UK politics. World events. Bureaucrat released.

Monday, 21 March 2011

In it together

Once again, the UK is at war. Within a year of David Cameron's premiership, we see him delivering a sombre statement that confirms British troops are in action over foreign soil. All this whilst we are still figuring a way out of a near ten year old conflict in Afghanistan and where Iraq - invaded nearly eight years ago this month - is out of the headlines but has yet to fully stabilise.

It's clear that Gaddafi was brutalising his people. The rebel held city of Benghazi in eastern Libya was under severe threat of a house to house operation by Gaddafi's forces. After the wave of popular revolution swept - mostly peacefully - through Tunisia and Egypt, such a wave of revolution in Libya was always likely to meet an iron Gaddafi fist.

And so, after some weeks of delay whilst the US stood back and let the UK and those former cheese-eating French surrender monkeys lead the way, we have a UN resolution that authorises "all necessary steps" to deal with Gaddafi. Or, specifically, "all necessary steps" to protect civilians, freeze Gaddafi's assets and establish a no-fly zone over Libya. So far, so good, for the Arab League and for the Russians and Chinese who felt no need to wield their vetoes.

Resolution secured, David Cameron secured some deserved plaudits. He held firm, and dashed the doubters who scorned his flirtation with a no-fly zone in the face of American indifference. In truth, the United States have played a clever game. They've stood back, let other countries do the running, keen to avoid the perception of the United States once again deciding to meddle in an Arab nation's affairs.

But now the tough part starts. They may have held back diplomatically, but the bombs and missiles that began hitting Gaddafi targets over the weekend have, of course, been overwhelmingly from the United States. A spatter of European nations have joined in, including Britain, with a Tornado here and a Tomahawk missile there from Mediterranean submarines.

And where is it all going to lead? As a student, I remember defending Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq whilst the vast majority of my peers were marching in the streets of London. In favour of intervention then, perhaps I've learned a new scepticism on military action.

Libya in 2011 is not Iraq in 2003. But we still need to be sure we are getting this right. Dealing with maniac dictators isn't easy, and Gaddafi is right up there with the looniest. Once again, we've gone in without a clear idea of how we get out. Without a clear idea of whether we're up for regime change or whether we just want to keep the peace and get Gaddafi to back off for a bit. We've set off again without a clear sense of our objective.

Ministers are making confusing noises. Over the weekend, Liam Fox appeared to talk up the possibility that Gaddafi himself is a target, saying it would "potentially be a possibility" in very halting tones. Fox then clarified that "avoiding civilian casualties" would be the main consideration in that "possibility", not a view reflected by his Chief of Defence staff today who said clearly that it was "not allowed" under UN Resolution 1973.

This all reflections a confusion, once again, at the heart of another coalition set up to intervene in another Arab state as to what our goals are. We're only just getting them right in Afghanistan after ten years fighting. And once again, with Libya, we are clearer about the moral case for action that developing the action plan that will best deliver that moral cause. Getting the ethics right is a decision based on emotion, our hard planning for all outcomes is once again lacking. Protecting civilians is a short-term objective, we still need a long-term objective to deal with the effect of delivering that short-term objective. If we do bring security to civilians, what consequences - happy as they may be - does that security bring?

What do we do if there's a stalemate? If Gaddafi, after a week or so of uncomfortable bombing, backs off Benghazi and retreats. What do we do if Gaddafi concedes eastern Libya but hangs on in the west, effectively partitioning Libya? What do we do when (I say pessimistically) the civilian casualties reach a level that causes Arab countries to withdraw their support (the Arab League has already made sceptical noises about the military action being "different" to a no-fly zone), and perhaps even openly question our intervention... creating another running sore of Western military overstretch in another Arab nation?

The moral cause may be right, the UN Resolution may have been cleverly won - but noone really knows where we go from here. Minister don't even need to rule out the use of ground troops, because Gaddafi will know that no Western government will be up for that. The most likely outcome seems to be a rough equivalent to the air strikes against Saddam Hussein in the mid 1990s - Operation Desert Fox - an air campaign, the madman retreats, the West imposes sanctions, but the madman basically hangs on pretty effectively.

That is probably the best outcome we can hope for. But whatever happens, we've thrown our lot in decisively with the Libyan people. We'd better get it right, and learn the lessons of the past. And we'd better not create another recruitment video for Al-Qaeda.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

A bit simple

It's clear that, across the Middle East, we're seeing a wave of revolution on a scale similar to the 1989 collapse of the Soviet republics of Eastern Europe. Tunisia, then Egypt and now Libya. And the British Government has struggled to keep up.

The Libya crisis has tested the Government the most. The Foreign Office failed to see it coming, with diplomats reportedly saying - as President Mubarak of Egypt fell - that Gaddaffi would be safe. And the crisis coincided horribly with David Cameron popping up on a tour of the Middle East to sell arms (part of Britain's mercantilist foreign policy - trade missions to woo India here, selling arms to the Middle East there), when Colonel Gaddaffi began to point British-sold arms at his own people as they rallied against him and for their democratic rights.

Since then, Cameron and Hague have been floundering. Cameron was this week cut loose by the United States on the idea of a no-fly zone over Libya. Hawkish in a statement to Parliament on Monday, he was toning down any military rhetoric at PMQs on Wednesday. There are reportedly splits in the Cabinet, with Hague and Clegg having to fend off interventionist aspirations from Fox, Gove and Osborne. Cameron, meanwhile, is stuck in the middle.

All of this smacks of the Government having not quite become used to being a Government. Its handling of the crisis has consisted of statements one might expect of an Opposition, where it doesn't in the end bear responsibility. Talking up a no-fly zone without checking whether the United States was up for it was inept and damaging for British foreign policy. And the Government has seemed flat-footed on its recently completed strategic defence review - flirting with the idea of a no-fly zone in the same few weeks as decommissioning one of Britain's few aircraft carriers and laying off a hundred or so pilots in the middle of their training. They say that the UK's defence review doesn't need a rethink, that we're not cutting our Armed Forces too far and too fast.

I'm not sure I belive them. And here's why. The Libya handling reflects one of the most troubling aspects about the Government that Nick Clegg's Lib Dems have allied themselves too. It's all a bit simplistic. Economic policy is about cuts. Foreign policy is about trade and national security. Domestic policy is about... cuts and the Big Society, a good idea in dire need of some detail and leadership. The Government needs a deeper sense of what it is trying to do for Britain and where it is taking us. Simple messages are good, but not if the policies behind them are simplistic.

That, I believe, is the real issue that should worry Liberal Democrats worried about the Coalition Government that we have joined.