David Cameron Image Credit: AFP

If the Libyan conflict concludes later this summer with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi still clinging to power — albeit in a truncated rump of the country he has dominated for the past 42 years — UK Prime Minister David Cameron will have no one to blame but himself. There is, of course, still the remote possibility that the Libyan dictator will heed the West's calls to relinquish power, and retire to some well-appointed villa in the Libyan desert with his legions of adoring lady bodyguards.

Indeed, Foreign Secretary William Hague clearly thinks this is still on the cards, conceding last week that he had no objection to Gaddafi remaining in Libya if the dictator agreed to stand down. This does, however, represent a significant change in the position that the foreign secretary, and the anti-Gaddafi alliance, adopted at the start of the conflict in March.

Overcome by their enthusiasm for the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Arab world, western politicians insisted that the military offensive would continue until Gaddafi had been driven into exile: indeed, Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy said as much in an ill-advised letter published at the start of the conflict, which declared that "Colonel Gaddafi must go, and go for good". It was clearly their intention that the Libyan leader would decamp to foreign climes: Venezuela, Cuba, and even Zimbabwe were mentioned. Yet the longer this conflict goes on, the more desperate the protagonists have become to extricate themselves from a war that is — in the words of Admiral Mike Mullen, America's highest-ranking military officer — ‘in a stalemate'. This certainly appears to be Gaddafi's take on Nato's four-month assault, which has now resulted in RAF bombers blowing a gaping hole in the heavily fortified walls of his Bab Al Aziziya compound in Tripoli.

Gaddafi's intransigence

Rather than bowing to the West's imprecations to do the decent thing, the Libyan leader appears as defiant as ever, vowing never to leave the ‘land of his ancestors'. Cameron and his allies had clearly not bargained for such obstinacy when they first embarked on their Libyan adventure. With the onset of Ramadan today or tomorrow (depending on the visibility of the new moon), Gaddafi's intransigence has seen the coalition resort to ever more desperate measures. This includes the French supplying arms to the rebels — a clear breach of UN resolutions — and the Americans sending a secret delegation to persuade Gaddafi to surrender.

The reality is that, unless there is a dramatic change by this week, the military campaign will run into the sand: with the entire Libyan population observing a strict Ramadan fast, neither Nato nor the rebels will be able to make a decisive breakthrough. So the most likely outcome of the conflict will be Gaddafi retaining control of Tripoli and its environs, and Nato's credibility lying in tatters. It is at this point that Cameron will need to muster some defences of his own, as the recriminations begin over how he got us into this mess in the first place. Dr Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, makes no secret of his initial opposition to the campaign, and is said to have ordered his aides to prepare for the inevitable post-mortem examination in Whitehall by compiling a dossier of all the memos, letters and e-mails that were sent to Downing Street warning against an open-ended military commitment.

Indeed, the overwhelming balance of the advice Cameron received from both his military chiefs and senior officials was to stay clear. Again and again, he was warned that never in the 100-year history of air power had a campaign been won by bombing alone. But Cameron imagined he could replicate former premier Tony Blair's achievements in taking on and defeating rogue dictators. So he ignored the advice — and is now discovering the hard way that being a wartime leader can be a very lonely business.

Many would argue that Cameron has got his just desserts for his cavalier treatment of the Armed Forces during last year's botched Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which saw a wide range of key capabilities cancelled simply to cut costs, rather than to improve the defence of the realm. If any lesson is to be learnt from the Libya debacle, it is that, if Cameron ever wishes to confront a rogue state in future, he has a duty to ensure that the military is properly equipped for the task.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2011