Brexit wasn't David Cameron's worst political mistake – bombing Libya made the world a more dangerous place

The former prime minister’s intervention led to a power vacuum in which all kinds of dangerous radicals circulate freely, leaving men and women from sub-Saharan Africa to become human stock in a revived slave trade

Nabila Ramdani
in Paris
Thursday 11 April 2019 09:02 BST
Fighting continues in Libya's Tripoli

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The now unsurprisingly low-profile David Cameron is frequently blamed for Britain’s Brexit catastrophe. Whatever your views on Britain’s despairing efforts to leave the European Union, there is no doubt that the former Conservative prime minister’s contribution to the debacle was immense. His decision to offer a simple “once in a generation” referendum on the hugely complicated subject of EU membership has divided the country, paralysed parliament, and threatened economic and social chaos.

Horrendous as it all is, however, it was nothing like as bad as the calamitous attack on Libya carried out by Cameron and his equally short-sighted cronies. The frail state of British democracy and the metaphorical civil war between Brexiteers and Remainers pale into insignificance when compared to the bloody disaster that has engulfed a North African country which is now a base for some of the gravest dangers facing the UK.

That Isis itself – the most high profile terrorist group in the world today – is now firmly ensconced in eastern Libya, just across the Mediterranean Sea from mainland Europe, says everything about the Arab nation’s collapse into lawlessness. Beyond this, warring sides backed by rival foreign powers who are desperate to gain influence in the oil-rich state are in the early stages of a literal full-blown civil war that will be far more devastating than the fighting Cameron intensified.

It was in 2011 that RAF and French air force jets led a mass bombing campaign that ended with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi being hacked to death by a mob. The deceit was that all the barbarism had been pardonable because a “humanitarian” military intervention had saved lives and toppled a despot. Western-backed rebels were in charge and would lead the country towards peace and democracy.

Such thinking was paramount when, in September 2011, Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, then president of France, paid a hubristic visit to Libya together. They were hailed as “liberators” and thanked for devoting so much of their country’s firepower to a temporary victory. The pair had certainly been the prime instigators of a hugely costly adventure.

A Tory government imposing a domestic policy of rigorous austerity had started the raids by pouring £750,000-a-strike Tomahawk cruise missiles from a royal navy nuclear submarine into a country that at the time provided no threat to the UK whatsoever. The exact cost has never been calculated, but Britain – the largest contributor to the Nato assault fund – is estimated to have spent at least £100m.

We must presume that Cameron follows every second of the seemingly never-ending Brexit saga, but it is unlikely that he spends too much time on contemporary Libyan affairs. If he did, he would learn that eight years on from his strutting walk through Tripoli, the Libyan capital is now under attack by another “strong man” who is proving to be every bit as aggressive as Gaddafi once was.

As a field marshal, Khalifa Haftar is of higher military rank than Colonel Muammar Gaddafi ever was. Haftar, in fact, supported the 1969 coup that brought Gaddafi to power and spent years learning how to hold down a country with unmitigated force. He gained American citizenship while exiled in Virginia after falling out with his mentor, before returning to Libya to take part in the 2011 revolution. Haftar is now the most powerful warlord in his country of birth. He calls his forces the Libyan National Army and is intent on capturing Tripoli from Fayez al-Sarraj, the United Nations-recognised but woefully weak prime minister of Libya’s fledging western-backed government.

Haftar advanced his troops on 4 April, when UN secretary general Antonio Guterres was in the country and trying to mediate between the two sides. Such ruthlessness has been followed by lightening offensives on Tripoli airport and at least two oil installations in the south.

Libya, remember, has the largest oil reserves in Africa; before 2011 it produced 1.6 billion barrels a day, with the vast majority flowing into EU countries. Companies such as BP and Shell were, with Cameron’s blessing, keen to exploit Libya’s vital energy supplies further after the bombing – but this is now impossible. Instead, the few remaining British speculators are among those now fleeing the country en masse.

As Al-Sarraj complains of “war crimes”, a peace conference proposed by Guterres for later this month looks likely to be shelved, along with elections. The basics of democratic governance are a world away from the reality of post-intervention Libya. Numerous official reports, including one by Britain’s Foreign Affairs Committee, describe nothing less than a failed, crumbling state.

Air force and rebel violence led to far more violence and a power vacuum in which all kinds of dangerous radicals circulate freely. One – the teenager Salman Abedi – was “rescued” from the country by the royal navy in 2014 and went on to kill 22 people, including seven children, in the Manchester Arena suicide bombing. Many others pay people smugglers to negotiate well-worn but highly dangerous routes through Libya into Europe.

Men and women from sub-Saharan Africa, without cash and papers, become human stock in the revived Libyan slave trade. They are sold in markets to customers who will use them for everything from sex to domestic tasks. Many end up tortured and eventually murdered. Thousands die at sea in sinking ships while trying to get to EU countries such as Greece and Italy. Those who do get out of Libya and survive the crossings arrive to an uncertain future in a continent where far-right prejudice is high and rising.

Such racist sentiment fuels the Brexit discourse – and highlights the ongoing North African crisis caused by David Cameron’s worst policy decision by far.

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