Photo : Muammar Gaddafi saluting his armed forces during a parade in Tripoli, 1999. Photograph: STR/Reuters
The House of Commons foreign affairs select committee concluded its report into the 2011 war in Libya by blaming the coalition forces for focusing exclusively on “regime change by military means”. That is simply inaccurate. Honesty compels us to acknowledge that at every stage of the conflict Muammar Gaddafi was offered opportunities to negotiate.
There was the option of exile in Zimbabwe, which Silvio Berlusconi was asked to propose on 27 March of that year. There was the promise made to Gaddafi’s chief of staff that the dictator would be allowed to leave and not have to appear subsequently before the international criminal court. There was the mediation mission in July by Spain’s former prime minister, José María Aznar, and a visit to Djerba on 19 August by the former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin.
And, right up to the end, coalition aircraft refrained from striking one particular site – the private airstrip in the bunker city of Bab al-Aziziya, from which the Libyan dictator’s personal jet could have taken off at any point – literally his escape hatch. These facts and events were reported at the time. They prove that the decision to drag the conflict out well past the point of futility belonged to Gaddafi and Gaddafi alone.
The select committee report reproaches the allies for having failed to “identify … radical Islamist factions within the rebellion”. That too is inaccurate. The truth is, the Islamist risk haunted all the actors in the story. I can still hear the then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, warning the National Transitional Council at the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli on 15 September: “France did not do what it did to find itself faced one day with a fundamentalist dictatorship that would be worse than Gaddafi.” The question, indeed, was not whether there were radical Islamists in Libya, but rather this: given that there are already Islamists, how do we ensure their number doesn’t grow? How do we ensure that they do not feed on the revolutionary fire?
And the response, basically, was that we had to bet on the moderates; as far as we could, we had to shrink not only the military but the political space available to them. By deploying French, US, British and Gulf aircraft in support of the insurgents, we had to refute Islamism’s chief argument – which had always been, at bottom, that in a war of civilisations the west would automatically side with dictators against their people.
Five years on, I still believe this was the right approach. It stopped Libya turning into another Syria. And it is one of the reasons why, when Islamic State – born between Baghdad and Damascus – has tried to set up in Libya, Libyans have not welcomed it but taken up arms to chase it out – recently from Derna, currently from Sirte and soon, one hopes, from Sabratha.
And finally, Sarkozy and Cameron are criticised in the committee’s report for overstating the threat Gaddafi posed to civilians and acting without first taking the time to “verify the real threat that the Gaddafi regime posed to civilians”. Like the other arguments, this is just not serious. How do you verify “a real threat”? Should we have waited (as happened in Syria) until 100,000 people had died – 200,000, 300,000? And those tank columns I saw and filmed in early April 2011 as they levelled the outskirts of Benghazi – would it have been better to let them gut the entire city? Not to mention Misrata. Imagine how the survivors of that shelled and massacred city, with its roads reduced to ash and rubble, its remaining inhabitants fleeing bombs and sniper fire, would respond to the report’s strange questions. And that battle happened in April, lasting through May – weeks and months after Gaddafi had made the threats that today, from within the panelled halls of Westminster, we are urged to consider as having been mere “rhetoric”, not to be taken “literally”.
Misrata, alas, is proof of the contrary. If only the honourable members of the House of Commons who say they doubt the determination behind Gaddafi’s announcement that he intended to “purge” the country of its “rats” by going “house to house”, carrying out an operation “resembling Tiananmen”, had asked to see the last photographs taken by Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros hours before the two courageous American photographers were gunned down, on 20 April, in the centre of Misrata.
That the coalition allies failed, after the fact, is sadly true: they failed in their duty to help liberated Libya build a state and a society. The Iraq war no doubt haunted Europe’s democracies, paralysing them and preventing them sticking with the emerging nation on its long path to construction.
But the intervention in Libya itself; the response to the call of a people who had decided no longer to allow a mad dictator to act as he had for the past 42 years; the alliance forged with the African Union and the Arab League (which, we forget too quickly, was the first to call for the use of force); the subsequent implementation of a UN resolution adopted for the first time in history under the principle of the responsibility to protect and legitimised by the security council; the definition, ultimately, of a narrowly targeted operation bound by strict rules of engagement and rigorous security zones – all of that exemplified a model that was the complete opposite of Iraq. And, whether we like it or not, that was to the great credit of Britain and France.
Translated from French by Steven B Kennedy