I opposed intervening in Libya, criticised the Mali campaign, and have repeatedly warned against too deep an involvement in Syria. Considering this track record, it would be easy to conclude that I am against interventions anywhere and everywhere – but you would be wrong.
Like diplomacy, intervention is a tool of foreign policy, and it would be absurd to be against either of them on principle. The problem has been that in Libya, Mali, and Syria, intervention has been used to further bad foreign policy. And I am certainly against bad foreign policy on principle.
Intervention can come in many different forms. As Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus point out, its Latin root roughly translates into ‘to come between’, admitting ‘to nothing more than coming into a new relationship.’ There is much ambiguity about the nature of the relationship and who it is with, how it manifests itself, and how we came into it in the first place. Attempting to offer some clarity, I argued in these pages that we should intervene where it is in our interests to do so and our involvement should be proportionate to those interests. I called this, somewhat pompously, ‘the Ellis Doctrine’.
Yet British involvement in Libya, Mali, and Syria has been disproportionate in my view. Justifying the campaign against Colonel Gaddafi, David Cameron argued that “[j]ust because you can’t do the right thing everywhere doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the right thing somewhere.” But was it necessary for us to participate in the military intervention in order to “do the right thing”? Could we not have focused on the diplomatic side and left the fighting to others? If the Prime Minister had limited our ownership of the war, he might not have been cheered by the crowds in Benghazi, but he would have decreased Britain’s liability to the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you buy it.
Almost two years ago, I warned that Libya bears an eerie resemblance to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.
In 2001/02, we helped a loose coalition topple a brutal regime that we disliked without knowing too much about them or about what we wanted the postwar environment to look like. As a result of our uncoordinated actions, we created the problems that gradually undermined the illusory peace that followed. The postwar environment was shaped on the ground by the many factions and militias that we had empowered long before Western policymakers met to decide the future of the country. Over a decade and billions of pounds later, we are still trying to catch-up.
The same thing has happened in Libya. We helped a loose coalition of militias overthrow the Gaddafi regime without knowing too much about them or about what we wanted to happen afterwards. Postwar planning was deliberately scant because, like with Afghanistan in 2001/02, we were terrified of the prospect of being drawn into nation-building. The postwar environment was thus shaped by those many militias fighting on the ground and they now dominate the country.
Last month, one militia besieged government buildings, demanding that any old regime officials step down. Parliamentarians were pressured to pass a law banning them from ever holding office again. In September last year, a militia attacked the American consulate in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens. Three months before that, the British ambassador was almost killed in an RPG attack on his convoy.
Two years ago, Mr. Cameron warned that unless Gaddafi was toppled then a “rogue state” would develop on Europe’s doorstep, but Libya now risks becoming a so-called ‘failed state’. In January, a militant Islamist group used the country as a base from which to attack the In Amenas gas complex in Algeria. “The south of Libya is what the north of Mali was like” before France intervened, says one Malian official.
Last month, NATO began looking into whether or not it should train Libya’s nascent security forces in order to rein in the militias and improve the security situation in the country. Of course, this should have been planned during the initial campaign. Thus like in Afghanistan, we are trying to catch-up, and it is in these circumstances that I can see Britain being drawn into another long and costly nation-building mission in a country of only marginal interest to us. And after a decade of fruitless endeavour there, whoever is Prime Minister at the time may boast that he will pursue a more “hard-headed” approach unlike his predecessors – as Mr. Cameron boasted about Afghanistan four months before the Libyan intervention.
In his first Guildhall speech, he told the guests at the prestigious annual dinner that his foreign policy would “focus like a laser on defending and advancing Britain’s national interest.” This “hardheaded” approach was now being applied to Afghanistan. “We are not there to build a perfect democracy,” implying that that was what Tony Blair and Gordon Brown tried to do. Yet it is easy for politicians to be dispassionately realist about a quagmire they’ve inherited from their opponents; it’s much harder for them to work out if they are creating one themselves.
Why should Britain be drawn back into Libya, some may ask. Remember, we went in to get rid of Mad Dog and we got the job done. End of story. This is where we return to the importance of the form and extent of an intervention.
The more involved we are in an intervention, the more implicit responsibility we incur. Colin Powell warned George W. Bush that if he invaded Iraq, then he would “own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You’ll own it all.” Apart from the moral obligations this ownership imposes on us, trying to shirk the responsibilities can undermine whatever gains we made initially.
For example, some pundits argue that by arming the Syrian rebels, the West would gain their eternal gratitude after the fall of Bashar al-Assad. Would this gratitude continue, however, if they felt we had abandoned them in the much harder postwar phase? Given how quickly the Libyan rebels accused us of abandoning them even before the intervention started, why would they continue to feel gratitude for our help if we ignored their current problems? The job was only half-done two years ago and we have tried to shirk the responsibilities we incurred ever since.
In a couple of weeks, The Spectator will be hosting a debate about whether or not Britain should intervene in Syria. The question is misleading – we already have intervened in the civil war there. A more relevant debate for us to have is to what extent should we intervene, in what form, and does it actually further our foreign policy? Unfortunately, as my friend and blogeague Adam Elkus has pointed out, ‘tools’ are sexy to talk about, but ‘how they actually advance’ our interests ‘most surely isn’t.’
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