On 7 March 2011, at a special meeting held in the ancient British city of Derby, differences in the coalition cabinet burst into open argument.
The issue at hand was whether to assist in a new Western operation to remove Muammar Qaddafi as leader of Libya.
Kenneth Clarke, a more liberal Tory grandee, was distinctly opposed to backing any intervention and made these views known forcefully. He was joined by Defence Secretary Liam Fox. Fox’s stance was surprising. This was only a few months short of his near-traitorous arrangements with arms industry lobbyists and secret alliances with Israel and the United States were revealed. Fox wanted to watch and wait on the deteriorating situations in Bahrain and Syria. He was worried that too many British military resources would be tied up in tackling Qaddafi that might later be needed elsewhere.
Leading the pack for intervention were two figures; Michael Gove, the neoconservative education secretary, and George Osborne, the equally neoconservative chancellor. As ever, Cameron sat in the middle and listened to whoever argued most fervently. The man has very few views of his own. The neoconservatives, who are excellent at winning arguments and rubbish at implementing their results, were those who argued the most forcefully.
As with most neoconservatives, Gove and Osborne had barely travelled outside Europe, had zero military experience and no intelligence experience.
That Gove, Cameron and Osborne were also close personal friends who had frequently holidayed together in Italy and the south of France perhaps also influenced the impressionable new prime minister.
Also on board with the pro-intervention effort was Edward Llewelyn, Cameron’s fellow Etonian chief of staff. A baron, he had enjoyed a gilded career straight out of university. He had eventually become aide to Paddy Ashdown while he was High Representative for Bosnia & Herzegovnia.
The wisened British generals giving their views on the Libya crisis were unimpressed by this cabal of youthful warmongers.
They nicknamed them the “40-something generation” and said they were “20 years out of date when it comes to dealing with conflict.”
The generals viewed the neoconservative desire to stop another Srebrenica in Benghazi as honourable, but thought they were ignoring the reality of two failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as they plotted to remove Qaddafi.
There was no plan, just as there had been no plan for after Iraq. The stakes were higher. Libya was a short sea hop from Europe. If it turned into a failed state, it would expose Europe’s southern flank to the nastier kind of jihadists. The British government was relying often on freelance agents providing intelligence, rather than MI6 or the Foreign Office.
Nobody listened to the generals. Cameron listened to his neoconservative chums, and to the corrupt French elite who had their own reasons to kill rather than negotiate with Qaddafi, and led Britain to war again.
A Parliamentary investigation published in 2016, authored by a mixed group of Conservative and Labour MPs, concluded that there was “no evidence that the UK Government carried out a proper analysis of the nature of the rebellion in Libya” and that “political options were available” and that even if Benghazi was the pretext for the war, regime change quickly became the actual goal.
What was most galling was that the lessons of Iraq were not learned for after the conflict.
There were, theoretically, plans drawn up by Whitehall to rebuild Libya, but given the short decision making time these plans were worthless. Alan Duncan, a former minister at the Department for International Development, said later that civil servant planners “did not know what was happening on the ground,” and MPs damned Cameron’s post-conflict planning because “those plans were founded on the same incomplete and inaccurate intelligence that informed the initial military intervention.”
Why, oh why, oh why then, has David Cameron been appointed to chair a new Oxford-London School of Economics “commission” on achieving growth “in fragile and conflict situations”? Why on earth would you want the advice of a man who creates conflict situations and then has no idea how to rebuild them?
Human Rights Watch now judges that “Libya’s political and security crisis continues as three authorities, including the Tripoli based UN-backed Government of National Accord, compete for legitimacy, control of territory and of vital institutions.”
The same organisation described “continuing armed clashes” which have displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Forces engaged in the conflict are guilty of “arbitrary detention, torture, unlawful killings, indiscriminate attacks, disappearances and the forceful displacement of people.” Of course Qaddafi did all these things too – but achieving simply a change in who is doing the torturing is hardly a victory.
Worse still, hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers, including children, who flock to Libya mostly en route to Europe, experience torture, sexual assault and forced labour at the hands of prison guards, members of the coast guard and smugglers.
A report earlier this month by Crisis Group found that in Benghazi, the city Cameron hoped to save, neighbourhoods are now “destroyed; hundreds of thousands of Libyans are displaced.”
If he couldn’t fix it as prime minister, why do we think he can now fix it as chair of this new commission?
The appointment of Cameron to anything remotely connected with foreign policy will always be a joke. He is the laughing stock of the international relations community. Foreign Policy magazine once called him a “historic and disastrous failure”.
Yet to appoint him to advise on re-building states, when he is in fact a master of collapsing them with nonchalance, is a sicker joke than most.
Perhaps Cameron might stick to writing to his memoirs. He has done enough damage to his party and country. A pity then that those who pushed him into this war are still in government.