and spending more on defence. I heard none ask what business is Libya of ours. Even the sceptical Independent could only suggest the government “keep in mind” those who questioned the wisdom of the venture.
By Tuesday things were already shifting. The Mail seemed to join the sceptics, asking whether “we may have started something we don’t know how to finish”. The Telegraph was finding Cameron’s case unconvincing, and suggesting that Libya “could indeed undermine our Afghan strategy”. The Financial Times advocated swift disengagement, sensibly quoting Lawrence of Arabia: “It is better that the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly.” But the British media hate opposing wars, until they go wrong. Somewhere in the institutional memory is the damage done to the Observer’s circulation for opposing Suez in 1956.
Cameron is clearly playing this market. His speech to the Commons was a classic in going far enough to win kudos without straying into consequences. He said the war was not about “going into a country and knocking over its government … It is about giving Libyans a chance to shape their own destiny … by all necessary means”. But he rejected the only clear means to that end – invasion or occupation – asserting that “it is all different to Iraq”.
This was the gospel according to St Blair, chapter one, verse one, on mission creep. The prime minister must know that the only way to achieve his stated goal is to topple Gaddafi, and his intelligence will have informed him that the raggle-taggle army in Benghazi cannot do it for him. Yet his ministers have totally confused the public over whether regime change or killing Gaddafi is a legitimate war aim. The army boss and chief of the defence staff, Sir David Richards, was slapped down for dismissing assassination. This was baffling when Britain dropped a bomb on Gaddafi’s private compound at the weekend, blatantly to do him harm.
Unless a drone happens to score a direct hit, Cameron’s only way of meeting his war aim has to be to press for invasion – no big deal militarily, since Libya is a tiny state, half in rebellion and with meagre military resources. It would be far easier than Iraq or Afghanistan. Invasion would enrage Arab opinion, but so will continued bombing. Intervention was never for diplomatic wimps. Only a hypocrite can demand Gaddafi go, get UN permission to drop bombs on him, encourage his subjects not to surrender but die, and then leave him in place. That is liberal interventionism at its most immoral.
In truth, nothing in this bizarre saga makes sense. In the midst of the most exciting, delicate, tentative upsurge in popular activism across the Arab world, the west goes blundering in with the subtlety of Alaric the Goth. Lawrence was right. The west has no moral superiority in telling these countries how to conduct their politics. This is especially so given the chaos and horror the west has inflicted on Iraq and Afghanistan. Cameron talks of “brutality”: has he forgotten Abu Ghraib and Bagram?
As it is, every British move must be music to the ears of Osama bin Laden and radicals in Britain’s Muslim community. Why has liberated Egypt gone so quiet, which could run a no-fly zone overnight? Where are the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, the Turks? Even if Cameron were to get lucky and kill Gaddafi, he would be seen as another Bush or Blair, a western interloper having to prop up a puppet state of his own creation.
When the drums of war are pounding, the still small voice of caution gets no hearing. But already the domestic debate is taking the form no war leader needs, full of reservations as the half-hearted cover their backs and wish him well. When the public puts a politician in “hope” mode he should sense trouble. The Sunday Times compared Libya with Iraq: “We have to hope that this time the prime minister’s diplomatic triumph is followed by a swift military victory.” Most helpful and quite so.
It is a mystery why Cameron chose Libya for his exercise in neocon “destiny shaping”. There are a dozen other candidates that might have succumbed sooner to his aggression. But he should beware of relying on public support. There is no British interest in this war, and opinion will tire of it. No foreign state is threatened. No international treaty or boundary is breached.
A civil war on a distant continent is hardly a casus belli. Cameron may cry like a latter-day Disraeli: “We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do / We’ve got the men, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the money too.” But he has none of these in abundance. His is an already hesitant jingoism. He is prolonging a local war at great expense and without willing the means of its completion. Margaret Thatcher gambled all and won glory. Libya beckons Cameron to the swamps of Basra and the dustbowls of Helmand. Neither he nor his nation needs that now.