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Monday, March 21, 2011 

A fait accompli.

Being asked to vote on whether you approve of a war which has already begun and which is clearly going to continue regardless of your view shouldn't normally lead to such a carefully considered, calm and quietly nervous debate as that which was heard in the Commons today. Considering the precedent set by Tony Blair over Iraq, parliament ought to have met as soon as it was clear that we were going to be taking part in the military action in Libya for a proper debate and vote on the issue. Regardless of the difficulties involve, an emergency sitting could have been called for Saturday, as Edward Leigh for one argued.

The only reason why the failure to do so didn't result in more anger and criticism towards the government was, it has be said, down to David Cameron's consensual approach to the debate. Tony Blair may have given commanding performances when making the case for the war in Iraq, at least according to those predisposed to the conflict at the time, but he never gave way or took on board the views of veteran left-wingers like Dennis Skinner or Jeremy Corbyn as Cameron did today. Not of all his interventions or responses to those urging caution were convincing; the right tone was however mostly struck.

Certainly not reflected in the overwhelming 557-13 vote in the government's favour was the disquiet and unease voiced repeatedly in the chamber, only the committed liberal interventionists and sycophants being emphatic in their support. As patient and dignified as Cameron was in making the case for the intervention, the same cannot be said about the quickly growing disconnect between the military and the government over whether Gaddafi can be personally targeted or not. Reflecting the situation prior to the Iraq war, when the army demanded to know that war was legal, Cameron and others appear to be taking the UN resolution's allowance for "all necessary means" to be taken to protect civilians to mean he is a permissible target, something the chief of the defence staff completely dismissed. This was further underlined by the Foreign Office minister Alastair Burt tonight, who quoted the resolution back at Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight when asked directly on whether a new "decapitation strategy" was in the offing.

Assassinating world leaders, regardless of their pariah status, is not something other countries including some of those ostensibly supporting the intervention in Libya are going to quickly countenance. Nor is it even close to being authorised in the UN resolution unless you take the vague all necessary means to imply that you can do almost anything you feel like to stop civilians being threatened. It does however epitomise the cavalier attitude that's already been taken by the increasingly tenuous coalition in introducing and then enforcing the no-fly zone. Also clear from the very beginning was that the UN resolution does not authorise the planes monitoring Libyan airspace to act as the rebels' ersatz softening-up service, although again, this seems to be the way things will go.

The incredibly hasty way in which the operation was thrown together and the main role of the government in arguing for it only increases the risk that we'll soon be the ones carrying the overwhelming burden of permanent overwatch. Already Obama has made it apparent that the deal involved the cruise missile strikes launched on Saturday and little US involvement afterwards, with NATO taking over. While the likes of Norway, Denmark and Spain have all said they'll provide planes, the potential for this to be a long, unending mission could well quickly result in it just being ourselves and the French continuing to fly sorties.

And there are almost immediately, whisper it, murmurings about whether ground forces, also explicitly forbidden by the current UN resolution might at some point be needed. This is after all the contradiction which Obama claimed isn't there: that the policy of the West is that Gadaffi must go while the resolution only calls for a ceasefire. Possible as it is that his regime might crumble should the bombing continue to take a toll on his defences, it's also becoming apparent that the rebel forces' gaining of ground during the first stages of the revolution was more down to surprise and shock than military victory. As brave as their fighting has been, without strikes directly against Gaddafi's ground forces it remains doubtful that they could win in even this far from straight fight.

What it all comes back to is what many MPs quietly asked about: never mind the absence of any sort of plan, what about the "endgame"? We want Gaddafi gone, but how are we going to achieve it within the confines of the resolution? The answer that we're only going to uphold it clearly isn't good enough when it's so staggeringly obvious that we've already gone beyond its parameters. We barely know who the rebels are, yet we're apparently dedicated to putting them in at least temporary power. We might have stopped a massacre and be protecting civilians, but at what eventual cost? We've committed ourselves to an open-ended war without being certain of what success will look like, impossible as it was always going to be to bring Gaddafi down through the simple enforcement of the no-fly zone. The criticism and concern might for now remain hushed, but if the current situation continues the volume needs to be raised, and quickly.

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