A few weeks ago, the Prime Minister faced some criticism for taking a lead and calling on the world to the start planning the implementation of a no fly zone over Libya. I always thought that criticism was unfair. Even then, Gaddafi was talking about ‘fighting to the last bullet’ and was openly threatening to use military violence against his own people and civilian protesters. No Prime Minister of this country could sit on their hands and allow such a turn of events and I thought David Cameron was right to send a very strong signal that Britain would not tolerate it.
Foreign policy is always a difficult balancing act. It is unpredictable and there are usually unintended consequences. Every crisis if different and politicians often learn the wrong lessons from their most recent conflicts. In 1956, Britain was forced to withdraw from the Suez Canal after coming under pressure from the US government. That event led the British foreign policy establishment to become rather insecure for years to come. Even critics of David Cameron a few weeks ago seemed more worried that Britain had spoken before the Americans than with the substance of what he said.
During the 1990s, the rest of the world failed to take action to stop the genocide in Rwanda and was far too slow intervening in the Balkans to try to prevent ethnic cleansing. Britain learnt the right lessons from these two failures so took decisive action to send troops into the African state of Sierra Leone in 2000 to end the violence there and to reassert the authority of the elected government. The operation was a success.
However, that caused some to learn the wrong lessons and to think that intervention would always work. The difficult war in Iraq was arguably a bridge too far and was a painful reminder of the limitations of western intervention to remove bad regimes.
The free world does not have the appetite for another long war and the PM is right to rule out an occupying ground force in Libya. But we must always maintain perspective and take care not repeat the mistake we made of being too slow to help in the Balkans and Rwanda. Limited military operations, carried out from the air, with the clear objective of protecting civilians against a desperate dictator seems the right balance to strike in this instance. What’s more, it is being done with the backing of both the UN and the other Arab nations. The PM has shown good judgement.
A few years ago I visited our troops in Afghanistan with David Cameron. You couldn’t help but be enormously impressed by their professionalism and can-do attitude and now we are calling on their bravery again. It is important that we have a very clear objective in doing so.