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.