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David Cameron has rescued and redefined the principle of overseas intervention

By Tim Montgomerie
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Cameron-Gadhafi-head- After the exhaustion produced by Iraq and Afghanistan and in this age of austerity it seemed that liberal intervention might be dead for a generation. David Cameron's triumph is to have rescued intervention by adopting a much more humble and, at times, more intelligent manifestation of it. In Libya he has achieved as much as was possible with such limited public support. Lord Owen has called it "constrained intervention". It has the following key characteristics:

It supports existing social movements within a country. Ultimately, of course, this was the Libyan people's rebellion. They are responsible for it and what they do next.

US leadership isn't essential but US involvement still counts. Obama famously dithered about intervention in Libya, as he dithers about most things. At the start of this process British government officials were scathing about the White House. Once the UN had agreed to intervene the US did, however, supply important weapons technology (notably Tomahawk cruise missiles) and other support but, from the beginning, this was a UK-French-led intervention. Perhaps the memory of Suez can finally be buried. France and Britain account for 50% of European defence spending and 65% of EU-wide military R&D. The UK-French relationship is certainly at its strongest for a very long time and if Sarkozy is re-elected that could be invaluable to Cameron (and Britain) in the years ahead.

The importance of regional powers. Essential to achieving the UN resolution was the support of the Arab League. Much credit must go to William Hague for this. He has worked tirelessly to build and then maintain good relations throughout the region. The Guardian's Allegra Stratton has already praised Ed Llewellyn, the PM's Chief of Staff for his behind-the-scenes role. The Foreign Secretary also deserves recognition.

A UN resolution, flexibly interpreted. I've never really understood why the UN is so well regarded. Intervention in Libya became legal and moral because Moscow and Beijing consented. In Syria tougher measures are illegal because Moscow and Beijing won't play ball. But whatever I may think the public and that mysterious thing called international law demands UN approval. Cameron got it but then interpreted the mandate to protect the civilian population in the widest possible way. NATO forces decided to target a whole range of Gaddafi assets, including his personal compound, as part of the 'Responsibility To Protect'.

Special forces. We may not have had lots of UK 'boots on the ground' but we certainly had some. Liam Fox has consistently observed the 'we don't ever comment on the role of our special forces' line but the SAS and other elite troops have helped the rebel army with training, logistics and, crucially, intelligence. Operation Mermaid Dawn - that ignited the Tripoli uprising - was carefully orchestrated by UK and French agents. There's also been the small matter of air power...

Bombing. Cameron once said that you can't impose a democracy from 40,000 feet but it does appear that you can enable one. NATO bombing has been crucial to degrading the Gaddafi regime's capacities. That work is ongoing. The Guardian reports how, in the last few days, intensive attacks from UK and French warplanes have weakened loyalist forces in Sirte, the regime's last redoubt.

Post-conflict reconstruction. We may not yet be in the post-conflict stage but there has been a lot of planning for this stage. Radio 4 reports this morning that 'surgical teams' of British aid experts are arriving in Tripoli to prepare the way for humanitarian supplies. The forthcoming Paris conference will organise a much larger multilateral reconstruction effort. I hope the NATO countries that have done so little to get to this point reach deeply into their pockets.


There are still some very sceptical voices about this intervention. Matthew Parris in today's Times (£), for example. There is no room for complacency because the work is not finished. But, as Anne-Marie Slaughter has most powerfully argued (£), this intervention was the right thing. A horrible dictator has been toppled. A massacre in Benghazi was avoided. People hungry for freedom in Syria and Yemen have renewed hope.

There'll be no great electoral bonus for Cameron from this. Obama's bounce from the killing of bin Laden has long gone. The economy will determine Obama's fate as it will determine Cameron's. Nonetheless the Prime Minister is a more considerable figure today. He'll be taken more seriously by world leaders. He'll also be able to hit back at the backseat 'Are we nearly there yet?' crowd (© Matthew d'Ancona). Are we nearly there yet on Libya? Are we nearly there yet on immigration? Are we nearly there yet on growth? He'll argue that he deserves more patience in an impatient time.

Update: Tim Montgomerie discusses the implications for Cameron of the Libyan intervention on the Today programme.


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