Leader: David Cameron has led us into another military quagmire

Just 13 MPs voted against military action in Libya. Many more must now wish they had.

On 10 March, shortly before Nato began its military action in Libya, a confident David Cameron declared that there was no future for the country as long as Muammar al-Gaddafi remained within its borders. "To end the suffering of the Libyan people," he wrote in a letter signed with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, "Gaddafi and his clique must leave." Yet, five months on, the Libyan dictator remains in power and the increasingly divided rebels have struggled to advance against his forces. Having demanded that Colonel Gaddafi go into exile, the UK government, in a remarkable volte-face, has now suggested that he could remain in Libya as part of a negotiated settlement.

In a leader published in the NS of 28 March, we warned of the dangers of mission creep in Libya and predicted that the air strikes, rather than leading to the fall of Colonel Gaddafi, would result in a prolonged stalemate. So it has proved. The Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, has finally conceded that the duration of the campaign cannot be predicted and that Colonel Gaddafi will be dislodged only when his closest allies turn against him. The international coalition achieved its primary aim - to prevent a massacre of civilians in Benghazi - but its overall mission has been confused and incoherent.

The UK's decision to recognise the Transitional National Council (TNC), set up by the rebels as to act a government-in-waiting, was intended to demonstrate strength, but the murder of the rebels' battlefield commander Abdel-Fattah Younes just a day later, on 28 June, allegedly by a rebel faction, underscored the flaws in the coalition's approach.

The danger remains that the western allies have become embroiled in a civil war. Many of the Libyan rebel groups owe allegiance to a clan-based society. The response of General Younes's tribe, the Obeidis, to the news of his death - with gunfire and angry threats against the TNC leadership - is an ill portent for a post-Gaddafi Libya. The rebels seem unable to reach agreement with each other, let alone with the regime in Tripoli.
Meanwhile, the cost of the war continues to rise inexorably. On 22 March, George Osborne told MPs that military action in Libya would cost "tens of millions, not hundreds of millions". Official figures show, however, that the government has already spent £260m and research by Defence Analysis suggests that the intervention will cost as much as £1bn if it continues into the autumn. The Chancellor's apparent willingness to fund an expensive war makes a mockery of his claims that "the cupboard is bare".

The west's decision to intervene in Libya but not in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad's thugs are killing hundreds of civilians, renders the questions that we posed when the campaign launched ("Why Libya? Why now?") all the more urgent. William Hague's feeble call for "stronger international pressure all round" was an indication of how the Libya imbroglio has left the UK unable to speak with authority in the Arab world. It is clear that Mr Cameron, an inexperienced prime minister who no doubt hoped for a Falklands-style triumph, has blundered into another military quagmire. Just 13 MPs voted against military action in Libya. Many more must now wish they had.

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Slum rule