Saturday, 19 March 2011

Cameron's first war...right or wrong?

David Cameron stated a few moments ago that British planes were now engaged in action over Libyan airspace. This is in response to the actions of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, as he repels a rebel uprising in the country.

Unlike in Iraq, the British, french and US forces are acting under the auspices of the United Nations, with resolution 1973 being passed in the early hours of Friday. In his statement to the House of Commons later that day, David Cameron laid out the extent of the action allowed, and Labour leader Ed Miliband expressed support for the government's actions, and our forces involved.

A joint statement was published yesterday, from the British, French and US as well as Arab States:

Resolution 1973 lays out very clear conditions that must be met. The UK, US, France and Arab States agree that a cease fire must be implemented immediately. That means all attacks against civilians must stop.

Gaddafi must stop his troops from advancing on Benghazi, pull back his troops from Ajdabiyah, Misratah, and Zawiyah, and re-establish water, electricity and gas supplies to all areas.

Humanitarian assistance must be allowed to reach the people of Libya. These terms are not negotiable.

If Gaddafi does not comply with the Resolution, the international community will impose consequences, and this Resolution will be enforced through military action.

The beginning of operation 'Odyssey Dawn' marks a new era, and is David Cameron's first war, since he assumed office just ten months ago. Already we, along with the US, are firing tomahawk missiles at Libyan Army tanks, yet as we know all too well from the Iraq conflict, the innocent often get caught up in these matters.

Resolution 1973 is clear in its remit, and this is where the danger lies, as it won't take much to go beyond it. President Obama has quite rightly stated that American ground forces will not be used, and I would like to hear David Cameron say the same. If things move on, and the UN sanctions it, I will make my mind up then, but we have already been tainted by the stigma of regime change, which is against international law, as currently understood.

The official position is that it imposes a 'No Fly Zone' for other than planes involved in humanitarian missions, and allows for the targeting of ground forces if they are believed to be a threat. However, my fear here, is that this can be interpreted as attacking airfields and bases of troops, thought to be loyal to the regime, would be legitimate. The missile attacks seem to support this fear, and I'm very concerned that this could be seen as an act of war by surrounding states, particularly Iran.

The big question is what is the next stage if Gaddafi refuses to leave peacefully, or no one tries to overthrow him. Both Cameron and Obama have explicitly called for Gaddafi to go, and if he remains in place do they have a plan of action?

Currently the 'allies' have the support of several Arab states, but if Libyan civilians start to die in large numbers then that could quickly ebb away, and even if the majority of UN security members supported further military action, the Russians and Chinese would veto it, and the lesson of Iraq would surely prevent unilateral action by allied states.

There is also the wider issue of what seems to happening in other states in the region, as reports come in of protests in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, with varying levels of state brutality in response.

For many of us, these should not be ignored, because they are suppliers of much of our oil, and have in the past supported us in actions in the region, as indeed did Gaddafi. We must be consistent in this, which is why the action taken over Libya presents such a problem as expectations may well be heightened as to how we will react if the authorities start stamping down on the protesters and rebels.

It is certainly apparent that Gaddafi is different from other leaders, in that there is evidence that he can act very unpredictably, and seems to be in a state of denial as to what is happening in his country. But, there have been plenty of reports of brutality and killings in Yemen and Bahrain, and the public would expect the international community to take action, if these develop along similar lines to Libya.

David Cameron did well to take the international community along with him on the 'No Fly Zone,' and the extension to enable action to protect Libyan citizens and humanitarian missions is the right one. However, he mustn't lose sight of what that objective is, and allow himself to be dragged into taking further action, without official support from the United Nations.

As hard as it would be to take, if the UN fails to support further action, for whatever reason, Cameron must accept it, and if other countries take things further, he must stay out. Harold Wilson gained a lot of credit with the British electorate when he refused to send troops into Vietnam, although he offered other types of support.

Therefore, for the moment, I am fully supportive of David Cameron, and the lead he has taken, but offer a word of caution that he must stay within the remit of Resolution 1973. That is all I ask Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander to do, offer full support, but ask the right questions, and ensure that David Cameron is constantly reminded of his responsibilities, not only to Britain, but also our service personnel, and the wider international community.

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