Better Late than Never? British MPs Vote for Libya No-Fly Zone

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Here’s an example of democracy in action, a privilege Western politicians are keen to extend as widely as possible. Today, members of Britain’s House of Commons discussed the wisdom of enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya. At 10.17 pm, almost seven hours after the start of their debate and more than three days after the establishment of the no-fly zone—a measure proposed and promoted by Britain and France—MPs agreed, by a majority of 557 to 13, to support what their country had sold to the United Nations and was already doing. The motion read:

That this House welcomes United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973; deplores the ongoing use of violence by the Libyan regime; acknowledges the demonstrable need, regional support and clear legal basis for urgent action to protect the people of Libya; accordingly supports the government, working with others, in the taking of all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in Libya and to enforce the no-fly zone, including the use of UK armed forces and military assets in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973; and offers its wholehearted support to the men and women of Her Majesty’s armed forces.

A waste of parliamentary time? Not entirely. The outcome of the vote was never seriously in doubt, and MPs from all parties seized the opportunity for grandstanding. “Gaddafi isn’t going to lose any sleep over anything said in this House,” observed one Liberal Democrat and, looking around, it was clear that also applied to some of his colleagues, who were catching a few Zs on the Commons’ green benches. During more than 50 speeches and multiple interruptions, platitudes fell thick and fast and were dutifully transcribed by Hansard reporters, who record every word uttered by MPs. Should voters wish at some future date to check where their elected representatives stood on Libya, they’ll find they deplored the murderous Gaddafi regime, supported the uprising and  hoped change could be achieved with as little bloodshed as possible.

Against the jingoistic excesses of sections of the British press (the News of the World changed its headline, to celebrate a successful British sortie, to BLOWN TO BRITS), even these hackneyed sentiments may prove helpful in recalibrating the tone of national debate. And the sparsely attended and sparsely reported middle hours of the marathon talkathon witnessed thoughtful contributions about the nature and credibility of foreign involvement in Libya, the problems of liberal interventionism against the problems of not intervening, questions about defense capabilities at a time of cuts and the desire, expressed by several speakers, to revisit trade and foreign policy in the wake of the Arab uprisings, so that Britain doesn’t find itself hawking arms to a country one moment and trying to neutralize those arms the next. Above all there was a palpable desire to avoid the mistakes of Iraq—which a majority of MPs, including a large number still in office, ratified in a similar vote two days ahead of the start of the military campaign—not least by planning for the aftermath of the Libya action.

But ironically the narrow definition of the no-fly zone may thwart that aim. Prime Minister David Cameron insists this isn’t about regime change or nation building and in his opening remarks in the debate defined success in Libya as “a cease in the attack on civilians.” “It’s easy to get into a war. It’s much harder to end it,” observed Labour’s Dennis Skinner, one of the longest-serving MPs, dubbed the Beast of Bolsover (his constituency) for his undimmed instinct to attack the status quo. Parliamentarians are close to united in taking action against Gaddafi but after a lengthy debate there’s still little clarity on the scope of that action.