UK Politics

Landale online: Key Libya questions for David Cameron

Daivd Cameron
Image caption David Cameron will not want his premiership to be defined by Libya

For a new prime minister taking his country to war only 10 months into his premiership, David Cameron might at first glance appear well placed.

He has led from the front by galvanising international support and helping to secure a United Nations resolution at astonishing speed.

He has won the overwhelming support of the House of Commons, 557 MPs in all backing military action, only 13 voting against. Iraq this is not.

He has managed to keep onside his traditionally anti-war coalition allies, the Liberal Democrats.

He has played it by the book, ensuring ministers are squared and lawyers consulted.

He has rescued the concept of liberal military intervention from the mess of Iraq.

He has earned himself a large pot of political capital that will see him through the tough times ahead as the military action progresses.

Thus far the operations have been largely successful, above all in preventing an assault on Benghazi.

But the path ahead for the prime minister is far from smooth.

There is growing confusion and uncertainty about a number of issues, all of which carry some considerable political risk:

1. Confusion over war aims

Are we out to get Gaddafi or not?

Britain's top soldier General Richards has said that the UN resolution does not authorise regime change. But Downing Street and ministers say it would be legal to target him if he was threatening civilians.

The muddle is about motive.

It is, so the argument goes, not OK to kill Gaddafi to change his government. It is OK to kill him if he is killing civilians, even if as a consequence that brings down his regime.

As it is, the military planners are not for now aiming their missiles at Gaddafi. But the confusion is damaging and a public split between ministers and the military an unfortunate way to begin a military action.

2. Uncertainty of command

In other words, who is in charge?

The US is currently heading up the chain of command. But they have made it clear that they want to hand over control as soon as possible.

The UK wants Nato to take over. But some Nato members - above all Turkey - are reluctant to get involved.

This may sound technical, but Italy - from where many of the war planes are flying - has warned that it may pull out of the operation if Nato command is not agreed.

The prime minister has been lobbying Turkey hard but so far without success. There is talk now of a Nato-lite operation that allows some members to abstain.

3. International support is limited

Yes, there is a UN Security council resolution. But Russia and China did not support it (although by abstaining they didn't oppose it either) and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has called the military intervention a medieval crusade (although his boss, President Dmitry Medvedev, called Putin's intervention "unacceptable").

India and Brazil have voiced their doubts. The Arab League itself blows hot and cold, appearing to support a no-fly zone but not the destruction of the Libyan air defences that is needed so it can be enforced. International support, particularly among Arab countries, is fragile rather than deep set.

4. MPs' support is qualified

Yes, the prime minister won the vote overwhelmingly in the Commons.

But many MPs backed him while expressing doubt. How will this end, they asked. Why are Arab countries not more involved? What if there's a stalemate? Why are the Americans such reluctant partners? If Libya, why not Yemen? What is the exit strategy? How do we measure success?

Conservative MP Rory Stewart, a former deputy governor in an Iraqi province, warned that if you dip your toes into a conflict "you are very soon up to your neck".

If things go wrong in Libya, then support for David Cameron in the Commons could be shortlived.

5. Public support is uncertain

It is early days to assess public opinion.

A ComRes opinion poll suggests that more than half of people believe British servicemen and women should not risk their lives protecting Libyan rebels.

But a YouGov survey suggests 45% of people support the military action, some 36% do not.

Anecdotal evidence from media phone-ins suggests there is a fair degree of public concern. BBC Radio 5 Live's Your Call with Nicky Campbell earlier on Tuesday was a case in point. The key point is that the public do not appear nearly as supportive of military action against Libya as their elected representatives.

6. Questions about cost

It is difficult - but not impossible - to quantify how much military actions like this cost.

But what is clear is that this action is being fought at a time of a record budget deficit in the public purse.

David Cameron is going to have to justify to voters why it is worth spending billions of pounds of taxpayers money fighting yet another war when their pay, pensions and services are being cut.

7. Questions about defence cuts

At the heart of the recent defence review was a simple question that largely went unanswered in the rush to cut budgets: What is our military for and what should we expect them to do?

This action against Libya is likely to force some kind of answer.

Just one example: We are told that the aircraft of choice for a no-fly zone are Tornados and Typhoons and they can be deployed from land bases close to Libya. But would an aircraft carrier (recently scrapped) with a squadron of Harriers (recently scrapped) really have been so utterly without use in these circumstances?

If this military action is shortlived, if Gaddafi is deposed in the coming weeks, then many of these questions will fall away.

But if this no fly zone becomes a permanent fixture, if it fails to work, if Gaddafi remains in power, then the political risk for the prime minister will grow.

Tony Blair's premiership was defined, in the end, by Iraq. David Cameron will be hoping for a different legacy.

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites