David Cameron has heaped self-praise on his decision to bomb Libya in March 2011, saying major allies expressed a lack of enthusiasm in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi.
In the weeks leading up to the NATO-led intervention, Libya was engulfed in a chain of violent protests against Gaddafi’s government, with armed militias seizing the country’s second-largest city, Benghazi, and swathes of eastern Libya.
However, in early March government forces pushed the rebels back and were advancing toward Benghazi; Cameron – then-Britain’s prime minister – says he tried to rally allies to take action to avert a potential crackdown on the rebel-held city.
“The decision to ratchet up our response on Libya was, in many ways, the easy part, because I knew it was the right thing to do. What was tough was getting it done — and doing so against the clock,” Cameron explains in his soon-to-be-released memoir, For the Record, which is being serialised in The Times.
“To do nothing in these circumstances was not a neutral act. It was to facilitate murder.”
Those days, he recalls, he “found it hard” to get on the phone with Barack Obama, who pursued a policy of disengagement, and felt that the United States was “dithering” on Libya at the time.
Fellow EU nations appeared unenthusiastic too. “I found Europe in a peacenik mood,” Cameron writes. “It felt as if the former Eastern Bloc countries were saying: ‘Look, we did democracy with our revolutions, but these people don’t understand democracy at all.’ The southern countries were nervous because of their preoccupation with immigration from Africa. The Germans didn’t really want to get involved.”
He continues: “While America seemed to dither and Europe deluded itself, [then-Foreign Secretary] William Hague reached a breakthrough in the Arab world,” persuading Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, to support an intervention.
Cameron then boasts having ensured the support of the UN Security Council and of his own government, which had doubts about upcoming military action.
He says he finally got to speak to Barack Obama on the evening of 18 March, one day before the military intervention. The US president pledged to support Britain and France in the first week. Cameron says of the conversation: “He was unenthusiastic and matter-of-fact, but this was at least a clear and decisive response.”
On 20 March 2011, American, British and French jets and cruise missiles started to strike Gaddafi's troops, forcing them to retreat. “I’ve never known relief like it,” Cameron recalls feeling.
The NATO air campaign killed over 300 civilians, according to a Gaddafi spokesman; a later UN Human Rights Council report pegged the death toll at 60 civilians.
Despite the bloody overthrow and murder of Gaddafi in October 2011, an ensuing power struggle between armed factions in Libya saw the country plunge into a broader political and economic turmoil – which inspired an Islamist insurgency and was a key factor in Europe’s immigration crisis.
Eight years on, Libya remains a failed state, fractured between renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar in the east and the internationally-recognised government in the west.
In hindsight, Britain’s lawmakers have criticised David Cameron’s urge to intervene in Libya. A 2016 report by the parliamentary foreign affairs select committee found that his government “failed to identify that the threat to civilians was overstated and that the rebels included a significant Islamist element”, and was not informed by “accurate intelligence.”
Specifically, the lawmakers stated, what was first declared as a limited intervention to protect Libyan civilians had slipped into an “opportunist policy of regime change” that was “not underpinned by a strategy to support and shape post-Gaddafi Libya.”