Britain and the US failed Libya once. It cannot happen again

Europe cannot afford to allow another failed state to languish just a few hundred miles across the Mediterranean

Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has been accused of misleading MPs about the number of troops to be sent to Libya
Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has been accused of misleading MPs about the number of troops to be sent to Libya

It is rare that an American president admits a mistake, and in the process publicly chides the leader of one of his country’s staunchest allies. But Barack Obama has done both, first criticising David Cameron for his failure to follow through on the toppling of Libya’s former leader Muammar Ghadaffi in October 2011, and then this week describing the failure to plan for the aftermath of that event – which US and Nato airstrikes helped bring about – was the worst mistake of his seven years in office.

In fact it might be argued that, measured in terms of lives lost, Mr Obama’s biggest mistake was not Libya but his failure to intervene in Syria’s horrific civil war, the most tragic example of how the Arab Spring has mostly turned to ashes.

But Libya was bad enough, and Mr Obama’s verdict is absolutely correct. The West has stood by and watched that country descend into anarchy, a failed state that has destablished its neighbours and where Isis has now established a presence of an estimated 5,000 fighters within striking distance of Europe.

Only now are there faint glimmers of hope, with the resignation of one of Libya’s competing 'governments' and the arrival of a new one brokered by the United Nations which aims to establish itself in Tripoli, the capital, and unite the country’s feuding factions. But it will be a tall order. Some of the local militias that run swathes of the country oppose it. So does another 'government based in Tobruk, close to the Libya’s eastern border with Egypt. Then there is the increasingly powerful Libyan affiliate of Isis, entrenched in the central city of Sirte.

Nonetheless, the government backed by the UN offers the best chance of achieving at least a semblance of unity, and focussing Libya’s efforts on uprooting Isis. That consideration alone justifies new and more direct intervention by the European allies, among them Britain, and the involvement of the US.

By its own admission, the Obama administration sought to “lead from behind” in the initial Nato intervention of 2011, ostensibly forefronted by Britain and France, the two European allies with the military resources to do so. But US involvement, however downplayed, was critical then. It is no less critical today.

The West’s first priority is to provide humanitarian aid. But an international stabilisation force – the Libyan International Assistance Mission (LIAM) in which Britain would obviously take part – is the essential second step. LIAM have to be invited in by the new government. Its goals would be to protect Libya’s oil and gas facilities, the country’s main source of revenue, to demobilize militias and train a national army.

The tasks will be anything but easy: the example of Iraq does not bode well and Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the new government, has expressed fears that the presence of foreign troops may only make matters worse. But Europe cannot afford to allow a failed state just a few hundred miles away across the Mediterranean.

Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, was accused by the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday of deliberately misleading its members over the role of Britain’s reported contribution of 1,000 troops to LIAM. Whether or not these are “combat troops” is however a semantic quibble.

Given what happaned in Iraq, deep misgivings about sending troops into another Arab country are entirely understandable. But in 2011 the West failed Libya. That must not happen again.

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