Leading article: Libya - the mission that crept

Friday 29 July 2011 00:00 BST

It is easy in hindsight to say that Britain should not have involved itself militarily in Libya. Four months on from the start of Nato operations, Muammar Gaddafi remains master of his capital, the front line between his forces and his opponents in the east has barely altered, and earlier confident predictions of regime change in Tripoli have given way to implausible-sounding talk of Gaddafi remaining in Libya but not somehow in power.

Britain's decision this week to recognise the Transitional National Council in the east and expel Gadaffi's remaining diplomats from London won't have altered a perception in Tripoli that Western resolve is faltering, and that more concessions might be on the way if they can hang on in there.

No one can draw satisfaction from this depressing muddle. Neither Britain nor its Nato allies started the uprising in eastern Libya, and after the rebels failed to dislodge Gaddafi, the options were down to two: back the rebels with force or let Gaddafi's forces sweep back into Benghazi and take their promised revenge. Concern was real enough that a Srebrenica-style massacre could unfold in Benghazi, and the UK Government was right to insist that we would not allow this.

Where Mr Hague went wrong was in succumbing to "mission creep", the besetting sin of such well-intentioned interventions. UN Resolution 1973, which empowered Nato "to protect the civilian population in Libya", has been stretched beyond recognition – abused, many would say – to encompass bombing raids on Tripoli which have nothing to do with protecting civilians and seem designed purely to force Gaddafi from power.

Our recognition of the rebels as Libya's legitimate government raises the bar further, and is another step in the wrong direction. Besides the important fact that this so-called government does not control more than a portion of Libya, we still know very little of its capacities and intentions. Its moral authority is meanwhile compromised by claims that it, too, has blood on its hands. In recognising its exclusive right to govern the country, the likelihood is that we have only complicated what now looks like the inevitable outcome of the Libyan conflict, a messy compromise between rival authorities in Tripoli and Benghazi.

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