British Prime Minister David Cameron may have thought he had arrived on the world stage when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly on September 22 and defended military intervention in other countries, ostensibly on liberal humanitarian grounds. At first sight, he seemed to have a case. Mindful of the debacle of the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, he had insisted throughout that any intervention in Libya must comply with international law, and he had given his Cabinet all the legal advice he had received.
He had also stood by the principle, even under pressure of events, that British military action under the NATO umbrella should cause no harm to civilians. By Mr. Cameron’s lights, the action against the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qadhafi has been a success. Qadhafi is nowhere to be seen. The rebel group, the National Transitional Council (NTC), has been recognised by the U.N. as well as by a large number of countries. Libyan civic bodies are not being abolished as their Iraqi counterparts were; and the NTC has opposed reprisals against those who remained loyal to the former ruler.
But there are serious problems with such an innocent narrative. To start with, the intervention would have been politically much more difficult without the approval of the League of Arab States (the Arab League), which soon reversed its position. The overthrow of Mr. Qadhafi would have been militarily impossible without NATO’s air support, which has meant no fewer than 24,789 sorties, including 9240 ‘strike sorties,’ to date. In defiance of the applicable U.N. Resolution, Britain refused even to rule out deploying ground troops. Mr. Cameron’s claim that the “Libyans liberated themselves” is patently false. Moreover, the British Prime Minister’s continuing silence over brutal repression in Bahrain, for example, exposes his liberal interventionism as highly selective.
It has now emerged that, in the past, Britain and the United States offered Tripoli prisoners under the notorious rendition programme, and that Britain gave the Qadhafi regime details of exiled Libyan dissidents. But what undermines Mr. Cameron’s case above all else is the fact that he raised no objections when the NTC rejected Mr. Qadhafi’s offer to become a figurehead at the top of a reconstituted Libyan state. What is clear from an analysis of the Libyan drama is that the U.K. and its allies were after regime change – but Mr. Cameron himself wanted more. Just as Tony Blair infamously did, he wanted war.