A Fate Worse than Deaths

If the invasion of Iraq was exceptional because it tore up the diplomatic rule-book, the UK’s action in Libya is remarkable because it abandons the lessons of war post-Vietnam.

Britain’s humiliation in Suez, the US catastrophe in Vietnam and the Soviet disaster in Afghanistan humbled the victors of World War II. It was not until the 1990-91 Gulf War that the West discovered it could win apparently decisive victories if it followed a code constructed by Vietnam veteran General Colin Powell.

Before armed forces are sent into action, he argued, it must be clear vital national security interests are threatened and there is strong domestic support; there is a clear attainable objective and a plausible exit strategy; and all other non-violent means have been fully exhausted. Then, and only then, overwhelming military force should be used to ensure a swift victory.

There are ethical problems here. This code would not compel a superpower to intervene to stop genocide in a distant land, and is one reason why the West stood by as at least 800,000 Rwandans were murdered in 1994.

Since then, tough-minded diplomats, strategists and political scientists have wrestled over when and how countries have a “responsibility to protect”.

And when it appeared that Libyan government forces and mercenaries were on the verge of committing mass slaughter in Benghazi, the UK and France scrambled to gain United Nations authorisation to enforce a no-fly zone. Historians may conclude this was one of Europe’s finest hours.

The coalition is now in a quandary. Dropping bombs and shooting missiles is clearly a military act and we are involved in some form of war.

This emerging conflict meets few of the tick-boxes of the Powell doctrine and there are frightening echoes of Vietnam.

We learned this week that British military advisers are off to Benghazi. This triggers memories of September 1950 when the United States Military Assistance Advisory Group was established in Saigon; by 1963 there were 16,000 “military advisers” in Vietnam and the stage was set for a deep and tragic conflict.

Nobody is suggesting that the UK is on the verge of making such a commitment to Libya but it is clear mass protests and regional insurgencies have spiralled into a state of civil war and there is no doubt which side we are on.

It would be embarrassing and expensive if a hastily-constructed ceasefire leaves a chastened Gaddafi in control of a swathe of Libya while our air force protects Kurdish-style democratic enclaves. But such a peace would not be a worse fate than the deaths on every side which unbridled war would bring.

A Thursday column

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