Toppling despots is the easy bit, as the PM should know by now

Independent on Sunday, 26 April 2015

Ed Miliband was right to highlight the irresponsibility of unseating Gaddafi without a plan for afterwards

If you are the leader of a Western country, with access to the  latest military hardware, it is not that difficult to oust a third-world dictator. I never doubted that British and United States forces could do it in Iraq in 2003, or that a Nato bombing campaign would quite quickly see off Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. The difficult bit comes afterwards, as I have been saying to absolutely no effect since some time in 2002.

Dictators have a nasty habit of destroying every vestige of opposition and encouraging corruption on a grand scale. Even when they’ve fled or been killed, they leave behind societies which are not exactly accustomed to embracing the values of liberal democracy. The Allies recognised as much after Germany’s defeat in 1945 and did at least make some attempt at de-Nazification.

Fast forward to the summer of 2011, when David Cameron had to make one of his first big foreign policy decisions in response to Gaddafi’s preparations to destroy an uprising in Benghazi. One of the weightiest questions on the Prime Minister’s mind should have been the aftermath of an intervention which had the potential, if botched, to go as disastrously wrong as post-conflict Iraq. So what did he do? Not nearly enough, which is why the Conservative party reacted with incontinent rage to Ed Miliband’s foreign policy speech at Chatham House last week.

“Outrageous and disgraceful,” Liz Truss fumed on Friday’s Today programme. I immediately assumed that Miliband had got the Prime Minister bang to rights, which turned out to be the case when I read the section of the Labour leader’s speech on Libya: “The failure of post-conflict planning has become obvious.” No one could argue with that. Or this: “David Cameron was wrong to assume that Libya was a country whose institutions could simply be left to evolve and transform themselves.”

The outrage from Conservative Central Office could be justified only if the current state of Libya – its emergence as a failed state offering a base for Islamic extremism and people-smugglers – was all part of a fiendishly clever Tory plan. Few observers believe that the country’s current state is an unavoidable stage on the road to multi-party democracy, and Miliband is correct to lay some of the blame at the present government’s door. So how did a speech about an incontrovertible foreign policy failure turn into a storm about a supposedly personal attack on the Prime Minister?

The answer is equally revealing about the Labour leader’s style and the way in which the Tory party attack dogs operate. A more cautious political operator might have thought twice about making any reference, however elliptical, to the loss of life in the Mediterranean in a week when so many people drowned after setting off from Libya in overcrowded boats. Miliband doesn’t think like that, and in any case the Libya section of the speech he actually delivered is short and succinct. It belongs in a list of foreign policy failures which, he claims, provide evidence of “the biggest loss of influence for our country in a generation”.

That is not quite the same as holding Cameron responsible for individual deaths at sea, as the initial reports early on Friday had suggested, but it is a damaging critique of his legacy as prime minister. So the Tories seized on the following line from the advance briefing by the Labour party and made it sound as bad as possible: “[Miliband] will say the refugee crisis and tragic scenes this week in the Mediterranean are in part a direct result of the failure of post-conflict planning for Libya.”

But looking beyond the who-said-what pettiness, the bare facts remain. The Prime Minister went into the Libyan bombing campaign with the awful lesson of Iraq before his eyes, and the only questionable thing is why it took Labour so long to call him on it. According to the Tunisian government, the two gunmen who attacked the Bardo museum in Tunis last month trained for the assault in terror camps in Libya. That’s on top of Libya’s role as a staging post for refugees from Syria and sub-Saharan Africa, who are dying in their thousands in the hands of people-smugglers. It does seem  curious that until last week the Labour leader hadn’t said much about the state of the country since 2011.

What the Tories can’t get away from, however, is that the Libyan disaster has unfolded on their watch. Tony Blair’s failure to plan for the aftermath of military intervention in Iraq was bad enough, but Cameron’s failure to learn from his predecessor’s error beggars belief. At the same time, I would have liked to hear more from the Labour leader about what he would have put in place in Libya if he had been in charge. Douglas Alexander listed most of the things that needed to be done four years ago, and it was good to hear Miliband refer to the reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War, but rebuilding civil society is time-consuming and expensive.

When a dictator is deposed, it’s  essential to capture his closest associates to prevent them from joining forces with extremist groups, as Saddam’s former deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri – shot dead last week on the outskirts of Tikrit – did with Islamic State. That requires continuing military assistance, along with supporting new leaders and helping to establish political parties and trade unions.

What this requires is something like a modern version of the Marshall Plan, updated to recognise contemporary ideas about human rights. The cost would be high, which may be why neither Miliband nor Cameron has proposed it. But if humanitarian  intervention is to mean anything, our leaders can’t just abandon millions of people to the mercy of jihadists, gangsters and people-traffickers.

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