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The Government's Libyan policy dare not speak its name

By Paul Goodman

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Officially, the Government's policy on Libya is to uphold Security Council Resolution 1973, help maintain the no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians, provide as much humanitarian help as possible, not send in ground troops (because the resolution bars the presence of a "foreign occupation force"), shrink from trying either to force regime change or target Gaddafi (because, in the Prime Minister's words, the resolution "explicitly does not provide the legal authority for action to bring about [his] removal of power by military means") - and prepare for the long haul.

Unofficially, the Government's policy on Libya is to use the no-fly zone to degrade Gaddafi's forces, send in ground troops (because the resolution bars only a "foreign occupation force", not ground troops per se), target Gaddafi if possible (because the resolution gives the Coalition authority, according to Downing Street, to target Gaddafi if he is a threat to civilians), aim to provoke swift regime change, get the rebels into quick good shape as an fighting force and potential government (Sir Malcolm Rifkind argues that the resolution has supeseded the arms embargo) - and get a quick win in Libya as soon as possible.

Confused?  Don't be.

Obviously, David Cameron wants a decisive victory as soon as possible at minimal cost in blood and treasure.  Conservative backbencers and Opposition frontbenchers gave him emphatic support in the Commons on March 18 after he and Sarkozy had driven their Libya policy through the United Nations - and Obama.  But parts of the media questioned it from the start, with opposition coming from the left in the form of the Guardian and the right from the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph.  And some Tory MPs started making their reservations public only three days later, during the Commons debate on March 21.

The public spending scaleback will start to be felt in earnest next month.  The European financial crisis is escalating.  The AV referendum and the local elections are hurtling down the track.  The Prime Minister won't want his Libyan quest to become another source of vulnerability.

So why can't he say what he wants, then?

Because he needs to keep a diverse and difficult coalition on board, ranging from the bellicose if unpredictable Sarkozy through passive Obama to the divided Arab League and reluctant Turkey.  Remember the league's wobble over air strikes on the very day of the Commons debate, and Turkey's original opposition to NATO heading up the operation.  Arab leaders hear the new anti-autocrat mood on the Arab street - without which the league wouldn't have swung behind Cameron and Sarkozy in the first place - but fear that if another ruler is deposed they will be next.

Last year, we wouldn't have had sufficient national interest to participate in a Libyan intervention.  But in the aftermath of the toppling of Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia, the Prime Minister concluded - rightly - that, humanitarian considerations notwithstanding, for the west to stand idly by while Gaddafi slaughtered civilians in Benghazi would have sent a disastrous signal to the Arab street at a time when its voice is beginning to count.

We still wouldn't have had enough of a national interest in Libya to have risked an operation on our own, or  with France, or with a western coalition of the willing only.  But with Turkey and the Arab League on board, the coalition is broad enough - though keeping it deep enough will be hard work - and the cost bearable enough to justify participation.  No massacre in Benghazi.  Protected civilians.  Air dominance - all have been achieved.  And now the rebels have taken Ajdabiyah and are pushing west towards Sirte.

Now all that remains, as Sir Malcolm and Mark Pritchard have argued from the start, is to arm the rebels.  In the meantime, a quick win's desirable, but not essential, since Gaddafi has nowhere to go, militarily or politically.  Cameron's in a good position to say as much - even though he has a Libyan policy that dare not speak its name.


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