Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron: Gaddafi must go

In a joint op-ed piece, the leaders call for regime change in Libya – but risk alienating public opi

David Cameron, Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy have stated their commitment to regime change in a joint op-ed piece published in the Times (£), the Washington Post and Le Figaro.

It is the first explicit statement from the world leaders that they are seeking regime change in Libya (though it has been hinted at before). Noting the legal constraints on them, the leaders explain their position thus:

Our duty and our mandate under UN Security Council Resolution 1973 is to protect civilians, and we are doing that. It is not to remove Gaddafi by force. But it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Gaddafi in power. The International Criminal Court is rightly investigating the crimes committed against civilians and the grievous violations of international law. It is unthinkable that someone who has tried to massacre his own people can play a part in their future government. The brave citizens of those towns that have held out against forces that have been mercilessly targeting them would face a fearful vengeance if the world accepted such an arrangement. It would be an unconscionable betrayal.

In calling for Muammar al-Gaddafi to "go and go for good", the piece draws a line under previous suggestions of an immediate ceasefire and a negotiated exit for Gaddafi, or a divided Libya.

The first point to make is that Obama's involvement confirms US commitment to the mission. Adopting a cautious approach so far, it has handed control to Nato, and US fighter planes withdrew days in to the mission. The op-ed piece signals that the US is in it for the long haul. The Times reports that the article was initially penned by Cameron and Sarkozy, who sent a copy to Obama out of courtesy. He then asked to have his name added.

Second, it demonstrates frustration with the diplomatic efforts of the international community – and a response to domestic calls in all three countries for an "endgame"; a clear strategy for where the floundering mission is going. Three days of talks in the Gulf state of Qatar have come to nothing. Diplomats are now looking at ways to step up efforts in Libya while staying within the boundaries set by the UN mandate.

The article stresses that "it will be the people of Libya, not the UN, who choose their new constitution, elect their new leaders and write the next chapter in their history". But it is important to remember that, however nuanced the position put forward by the leaders may be, this is not how it will be received by the Muslim world.

I have just returned from a trip to Pakistan, where the received viewpoint among everyone I spoke to was that this was another Iraq, the west using any excuse to interfere in the region and get rid of Gaddafi just as it got rid of Saddam. Friends in Egypt tell me of a similar attitude.

It goes without saying that there are vast and important differences in this conflict: its legality, for a start, and the request by rebels for help. But now that regime change is explicitly on the table, the allies must be very careful about how they proceed if they do not with to diminish public support in the region even further.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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