The battleto save Libya

ONLY a few days ago, it seemed that the world stood impotent in the face of Muammar Gaddafi’s murderous persecution of his own people.

The United Nations Security Council appeared paralysed by disagreement, as it has been for much of the past two decades. The United States, with Barack Obama haunted by the trauma of his predecessor’s intervention in Iraq, wanted to wash its hands of the entire situation. And the suggestion by David Cameron of a no-fly zone over Libya met a lukewarm response from Britain’s European allies and was dismissed as “loose talk” by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

Yet now – and principally due to the tireless efforts of the British Prime Minister – UK forces are in action in the skies above Libya, working in tandem with the US and European nations and backed by the Arab League under the auspices of the UN.

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It is an extraordinary turnaround and an object lesson in how the interventionist principle can survive in international affairs post-Iraq. In doing everything by the book, Mr Cameron has thereby avoided the gospel according to Tony Blair. He has realised the importance of getting Arab approval for military action, he has sought and obtained a UN vote, he has gained the support of Europe and he is ensuring that, in Britain, decisions are being taken in Cabinet, rather than by a coterie of unelected advisers.

But even if the Prime Minister has learned from some of the mistakes made by Mr Blair over Iraq, he is still entering a difficult and dangerous situation. One of his Labour predecessor’s most parlous errors, after all, was to attempt to fight wars on a peacetime budget and Mr Cameron is following suit.

Indeed, following the Government’s defence cuts, Britain now has little choice but to tailor its foreign-policy ambitions to meet its defence capabilities. In other words, hard economics alone dictate that, as far as Britain is concerned, military action of the type being taken against Libya must be the exception rather than the rule.

A further gloomy parallel with Iraq is that very little thought appears to have been given to how a post-Gaddafi Libya would look. The world is right, for now, to concentrate on preventing the dictator from murdering and terrorising his people. But, with opposition groups across the Arab world watching, it is vital that the West gets it right in Libya. For, as dangerous as Gaddafi is, with the entire Middle East in a state of turmoil, there may yet be sterner tests to come.