Mary Wakefield

Libya is imploding. Why doesn't David Cameron care?

The Prime Minister's 'happy place' has become very unhappy indeed

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

A few days ago I went to a talk about Syria; one of those events for the concerned layman, in which a panel of experts give a briefing. Everything sounded depressingly familiar until expert number three piped up: I hear people blame Saudi Arabia and Qatar for the Islamists in Syria, he said, but in fact, they more often come from Libya. The crowd shifted in discomfort. Isn’t Libya done and dusted? Oh no, said the expert, it’s full of al-Qa’eda training camps now, especially in Benghazi.

My first thought, unusually, was to feel sorry for David Cameron. Remember how proud he was on his victory visit to Tripoli at the end of the Libyan war? There he stood in the five-star Corinthia hotel, by Sarko’s side, his arms full of flowers, his cheeks pink with pleasure. His friends say that these days Libya has become his ‘happy place’. When times are tough and backbenchers uppity, his mind wanders to Benghazi: well, at least we done good there. Just imagine him discovering that the worst offenders in Syria are those he liberated from Gaddafi. Nothing more infuriating than being hoist by your own petard.

But worse for Cameron, and for the allies of 2011, is that it’s not just Syria (or Mali, say) feeling the fallout. Three years on, unnoticed by most of the world, Libya itself has become a heartbreaking mess. Those same rebels who once formed the allies’ army have fractured into militias — more than 1,000, it’s said — some tribal, some Islamist, all at loggerheads. Assassinations and kidnappings have become routine; last year even the man in charge of investigating assassinations was assassinated.

As a measure of Libya’s descent, take that same Corinthia hotel where once our PM took a bow. In Gaddafi’s day it was impeccably secure, full of top dogs from BP sharing hubble-bubbles with junior members of the ruling family. Last August, the EU ambassador was rammed and robbed at gunpoint outside. Two months later, Libya’s then prime minister Ali Zeidan was kidnapped right out of the Corinthia by some antsy militia. Not so many oilmen at the bar there now.

As of this week, in fact, the oil business, on which modern Libya rests, is being done not by government but by a smooth–looking 33-year-old bandit called Ibrahim Jathran. Jathran was once commander of the ‘Hamza’ brigade, and a bright star in the rebel army. During the Libyan war he and his men took the eastern ports from Gaddafi, and he was rewarded with a top job post-war: head of the Petroleum Security Guard.

A weak, corrupt government 500 miles away can’t keep a lid on the likes of Jathran. Six months ago he took the ports for a second time, and kept ’em. He set up blockades, preventing exports, and has just made his own first sale of Libyan crude — $30 million of it — to a mysterious tanker called Morning Glory. Poor Mr Ali Zeidan, hopping with rage and terror, sent in the navy, but on Tuesday the Morning Glory broke through at least the initial blockade and Zeidan stood down as PM in shame.

Should we now barge in; help the next poor bloke take back the ports? Well, even if we could… it’s complicated. CNN interviewed Jathran over the weekend under the headline ‘Robin Hood or robber?’ And it’s a fair question. Jathran’s a separatist from eastern Libya (which he calls by its ancient name, Cyrenaica) and plans to use the oil money to beef up his neglected region. He’s also said that the government is corrupt and controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and that he’s sick to death of oil money being used to fund al-Qa’eda-style terrorism abroad. ‘I won’t let Libya become like Syria,’ he’s said.

But nor can the government let Jathran be, because oil is, almost literally, Libya’s lifeline: under Gaddafi, during the boom in production and prices, Libyan life expectancy leapt 25 years, from 51 to 75, and from the oil flowed free education and healthcare. Mad Dog was pumping nearly two million barrels a day, and now, what with the trouble both in ports and oilfields, it’s 200,000 and falling. As oil revenues splutter out, so does confidence in government. In the 2012 election 2.8 million registered to vote. This year only a million registered and less than half of them turned up.

So what now, oh allies? What does a humanitarian interventionist do when the humans he intervened to help begin to look worse off than they did before? I think at the very least he has a duty to look the situation in the face; to understand and accept the consequences of his war. My fear is that Cameron’s pique over his good guys turning bad will mean he tries not to think about it, mimics Donald Rumsfeld on Iraq and says, ‘Stuff happens.’ It’s not my fault. Move on.

But a reluctance to accept responsibility now is a corollary of a deeper problem: a reluctance to plan properly in the first place. I was against our intervention in Libya, not because I thought Gaddafi was a decent leader, but because even pals of Cameron said there’d be no thinking through the different possible outcomes.

And so much of what’s gone wrong seems predictable. Gaddafi was paranoid, and had no proper police and no real army save his personal guard. So who did we think was going to support a new government? It’s easy to be smart in hindsight, so let’s look forward: rival militias coalesce into regional war lords, which means corruption. And what then? Well, it’s in just this kind of environment that groups like al-Qa’eda thrive — offering an exhausted people security in exchange for sharia law.

On 18 March 2011, three years ago next Tuesday, David Cameron stood in the Commons and argued passionately for UN resolution 1973, which would impose a no fly zone in Libya. There are three tests, and it’s passed them all, he said: we must demonstrate need, we must ensure regional support and we must show that there’s a clear legal basis.

Next time, let’s add a fourth requirement before we go to war: that the government demonstrate that they’ve thought through the consequences as well.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • saffrin

    Why would anyone think Call me Dave cared about Libya in the first place?
    Puppet Dave is a wind me up, pass the script and wheel me out type of guy.
    So long as he gets paid his wages and expenses he’ll play the game do and say whatever he’s told.

  • Peter Stroud

    Let us not forget that Cameron and Hague seriously considered arming the ‘good’ opposition in Syria. Neither seem to understand that these Middle Eastern states only thrive, with necessary security, when ruled by secular dictators. Sad but true.

  • Kasperlos

    Really, the Spectator has become the beacon of ‘why’ as in why doesn’t x care, why doesn’t x intervene. Why not change the name to UN Spectator. With Syria, Lybia, Ukraine et al all on the list awaiting help, I dare say that HM Forces would have but one person left manning UK home defences, Dave himself enjoying a cuppa whilst filling out his expense claim form. “How’s that? Thousands landing near Hasting’s, you say. Right then, we’ll get back to you to sort it out once I’ve got the Xbox going. Cheerio, and do hold tight ’til we can get some of our lads back.”

    • zaq

      Did you READ this piece?! It says we should NOT have intervened!

  • Cyril Sneer

    Is there an actual real success story we can refer to where our intervention in another country’s affairs (from Afghan 2001 onwards) hasn’t turned into an unmitigated disaster that has caused many deaths and left in its wake insecurity, lawlessness, improved conditions for extremism and sectarian violence all in the name of ‘democracy’ which has never really stuck in that region?

    Libya is a disaster but our media hasn’t bothered to tell us. Remember the wall to wall coverage of Libya and the overthrow of Gaddafi? You’d think some investigative journalist would be crawling all over this to bring our government to book….. but they haven’t, Libya has literally been ignored since Gaddafi was lynched and killed.

    In October 2013 the Libyan Prime Minister was kidnapped and paraded on video as a message to show that he has no power outside of Tripoli. He was then released unharmed. I don’t recall this getting much coverage.

    Post Gaddafi Libya is not a subject our media and government want to talk about. It’s pretty clear why, but the most frightening aspect of this is the western media complicity in this silence.

    • blanyarx

      The USA & UK warmongering double act follows up regime change with the destruction of nations. And it started long before 2001. They call this behaviour their “foreign policy.”

  • Simon Fay

    “Why doesn’t David Cameron care?”

    I’d be more surprised if he did, given that he’s surely the sort of character that turns up in the pages of books on End-of-Year lists of the best fiction. He’s an upmarket spiv, not a figure of any substance.

    From the POV of the brief he was likely working to, the mission was surely successful? I dunno if Libya’s central bank now operates from Canary Wharf,or if the Gay Pride marches in Tripoli need police protection, but I gather the denuded-military hotdesking with France went satisfactorily.

  • In2minds

    Libya, does Cameron care? No he’s playing with the Ukraine now Libya is so last year.

  • F. Hugh Eveleigh

    Alas,the comments below are all pertinent. Libya is ‘over’ and we have moved on politically to fresher pastures. This is the nature of human beings en masse. But a big thank you to Miss Wakefield for pointing out an area of the world which I had let slip by into memory. The lesson for me is to not interfere in another country’s affairs unless it absolutely affects our own safety. Stay clear of EU and UN shenanigans. They too get it wrong. What a mess it all appears to be.

  • manonthebus

    Our politicians don’t care about Libya, or Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan. They’ve squeezed enough political capital out of those conflicts and now need a fresh injection of phoney outrage to capture the hearts of the voters. I don’t worry overmuch about those countries either, but that’s because I don’t like the idea of sending good British soldiers to be killed in pointless conflicts to benefit foreign dictators, corrupt officials etc.

  • Terry Field

    One day in the not-too distant future, Britain will be subject to the hell it metes out to others.
    The UA has performed its pivot, and this part of the world is now unprotected – which is very well understood by Puty-boy and the Thugs.
    Things are far more dangerous for us than we care to realise.
    Very sadly.
    And Blair’s infant has lost its Allah-father.

  • HS2

    Well, maybe time to return to traditional imperialistic policies then? The American version is built on the hypocrisy that all countries should realise their own best, i.e. to become nice little Americas.

  • Gregory Mason

    Why does it come as a surprise that this has failed? You cannot impose democracy on a nation so why do these fools keep on trying?

    There is only one tried and tested method and that requires formal empires. Whilst I don’t advocate this method it is the only one proven to work so I say we leave them alone.

  • zanzamander

    Where ever US/EU tread, misery, mayhem, death, destruction and Islamisation follow.

    Basically, Saudi Arabia (and the Sunni Islamic world) is using us and US as their mercenaries. Take a look around this miserable world and where ever you see terrorism, you’ll see the dark shadow of malignant US power behind it.

    US government and military are now basically arms of Saudi wahhabism.

  • bungy

    Ok we screwed up Iraq we are now doing the same to Afghanistan
    and low and behold we have completely done it to Libya –why in some phoney war
    against terrorism. Ok admittedly we have mainly done damage to countries that
    produce oil –I am guessing to steal their oil not for humanitarian reasons.
    Both Iraq and Libya needed their benevolent dictators to run correctly so what
    was their crime? Probably selling oil in euros not dollars I am guessing