Skip to content

Quick wins


[George Joffe lecturing in Saudi Arabia in April 2016]

Q63 [Crispin Blunt, Tory chairman] … Sticking with Libya, is it also a fact that there has been a lack of investment in our foreign policy apparatus, in the sense that we simply do not know what is happening on the ground? …

[George Joffe, Kings College, London] I think that if you want to understand that particular problem, you need to go further back, ironically enough, to the Thatcher Government and the way in which the relationship between Downing Street and the Foreign Office changed at that time. That marked the beginning of a decay of the role of the Foreign Office as a key element in the construction of policy in this country.

[extract from the Oral Evidence preceding this report:]


Last week the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee came out with an surprisingly critical report on the UK’s role in toppling Colonel Gaddafi in Libya in the first half of 2011. You may recall that, despite memories of Iraq and Afghanistan, the UK’s intervention was supported by the Commons 557 to 13. Yet now a Committee on which the Tories have an absolute majority has unanimously slammed David Cameron (who declined to give evidence). This is almost half of the summary:

… the Government failed to identify that the threat to civilians was overstated and that the rebels included a significant Islamist element. By the summer of 2011, the limited intervention to protect civilians had drifted into an opportunist policy of regime change. That policy was not underpinned by a strategy to support and shape post-Gaddafi Libya. The result was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa. Through his decision making in the National Security Council, former Prime Minister David Cameron was ultimately responsible for the failure to develop a coherent Libya strategy …

I found that sufficiently surprising that I read almost the whole of the report and the oral evidence. No doubt part of the explanation is that Theresa May is not unhappy to see her predecessor criticised. The Committee has: 6 Tory members, Crispin Blunt (chairman), John Baron, Adam Holloway, Daniel Kawczynski, Andrew Rosindell, Nadhim Zahawi; 4 Labour members, Ann Clwyd, Mike Gapes, Mark Hendrick and Yasmin Qureshi; and one SNP member, Stephen Gethins. John Baron was the only Tory MP to vote against on 21 March 2011. Yasmin Qureshi was one of 10 Labour MPs who voted against. Stephen Gethins did not vote. The other 8 members of the FAC all voted in favour. So it is unsurprising that John Baron wanted a hostile report and unsurprising that the 5 opposition members did. But that still leaves 5 Tory members (including the chairman) who voted in favour of action in Libya and now went along with a highly critical report.

Gaddafi had seized power in a coup in 1969. In the UK he was widely considered undesirable, partly because he helped the IRA over an extended period with money and weapons, and partly because of the shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher in 1984.

Then we had the downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie on 21 Dec 1988. This is a confusing story which I have never had time to look into properly. Rightly or wrongly, a Libyan was blamed by the UK and German authorities and Gaddafi was regarded as beyond the pale for refusing to extradite him. There was always a vocal minority in the UK who doubted this version of events, but not in the US whose citizens constituted a majority (188) of the 270 people killed.

Tony Blair decided the time had come for a normalisation of relations with Libya and had a series of meetings with Gaddafi and his son Saif, widely tipped to be his eventual successor. The 2004 “deal in the desert” led to substantial compensation from Libya for the Lockerbie crash, and an apparent normalisation of relations, with intelligence cooperation and commercial deals.

Reading the oral evidence, it seems fairly clear that the Labour members saw an opportunity to put the deal in the desert in a positive light and to suggest that it should have been possible to resolve the crisis by negotiation, given the UK’s unusually good relations with Libya since the Blair initiative.

Read on its own, the oral evidence from William Hague is convincing. He expressed no enthusiasm at all for the UK’s intervention.

Q153 … We faced the imminent possibility, in effect on the borders of Europe, of very widespread bloodshed. There was an international request for assistance and intervention, and facing that possibility or probability in a situation where you can intervene—of course, there may be other situations where you do not have the means to intervene—I think that is the right thing to do. That is not to say, as the Committee will know, that everything subsequently turned out to our satisfaction, to put it mildly, but I think it was the right decision to take and I would take it again …

Q286 … Foreign policy and decisions of this kind are a choice between unpalatable alternatives. Of course, when you start a military intervention, you are taking a step into the unknown. Very few military actions in history have had a certain course once embarked on. But, on the other hand, as we discussed when I came to the Committee before, we had to make a decision about what to do in the face of the threat to Benghazi, and the possibility—indeed, the stated intention—that the Gaddafi Government would kill large numbers of people.

The UN had rapidly passed a resolution authorising military action. There was subsequently some dispute about its wording. The pretext for the action was to stop Gaddafi slaughtering civilians. Initially, the discussion had been about a no-fly zone. There was no enthusiasm from any Western power for “boots on the ground” – Iraq was too fresh in every politician’s mind. Obama declined to participate at all (except maybe by providing electronic intelligence), but convinced the other leaders that a no-fly zone was a waste of time. To stop bloodshed you would need more than that. So Resolution 1973 (pdf) passed by the Security Council on 17 March 2011 included:

The Security Council … Acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations …

4. Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory, and requests the Member States concerned to inform the Secretary-General immediately of the measures they take pursuant to the authorization conferred by this paragraph which shall be immediately reported to the Security Council;

The Russians and others subsequently complained that they had not realized this wording was wide enough to allow planes to attack (for example) a desert convoy including Gaddafi, but it manifestly is (on standard “command and control” doctrines), so that did not get them anywhere.

I found interesting Hague’s evidence that the initiative had come entirely from Nicholas Sarkozy (then president of France) and that the UK had agreed to tag along extremely quickly.

Various Committee members tried quite hard to dent Hague’s line, particularly the imminence of widespread bloodshed, but with little or no success.

The Defence Secretary at the time, the appalling Liam Fox (see here, here, here, and here), backed him up and also failed to give the Committee anything to support a critical report. On the imminence of the slaughter of civilians, Fox pointed to:

Q150 … Gaddafi’s 70-minute diatribe on TV against his own people—if you remember, he was talking about how he was going to repeat some of the crimes of history, praising Tiananmen Square, Waco and the destruction of Fallujah, and saying that he was going to visit this on Benghazi. On the night of 21 February, Libyan special forces landed in Benghazi and attacked with hammers and swords the protesters who were camping outside the courthouse, who included senior lawyers and judges. It was very clear what was about to happen …

It turned out that Tony Blair (who also gave oral evidence) had rung Gaddafi on his own initiative to persuade him to back off, without success, but his evidence did not help the Committee much towards its apparent goal of criticising Cameron. Nor did the evidence of David Richards (64) who had taken over as Chief of Defence Staff six months before the Libyan adventure.

At this point, I had not read the report itself, just the oral evidence mentioned above (which I always find the most interesting part of investigations by Select Committees), so I was puzzled by the newspaper headlines about the Committee’s attack on Cameron. How had the Committee justified it?

The answer turned out to lie in the oral evidence of George Joffe and Alison Pargeter (not the actress, but a researcher who was at King’s College 1999-2007 and is currently a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute).

They both gave fairly extensive evidence that Gaddafi’s bark was much worse than his bite. He was well aware of the limits to his power and the need not to upset the (maybe 100 different) tribes in Libya. Anyway his bloodcurdling threats had to be qualified by the references to “beards”: he was only threatening Islamic extremists. If you looked carefully at his past actions he had behaved with moderation towards non-combatants.

I re-read Hague’s evidence with a sinking feeling. Was this, unbelievably, given the proximity of all the Iraq inquests, yet another case of politicians reacting to public emotion whipped up by the media, without troubling to establish the most basic facts?

It is well-documented that Blair added the job of Foreign Secretary to his prime ministerial responsibilities and hired a separate adviser so he did not have the bother of reading FCO briefs. But Hague was Foreign Secretary. Surely he did not ignore FCO briefing? Or was he just being loyal to his former boss? Maybe he had argued ferociously against the Libyan adventure, but now felt compelled to defend it? But if so why did he not resign at the time?

Another disturbing strand was the Dubwuh/Sarkozy parallel. Bush as Commander in Chief chose to be guided by Dick Cheney on the invasion of Iraq (for reasons I have never managed to fathom – Dubwuh is far from stupid). I eventually concluded that Blair followed him all the way out of embarrassment (a much under-rated motivation) – he kept getting sucked in deeper even as he was realizing it was all a mistake. Surely Cameron did not do the same with Sarkozy?

{ 6 } Comments

  1. Tom Welsh | 19 September 2016 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    For Lockerbie, see “Scotland’s Shame: Lockerbie 25 Years On – Why It Still Matters” by John Ashton and/or “Adequately Explained by Stupidity?: Lockerbie, Luggage and Lies” by Morag Kerr. Also Professor Robert Black’s view of the case as the worst miscarriage of justice in Scottish history; see

  2. Tom Welsh | 19 September 2016 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    As for Libya, see (among dozens of other examples)

  3. Tom Welsh | 19 September 2016 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    “The Security Council … Acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations … Authorizes Member States… to take all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi…”

    I cannot believe that you argue that ‘this wording was wide enough to allow planes to attack (for example) a desert convoy including Gaddafi, but it manifestly is (on standard “command and control” doctrines)…’

    When the convoy was at the opposite end of Libya (quite a big country geographically), headed directly away from Benghazi, and obviously trying to escape from the country?

    The UN authorization was sought under entirely false pretences, as the supposed “moderate rebels” based in Benghazi turned out to be the seed of what would grow into ISIS. The logic of attacking the Libyan armed forces to protect the people in Bebghazi was exactly the same as that of attacking the Syrian armed forces (as was done last Saturday) to protect ISIS and, in effect, serve as its air force. The net result of the immensely exaggerated air attacks on Libya was to destroy the most prosperous nation in Africa and reduce it to chaos and anarchy – exactly as was done with Iraq, and is now being done with Syria.

    Maybe this is just a series of unfortunate accidents… or maybe not.

  4. John Scholes | 19 September 2016 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    1. Lockerbie. I have just been reading part of Morag Kerr’s book. It confirms what I have always thought about police investigations: that the English tradition of the crime thriller gives a grossly misleading impression of the typical police investigation. The police are reasonably competent at extracting confessions in cases where the suspect is obvious (eg a husband murdering his wife), and fairly hopeless at solving the minority of cases where the suspect is not obvious.

    2. Killing Gaddafi. Well if you believed the “bloodcurdling” broadcast (which Hague claimed to), then it seems fairly clear that the only way to stop to threatened bloodshed is to knock out the command and control of the Libyan armed forces, and killing Gaddafi is one way to do that.

    David Richards carefully stated that c&c were legitimate targets and if Gaddafi happened to be present then killing him was acceptable. I agree that a small convoy containing Gaddafi heading through the desert towards the border is not the most obvious c&c, but I think it falls within it.

    I am not too fazed by the “heading for the border”. You have to take account of the realities of war. Not all of the myriad of operational decisions get careful consideration at a high level of command. Some colonel or general (or higher) notices that it is essential to wipe out any command and control centres (static or mobile) that can be identified in order to have any hope of meeting the basic objective of protecting civilians. So an instruction goes out.

    Then some days later a sergeant finds himself in front of a button which will launch a missile at a convoy which intelligence sources are telling him contains one or more senior commanders. He does not stop to consider carefully whether the commander might be trying to defect or escape, he pushes the button. I don’t see that it is reasonable to expect him to do anything else.

    I agree it is misleading to say that “our objective is to protect civilians, not to bring about regime change”, when with the facts as you believed them to be it was hard to see how you could protect civilians without bringing about regime change.

    That is a classic example of the two-audience problem.

    3. false pretences. I doubt that. I don’t believe anyone had thought it through clearly. The problem is that we rush into these things because of the political imperative of responding immediately to a rush of emotion by voters in response to live television footage piped into their living rooms.

    4. Suppose it had really been true that Gaddafi was within days of slaughtering 50,000 civilians in Benghazi. Then the air attacks might have been a legitimate policy. As Hague said, politics is the choice between unpalatable alternatives. That might have been the least unpalatable.

    5. The problem, as I see it, is that we had enough information available in the system to figure out that it was extremely unlikely that Gaddafi would slaughter civilians. That being the case, launching the air attacks was a grotesquely bad decision.

  5. Tom Welsh | 26 September 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    “Well if you believed the “bloodcurdling” broadcast (which Hague claimed to), then it seems fairly clear that the only way to stop to threatened bloodshed is to knock out the command and control of the Libyan armed forces, and killing Gaddafi is one way to do that”.

    It has been soberly (and, as far as I know, accurately) estimated that since 1990 the US attacks on Iraq have caused over 2.8 million deaths, plus uncountable injuries, bereavements, destruction of homes and infrastructure, and general degradation of the fabric of civilization. This was not caused by any kind of internal trouble or civil war, but by an unprovoked war of aggression.

    According to the doctrine you cite, why should not anyone who is appalled by the destruction of Iraq decide to “take out” the “command and control” centres responsible? That would be Presidents Bush (both of them), Clinton and Obama, PMs from Thatcher to May, and the entire political and military apparatus of the USA, UK and NATO (for a start).

    The only thing effectively preventing such retaliation is the lack of power. Is it really wise to rely so entirely on an adversary’s present helplessness – when history tells us that so much can change so quickly?

  6. John Scholes | 27 September 2016 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Clearly we both agree that the French/UK action in Libya was a serious mistake which has left almost everyone worse off. We are only disagreeing about why.

    The idea that Western intervention in a minor conflict (as opposed to an all-out World War) has to be blessed by a Security Council resolution is clearly an imperfect constraint. Quite why Russia failed to veto resolution no. 1973 I am not sure. Probably a blunder. I was simply arguing that, given that it was approved, the UK role in Gadaffi’s death fell under the resolution. In any case, that role seems to have been limited to picking up G’s use of his satellite phone (number supplied by French intelligence, obtained from an informer) and passing the location on to NATO.

    You are right, these things happen because the US, Russia, UK, France etc have the military capability. It is clearly hard to stop politicians responding to voter emotion (Cameron) or bizarre motives of their own (Blair and Iraq).

    I guess the point of the article was that I find it deeply depressing that despite huge resources (FCO, SIS, GCHQ, brilliant journalists etc) our top politicians end up ignoring – or never even bothering to get – advice on the detail, and end up doing things that are completely stupid, in the sense that they are pretty much guaranteed to give an outcome that even the politicians who authorised them will see as undesirable.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *