Leading article

Cameron led calls to remove Gaddafi. Why is he silent on Libya's drowning refugees?

Cameron’s triumphant intervention in Libya has ended with death in the Mediterranean. This is why we need foreign policy to become an election issue

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

One Friday, 28 people were rescued by the Italian coastguard when the boat on which they were fleeing Libya capsized in the Mediterranean. Arriving homeless and without prospects in a strange land, these were — relatively speaking — the lucky ones. As many as 700 are thought to have drowned. Add them to the tally. On Monday, another boat capsized with 400 souls feared lost. Last year more than 3,000 died in the Mediterranean trying to get to the West. It has become a phenomenon of our times.

We do not hear much about life in the supposedly liberated Libya, but the fact that even immigrants into Libya would rather risk death than stay there gives a fair idea. Were these survivors being routinely scooped out of the sea by the British rather than Italian coastguard, it might focus our minds on just how things have developed since David Cameron stood in Martyrs’ Square in -Tripoli and declared that Libyans had ‘no greater friend than the United Kingdom… We will stand with you every step of the way.’

Britain did not, in the end, stand with the Libyans. It was judged too expensive. The new government in Tripoli failed to control the insurgent groups that flourished during the campaign against Gaddafi so now they are firmly established, waging bloody turf wars. The resulting chaos has created the space for Isis to grow. One of its recent videos from the region showed 21 Egyptian Christians being decapitated on the shores of the Mediterranean. A reminder that what goes on in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East.

As Libya collapses into violence, its great friends in London and Washington have effectively turned a blind eye. There is a general election on, and everyone would prefer to think about other things. In Britain, politicians speak proudly of increasing the foreign aid budget to 0.7 per cent of the national income, but the money sent to Libya has not created a successful state. The country has had seven prime ministers in four years, and its promising democratic beginnings have yielded to sectarianism. As in Iraq, the ultimate victors look like being Islamic fundamentalists — from whom Libyans are now trying to flee in vast numbers. Italy, the closest European country, is taking almost all of the strain.

In many ways, Cameron made the same errors in Libya that Tony Blair made in Iraq. He sent in forces to help remove a hated dictator, and did so on the (commendable) premise that Britain is a country that shapes the world for the better. He trumpeted the elections that followed, made a visit to the country he believed he had helped to liberate — and then looked the other way as it slipped into anarchy. As with Blair’s intervention in Iraq, initial bravado concealed a woeful lack of planning for the aftermath.

The difference between Blair’s Iraq and Cameron’s Libya is a lack of British casualties. Thanks to that, the intervention of 2011 is easier to forget: we don’t have to live with the consequences. The Libyans do. It was right to depose Colonel Gaddafi. But as the military advised Cameron at the time, such operations do not end when the dictator dies. What follows is crucial, and Britain should have offered full support. Even if it ended up being more costly, drawn-out and politically complicated than had been envisaged.

The election campaign has plenty to say about immigration from eastern Europe, which almost everyone seems to be at pains to say they will bring under control. Yet none of the parties have said what, if anything, they intend to do about the problem of refugees from Libya, 150,000 of whom have arrived in Italy since the start of last year and many more of whom are likely to arrive as the Islamists become more brutal. As we have seen, writing large cheques for overseas aid is no substitute for the support offered by a proper military. The Labour-Tory consensus on shrinking the military can only mean more botched jobs.

We have heard about the renewal of Trident, yet nothing about how the parties would approach a problem like Libya. Why not? Surely anyone who aspires to be Prime Minister ought to share with us some thoughts on how, as leader of what is still one of the most powerful and influential countries on earth, they would tackle the issue of whether to intervene in a future crisis. Why is the Royal Navy (and the navies of Norway, France and Spain) not offering to join the Italians in patrolling the waters and helping with this crisis? All of these countries joined the 2011 bombing campaign; do they not have a duty to deal with what ensues?

No one is pretending that these are easy decisions to make. That David Cameron went, in the space of 12 months, from proposing air strikes on President Assad of Syria to backing strikes on Assad’s enemies shows just what a quagmire foreign policy can be. But when choosing a leader we have a right to know they will exert leader-ship. Cameron was right: Libya deserves Britain’s friendship. Those who aspire to be Prime Minister should take just one day out from making promises about the NHS to spell out what that friendship should mean.

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  • Bronco

    Iraq also differed from Libya in that in Iraq the UK and US actually spent years and vast amounts of money into trying to stabilise the country. It still failed. Was it really right to remove Gaddafi in the first place? Should we not have enquired further into the nature of the opposition first, assess the likelihood of a moderate and secular democracy actually being capable of replacing him? Just like with Iraq we never considered that a lot of Middle Eastern countries are such melting pots of ethnic and religious tension that a lot of the time dictators, as brutal as they can be, are the only things keeping a lid on the unrest. That makes it incredibly hard to establish a westernised democracy there no matter how much effort is put into it. Maybe Gaddafi was a ‘bad guy’ but it wasn’t long ago that considered him a ‘good guy’, or at least ‘an alright guy’. We still prop up a great deal of ‘bad guys’ across the world so lets not act like we were acting out of moral outrage.

    It is true though that this is being conspicuously ignored in the election build up. Cameron has got away with what was a disastrous foreign policy move

  • Eamon Davis Delaney

    Excellent piece. Absence of UK Govt from the big negotiations on a Ukraine peace deal only confirms this lack of focus

  • statechaos

    Has this been written by Rod Liddle or is the Spectator coming out for Labour? Labour who have huge form on foreign policy disasters. Miliband keeps boasting that he stood up to Cameron and Obama over Syria and what a great foreign policy success Syria has become!

  • Jack Smith

    Few of these invaders are Libyan, they are simply exploiting the chaos in Libya. I would support military involvement in this situation, provided that it was to prevent these immigrants’ arrival in Europe by any means necessary.

  • Randal

    It was right to depose Colonel Gaddafi.

    How many times do we have to read this kind of idiocy from the advocates of interventionism, as though they get to judge the rightness of international actions without regard to their consequences?

    No, it was not right to plunge Libya into bloody chaos, and those responsible should accept responsibility personally, not try to slopey-shoulder it off onto the nation whose foreign policy and military they abused to implement their folly. The responsible persons are those in the British political elite who made and supported the decision to attack Libya, and those in the British media elite who manufactured political consent for it. Including the likes of Nelson and the Spectator.

    So stop whining about how it is everyone’s fault that your policies have brought disaster to foreigners (again), and damned well get your hand in your pocket and start helping to clean up the mess you made on your own penny, for a change, damn it.

  • Randal

    This is why we need foreign policy to become an election issue

    You should be careful what you wish for, imo. As an interventionist and a supporter of the “Conservative” Party, you can only lose from an honest discussion of foreign policy.

    Though no doubt you are counting on media bias to protect you from any honesty in that discussion. Granted media bias is usually something you can rely upon (for instance the laughable BBC/Chatham House discussion this week on foreign policy, with a panel consisting of four notorious establishment interventionists – a recipe for groupthink if ever there was one).

    But remember it didn’t do the job for you over the proposed bombing of Syria, that would have put jihadists in control of Damascus. Controlling the discourse is not as reliable for you in the internet age as it was formerly.

    As I said, be careful what you wish for.

  • itdoesntaddup

    There are many refugees who make their way to the Mediterranean via Libya, with more being pumped in from Yemen and Syria. The refugee route is not about Libya in isolation, and this article is quite wrong to imply that. It is full of Nigerians, Somalis, Eritreans, Malians, Syrians, Chadians etc. alongside the Libyan contingent.

    The solution probably ought to involve helping the Christians and other minority religious sects to re-establish themselves in their homelands through a combination of educating them in the art of running an administration (without insisting on the “democracy” that will not work where there are peoples in conflict), and in fighting their own way to securing their own homes. There should be no promise of a permanent European home – only a temporary one at best.

    In any event, the wider refugee problem needs a far wider solution that recognises the impact of the spread of the ISIS ideology across Northern Africa as well as across the Middle East. Perhaps we should look to including Russia in the solution: their navy has been the most effective in dealing with Somali pirates for example.

  • stephen_geneva

    These migrants are not Libyan, they are mostly single male economic migrants from all over Africa

  • James

    Trafficking has existed for decades but was controlled by The Royal Navy who used to bring hundreds of millions into our economy by being the world leaders in anti-piracy and trafficking – that was before the EU took charge. Cameron is funded by the EU agenda and does not have to answer for anything.

  • itdoesntaddup

    I find it very strange that James Bloodworth, editor of Left Foot Forward seems to agree entirely with this.


    Not sure why you and he should be so poorly informed about the real situation on the ground.

  • Brogan75

    It’s a disaster going to be worse soon unless the useless EU institutions understand something must be done.

  • Gilbert White

    Great lefty trick unite two unrelated issues and present them as a gestalt whole! Here is another one. More decent blue eye Brits are killed and robbed by these third world parasites each year after gaining asylum in the UK. than are drowned in the med.