Why I changed my mind and abstained on the Libya vote

by Tom Watson

David Cameron’s assured performance at the dispatch box during the Libya statement on Friday worried me. He was confident, authoritative and re-assuring. It was like watching Tony Blair introducing the debate before we went to war in Iraq.

I was concerned that there wasn’t sufficient support amongst our key allies and, crucially, arab states to make military intervention credible.

I asked the PM:

“Now that the UN has reasserted its authority with this resolution, it is important that Gaddafi be in no doubt that there is an overwhelming military force to carry it out. In that light, how many countries does the prime minister wish to provide military assets, and how many of them come from the arab league”?

The PM replied:

“The hon. gentleman makes a good point. Obviously, we want the widest alliance possible. I do not think it would be right for me to name at the dispatch box those countries that are considering participation, but there is a wide number. Clearly, at the heart of this are the Americans, the French and the British, but other European countries are coming forward, and there are also some in the arab league, including a number I have spoken to, who have talked about active participation – about playing a part in this. One of the purposes of the meeting tomorrow in Paris will be to bring together the widest possible coalition of those who want to support it, and I believe, particularly as this has such strong UN backing, that it will be a very wide coalition indeed”.

I left the chamber with a lot of unanswered questions:

1.What are the objectives of this mission?

2.What are the limits of the UN resolution?

3.What is our exit strategy?

4.How much is it going to cost?

5.Have we the appropriate military capacity?

6.How strong is the international coalition?

I weighed up these points throughout most of Friday night and Saturday morning. I reluctantly came to the conclusion that I had little choice but to support the prime minister and president Sarkozy in the lobbies today. I wrote as much on Uncut yesterday.

Despite David Cameron looking and sounding like Tony Blair, I concluded that the issue with Libya was different to Iraq for the principal reason that the arab world endorsed force being used to uphold the UN resolution. And, importantly, the prime minister was very clear that we would not be committing ground troops to an occupation.

Throughout his statement, the prime minister gave great weight to support from arab league nations.

Yet yesterday afternoon, Amr Moussa, general secretary of the arab league, said

“What happened differs from the no-fly zone objectives. What we want is the protection of civilians. Protection, not shelling more civilians”.

Amr Moussa has since clarified his comments, saying he still supports the UN resolution and will continue to work to protect civilians. But his words hardly instill confidence that this mission has the unequivocal backing of the arab states.

In his statement, the prime minister said:

“It has been remarkable how arab leaders have come forward and condemned the actions of Gaddafi’s government. In recent days, I have spoken with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. A number of Arab nations have made it clear that they are willing to participate in enforcing the resolution”.

This morning, it was announced that Qatar has provided the use of four aircraft and the UAE has lent support in an as yet undisclosed way. So far we have not heard from Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

It is clear that support from the arab league was critical in convincing other nations to back a no-fly zone. It also helped me form a judgement. Yet their support is at best tepid.

The UN resolution did not receive the support of Germany. This concerned me.

Yesterday, Russia called on Britain, France and the United States to stop air strikes against what it said were non-military targets in Libya, saying the attacks had caused civilian casualties.

“In that respect we call on countries involved to stop the non-selective use of force”, foreign ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, said in a statement.

Mr Putin had previously said that he thought the UN resolution was “flawed”. Mr Luashevich said:

“We believe a mandate given by the UN security council resolution – a controversial move in itself – should not be used to achieve goals outside its provisions which only see measures necessary to protect civilian population”.

These are strong words. They are all the more significant when you see the half-hearted support given to the action by the US secretary of defence, Robert Gates, yesterday:

“And then we expected in a matter of days to be able to turn over the primary responsibility to others. We will continue to support the coalition. We will be a member of the coalition. We will have a military role in the coalition, but we will not have the pre-eminent role”.

It is clear to me that the USA is lukewarm on this action. I can understand why. We are in our twelfth year of a no-fly zone over Iraq.

This could be a prolonged conflict. No one knows how long it might take, despite the widely reported views of former general Mike Jackson in the News of the World. The article begins:

“MURDEROUS Colonel Gaddafi will be ‘neutralised’ within two days in a series of lightning attacks, Britain’s former top soldier predicted last night”.

If the conflict is prolonged, then it is clear that the UK and France will be expected to take a much greater burden than our allies in the US. I don’t think people have fully appreciated this risk.

I see from today’s Daily Telegraph that William Hague and George Osborne have refused to rule out the use of ground troops. The UN resolution only talks about there not being a “foreign occupation”.

The truth is that if Gaddafi is not removed quickly; if a new administration is not formed swiftly; if Libya ends up in civil war, then we will have to take responsibility for keeping the peace. And that will require ground troops. And the Americans will not shoulder the load. I don’t think that this has been fully understood by Parliament.

And then there is the issue of regime change. Liam Fox seemed to say that he would consider sanctioning the killing of Gaddafi as part of our military objectives. William Hague backed this position by saying

“The things that are allowed depend on how people behave. It depends on the circumstances”.

Yet consider the following journalistic exchange with Robert Gates:

Mr. secretary, can I ask, your British counterpart in London today has said that he thinks the operation should include the possibility of the dropping of a bomb on Mr. Gaddafi himself in order to make sure that the regime is overturned. Would you support that?

Secretary Gates: Well, I think that it’s important that we operate within the mandate of the U.N. security council resolution. This is a very diverse coalition and the one thing that there is common agreement on are the terms set forth in the security council resolution. If we start adding additional objectives, then I think we create a problem in that respect. I also think that it is unwise to set as specific goals things that you may or may not be able to achieve”.

“I’ve been clear”, said the PM in today’s debate. “Libya needs to get rid of Gaddafi” (written from memory).

Yet General Sir David Richards, the chief of the defence staff, was asked about targetting Gaddafi earlier in the day. He replied:

“Absolutely not. It is not allowed under the UN resolution and it is not something I want to discuss any further”.

And then, during the PM’s contribution in the House, James Kirkup of the Daily Telegraph published the following:

“Downing Street ‘sources’ are now telling journalists that the general is, simply, wrong. They add that David Cameron himself will give the final word on the matter in the House of Commons shortly. Headlines involving words like ‘slapped down’ and ‘humiliation’ cannot be far behind.

This is serious stuff. At a time when Britain’s armed forces are engaged in operations, ministers are in a semi-public row with the country’s senior military officer about one of the fundamental objectives of those operations. Watch this space”.

So, not only is there not agreement between the USA and the UK on a key strategic goal of the campaign, there isn’t agreement between UK government ministers and our own military leaders. This is an intolerable situation. It’s beyond incompetent.

We’ve had three days of conflict. Service personnel are in action. I cannot undermine them by voting against the resolution. The vote tonight was a bounce. Yet I cannot give the prime minister cart blanche to execute an unconvincing military plan. I’ve done it once before and I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.

So I’ve abstained. I would have voted against if our troops were not already in theatre.

I hope that I am wrong. I want this plan to be executed swiftly. I want a peaceful Libya. I am not convinced the prime minister is on top of this operation. Too little is known. The risks are too great. And they’re not risks we need to take.

I was not prepared to vote for military action on a leap of faith. Not again.

Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East.

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22 Responses to “Why I changed my mind and abstained on the Libya vote”

  1. Andreas says:

    So, to sumarise, you changed your mind because of Moussa’s political posturing and Putin’s call for peace and democracy?

    Do a bit more research next time, Tom. Amr Moussa’s words have been rejected across the board by the Arab world – just search for his name on twitter, see just how much credibility he has after that piece of bs – and frankly, assuming Russia’s foreign policy has any goal beyond pissing off the Americans is a bit blind.

    The idea that these aren’t “risks we need to take” is lunacy. Gadaffi was a global mass murderer in the 70s and 80s. Belle nightclub, Panam, Yvonne Fletcher. He returns to power, it’s HIM we’re giving carte blanche to.

    Cameron may talk of legality and morality, but at the end of the day, there is a tactical imperative to remove Gadaffi from power. Doing any less risks the return of the “rabbid dog of the Middle East”.

  2. Julie Eason says:

    Wow. At the end of the day you have to be able to go home comfortable in your own skin Tom. When you’re making decisions of this gravity, that is what it has to come down to. It has to be easier to live with getting something wrong you thought was right, than getting something wrong you thought was wrong.

  3. Michael Bater says:

    This little little jaunt into Libya will ether, at worst cause Gaddafi to go; a power vacuum & civil war, or Gaddafi to stay put the country split then civil war, dragging in the rest of the Middle East & possibly the rest of the world.

    Or; this centuries version of Suez or Vietnam, or if lucky a stalemate, & a another decade long no-fly zone.

    All disastrous outcomes.

    Whatever happens, at the moment it is not what the public want.

    Ps. WE can’t afford public services. How can we afford a war?

  4. doreen ogden says:

    Proud of you ! And Dennis Skinner is right . It’s a lot easier to start a war than end it. This has no way been thought through – where the exit is. As one paper said – Camerons military moment. I hope the people of Libya find their peace.

  5. RealisticMan says:

    When the soldiers com back in BODYBAGS then you wish that you had heeded Tom’s words

  6. Daniel says:

    The only thing you didn’t consider in your assesment Tom was the ongoing slaughter of civilians by Gaddafi and the imminent assault on Benghazi. Unlike Iraq this is not a war started by the west; neither Obama nor Cameron were responsible for its timing. If cracks appear in this hastily assembled coalition, or generals/ministers go off message at some point, don’t be too quick to call imcompetence. The war was started by Gaddafi against peaceful protesters. I respect your stance of course but I worry that none of your arguments refer to the brutal events which led up to this situation. You voted to start a war once Tom, mind you don’t miss the oportunity to end one.

  7. John Handelaar says:

    If only Tom had been this conscientious and nuanced in 2003.

  8. Haro Yousofian says:

    I don’t agree with the attacks! Any argument about the saving of the civilian lives is based on western say so. There is a civil war going on in Libya not peaceful demonstrations. I don’t agree with Gadafi and think he is a mad man but it is not the job of the west to remove him. It is also not surprising that Israel starts air attacks on Gaza while this is going on. Arab League will come to regret its involvement. All the Arab governments are non elected dictatorships. It is about time that the UK MPs to grow some balls and vote properly. I actually agree with comments coming from Russia, China and Germany.

  9. Raoul Morris says:

    It is soul destroying to see how many Labour supporters are going against this action on the basis that they supported the absurd invasion of Iraq. The Iraq war was stupid, not because of how Blair justified it, but because the known facts did not justify it.(and if I knew the facts, anyone could have, read your G Bell!)
    In this case the mandated given by the UN resolution is clear. It is not legal to target Qaddafi explicitly, indeed it would be illegal under US law for the US to do so, but if he is a casualty in the targeting of something else so be it.
    The Arab league was always going to act in this way as they are trying to please two sets of people. The international community who wanted action and their own who might have wanted action but not if carried out by western, (read Christian) powers.
    Any time you start to throw bombs at people you should think twice. Any time politicians are assured about anything, you should think twice. If Generals want it, think twice.
    But you should also be asking yourself why you have the army/navy/airforce in its current form if not for this kind of operation.

  10. Henrik says:

    Interesting to note two facts:

    a. the Secretary General of the Arab League has distanced himself quite considerably from his original response – which he himself noted was based on no information at the time – and it’s quite clear that the big operators in the League are solidly behind the ongoing operation.

    b. The President of Russia has administered a pretty comprehensive putdown of his Prime Minister and has made it clear that the Russian policy is one of both understanding and acquiescing with the ongoing operation.

    Both the Arab League’s Secretary General and the Russian Prime Minister have been using this ongoing crisis to play politics in their respective spheres.

    A further point to note is that the SEAD phase of the operation is now largely over and that transition to NFZ enforcement under non-US command is likely to happen over the next week.

    On the larger issue of whether or not you were right to abstain, that’s a matter for you and your conscience; you’re paid to represent your constituents in Parliament and it’s right that you vote the way you feel is right.

  11. scandalousbill says:

    What is particularly disconcerting is the stated intention, from Cameron to Obama, that Gaddafi should go, combined with actions that in themselves, inhibit, and actually preclude his exit from Libya. The calls for his trial as a war criminal leave no opening for Gaddafi and his cronies to exit, leave very little flexibility for a political solution and fail to seriously consider that he does enjoy a significant measure of popular support, particularly in Tripoli. Of course his repression has been brutal, but the moral high ground of the west is greatly undermined by the blind eye turned to other repressive actions such as in Bahrain and other customers of UK provided arms.

    I cannot see Gaddafi’s removal by any means other than military force and I fear that the vacuum created by an enforced regime change in Libya, coupled with a revolutionary council that to date has only demonstrated regional support will leave a situation worse than the so called nation building that has failed in Iraq and Afghanistan. I fear that the long game prospects for the UK foreign policy in this instance will be that even if we win, we will lose.

  12. Jackson says:

    Pity you didn’t ask such searching questions over Iraq itself, eh Tom…?

  13. pete stapleton says:

    “What we want is the protection of civilians, not more shelling of civilians.”
    Tepid support from Arab League. Disagreement with our own military is beyond incompetence. An unconvincing military plan. Not convinced the PM is on top of the operation. Not prepared to vote for military action on a leap of faith. Not again.

    The above extracts from your post reinforce my own view that this is a dangerous, possibly unwise venture. Our third attack on a Muslim country – it looks so bad. Thank God for an MP who thinks for himself and isn’t caught up in the war fever and hysteria

  14. Jane says:

    I agree with much of what Andreas wrote. Regarding Moussa, I heard a Middle East expert discuss his comment and indeed rubbish it. Apparently, he is the old school in the Arab League and further, is putting his own policial ambitions before the League. The commentator stated that the newspaper in Egypt which is supporting his political ambition is also funded by Gaddafi. From history we have sufficient evidence to show that the body is always in conflict and always displayed backtracking when challenged. It is treated with scorn amongst the wider educated population in some Arab countries.

    Obama is worried about overcommitment. Mr Gates gave a lecture at West Point a liitle while ago where he clearly stated that the US must get out of ground wars which are open ended. He acknowledged threats are growing which need to be met. This was reported in Time magazine which also pointed up that the survival of the Libyan regime would be a blow to the democatic aspirations of millions of young Arabs and a triump for Islamic radicals. the Us feels strongly that a less repressive Middle East is good as it also undermines al Qaeda.

    As to your comment on Russia. I read a paper a few months ago about the growing inclination to align themselves with the emerging economic powers – vis Brazil, China, India etc. The academic research document stated that there has been a lot of consultation over the past years on foreign policy between these countries. Putin is opposed to the West, Medvedec wants to have good relations. We can thank him for the abstention at the security council and for slapping down Putin over his disgraceful remarks.

    The chief of Defence Staff is another important issue that you mentioned. He can of course seek his own legal advice – this was done for Iraq by our military chiefs. Having read the resolution several times, I feel there is enough scope for anything other than an occupying force.

    Nevertheless, I respect your decision. We live in a democracy and it would be wrong not to do so. I respected those who voted against the Iraq war too even though I also supported that conflict. Unlike others, I have never sought to wriggle out from the decision I reached as evidenced in the Chilcott enquiry. It is important that we all feel able to live with our conscience.

  15. stevibaldi says:

    fair play to you for not believing camorons lies, but an abstention is still sitting on the fence. You have at least got the strength of character to explain on your blog, if more MPs did the same us voters might change our attitudes to them, so credit where credit is due.

  16. Sylvia King says:

    I’m very glad that you did not support the government. Of course the world looks at the brutal treatment of the protesters with dismay and an instinctive reaction is to ‘help’. However, how can we all not see that we are very selective about which humanitarian abuses we wish to intervene in and which dictator we want to be friends with? Need I talk about the decades of abuse that the Palestinians have suffered? Which are the ‘good’ brutal dictators that we support in the Middle East? What about the horrors of Darfur and how long did we watch brutal conflicts in other parts of Africa. The hypocrisy is disgraceful. The Libyan people will not be thanking their ‘rescuers’ in years to come because the price will be too high. Let us not forget Mussolini’s meddling in Libya and the results for the region for many decades.

  17. Lisa Pedri says:

    While Gaddafi is totally nuts and violent, the west is not in Libya because of any moral ground. The blood of Libyan people is cheap. However, once Libyan rebels started to revolt against this cruel dictator, it became a reason to stop. If you think about it, Libyan people did not become suddenly humans enough to deserve protection. All his deadly weapons are made in England, Germany and US beside other western nations.

  18. Jim Monaghan says:

    There is a lot of talk going on about how this differs from Iraq in 2003, however I dont we think we are comparing like for like. The closer comparison is Iraq in 1991 when there was a UN resolution with broad support to protect the civilians of Kuwait. This was accompanied by a no-fly zone and clear statements that regime change was not part of the mandate.

    That no-fly zone never ended and regime change eventually became the end game. In the 12 years between the wars our no-fly zone resulted in almost 700 bombing raids targeting anything that even resembled a military build up. By the time we invaded, the Iraq defences amounted to not much more bullets and uniforms.

    I was also reminded of Iraq when Cameron made reference to “weapons of mass destruction” in an answer to a question about mustard gas.

    I dont think it will take us as long in Libya, but if this UN action and/or the rebels dont depose Gaddafi, then I think we will see further resolutions that will allow us to do the job.

  19. Tim Sewell says:

    “All his deadly weapons are made in England, Germany and US beside other western nations.”

    Actually, Lisa, Libya’s arms suppliers have mainly been Russia and China.

  20. Carl says:

    Whilst I support the protection of Libyan citizens from what is obviously a dangerously unbalanced man, I do not believe we should be involved this time. We are slashing budgets left right and centre, and yet can somehow afford to fire quarter of a million pound a time smart bombs. Also there are many many more desspots,such as Robert Mugabe, who has murdered and tortured his own people, and yet we do nothing, so it seems to me like we have yet again just gone in to protect our oil driven existence.
    Call me cynical too, but David Cameron stands to gain a lot of popularity from this, and it takes the public mind from the other important issue, the fact that Cameron and Andrew Lansley seem hell bent on destroying the NHS for profit, and that George Osbourne is not even fit to even be in charge of petty cash in a small office, so certainly not the nations purse strings. We should have left our NATO allies to fight this one, I admire Germany’s stance of staying out of it. I also admire you for not voting outright yest either due to your feelings of unease.

  21. Akim Kamangira says:

    I think abstaining is voting by proxy supporting whatever happens. The same can be said of Russia, German etc who abstained so that they can shout afterwards. If you agree you vote for and if you do not, you vote against. Abstaining means you do not want anything to do with it,leaving others to make decisions. Then blame them when things go wrong and praise them when things go well. I am afraid I expect our MP to participate and make a difference.

    As for the Arab League secy gen, it is inconceivable that his League asked for the No- fly zone and continued to press for it despite Gates clearly stating that (‘loose talk’ on) no- fly zone could only be provided if what is happening now takes place, BOMBARDMENT.

    Overall, the PM was so passionate about the no- fly zone and has taken the credit for championing it, therfore he should take the lead all the way with Sarkozy. The Americans were clear from the beginning, they did not want this.

    But the thought of Gaddhafi’s actions makes me sick in the stomach. Indeed doing nothing was not an option, but those who asked for the no-fly zone have to participate and enforce it because they own it now that it was given.

  22. Galen10 says:

    @ Carl (and others of like mind)

    “Whilst I support the protection of Libyan citizens from what is obviously a dangerously unbalanced man, I do not believe we should be involved this time.”

    Ah right.. so the correct default response is to expect some deus ex machina to stop Gaddafi…and when that doesn’t happen, what then? We sit back and let him butcher more civilians?

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