As the news filtered through from Libya yesterday afternoon, first contradictory, then confirmed, 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, for all the claims that preceded it, 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 as a war criminal or in his home country in a necessary act of national catharsis. There will be questions, too, about precisely what part, if any, Nato air strikes played in his killing; the full truth of his death probably remains to be told. But the immediate response in Libya was bound to 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 of neocolonial self-justification will go on. In congratulating themselves and each other, and their own and each other's armed forces, 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. The "right thing" was done.
That outside intervention assisted the Libyan rebels' cause is beyond doubt. How far it actually facilitated – as opposed to merely accelerating – the opposition victory will be debated by political analysts and historians in the months and years to come. But the fact that an operation such as that mounted primarily by the British and French in Libya proved (in the end) to be possible and helped produce the intended result does not make it wise, reflective of the longer-term British, French or US national interest, or even morally right.
The temptation now will be for success in Libya to be cited as justification in itself and a precedent for military interventions elsewhere. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that have cost so many lives and caused so much destruction, will be dismissed as unfortunate aberrations. Ill-conceived and ill-managed, these campaigns will be seen in future as failures from which, nonetheless, valuable lessons were learnt.
True, there are very 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 paved the way for an unambiguous UN resolution on the use of air strikes to protect civilians. When Germany, among others, made its objections to any intervention plain, what followed was essentially an à la carte intervention, a "coalition of the willing", led by France and Britain, that avoided the vicious acrimony among allies that dogged Iraq. Operations, although spearheaded initially by the United States, were increasingly 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. There was no attempt at even a lean and nimble presence on the ground. 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. So far as is known, too, there were few targeting mistakes that resulted in civilian deaths. And as cities fell to the rebels, contingencies were in place for the re-establishment of order and the restoration of services. A provisional government was ready to take over 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 both 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 have all been mentioned – was kept quiet. From early on, the National Transitional Council was treated by Western ministers not as a client administration, but as a government in waiting. The victory, when it came, was to be one the Libyans could claim as their own.
To the extent that power in Iraq has changed and that foreign military intervention remained circumscribed, it can be argued that the lessons from Iraq were learnt. And thank goodness. To extrapolate from this, however, that 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 authoritarian or dictatorial leaders everywhere, would be not just mistaken, but downright dangerous.
The specific justification for international intervention in Libya – to protect civilians – was interpreted ever more loosely as the conflict wore on, to the point where it risked losing most of its meaning. Nato was thus exposed to the charge that it was bending the rules to suit itself, which could make it harder for anyone to advance the same argument in support of a similar UN resolution in future.
This, however, is by no means the only, or even the main, danger in hailing the Libyan operation as a blueprint for new interventions.
The first is the question of dependency. Although great care has been 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. The coherence of the NTC has not been entirely convincing to date. 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 billions, at a time when both are imposing austerity at home. Privileged access to Libyan oil, even if this is partly what the intervention was about, is unlikely to be recompense enough.
Third, rightly or wrongly, the intervention in Libya inevitably sends a message to oppositions elsewhere – notably in Syria – that they are not worth helping. The fall-out is unlikely to be positive, if – when – the regime also changes there.
Fourth, and most dangerous of all, accomplishment of this limited – but at times fraught – Libyan mission could allow two medium-sized former colonial powers to believe that their military reach extends further than it really does, or should. The very worst consequence of Libya would be if the perception of success persuaded 21st century governments that a small amount of air power could replace the gunboat diplomacy of old.Reuse content