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Libya's challenge for UK government

Rebels in Libya
Image caption Will Libyan rebels win through or Col Muammar Gaddafi hold on to power?

The situation in Libya poses big challenges for international policymakers - not least the problem of forecasting who will be the eventual winners of the conflict.

The moment Col Muammar Gaddafi's regime began to falter, Foreign Secretary William Hague stepped forward to speak out. Before Benghazi had fallen, he was already (on 20 February) denouncing reports of civilians being targeted by snipers and heavy weaponry, and warning that international condemnation would follow.

It was as though he wanted to wipe the slate clean.

Just days before, there had been the embarrassing admission that UK tear gas and riot equipment had been sold to both Bahrain and Libya and possibly used to suppress dissent - contracts, admittedly, largely signed by the previous British government, but which still had to be hastily cancelled.

There was also the prospect of mounting domestic consternation about Britain's official embrace of Gaddafi and his sons following Tony Blair's 'summit in the desert' with the Libyan leader, a simmering row that would shortly erupt into a full-blown crisis for one major recipient of Libyan funds, the London School of Economics.

So initially it looked like a smart move for Mr Hague to put Britain ahead of the curve. It enabled the British government to argue that it was leading the way in urging international isolation for what was left of Gaddafi's fiefdom.

It cast Britain as one of the architects of the decision by the UN Human Rights Council to suspend Libya and as co-instigator of the UN Security Council Resolution to impose sanctions and call for an International Criminal Court investigation into possible war crimes.

It was a swift rhetorical swipe to put Britain on the right side of history. But swift talk is not always followed up by nimble footwork.

Venezuela error

First there were the hitches in the UK rescue operation for British nationals stuck in Libya. Compared to other countries, the Foreign Office-arranged exodus appeared slow-moving and ill co-ordinated.

There were technical problems in getting the right charter planes into Libya. Some anxious nationals began to complain that they felt ill-served by their government.

Image caption The 'summit in the desert' between former UK PM Tony Blair and Col Gaddafi led to problems later

Then there was Mr Hague's ill-advised pronouncement that the Libyan leader might be on his way to Venezuela. It was never quite clear why he decided to go public with what turned out to be a flawed report.

Of course anyone can make a mistake. But it further reinforced impression that the British government did not always have its finger on the pulse.

And not just the foreign secretary found it hard to navigate a foreign policy course through the mine-filled waters of a fast flowing crisis.

David Cameron too was caught looking less than consistent.

He embarked on a grand tour of the Middle East with an ambiguous message that both trumpeted support for human rights and democratic reform while simultaneously pursuing a self proclaimed "hard-headed" desire to do business deals wherever possible, including making sure the UK remained a major arms supplier in the region.

'Farcical mission'

Then he sowed new confusion on return to the UK by implying plans for a no-fly zone to counter Gaddafi's 'murderous regime' were a priority, only to backtrack a day later and admit there was no international consensus on a scheme that would be fraught with problems.

Yet again, brave rhetoric that appeared to put Britain at forefront of countries willing to put pressure on Gaddafi was exposed as perhaps a little too hasty.

Image caption Foreign Secretary William Hague explains events in the Commons

The latest farcical cloak-and-dagger British mission to Eastern Libya, which ended so humiliatingly last weekend when the British diplomats and their close protection airdropped into the desert found themselves arrested by the very rebel government they had come to pay court to, has reinforced the impression of an impromptu policy carried out on the hoof and prone to bungling.

But behind it looms a more troubling problem of how to forge a wider strategy when the outcome of a crisis hangs in the balance.

While Col Gaddafi looked as though his days in power were numbered, charting a foreign policy course for Britain probably looked relatively simple. Nudge him and his family over the cliff and position yourself to help and persuade whoever took over to adopt European values of democracy and transparency, and encourage them to give your country's trade interests favourable attention.

But what if there is no clean swift end to the Gaddafi clan's grip on power, a regime which Western allies have now declared themselves firmly opposed to? Then the options become murkier.

Intervention problems

It was all very well to be 100% against Gaddafi when he looked as though he was almost finished. But if he clings on amid a lingering civil war or claws his way back into power under cover of a vicious counter attack that turns into a rout against Libya rebels and a carnage of civilians - how far should the UK and its allies in Europe and beyond be prepared to exact punishment or prevent more bloodshed?

The problem is that any military intervention, however limited in the first instance, could lead to more violence. As the US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates made clear last week, a no-fly zone would immediately require a bombing mission along the Libyan coast, to take out Gaddafi's air defences.

Working out from the sky exactly which groups or outposts on the ground belong to Gaddafi loyalists and which represent rebel forces could be tricky. Nato will not have forgotten the disastrous bombing of refugee convoys in Kosovo, or more recent calamitous attacks on wedding parties in Afghanistan.

The risks of further alienating Libyans who want to liberate their own country, as well as losing support of wider public opinion - in both West and East, could be considerable.

But if the outside world fails to unite around a no-fly zone - and Nato has been adamant it will not contemplate action without authorisation from the UN Security Council, so there has to be unity - and if that means Col Gaddafi can use the Libyan skies to inflict mass casualties and grab back territory from rebels with impunity, where does that leave Western policy?

Then the fist-waving indignation and ominous sabre-rattling in London and other Western capitals could ring disturbingly hollow.

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