I have been listening to the debate in Parliament on Libya this afternoon and one could almost have gone back to debates of 150 years ago. There are echoes here of France and Britain's past involvements in Africa. Neither country could it appears resist the opportunity to appear on the world stage one last time. Given that both are now much less important (and capable) militarily than they used to be, it felt quite odd. And given that the need to reduce the deficit has been the reason given for many of David Cameron's government's domestic policies, what exempts this latest appearance on the world stage from the same deficit-led restrictions? No one in the debate in the Commons appears to question the assumption that Britain's tax payers must play a leading role in events in Libya.
At least this venture is probably legal so far (on some reasonable definitions of "legal"), but I have other practical misgivings. These stem first from my gut feeling that no one has a monopoly on morality (why Libya, which at least makes some attempt to promote its own version of equality so far as gender is concerned, and not, say, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain which are just as dictatorial and whose police states are equally without democratic credentials?); secondly, from my suspicion that the UN mandate to protect civilians is bound to lead to "feature creep" and is even now becoming seen as a mandate for regime change; thirdly, from my feeling that transitions to democracy have to come from within rather than from the outside; and fourthly, from doubts that there is a properly formed strategic view about the long term.
On the first and second points, Gadaffi probably is a criminal and probably did authorise implicitly or explicitly the bombing of the aircraft which crashed at Lockerbie. He probably did implicitly or explicitly lay down the ground rules which led later to the death of PC Yvonne Fletcher. He has very probably been responsible for many other deaths. But these are not the bases for the current intervention, and were they to be there would be an even stronger stench of hypocrisy given Tony Blair's and Gordon Brown's subsequent cosying up to him.
So, what is the sub-text to this? Is it to see that the provisional government at Benghazi takes over the mantle of government in Libya, and if so to what place will that lead and by what means have Britain and France acquired the right to decide that (it certainly falls outside the UN mandate)? What if the provisional government does not succeed militarily and the UN mandate to protect civilians just leads to a stalemate and a long drawn out civil war? Are there to be elections, and if so what will secure them and what will follow them? At what point will David Cameron think that the objectives have been achieved, and what will he do if it appears that an Islamist government may succeed Gadaffi: does he think that in that eventuality he has the right to intervene further to prevent that and, if so, does he think he will succeed, and what happens if the UN just cuts him off at the knees at that point?
And what happens if the UK's current floating military capability of one and a half aircraft carriers, two months' supply of paper darts and a few assorted support warships isn't enough to deal with the problem?
If one is optimistic, maybe the provisional government in Benghazi might quickly succeed in conquering Gadaffi's forces and Libya might end with a national government that is uncorrupt, respects the human rights of its citizens and makes some moves to democracy. A successful operation by Britain and France together may lead to the emergence of workable foreign policy structures within the European Union and the emergence of a military establishment to serve it. Any of those optimistic hopes for the Libyan situation could fail to eventuate, which could in turn derail such optimistic hopes for the European Union.