We badly screwed up in Libya, and it’s time to admit that

9:47 am - February 17th 2015

by Sunny Hundal    

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There are usually two kinds of people who like to commentate on foreign policy matters: those who oppose any military ‘intervention’ in the affairs of other countries; and those who have no problems advocating military intervention and will always defend such action.

I happen to be in a third, less media-friendly category of people who thinks military intervention in the affairs of other countries is a possible last resort providing:
– it is carefully judged and isn’t rushed into
– has a clear purpose and exit plan
– the public is adequately explained why such action is necessary and support it in significant numbers
– the plan isn’t to leave the country in a worse state than it was

I accept that this is too nuanced for many people, especially on Twitter… but ¯\_(?)_/¯

Anyway. I also believe it really helps foreign policy debates if politicians admitted when they fucked up. I’m actually still astounded that Tony Blair – and Nick Cohen, by the way – aren’t embarrassed to continue opining on foreign policy affairs and defending the invasion of Iraq. Living in a bubble makes you oblivious, clearly.

Like Iraq, we fucked up in Libya. We should say this so we can learn from it.

I mean, here we have Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff who was then appointed by Cameron as the UK envoy, saying: “Libya could, if it goes down this spiral, end up as a failed state.

WTAF? There is no mention whatsoever of the UK’s hand in deposing Gaddafi (which I supported at the time), and yet doing nothing whatsoever to ensure a transition to democracy. We have screwed up and yet we’re pretending it’s the Libyan people’s fault their country has collapsed into violence. It beggars belief.

This has now become a pattern: we get involved in foreign conflicts and then we absolve ourselves of responsibility if the country collapses without proper institutions being put in place. Libya is in trouble because of us. We should have helped put institutions in place but we were too busy leaving to declare victory.

Aside from the lives lost in Libya, these kind of screw-ups also dampen public enthusiasm for genuinely necessary interventions in places like Syria*. Our own short-sightedness in foreign affairs is costing lives – of others and eventually ours, through blowback.

* PS – I don’t accept Cameron passed the above tests when rushing into Syria over chemical weapons, which is I supported Miliband’s brakes on the process.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Africa ,Blog ,Foreign affairs ,Middle East ,Terrorism

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Reader comments

This is pretty poorly written, and you are missing a word in the post script

This is a good piece, Sunny (although I have to admit, every time we do one of these and it is a fucking disaster, I shift more from camp 3 to camp 1…)

Yes we screwed up. But as we were never going to be on the ground, who really knew what the outcome would be?
Could the inter-clan warfare not have been predicted?
If so, then we shouldn’t have got involved in the first place.

4. Churm Rincewind

No, we didn’t screw up. The Libyan revolution was spontaneous, and the UK had to decide which side to support.

We could of course have thrown our weight behind Gaddafi, and against the insurgents. On an entirely pragmatic basis it could be argued that Gaddafi’s brutal rule was the only thing holding the country together and that, on balance, the UK should have supported his regime. Similarly it might be argued that Assad may be the best – indeed the only – way of avoiding Syria splintering into chaos, and deserves our wholehearted support for that overriding reason.

The problem is that stability in Iraq, Syria, and Libya was achieved by means of brutal repression and horrifying cruelty, which I guess would not normally gain support on this blog.

Sunny – can you give a couple of examples of military interventions which pass your test? Preferably from last 25 years or so. I’m not exactly clear on what a successful military intervention looks like under your criteria. Thanks.

I was against intervening in Libya, because while Gaddafi was undoubtedly committing crimes against his own civilians – which involved using the Libyan navy to shell a Libyan city – I was concerned that it would be impossible to control the consequences and there was a chance that what followed Gaddafi might be as bad or worse.

Nevertheless, I accepted there was a possible case for airstrikes to stop Gaddafi destroying Benghazi, which he had plainly spelt out his intention to do. Let us not forget also that this is a man who said he would take Libya down with him in a storm of fire.

I still didn’t think intervention worth it, for the reasons given. I also noted at the time that whether the west intervened or not, it would get blamed for whatever followed. That was about the only reasonable certainty.

One should not forget that Libya was already having a full-on civil war when NATO got involved. It wasn’t, as many have liked to ‘remember’ since then, tipped into a civil war by NATO intervention, it had been going on for months. The problem was that while there was a case for stopping Gaddafi’s army slaughter civilians, in the event it just cleared the path for his enemies to do something similar. Whether or not his enemies have done worse than Gaddafi was on course to do, I don’t think any of us can honestly say with reasonable certainty. So perhaps it didn’t really make things worse. Nevertheless, I think we need a stronger reason to get involved on any one side in a dispute than ‘It probably won’t make things any worse’. There was, as you say, not even a clear goal for what was wanted or even what was possible.

I don’t see how NATO could have operated a plan to take care of post Gaddafi Libya. It was always odds on that the people we were clearing the way for would turn on everyone else afterwards. There wasn’t even a side we could truthfully say, this is the side we would really like to win, because they are committed to very similar values and interests to us. There wasn’t one.

I’m afraid it was a situation where no one was going to get to be ‘right’. Had there been no intervention, there would still have been horrors against civilians.

One lesson is, perhaps, that we need to have much more limited-but-realisable goals in any future interventions. I think the support of the Kurds currently is right, but we have to accept that even bringing ISIS down or under control is not going to solve the problems of Syria and Iraq in whole.

But while I opposed military intervention in Libya, and while Libya is of course currently a mess, I don’t think it is quite accurate to say that it is so mostly or even in large part because of us. It’s that way because of a civil war that we did not cause and which was always likely to have a fairly horrible outcome. If we want to help Libya now, that will take careful thought rather than good but vague intentions.

I am sorry that the above post was rather long-winded. It might have been as well to type: “F*&^%d if I know.”

Now people can see why these countries were ruled with an iron fist. Take that away and as witnessed and you have : Total Chaos.

The Arab Spring in Egypt turned into The Long, Dark Winter for the entire region because they all wanted some of that and the rest of the world encouraged it blindly without to much thought causing an irreversible plunge into the dark ages.

Ask yourselves : Why would and why did those dead dictators rule with such an iron fist ?

Now look at the end result of removing those dictators !

To remove Assad would create a worse situation leading to even more diabolical madness. In fact, I can understand why Assad would want to use chemical weapons to remove such evil from the face of this earth.

9. junglecitizen

“No, we didn’t screw up. The Libyan revolution was spontaneous, and the UK had to decide which side to support.”

And that is a very important point. To listen to the “anti-imperialists” talk, you’d think no war would ever happen anywhere on Earth, ever, without the US or EU creating it somehow.

When Gaddafi’s forces were marching on the rebels in Benghazi, we faced a choice, a choice a lot of people sought to avoid by wishful thinking – either imagining that the CIA had made the choice already by creating the war from wholecloth, or that Gaddafi would have put down the rebellion with minimum fuss and hardly killed anyone.

I’d have a lot more respect for the “Stop the War” crowd if they’d wouldn’t keep pretending that there are no hard choices to make, that the west could create world peace just by not provoking.

It’s quite possible that if there had been no intervention Libya would look even worse now. It’s quite possible that Gaddafi would have maintained control, but only by killing enormous numbers of people, ‘making an example’ of Benghazi, to maintain deterrence against dissent.

10. junglecitizen

Unliked: “Ask yourselves : Why would and why did those dead dictators rule with such an iron fist ?”
Most of Europe once had dictators who ruled us with an iron fist, in some countries very recently. Generally we’re happy to assume, looking back, that they did this because it benefited them and they could do it, not because they were lovely guys who understood their backward populations just couldn’t cope with democracy.

JungleCitizen @ 8

Ok JungleCitizen

Let them in that entire region and beyond get on with it and spread there version of Islam !

You can’t compare Europes past dictators to events that are unfolding in the Middle East due to the removal of the likes of Saddam or Gaddafi because Europe learned from their past but the Middle East and beyond has now become Hell on earth, spreading further and further with no end in sight.

I was no fan of Gaddafi but he had changed to a degree and stopped his nuclear ambitions, made ties with Europe, co-operated with European immigration services to control the mass movement of people and associated matters and shared so called intelligence with the United Kingdom and others. However, later others did not share Gaddafi’s economic ideas for Libya and other African nations to come together economically to make their economies stronger. Also others feared that Gaddafi was going to interfere with oil prices.

The reality that others prefer to ignore is that Gaddafi knew his country inside out and therefore needed to rule with an iron fist to keep the country relatively stable.

Look at Libya under Gaddafi and now take a closer look at what is unraveling.

Better The Devil You Know Than You One You Don’t. That has turned out to also be the case of Iraq and now becoming obvious in Syria.

To correct my last paragraph @ 10 :

Better The Devil You Know, Than The One You Don’t !

Just read this article that was posted on the BBC tonight :


14. flyingrodent

You’re broadly right here Sunny and it’s very welcome to see this kind of thing said – almost everybody else who vocally backed bombing Libya and supporting the rebels has pointedly ignored the outcome, or merely made the odd bitchy remark about it.

On the other hand, I do have to point out that you’re being very kind to yourself about your thinking before the war. As you’ll see on this thread


…your basic stance was “If the Libyan rebels want it, let’s do it”, and you had little time for anyone who asked whether it was “carefully judged” or “not rushed into”.

You’ll notice that your response to people voicing doubts about planning, practicality and utility of the war was effectively

I’m happy for people to make valid points, but if the only response is IRAQ IRAQ IRAQ!!! – then frankly one should join Stop the War coalition and hang out with Lyndsey German. That is about the extent of your political nous.

I’m not saying Dqsquared, FR, you’re doing this. But you’re mighty close to it.

(I considered whether I was being a dick by reminding you of this, and came to the conclusion that I probably am. But still).

IMHO, you CAN compare Europe’s past dictators to any dictators anywhere in the world. Grewing up in a communist country gave me and my family some experiences. I do not see too much difference among those whose sole aim is to grab power and hold it for good. They/you can put any icing on it, but finally it is about oppressing people and taking their freedom away. These guys usually have an abnormal way of thinking about reality, unstable mind, has tons of weaknesses to cover and present pervert behaviour as well. Familiar? You can tell this about some terrorist too, not to mention some politicians in the so-called democratic world. When you deal with dictators like Gaddafi was and make business with them, well, shaking hands with such persons would dirt you as well.

We live in stable countries in an absolutely not relative welfare but we are quite shy to admit that we let our politicians to cause suffering in other countries if in return we get something from there and able to carry on with our comfortable life (energy, holding back refugees, leaving our leading role in economy untouched etc.)

Human rights, solidarity, equality sound great but is that a luxury for people in Lybia, Syria or Egypt? People in the West have lost memories about life when freedom and rights were not granted for everyone and now it seems they struggle to understand that people are willing to give their life even just for freedom. They also know that life can be more miserable after a fallen dictaorship but still.
When Stalin died many people were terrified and cried by heart. They strongly believed that he was a devil but feared that the next ruler could be even worse. If this fear can lead you in life then it is your choice, I do not judge you for that but I think it is more acceptable from people who are destitute and oppressed. Otherwise you just deal with the devil itself and make no excuses, please, you became a tenant in the Hell too.

BJ @ 13

I respect your reply in full but sadly I see our governments and others doing business with the likes of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and others then taking the stick to others totally destabilizing vast swathes of the Middle East with no end in sight.

We are now witnessing Barbaric acts that have never been seen since the days of Genghis Khan.

What is Freedom really all about ? We the people of the United Kingdom never had a choice or voice and never will. We can vote but what difference that that make ? No one listens ! When a new government is put in place they just cover their ears and get on with whatever they want. They bend over to touch their toes for our votes then once in power we are irrelevant. Yes, we have the so called freedom of speech and a vote but what is that worth when they do not listen ? Whenever something in Parliament is being debated they are always doing backroom deals or discrete threats between themselves. Most of the time politicians don’t have the full facts or knowledge about what they are debating. The only upside at the moment is that carnage has not yet come to our streets but sadly I believe that is only a matter of time.

Sadly our country of free speech and a vote has allowed our government/governments to become complicit/involved in wars/crisis that have totally destabilized a number of countries leading to genocide that has become uncontrollable. Also I believe that it is a matter of time before those that are brain washed or have a grudge will inflict great harm to the United Kingdom.

Yes, WE BADLY SCREWED UP, not only in Libya but also across that entire region and beyond.

17. junglecitizen


“Let them in that entire region and beyond get on with it and spread there version of Islam!”

Violent extremist organisations like ISIS/Daesh are extremely unpopular in most of the Middle East. They’re not the inevitable result of an absence of dictators, more the result of post-war chaos.

Personally my belief is that the wrong lessons have been learned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Ground occupation of these nations has been utterly disastrous; but instead of questioning why we invaded those nations and what the aims were in the first place, how efforts to establish order afterwards went so hideously wrong, it’s turned into a general hostility to the use of ground troops.

That wouldn’t be so bad, perhaps, if as a result of avoiding using ground troops we simply stopped trying to change governments and intervene in wars. But we haven’t. We’ve just switched to aerial bombardment, still destroying governments but leaving a chaotic mess on the ground which people like ISIS/Daesh can operate in.

For me the real lesson of all these wars is that you should do it properly, or not at all. Just bombing things or just supplying weapons is a really bad idea.

18. Mike Killingworth

[4] The obvious example of an intervention which “passes the test” is the Falklands War. It even restored democracy to Argentina!

All the nation-states whose boundaries are the outcome of colonialism or post-colonialism are, at least potentially, failed states. Statehood is a cultural phenomenon – nut-shelled as patriotism – and unless that sentiment at least matches, and preferably outweighs any religious or tribal sentiment statehood cannot prosper.

A good example is Scotland in the early medieval period, where the Kings claimed to rule the whole country but had more sense than to travel much further north than Perth – in the Highlands and Islands people obeyed clan leaders, not the King.

19. Richard Horrocks

A Warning to the Conservative Government and all UK Politicians

It is 2015, and we have the resources, the means, and the collective will for all UK residents to live in material security. No-one need struggle to survive. That so many do, whilst so few live in material excess, is unacceptable, and will no longer be accepted. Humanity has advanced so far, no longer do we need to work and struggle just to eat, to be sheltered, to be clothed, to be healthy, to be educated. Everything that we need we can have.

This is not only possible… this is not only what we all want… but it is the morally right thing to do. If you believe otherwise then, please, say so. I dare you. If you believe that it is right that some of our children should go hungry… if you believe that it is right that some of our elderly should freeze to death… if you believe that it is right that some of our brothers and sisters should sleep in the streets… If these are the things that you believe – and your actions suggest you do – then say so. Speak up. I dare you. But you will not. Because what you sit proud with in private you would never dare stand for in public. You are cowards.

Things are about to change. You are going to be hearing a lot of new ideas, a lot of new questions, and a lot of new demands. Your response is your choice. You can either begin to do your job and serve the best interests of the UK people, and, in particular, our most vulnerable, or you can continue to serve your own vested interests, in which case we will make you redundant. It is your choice.

Our first of many demands is this: End your austerity programs.

Your austerity programs are unnecessary, they are harmful, and, therefore, they are immoral. As such, we are morally obliged to take the strongest, most direct and decisive peaceful action necessary to force you to abandon them.

You have until April 1st to declare their end.

If you do not – and you won’t, of course – then we will begin to take action. And what beautiful action it will be. We will out-manoeuvre you. We will out-think you. We will out-heart you. We will design and implement creative campaigns of civil disobedience as well as other forms of non-violent resistance. We will attack you from angles that you will never anticipate, with strategies that you will be lost to counter, and with a success deeper and more profound than you will ever comprehend. And we will be relentless. Wave upon wave, crashing down, pulling you apart – not to harm you, but to expose you to yourselves, to bring you to the light, to return you to your humanity, to consign your ignorance to the historical aberration that it is already fated.

Because we love you. We love humanity. And we have had enough.

April 1st marks the beginning of the end.

It ends here.

You will see.

dont agree with much sunny hundal says. but he is 100% spot on in this article.my god,what have we done to the people of libya,i hate and despise isis and terrorists as anybody can see in my comments about the lefist/cage apologists for jihadi(not john) mohammed.but lets face some painfull truths here that cameron and co delude themselves with and are in denial about.whether we like it or not col gaddafi was a good allie in are war against the terrorists,even tony blair hugged him like a brother,now libya is a playground for isis and al qaeda thanks to you cameron you dimwit for ousting gaddafi and ruining and destroying libya,thank god we did not do the same thing to president assad in syria who in fact should be are allie now in this war against isis in iraq and syria.simple as that.

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