United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:54 pm on 21st March 2011.

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Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart Conservative, Penrith and The Border 5:54 pm, 21st March 2011

That is a very important danger. The fact that Libya is not just an Arab country, but a country with oil, has to be borne in mind. The kind of legitimacy that we may have had in Kosovo will be more difficult to come by in Libya for that reason.

The biggest dangers—the dangers that we take away from Afghanistan—are threefold. The Prime Minister will have to stick hard to his commitment, because it is easy for us to say today, “So far and no further,” but all the lessons of Afghanistan are that if we dip our toes in, we are very soon up to our neck. That is because of the structure of that kind of rhetoric, and the ways in which we develop four kinds of fear, two kinds of moral obligation, and an entire institutional pressure behind reinvestment. That is why the former Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Ainsworth, is correct to sound his cautions.

What are the four fears? We can hear them already. First, people are saying, “We have to be terrified of Gaddafi. He is an existential threat to global security.”

That is the fear of the rogue state. The second fear is the fear of the failed state. Gaddafi is making that argument himself: “If I collapse, al-Qaeda will come roaring into Libya.” The third fear that people are beginning to express is a fear of neighbours. They are already beginning to say, “If this collapses, refugees will pour across the borders into other countries.” The fourth fear is fear for ourselves: fear for our credibility, and fear that we might look ridiculous if, in response to our imprecations or threats, Gaddafi remains. We have seen the same fears in Vietnam, where people talked about the domino theory. We have seen the same fears in Iraq when people talked about weapons of mass destruction. We have seen the same fears in Afghanistan, where people worried that, if Afghanistan were to topple, Pakistan would topple and mad mullahs would get their hands on nuclear weapons.

Those are all the same fears, and the same sense of moral obligation. We do not need to be able to name two cities in Libya to be able to talk about two kinds of moral obligation: our moral obligation to the Libyan people, and our moral obligation because we sold arms to the Libyans in the past. This is very dangerous, and we must get away from that kind of language and into the kind of language that is humble, that accepts our limits, and allows us to accept that we have a moral obligation to the Libyan people but that it is a limited one because we have a moral obligation to many other people in the world, particularly to our own people in this country.

Of course we have a national security interest in Libya, but we have such an interest in 40 or 50 countries around the world, and we must match our resources to our priorities. The real lesson from all these conflicts is not, as we imagine, that we must act. The real lesson is not just our failure, but our failure to acknowledge our failure, and our desire to dig ever deeper. It is our inability to acknowledge that, in the middle east, many people will put a very sinister interpretation on our actions. It is also our failure to acknowledge that “ought” implies “can”. We do not have a moral obligation to do what we cannot do. We have to consider our resources rather than our desires.

What does that mean? This is easy for someone on the Back Bench to say, and much more difficult for a Prime Minister or other leader to say. How do we set a passionately moderate rhetoric? How do we speak to people to support something that is important? How do we acknowledge the moral obligation and the national security questions, but set the limits so that we do not get in too deep? I suggest that we need to state this in the most realistic, limited terms. First, we need to say that our objective is primarily humanitarian: it is to decrease the likelihood of massacre, ethnic cleansing and civil war, and to increase the likelihood of a peaceful political settlement. Secondly, we will try, in so far as it is within our power to do so, to contain and manage any threat from Libya. Finally, we will deliver development and humanitarian assistance. In the end, however, the real message that we are passing on through limited rhetoric is not to the people of Britain but to the people of the middle east over the next 30 years.