An obituary for the age of intervention?

Jonathan Marcus
Diplomatic correspondent
@Diplo1on Twitter

Nicolas Sarkozy, National Transitional Council head Mustafa Abdul Jalil and David CameronImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, National Transitional Council head Mustafa Abdul Jalil and David Cameron in 2011

Did the mistakes made in Iraq and Libya kill Western governments' appetite for intervention in subsequent conflicts?

This week's report from the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee into the Western intervention in Libya made uncomfortable reading for Britain's former Prime Minister David Cameron and his colleagues.

It provided a damning indictment of Britain's part in the intervention that helped to overthrow the Libyan ruler Col Gaddafi and served to precipitate the country into chaos.

The report states that the intervention was undertaken without a full understanding of what was actually happening on the ground.

It says: "The [British] 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."

Another fundamental criticism is the absence of any real thought about the aftermath of the conflict.

The report notes that "policy was not underpinned by a strategy to support and shape post-Gaddafi Libya".

The result, it says, "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 [so-called Islamic State] in north Africa."

Image source, Reuters
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The MPs said the UK had failed to plan for Libya after Muammar Gaddafi was toppled

In fairness it may be a little unkind to lay all the blame at the former prime minister's door. This was a multinational operation after all, though famously one with the Obama administration "leading from behind".

Indeed, if anything, it was the French who were in the driving seat. The report is damning about the way the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy seized upon the crisis as a way of consolidating and amplifying France's position in the region. It was the French government that largely set the pace of the drumbeat for war.

There was indeed something slightly surreal about the moment.

I remember visiting an airfield in Italy from where the RAF was flying operations over Libya. It must have been an old US World War Two base - it looked like the setting for a movie of the novel Catch-22.

"Do you think [the politicians] have really thought this through?" I was asked. I remember making a bad joke: "President Sarkozy thinks he's Napoleon, and David Cameron is channelling his inner Tony Blair."

But in a sense there was an element of truth in this. The mention of Tony Blair is important.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Many people blame Tony Blair for the deaths of civilians and service personnel during and after the Iraq War

Now an object of almost universal condemnation for taking Britain into the Iraq War on dubious intelligence, it is easily forgotten that Mr Blair was a fluent, serious, and outspoken advocate for a new age of intervention in an increasingly globalised world; an age where moral responsibility went hand in hand with national and indeed collective self-interest.

And when you look, for example, at the scale of the international problems provoked by the Syrian crisis, is it really so easy to pronounce him entirely wrong?

Mr Blair set out his new doctrine of intervention in a speech in Chicago in April 1999 in the midst of the Kosovo crisis.

The Balkan wars, for all their horrors - not least the failure to prevent the massacre at Srebrenica - were arguably manageable crises in a region that was in broad terms European, and where the full resources of both Nato and the EU could be marshalled to tackle both the conflict and its immediate consequences.

The Balkans began an arc of Western intervention that started in Bosnia, moved through the Balkans into Kosovo, and then further afield to Afghanistan after 9/11, and then to Iraq and ultimately Libya. By then, the sheer intractability of managing (many would say mismanaging) the aftermath of conflict, had become painfully apparent.

Timeline: Libya conflict

Image source, Reuters

February 2011 - Violent protests break out in Benghazi and spread to other cities. This leads to civil war, foreign intervention and eventually the ousting and killing of Gaddafi in August.

March 2011 - UK Parliament approves British participation for military intervention alongside a coalition of nations, including France and the US.

2014 - Militants from so-called Islamic State claim responsibility for several attacks in Libya towards the end of the year, as the US finds evidence that the group is setting up training camps.

2016 - Following years of conflict, a new UN-backed "unity" government is installed in a naval base in Tripoli. It faces opposition from two rival governments and a host of militias.

This is where the Commons Libya report comes in, for it eloquently explores the lack of intelligence, local knowledge, and diplomatic experience that frequently left well-meaning Western governments operating in a kind of void.

In a nutshell, nobody ever thought things through. And if they did, they lacked the basic information to do so.

Indeed the West's failures during these interventions are of a piece with the almost bizarre collective leap of faith in responding to the so-called Arab Spring. Far from ushering in a new era of democratic progress, this propelled much of the region into chaos.

And we are living with the consequences today.

Was this a case of hubris? An extension of the false idea that history ended with the collapse of Soviet communism? Was it a product of a curious cultural short-sightedness - a view that everyone was just like us, irrespective of their own tortured histories, economic situation, tribal and religious divisions and so on?

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Children, one carrying a toy gun, protest against continuing aid delays in Aleppo

Is it any wonder then that the tragedy of Syria has proceeded for some six years with no significant external attempt to halt the fighting? Indeed the only major intervention - that by Russia - has been intended to maintain the status quo.

The arc of Western intervention - for now - seems to have reached its end. There is no longer an appetite for nation-building. The consequences in blood and treasure have been too great and there have been too many mis-steps along the way.

That may be good news in the short term for the erstwhile peacemakers. But as the consequences of the tragedy in Syria demonstrate, you are damned if you do act and maybe equally damned if you don't.

There are no easy answers and in a globalised and ever more connected world, maybe the much-maligned Mr Blair had a point.

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