Foreign affairs committee says ex-PM was responsible for failures that helped create failed state on the verge of civil war
Patrick Wintour and Jessica Elgot
David Cameron’s intervention in Libya was carried out with no proper intelligence analysis, drifted into an unannounced goal of regime change and shirked its moral responsibility to help reconstruct the country following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, according to a scathing report by the foreign affairs select committee.
The failures led to the country becoming a failed a state on the verge of all-out civil war, the report adds.
The report, the product of a parliamentary equivalent of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, closely echoes the criticisms widely made of Tony Blair’s intervention in Iraq, and may yet come to be as damaging to Cameron’s foreign policy legacy.
It concurs with Barack Obama’s assessment that the intervention was “a shitshow”, and repeats the US president’s claim that France and Britain lost interest in Libya after Gaddafi was overthrown. The findings are also likely to be seized on by Donald Trump, who has tried to undermine Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy credentials by repeatedly condemning her handling of the Libyan intervention in 2011, when she was US secretary of state.
David Cameron addresses a crowd in Benghazi, Libya. Photograph: Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters
Libya is currently mired in political and economic chaos with competing factions fighting for control of the key oil terminals and no nationwide support for the UN-recognised government based in Tripoli. Tens of thousands of refugees are entering Libya with impunity from the rest of Africa and sailing to Europe on perilous journeys.
Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, who chairs the select committee, said the original aim of the military intervention to protect Benghazi was achieved within 24 hours.
“There is a debate about whether that intervention was necessary and on what basis it was taken, but having been achieved, the whole business then elided into regime change and then we had no proper appreciation of what was going to happen in the event of regime change, no proper understanding of Libya, and no proper plan for the consequences,” he said.
Blunt criticised the British government for not taking advantage of connections with Saif Gaddafi, who had studied at LSE, and Tony Blair’s relationship with Muammar Gaddafi. “No one then said ‘let’s run this, let’s keep this line of communication open’,” said Blunt.
“If there is a possibility of a political strategy to have avoided what turned out to be a calamity, would it have been a sensible idea to have at least tried it?”
Armed men near Benghazi port in January 2015. Photograph: Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters
Cameron, who stood down as an MP on Monday, has refused to give evidence to the select committee. In one of his few reflections on his major military intervention, he blamed the Libyan people for failing to take their chance of democracy.
The committee, which has a majority of Conservative members, did not have Chilcot-style access to internal papers, but took voluminous evidence from senior ministers at the time, and other key players such as Blair, the chief of the defence staff, Lord Richards, and leading diplomats.
The result of the French, British and US intervention, the report finds, “was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of Isil [Islamic State] in north Africa”.
It adds: “Through his decision-making in the national security council, former prime minister David Cameron was ultimately responsible for the failure to develop a coherent Libya strategy.”
In his evidence, Richards made clear he opposed the politicians’ decision to switch the strategic goal of the intervention from the protection of the people of Benghazi, threatened by Gaddafi, to regime change. The report finds: “If the primary object of the coalition intervention was the urgent need to protect civilians in Benghazi, then this objective was achieved in March 2011 in less than 24 hours.
“This meant that a limited intervention to protect civilians drifted into an opportunist policy of regime change by military means.”
The report says in future military and intelligence officials should be given a formal right to register dissent at meetings of the national security council, and so require formal instruction to act by their political leaders.
The then defence secretary, Liam Fox, told the committee that the strategic goals never changed, that it was legitimate to target Libyan command and control headquarters, and that it was bad luck if Gaddafi was inside one of them.
Currently international trade secretary, Fox’s claim is in effect rejected.
Cameron looks out over Tripoli during a visit to Libya in 2013. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA
The report cites Obama’s disappointment that the UK and France did not exercise leadership on stabilisation and reconstruction. In an interview with the Atlantic published in March this year, Obama said: “I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up.”
He added that Cameron stopped paying attention and became “distracted by a range of other things”. The report says it is difficult to disagree with Obama’s assessment, given in the interview, that the war was “a shitshow”.
Sir Alan Duncan, a serving Foreign Office minister, is quoted as describing the plans for postwar planning as fanciful rot and an unrealistic desktop exercise. He adds that the postwar planners did not know what was happening on the ground.
The committee concurs, saying: “The possibility that militant extremist groups would attempt to benefit from the rebellion should not have been the preserve of hindsight. Libyan connections with transnational militant extremist groups were known before 2011, because many Libyans had participated in the Iraq insurgency and in Afghanistan with al-Qaida.”
The report says: “We have seen no evidence that the UK government carried out a proper analysis of the nature of the rebellion in Libya. It may be that the UK government was unable to analyse the nature of the rebellion in Libya due to incomplete intelligence and insufficient institutional insight, and that it was caught up in events as they developed.
“It could not verify the actual threat to civilians posed by the Gaddafi regime; it selectively took elements of Muammar Gaddafi’s rhetoric at face value; and it failed to identify the militant Islamist extremist element in the rebellion. UK strategy was founded on erroneous assumptions and an incomplete understanding of the evidence.”
It finds the UK’s plans for reconstruction were founded on the same incomplete and inaccurate intelligence that informed the initial military intervention. It says political engagement might instead “have delivered civilian protection, regime change and reform at lesser cost to the UK and to Libya. If political engagement had been unsuccessful, the UK and its coalition allies would not have lost anything”.
People gather next to the rubble of buildings in Tripoli in June 2011. Photograph: Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images
In response to the report, a Foreign Office spokesman said: “The decision to intervene was an international one, called for by the Arab League and authorised by the United Nations security council.
“Gaddafi was unpredictable, and he had the means and motivation to carry out his threats. His actions could not be ignored, and required decisive and collective international action. Throughout the campaign we stayed within the United Nations mandate to protect civilians.
“After four decades of Gaddafi misrule, Libya undoubtedly faces huge challenges. The UK will continue to play a leading role within the international community to support the internationally recognised Libyan government of national accord.
“We have allocated £10 million this year to help the new government to restore stability, rebuild the economy, defeat [Isis] and tackle the criminal gangs that threaten the security of Libyans and exploit illegal migrants. HMS Enterprise and HMS Diamond are both currently deployed to support the EU naval operation to tackle illegal migration, people smuggling and arms trafficking.”
The report cites academics who said the UK “spent just under half as much (48.72%) on rebuild than on intervention”.
The committee say it regrets the failure of the UK government to exploit Blair’s contacts and influence with the Gaddafi regime.
Blair, one of the few British politicians who knew Gaddafi, spoke to the Libyan leader by phone at the start of the west’s bombing campaign, urging the Libyan leader to pull back from Benghazi. The calls were at Blair’s initiative, but Cameron and Clinton were aware of them.
The foreign affairs committee said the failure of the UK government to exploit Tony Blair’s influence with the Gaddafi regime was regrettable. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA
The report urges the Foreign Office to lead an international review into whether the United Nations is the appropriate body to coordinate stabilisation and reconstruction in a post-conflict environment and whether it has the appropriate resources, and if not, to identify alternatives that could be more effective.
It says such a review is a practical and urgent requirement because the UN might be asked to coordinate a similar mission in Syria, Yemen or Iraq in the near future.
It also says UK special forces should only operate to prop up the existing UN-backed Libyan government, and to train a Libyan national army.
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About the authors
Patrick Wintour is diplomatic editor for the Guardian
Jessica Elgot is a political reporter for the Guardian. She was previously the Huffington Post UK’s assistant news editor. She tweets from @jessicaelgot
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