In the early hours of one Saturday, under the cover of the Mediterranean darkness, US warships quietly moved into place off the North African coast. We cannot say how many, but among them were a destroyer, the USS Ross, and a guided-missile cruiser, the USS Vella Gulf. At about the same time, three F16 fighter jets took off from Aviano Air Base in Italy and headed south, along with two MV-22 Osprey transport planes carrying a full complement of rapid reaction force marines from another US base in Italy, Sigonella. Surveillance drones circled overhead and in support flew a KC-135 airborne refuelling tanker from RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk.
As often happens, Britain played a small but loyal part in this American military adventure. Anyone of my generation thinks they know what happens next: A savage retaliatory raid, perhaps, against a terror-supporting dictator; a precision strike to warn some pariah state of the consequences of ignoring the West’s collective will; or a small country invaded, its regime removed, as per Panama or Grenada all those years ago. But times have changed; and how they have changed. This was no show of strength by the most fearsome, overwhelming arsenal the world has ever seen. This was panic. The American might was in place to protect the evacuation to Tunisia of the 78 staff of the American embassy in Libya, along with the 80 “heavily armed” marines who are supposed to guard them but are not enough, apparently, to keep them safe from the militias and crazies currently roaming the country. In Pentagon, the cheers were not for a brave victory, but for an ignominious escape.
No one wants to leave diplomats in danger, of course, and better an organised exit than the hurried 1975 airlift from Saigon. But that was at the end of a long and bitter war against the Communist menace. On this occasion, the decision to abandon an important western ally was taken after the embassy found itself too close to battles between a bunch of guys who fully merit that epithet so often used to describe them: Rag-tag. Libya is being torn apart by a comedy war with amateur generals, but it is one that the Americans have done little to try to stop.
And they cannot be blamed, for Libya is not Washington’s game, but Britain’s: It was British Prime Minister David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, the then president of France, who pushed the instinctively isolationist Barack Obama into joining their overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. Ah yes, the British: They too issued their own evacuation order over the weekend. In keeping with their reduced status, the British diplomats who headed for Tunisia did so without marines or warships or F16s, but in a couple of Toyota SUVs. It was a hairy ride — you can see for yourself, in pictures on the internet, the bullet holes in the windscreen as they came under fire. And where was Cameron, as the keynote foreign intervention of his career, his Falklands, his Suez, his Gallipoli, unravelled before the world’s watching eyes? On a tour of Scotland. His own Twitter feed has the pictures, including one taken in a misty, northern field. “I enjoyed seeing some Shetland ponies with two children who are on holiday here,” he wrote.
Sweet, but hardly Churchill, who did not see much of his own children, let alone anyone else’s. On the same day, rebels, once backed by Cameron himself, began bombarding Tripoli’s main fuel depot. Fires were raging out of control. Scores more men have died in battles in both Tripoli and in Benghazi, to the east. The newly elected parliament is trying to find somewhere safe to meet. Nowhere, now, is a far-off country of which we know little, and Libya least of all. The irony is that the militias fighting for Tripoli are not renegade outfits sponsored by some mysterious Colonel Kurtz or guerrilla warlord. They are Britain’s militias. The town of Zintan, whose men currently control the airport, was a base for the SAS (Special Air Service) during the war to oust Gaddafi; residents happily show off the house where Our Boys stayed.
The brigades from Misrata, whom the Zintanis are now fighting, were also allies — the weapons the SAS shipped to Tripoli for the city’s final battle were dispatched from there. The British ambassador, Michael Aron, who has valiantly stayed on in Tripoli with his closest staff, is trying to negotiate between their political representatives and the multitude of other participants in what is at least a four-sided war. But if you sensed from the lack of coverage on television and in the newspapers (whose correspondents flooded the Sahara with Press-labelled flak jackets in 2011) that this disaster is no longer a priority in London or Paris, you would be right. With the excitement of Gaddafi’s death and amid a dozen conspiracy theories, it is easy to forget how peremptorily the decision to go to war in Libya was taken. Key was a last-minute, unexpected change of heart by President Obama.
There had been talk, at the end of February 2011, that Messrs Cameron and Sarkozy were keen to “do something” to force Gaddafi out, after he refused to go of his own volition. But since Suez in 1956, Britain and France do not do these things on their own and Obama seemed opposed to it. When he changed his mind, on March 17, it was immediately clear that the goal was regime change. Quizzed by my editors about Cameron and Sarkozy’s plans, I remember saying they seemed “unthought through”.
I was in Tripoli at the time and it was hard not to feel sympathy for the Libyans who had risen against Gaddafi’s ludicrous and nasty rule; nowhere, even in the Middle East, was the thuggishness of the regime so immediately obvious as on Libya’s streets. A couple of Gaddafi’s men, employing the traditional, rather than up-to-date, media relations playbook, had already stuck me in a cell, put a pillow-case over my head and accused me of being a CIA spy. So I tried to reassure myself with the thought that our masters, armed with the experience of Iraq, must this time have a plan for what came after. MI6 knew Libya well; they had worked with the exiled opposition groups chomping to take over.
The SAS had even worked in Libya, training Gaddafi’s special forces, as a bizarre side-effect of Tony Blair’s Middle East policies. But, as with Iraq, it turns out there was no such plan. When Tripoli fell, we could not even secure the water supply, which fleeing Gaddafi soldiers managed to turn off for a week. In the corridors of the city’s hotels, British diplomats and spies and their semi-liberal Libyan allies were overwhelmed by squads of renegade army officers, jihadists and rural rebel leaders of whom no one had previously heard, all seeking backing from self-appointed regional and other powers, like Qatar, whose envoys arrived to seek their stake in the new country.
Hampered by hypocritical “no boots on the grounds” orders, western military advisers could do little as Gaddafi’s vast arms stocks were pillaged by all comers. One day, along with my colleagues, I tried to alert the “authorities”, whoever they were, to the presence of 100,000 landmines, boxes of Semtex, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles lying unguarded in a field and adjacent warehouses in south Tripoli. Nothing was done, and within days they had been pilfered, to fuel further conflicts. It is not just Cameron’s fault, of course. He cannot reverse Britain’s military decline alone, nor force Obama, elected on an anti-war ticket, to behave like a Kennedy, a Reagan or a Bush. Such policies are a symptom rather than a cause of Britain’s attention-deficit-disorder democracy. Blair, joint creator of one failed state in Iraq, and supposedly chief international envoy of another in Gaza, showed his concern for current events last week by partying with Strictly Come Dancing stars for Cherie’s 60th.
Last summer, our MPs casually vetoed their own government’s policy on Syria and then went on holiday with no further consideration of what might take its place. The military-diplomatic establishment, once guardians of the Empire, equipped with the tools and instructions to create nations and re-order societies, seemed to want to have nothing to do with it. In a remarkable but little remarked on series of reports last month, well-placed sources revealed that, fearful of Cameron’s inexperience, his former chief of defence staff, Lord Richards, had spent his time in office trying to counter the elected government’s foreign policy in Libya and Syria, with some success.
Only in modern Britain could you have a military coup and no one notice. Polls suggest that most Britons, while despairing no doubt at the state of Libya and Syria, Iraq and Gaza, are on his side. There is, rightly, no more taste for empire-building. But building a world in which British and American troops are not dispatched on a colonialist whim to alien territories is different from not taking responsibility for past decisions. There are no easy answers in Libya, but is anyone seeking the difficult ones? Or is the West just leaving the Libyans, who were promised help, to their fate, while western powers exit the world stage, under whatever air-cover they can muster?
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2014