Libya; The Wrong Issue For Britain

 

We do not in any way rule out the use of military assets” to deal with Gaddafi’s regime.”

David Cameron

mmmm........ only the British could send a Naval ship named after a pork sausage to rescue British citizens from a Muslim country.. God speed HMS Cumberland!

The vast majority of media and political half witted focus in the Middle East is on Libya which is on the verge of civil war. In fact, it feels at the moment that the media is driving what foreign policy agenda we have not, as should be the case, our national interest. Insofar as our domestic interests are concerned, Libya is completely the wrong target. What more could we possibly expect though from people who make policy up on the hoof with the next strategic challenge being the creation of their next sound bite.

Actually, I'm being a bit unfair, the stakes here are very high indeed and there is not much room for error. The ramifications for getting things wrong will be considerable, but not in Libya. I don't understand why we are flying Egyptian nationals out of Libya for example. It's simply not our responsibility. Not only do the Egyptians have plenty of aircraft to do it themselves but why would we risk our own assets, especially as we've made a not too clever job of evacuating our own people.

As every schoolboy knows, Libya is split between Cyrenaica in the East and Tripolitania in the West with 500 miles of desert in between. Benghazi in Cyrenaica, the rebels base, is the historical capital of Libya. Both goverment and rebel forces appear to be limbering up for a bloody fight, planning and preparing whilst possibly negotiating. Any negotiations however, are just to buy time.  This pause also allows Western assets to position themselves although what for is anyone's guess.

There are rumours of Egyptian Army support for the rebels. Talk of a 500 mile advance to Tripoli is challenging though, if only because fast jets would make mincemeat of the column. Perhaps thats what the no fly thing is all about. Notwithstanding that, they have no hope of reaching Tripoli if Egyptian taxi drivers are involved. Half the chaps will end up in Zimbabwe and the rest will be taken to the pyramids. They should plan on 25% wastage due to traffic accidents.

For the West there aren't really any good options. The tribes in Cyrenaica have a more fundamentalist tendency than the government run by old Looney Tunes himself in Tripoli and no one will shed any tears when he is swinging from a lampost. An unintended consequence of Gaddafi being replaced by a fundamentalist regime ought to be more than a passing concern. Whatever the outcome, given Libya is made up of something like 140 different tribes it won't be easy to hold the country together as one entity, especially a democratic one.

 

Our governments flow of statements though is perplexing. The only national interest that we have is a bunch of arms sales which started with Blair's relationship with the regime in round about 2005 and some exploration rights that BP paid £350m for, which is a rounding error in BP's expenses. We should stand off and let those with a real stake in Libya take responsibility. That would mostly be the Italians, the Egyptians, the French and the Russians. You could of course include the US on the basis that they think they have a stake everywhere and indeed, the Enterprise is racing back through the Med from the Red Sea where she had only just arrived........ from the Med.

For the British, the Americans and indeed the rest of Europe and certainly Japan there is only one place that matters; the Gulf. Specifically, we should be losing sleep about protests in Bahrain spilling over into Saudi, with or without Iranian backing.

Bahrain is 70% Shia, Kuwait 30% and Saudi 20%. That is a significant demographic problem for the Sunni rulers. Any empowerment of the Shia in Bahrain could potentially encourage those in Kuwait and Saudi to become much more vocal. If this happened with Iranian sponsorship then the outlook could become very murky, very quickly and there are indeed signs of Iranian interest in the current unrest. Nothing terrifies the Saudi royal family more than a rise in Iranian interest, as evidenced in the huge increase in social spending announced recently. It should terrify us too.

If other countries want to intervene we should let them but our interest lie strictly further east. When Libya descends into civil war and chaos our government must have the self discipline to restrain from grandstanding and leave the heavy lifting to those who wish to join in. After all, one of the natural consequences of slashing your armed forces to the bone while over committing them on operations for extended periods of time is you can't be everywhere at once. General Richards should make the point forcibly.