The pretence that the RAF is merely "protecting the civilian population" by its bombing of Libya is defied each night as it roams Tripoli with a list of Gaddafi family residences and hideaways to attack.
By Simon Jenkins
18 May 2011
That should bring him to his knees. The international criminal court in The Hague wants to arrest Colonel Gaddafi for "crimes against humanity".
He and his sons allegedly "ordered the use of live ammunition and heavy weapons" against peaceful demonstrators. If these are crimes against humanity, the court is clearly looking for work. It even says the case against Gaddafi is so strong that it is "almost ready for trial", which in Hague terms means years, as opposed to decades.
The British government has a better idea of how to deal with Gaddafi. It wants to kill him. The pretence that the RAF is merely "protecting the civilian population" by its bombing of Libya is defied each night as it roams Tripoli with a list of Gaddafi family residences and hideaways to attack. Having presumably run out of defence installations, it has begun bombing police stations and government offices, including in residential areas. How that is "protecting civilians" is not so much unclear as rubbish.
The giveaway was the demand at the weekend by the chief of the defence staff, General Sir David Richards, to be able to bomb not just anything that moves but anything that stands still. His erstwhile US counterpart, Curtis LeMay, likewise sought in Cuba and Vietnam to bomb the enemy back to the stone age. You just cannot do enough of it. Never overestimate the subtlety of a soldier.
This is the oldest fallacy in the book, that you can "shock and awe" a population into rising up against a dictator and driving him from power. Proclaimed by Bomber Harris against Hitler's Germany, it has mesmerised air forces ever since. The "terror" bombing of civilian areas plays into the hands of the enemy. The RAF apologises afterwards for the inevitable civilian deaths, protesting that it is "always careful". But bombs dropped from on high will miss, even where they think they know "surgically" what they are trying to hit. They merely cohere those whose lives and properties they devastate to their nation and its ruler.
The use of aerial bombardment of civilian targets did not force the Vietnamese to rise up against Ho Chi Minh, the Serbians against Milosevic, or the Iraqis against Saddam Hussein. It is the default mode of air forces everywhere, largely because nothing else has worked. Donald Rumsfeld ruefully admitted of Afghanistan that "there is nothing there left to bomb". For Britain to be spending millions of pounds a night rearranging cement in the Sahara sand must be the daftest use of public money imaginable. George Osborne, who apparently encouraged David Cameron into this venture, had better not tell a hard-pressed social worker he is short of money.
This all started on that glad, confident morning in March when Cameron walked through Tahrir Square in Cairo and caught the intoxicating whiff of street politics. Could this, he wondered, be his 9/11 moment, his path to glory on the world stage? Surely it would be easy, as he said, for his government "to give Libyans a chance to shape their own destiny … by all necessary means"?
The only answer to that question is which minder was on duty that day who failed to bang Cameron's head against the wall? The prime minister had never been there before. He did not know that, at such moments, soldiers lie and diplomats (who were against Libya) tell the truth. He did not know how soon trumpets turn to lament. A UN mandate was obtained with deliberately ambiguous language. After much bickering, Nato cover was supplied. Nonsense pledges were made to get the Arab League aboard: there would be no ground troops, no mission creep, no going for regime change, no promotion of civil war, no assassination of Muammar Gaddafi. It was just about protecting civilians.
All this was mendacity, and advisers must have known it. Worse was that it led to something truly dangerous: operational half-heartedness. The no-fly zone saved Benghazi from what might have been extensive killings, but Britain then slid into every interventionist fallacy. It did not put in ground troops when they were the only way to render the intervention effective. It relied on air power to deliver a politico-military goal. It coated the ground with special forces, but their targeting could not prevent pilots vitiating the objective by killing civilians.
Britain is blatantly sponsoring one side in a tribal civil war, and the mission has passed from civil protection to backing a territorial rebellion. Worst of all, it is not winning.
The addition of "crime against humanity" charges to the bombing campaign clearly ends hope of negotiation and possible exile for the Gaddafis. Britain has done what it said it was going to do – it stopped Gaddafi visiting his wrath on Benghazi. It should then have left, returning only if he did. Cameron must now depend on one of his missiles finding the right grain of sand in the desert. Perhaps he would do better to forget about international law and hire the US Navy Seals to do the job. Either way, he needs it done.
Unless Britain really intends to make Libya another client state like Sierra Leone, it must have an exit strategy that does not depend on Gaddafi's death. The Arab League has vanished. The Americans have all but vanished, along with Russia and China. Even Sarah Palin has deserted the cause, pointing out that America has "no clear and vital interest at stake". For a British government to be exposed to the neocon right of Palin takes some doing. Where are the benighted Liberal Democrats in all this?
Gaddafi and his sons conned the British establishment rotten. Architects, academics, PR men and politicians queued up to take their money in return for western blessings. The only plain dealers were the oil men and bankers, who just took the money. For the same establishment to get high and mighty because Gaddafi is doing what all dictators do looks like guilt born of hypocrisy. It is precisely the behaviour that makes Arabs cynical of western motives. They see the west loves you one minute and bombs you when the loving looks bad.
Cameron has the NHS, economic recovery and the fate of the coalition to address. The Libyan whizzbangs are no longer on the front page, and the glory of victory is waning. He should not be wasting time playing Beau Geste trying to kill the sadist of the Sahara.