Leading article: In defence of our forces

The crisis in Libya has acted as a catalyst in British politics. We commented two weeks ago that the succession of domestic policy U-turns was beginning to call the Prime Minister's competence into question. Since then, the logistics of rescuing British nationals from a dangerous situation confirmed the impression of a lack of grip. Equally, David Cameron seemed unsteady on foreign policy more generally, as he zigzagged from isolationist arms sales promoter to muscular interventionist.

We recognise that there are, in truth, difficult decisions to be made in respect of Libya, the first of which is whether or not the British government ought to be involved at all, beyond the minimal consular services and participation in international sanctions against the Gaddafi regime and its family interests. So far, it is probably right to wait and see, while preparing options to provide assistance to the anti-Gaddafi forces or to use military force, such as a no-fly zone, to inhibit the regime's ability to wage war on its own people.

The crisis has, however, thrown up other, longer-term challenges. The embarrassment of what has become known as the Libyan School of Economics has exposed the miscalibration of the Blair government's policy of engagement with the dictatorship.

That policy was not totally misguided, but it went too far. The Labour government did "all it could" to free Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the Lockerbie bombing (even if in the end it was a Scottish decision); and persuaded its friends in academia to confer prestige on the Gaddafi clan's blood money. There has to be a third way between invading undemocratic countries and embracing them to sell them arms in the hope that they will welcome western trade and, ultimately, democracy.

More serious, perhaps, is the challenge to Britain's defence capability. We publish a letter today, calling on the Government to reconsider the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). It is signed by 50 senior people from the military, politics and academia. Their concerns are echoed by Lord Dannatt, former chief of the defence staff, and James Arbuthnot, Conservative chairman of the defence select committee.

The Libyan crisis has forced us once again to confront the hard questions about what sort of global military reach we want to have. The SDSR was right to focus resources on special forces and flexible rapid response, rather than, say, aircraft carriers, but the Government failed to back up its words about armed forces welfare, and the whole review process has been badly handled. It was rushed, and widely seen as savings-driven rather than genuinely strategic.

The Government is also paying the price for dithering over Afghanistan, setting a withdrawal date far enough into the future to undermine forces' morale, while ensuring a further four years of expensive and pointless commitment. The disillusionment of troops has been exacerbated by the incompetence of spending cuts, by which serving soldiers in theatre have received redundancy notices by email.

This prompted one soldier in Afghanistan to write anonymously for The Independent on Sunday three weeks ago: "I feel the need to speak up. We cannot just lie down and take a beating from the Government. How can we be focused on fighting a war when we have to worry about redundancies and allowances being taken away?" This soldier saw the defence review as an exercise by "penny-pinchers", ruthlessly cutting the Army "for no other reason than to save a few quid", and accused the Government of undermining the Military Covenant.

The Covenant is an undertaking on behalf of the nation to provide generously for the care of those who risk their lives for its defence, and for their families. In opposition, the Conservatives responded opportunistically to a campaign led by this newspaper to honour the Covenant, but have now abandoned the promise to give it statutory force.

This newspaper opposed the war in Iraq, and called for a phased pull-out from Afghanistan two years ago. But we feel strongly that, when our armed forces are called upon to fight, they and their families deserve the best in housing, medical care and post-combat therapy.

We are sceptical about whether British forces should be deployed in Libya, but this country ought to have the option of being able to deploy there in case, for example, of a humanitarian emergency. Mr Cameron does not currently inspire confidence that such an operation would even be possible.