[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?