As the news filtered through from Libya yesterday afternoon, it was hard not to feel that the demise of Muammar Gaddafi, a warrior chieftain who had led his dwindling forces into their last stand, constituted the perfect denouement to the uprising that had begun fitfully eight months before. The colonel who had seized power and ruled Libya for 42 years had died as he lived, by the gun. The rapturous faces of weary fighters, the exultant V-signs, the automatics fired into the air, the spontaneous dances and embraces were the classic accoutrements of military victory. And that victory was never going to be complete until Gaddafi's fate was sealed.
There will be those who regret that the ousted Libyan leader was not taken alive, to be tried – either at the International Criminal Court or in his home country as a necessary act of national catharsis. There will be questions, too, about precisely what part, if any, Nato air strikes played in his killing. But the immediate response in Libya will be one of joy – not least at a bloody conflict that has reached its end – and in Western capitals, particularly Paris and London, relief and satisfaction at a job well done.
And so, regrettably, inexorably, the pernicious cycle will go on. In congratulating themselves and each other, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy will fuel the perception that such Western operations are not only feasible, but desirable. The ghosts of Iraq, it will be said, have been laid; the doctrine of liberal humanitarian intervention lives to fight another day.
That outside intervention assisted the Libyan rebels' cause is beyond doubt. How far it actually facilitated – as opposed to accelerating – the opposition victory, will be debated in months and years to come. But the fact that such an intervention proved (in the end) to be possible and produced the intended result – the overthrow of Gaddafi – does not make it wise, reflective of the longer-term British, French or US national interest, or even morally right.
The temptation will be for success in Libya to be cited as a precedent for Western intervention elsewhere. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have been so costly in so many ways will now be dismissed as aberrations. Ill-conceived and ill-managed, they will be seen as failures from which useful lessons were nonetheless learnt.
And there are many ways in which the British and French intervention in Libya can be viewed, stage by stage, as the non-Iraq. There was a genuine emergency – the threat to the inhabitants of Libya's second city, Benghazi – which opened the way for an unambiguous UN resolution on the use of air strikes to protect civilians. When Germany, among other Europeans, made its objections to any intervention plain, what was agreed was essentially a "coalition of the willing" that avoided the acrimony among allies that preceded Iraq. Operations, although spearheaded initially by the United States, were continued by the British and French, under Nato auspices. Thus were they invested with international legitimacy and lent an air of Allied concord.
The intervention itself supplied proof of more Iraq lessons learnt. The infiltration of special forces was spare – and deniable. All other operations were conducted from the air. So far as is known, no British, French or American servicemen or women were lost. And as cities fell to the rebels, contingencies were in place for the restoration of order and essential services. A provisional government was ready even before the brief battle for Tripoli was over. The power vacuum that doomed Iraq was not allowed to develop.
Above all, the impression was created, for domestic and foreign audiences, that the civil war, such as it was, was being fought and won by the Libyan opposition forces themselves. Whatever outside support was provided beyond air strikes – training, weapons, finance were all been mentioned – was kept quiet. The victory, when it came, was to be one that the Libyans could claim as their own.
To the extent that power in Iraq has changed and that foreign military intervention remained as circumscribed as it was, it can be argued that the lessons from Iraq were learnt. And thank goodness. To extrapolate from this, however, that outside intervention in other people's revolutions or civil wars has a noble future, or even that the "international community" has a moral obligation to assist in the overthrow of dictators would be not just mistaken, but dangerous.
The justification to protect civilians was interpreted ever more loosely during the Libya intervention, to the point where it risked losing all meaning. This could make it harder to use the same pretext to secure UN approval in future. This, though, is by no means the only, or even main, danger in hailing the Libyan intervention as a precedent.
The first is dependency. Although great care was taken to present the overthrow of Gaddafi as all the Libyans' own work, Western intervention at very least speeded events up. To succeed, any change of regime has to be able to sustain itself. Intervention can hinder as much as help.
Second, while no British or French lives were lost, this does not mean the Libyan operation incurred no expense. It has cost the exchequers of both countries dear, at a time when both are imposing austerity at home. Privileged access to Libyan oil is unlikely to be recompense enough.
Third, rightly or wrongly, the successful intervention in Libya inevitably sends a message to oppositions elsewhere – notably in Syria – that they are not worth helping. The consequences are unlikely to be positive, if – or when – the regime also changes there.
And fourth, and most dangerous of all, the accomplishment of this limited – but at times fraught – intervention allows two former colonial powers to believe that their military reach extends further than it really does, or should. The worst consequence of Libya would be if it led 21st-century governments to believe that their air power could replace the gunboat diplomacy of old.Reuse content