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Hugo Rifkind

Libya is what happens when we try to bomb things better

As Blair was to Iraq, Cameron is to Libya

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

Call me petulant, but I’m not sure Britain is getting enough credit for our fine, fine work in Libya. The Islamic State, so recently present only in the semi-mythical lands of Syria and Iraq — places you see on the news, but don’t really have to believe in — has now set up residence a short hop away from Italy, in the Libyan town of Sirte. Which is, just to be clear, a hell of a lot closer to Italy than we are. Maybe one-and-a-half times the stretch of a Hull– Zeebrugge ferry. We did that. Well done everybody. Top marks all around.

Also, Derna. That’s another town they’ve got. I’d never heard of Derna before, but apparently, Isis has held it since last October. Last week they took a group of six-year-olds to watch a beheading, ‘for educational purposes’. Derna to Crete is less than Liverpool to Dublin. You could almost swim it. I daresay some have tried.

A ‘key reason’ for the Isis success in Libya, reported the Washington Post last week, ‘is the chaos that has enveloped this oil-rich nation since the 2011 Arab Spring revolt’. Only — and I know it’s a little thing — but isn’t a ‘key reason’ for that chaos the way we bombed everything? You can’t have forgotten. Everybody was very excited at the time. David Cameron’s lips got terribly thin, remember, and his eyes burned with the holy conviction that everything in Libya would get much better — and not much, much worse — if we could find something to bomb, and bomb it. Or, better still, persuade America to bomb it. And then, when it didn’t get better at all, we just seem to have… wandered off. Whistling. As if the sheer, utter, hopeless collapse of a state, and the bombs — come on, it can’t just be me; surely you remember the bombs? — weren’t really connected at all.

Syria, of course, is supposed to be the counterfactual. ‘We left Syria alone,’ say the hawks. ‘We wanted to bomb, and the likes of you wouldn’t let us! And look what happened! Isis all over the place!’ Which is a strange argument because, well, it wasn’t Isis they were going to bomb, was it? It was the people Isis are fighting; the army of the very, very horrible — although evidently less horrible — Bashar Assad. Which Isis might not have been altogether distraught about. True, we are still told, again and again, that removing Assad in a timely manner would have led to ‘the moderate Syrian opposition’ taking control instead. This, though, like the whole basis for our endeavours in Libya, seems to have been a bit of a hopeful punt. That baseless, terribly familiar belief, that if you blow up something nasty, something nicer will arise in its place.


Last year I interviewed Tony Blair for the men’s magazine GQ. He’s tricky. He knows the answers he wants to give, and you’re getting them, no matter the questions. Drag him, struggling, on to unprepared ground, and defensive platitudinous shutters descend; your allotted minutes begin to tick by rather pointlessly, and the jobbing hack starts to panic, witnessing a masterclass in how not to give good copy. Yet now and again, despite himself, he couldn’t help but be interesting. ‘Where I’ve changed,’ he said at one point, ‘is with my view that if you can have evolutionary change, it is better than revolutionary change.’

With Iraq, of course, Blair clings to the view that evolution would have been impossible. I suppose he has to, beause the alternative would be too many nights spent screaming into a pillow. Even so, this comes from a man who put regime change at the heart of our foreign policy; an instinctive, almost holy belief that, if you can make a nasty oppressive government go away, a nicer, western-style democracy will surely follow.

Only a lunatic could still believe that after the Arab Spring, and despite what his detractors say, I don’t think Blair is one. His naivety in Iraq is his legacy; he’s the guy who tried to bomb things better, and actually bombed them far worse. The thing is, so is Cameron. Look to the failed state of Libya, and there’s no other conclusion to which you can come. The strategy didn’t work. Things are not better, not for Libya, nor for us, either. And yet, nobody seems to care. Nobody blames him. Nobody ridicules his arrogance, for believing he could blow stuff up, and then sit back, waiting for the rubble to fall into line. Nobody asks whether Gaddafi could have been dealt with another way. It’s as though somebody else blew the place up, long, long ago. But it wasn’t somebody else. It was him. And it was just the other day.

Fashionably rude

Segue, as ever, to the banal. As I write, news is breaking that the model Kate Moss has been escorted from an EasyJet flight, for calling the captain a ‘basic bitch’.

She reminds me of Karl Lagerfeld, who once derided critics of skinny models as ‘fat, jealous mummies’. The first two words were rude, here, but the killer was the third; an insult in fashion, and only in fashion, and for reasons largely inexplicable to everybody else. Likewise with Moss. ‘Bitch’ is rude, here, but not half so rude as ‘basic’.

In fashion, a ‘basic bitch’ is somebody who deserves to be sneered at for being unremarkable, and predictable, and exactly like everybody else. Whether male or female, I suppose we’ll know all about the pilot by the time you read this. Either way, I wonder if Moss realised they were wearing a uniform.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.


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