There was broad sympathy for intervention to protect civilians from Muammar Gaddafi. But that does not excuse the mistakes that were made
It is hard to disagree with Barack Obama’s assessment that Libya today – ravaged by civil war – is “a shit show”, as Wednesday’s damning report by MPs on intervention notes. The question is whether David Cameron and others should have foreseen a disaster in the making. The parliamentary vote for action to protect civilians was straightforward; only 13 MPs opposed it. Most of the members of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee, now so critical of intervention, backed it. It is easy in retrospect to lump it in with Iraq as a foreign folly, and there are important parallels – not least the failure to plan for stabilisation and reconstruction, or to heed the evident perils of action. But it is also important to note differences between a gratuitous, proactive invasion and a response to a direct threat to the citizens of Benghazi, triggered by the spontaneous uprising of the Libyan people. Memories of Srebrenica spurred on decision-makers.
Perhaps most critically, western intervention – fronted by France and the UK, but powered by the US – came under a United Nations security council resolution for the protection of civilians, after the Arab League called for a no-fly zone. The US, realising that that would be inadequate to prevent a massacre, added the words “by all necessary measures”. Ambiguity was built in because it suited everyone, allowing Russia and China to abstain, and the west to cross its fingers and hope for an easy solution that never materialised. Mission creep, from protection to regime change, was perhaps an almost inevitable result. But the committee rightly faults Mr Cameron for failing to consider adequately alternatives to removing Muammar Gaddafi, and to prepare for the effects of his ousting. Mr Obama has already cited the lack of planning as the biggest mistake of his presidency.