Libya blowback threatens fragile Tory government

Libya blowback threatens fragile Tory government

6 min read
28 Aug, 2017
Comment: The fallout from the 2011 invasion has been disastrous, and Libya could now be emerging as a decisive factor in UK domestic politics, writes Tom Charles.
Johnson visited Tripoli to pledge £9 million to help Libya combat terrorism and people trafficking[AFP]
UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has visited Libya in an attempt to shore up the country's defences against migration and terrorism. But the fallout from the 2011 invasion has a life of its own, and has the potential to damage the UK and its government in the upcoming parliament. Libya is becoming a symbol of a failed foreign policy.

The collapse of Libya was initiated by the UK-French led NATO invasion, referred to in London as an "intervention" on the basis of erroneous claims that a massacre in the city of Benghazi was imminent.

Since then, Libya has ceased to function as an effective state, with organised criminals wielding increasing power and the country haemorrhaging people from the African continent in pursuit of a better life in Europe.

The collapse of authority in Libya has also created fertile ground for terrorists to operate, with devastating consequences, including the 22 May suicide bombing at Manchester Arena.

Lessons of history

Foreign policy success is no guarantee of domestic electoral success, but can help. Despite leading the wartime coalition government that helped prevent the annexation of Britain by the Nazis, Winston Churchill was defeated by a Labour landslide in the 1945 general election.

In 1956, Sir Anthony Eden was prime minister as Britain invaded Egypt to try to stem the growing power of secular Arab nationalism. The invasion failed on its own terms, with the United States withholding support, and within a few months Eden was gone, his reputation in tatters.

Margaret Thatcher fared better: Benefiting from significant American backing, her 1982 war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands was deemed a success and boosted her popularity sufficiently for the Conservatives to win the 1983 general election.

The Tories' Libyan adventurism may come back to haunt them

Despite the alliance with the United States, the UK invasions of Iraq, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, destroyed the credibility of Tony Blair, who now spends his days collaborating with some of the planet's worst human rights abusers, on the run from those who want to see him tried in the international criminal court for war crimes.

Prime Minister May

Libya could now be emerging as a decisive factor in UK domestic politics. Prime Minister Theresa May has already abjectly failed to win a general election, widely thought to have been a cakewalk for the Tories. Her opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, represents the anti-war movement and a radically different school of thought on the UK's role in the Middle East.

The UK's clinging to imperialist pretentions has helped unleash terrorist violence in European cities characterised by a viciousness not previously witnessed

May was Home Secretary in the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition cabinet that decided to invade Libya in 2011. Barack Obama has since criticised Prime Minister David Cameron for allowing Libya post-Gaddafi to become a "shitshow".

A 2016 report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee stated that the UK had been taken to war in Libya on "erroneous assumptions", notably that "the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence".

The report confirms that the invasion "led to the rise of Islamic State in North Africa". But what was not reported by the Select Committee was what has come to light since the terrorist atrocity in Manchester: The UK's spy agency, MI5, maintained Libyan 'terrorist assets' in that very city.

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) was nurtured by the UK over two decades, as it sought the establishment of a 'hardline Islamic state'. As Home Secretary, Theresa May enabled LIFG members to travel unhindered to Libya to help topple the Gaddafi regime, and then on to Syria.

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Despite warnings from the FBI early in 2017 that Salman Abedi, the alleged Manchester Arena terrorist, was seeking a target in the UK, he was allowed to travel back to Britain just two days before the attack at the concert venue. 

Some of the Manchester-based terrorist group, known to the authorities as the "Manchester boys" were under Home Office control orders until they suddenly became useful to the government when it decided it wanted to oust Gaddafi in 2011. Counter-terrorist police at Heathrow airport were ordered to allow the terrorists to travel.

A fluid situation in Libya...

With the pushback against IS' command of significant territory in Syria and Iraq, the group has changed tactics, and is now telling those inspired by its message to fight against the 'non-believers' at home in Europe.

Most recently, an attempted attack at Buckingham Palace by a man wielding a four-foot sword was thwarted. Perhaps a successful attack at the heart of the British establishment would result in some serious soul-searching over the country's involvement and motivations in the Middle East.

Certainly, the attacks on civilians in Manchester and London have not led to a tangible change

Certainly, the attacks on civilians in Manchester and London have not led to a tangible change. The UK's clinging to imperialist pretentions has helped unleash terrorist violence in European cities characterised by a viciousness not previously witnessed.

With the situation in Libya extremely fluid, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visited Tripoli to pledge £9 million to help Libya combat terrorism and people trafficking. But large parts of Libya remain ungoverned and Johnson's encouragement of the various sides in the civil conflict to get behind an upcoming United Nations plan for unity is likely to go unheeded.

and in the UK

The parliamentary scene in the UK is also fluid, with the Conservatives' minority government propped up only by the much-loathed Democratic Unionist Party. There is a sense that the Conservatives represent a tired, outmoded world view that relies on fear for its strength. In contrast, Labour has the largest membership of any political party in Europe, a vehicle for young people to create the kind of society they want to be a part of.

There is a sense that the Conservatives represent a tired, outmoded world view that relies on fear for its strength

Foreign policy plays a key role in this dynamic. Corbyn was one of only 15 MPs to oppose the invasion of Libya, and in an article written ahead of the vote in parliament he predicted a high death toll and Libya becoming a fragmented country. His record of being consistently proved right on Middle East policy is one of the pillars of Cobyn's popular credibility.

Corbyn represents opposition to a contradictory UK policy towards Libya: Using taxpayer's money to try to stabilise the country, after spending decades apparently maintaining terrorist 'assets' to destabilise the fragile state.

Perhaps the Conservatives will avoid too much scrutiny of their foreign policy failings, as the UK counts down to Brexit. But as European cities adapt to the reality of a renewed terrorist threat, the Tories' Libyan adventurism may come back to haunt them and see them finally lose their grip on power.

Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies. 

Follow him on Twitter: @tomhcharles


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.