David Cameron's handling of the Libya crisis was denounced as "shambolic" as tensions grew between London and Washington over the Prime Minister's suggestion that a no-fly zone could be imposed over the north African state.
The US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, delivered a pointed snub to the British Government when he dismissed calls to police the Libyan airspace as "loose talk" and pointed out that it would require a massive logistical exercise. Mr Cameron surprised MPs this week when he disclosed he had asked the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, to "work with our allies on plans for a military no-fly zone".
But Mr Gates's comments left the Prime Minister appearing to be struggling to find international support for the step, which has already been dismissed by Russia. Yesterday the French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppé, said planning should take place for a no-fly zone, but said he believed it should only be considered if it was endorsed by the UN Security Council.
The UK Government has refused to be drawn on what form a no-fly zone could take, such as whether it could cover all or part of Libya, saying that it is considering a range of scenarios.
US support for the establishment, and enforcement, of such a zone would be essential because of the scale of the operation. But Mr Gates told a congressional panel: "There is a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defences. That's the way you do a no-fly zone. Then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down." He made clear that any such initiative would require American support, adding that it would require the use of more than one aircraft carrier. Mr Gates said: "It is a big operation by a big country."
The US Defence Secretary's comments were seen as warning that involvement in Libya could stretch even its extensive military forces which remain heavily committed in Afghanistan.
British government sources last night played down suggestions of a diplomatic rift, adding that contacts between officials over Libya were continuing.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman said the review of military options in Libya, including the no-fly zone, amounted to "sensible contingency planning" and added that the Government's focus was securing a diplomatic solution to the crisis. He also insisted that the Cabinet was "absolutely" in agreement over Libyan policy.
But the deputy Labour leader, Harriet Harman, said the Government's handling of the Libyan crisis had been been a "shambles". "The key to their shambolic response lies in their ideology. If your perspective is that government is a bad thing and you want less of it, you are not going to be on the front foot when the power of government is exactly what is needed," she said.Reuse content