The British government is on the defensive in its policy toward the conflict in Libya, and the former chief of the Defense Staff maintains the West should begin arming rebel forces as the only way to bring down Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
Arming the militants is not permitted under the United Nations resolution authorizing the current Western intervention in Libya, but General Lord Richard Dannatt, who headed the Defense Staff until two years ago, suggested a new UN resolution should be adopted to make this possible.
Asked about that, Defense Secretary Liam Fox said other countries might believe there is a need for a Western ground force in Libya but chances of securing such a resolution were not “even remotely possible.”
The comment suggested that Mr. Fox had misunderstood what Lord Dannatt proposed in a column in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
He said a defeat for Colonel Qaddafi “can only be brought about by the opposition’s ground forces. . .The big stick of a comprehensive ‘arm, equip and train’ policy now needs to be thrown into the ring to end the contest.”
He said the cost of this need not be borne by the West, as it could be recouped from future oil revenues.
The government is on the defensive after the killing of rebel military commander Gen. Abdel Fattah Younes on Friday. Rebel minister Ali Tarhouni has said he was killed by a rebel Islamist group.
The killing came just after Britain had recognized the rebel National Transitional Council as the legitimate government of Libya and had expelled Qaddafi loyalists manning the Libyan Embassy in London.
Labor’s former defense secretary, Bob Ainsworth, said the identity of the killers demonstrated that the British government had not thought through its policy in Libya and had shown “our lack of understanding of the people we were working with.”
Bob Stewart, a Conservative member of Parliament and former British UN commander in Bosnia, said he feared the Libyan conflict would end with “a government we don’t like and us getting the blame.”
Mr. Fox responded to the report that General Younes had been killed by Islamists by saying it was hardly surprising there were such militants in Libya and the aim now would be “to ensure that these people are marginalized.”
In an interview with the BBC, he accepted that NATO air strikes and rebel ground action together would not bring down Colonel Qaddafi but defections from his regime would.
“The key to the Libyan resolution will be whether or not the close circle around Colonel Qaddafi recognize there’s no point in investing in him—he’s a busted flush—and that he will sooner or later have to leave power,” he said.
“When the penny drops that this is inevitable, then you’re likely to see the sort of change in the political momentum that we’ve been looking for.”
In his Sunday Telegraph column, Lord Dannatt was sharply critical of all aspects of policy toward Libya.
He said the West entered the conflict with limited military capability, limited enthusiasm, limited practical support from Arab and Muslim neighbors of Libya, a limited mandate and limited financial resources.
The fate of General Younes, he said, “highlights the fact that the rebels’ grip on their own territory, and their ability to withstand...Islamist pressures...are at best questionable—possibly worse.”
“We have correctly ruled out the insertion of NATO ground troops, but we have wrongly ruled out doing far more to help the opposition troops already in the field,” he said.
(Ray Moseley is a London-based former chief European correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, and has worked extensively in the Middle East. He can be reached at email@example.com.)