It was not quite a rerun of George Bush’s notorious “mission accomplished” speech, when he so unwisely declared a US victory in Iraq after just six weeks. But yesterday’s high-profile visit to Libya by David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy still looked premature.
It is not surprising that the British and French leaders would be the first Western heads of state to visit after Colonel Muammar Gaddafi flight into hiding. With the Americans “leading from behind”, as the diplomats put it, it was Mr Sarkozy and Mr Cameron who pushed hardest for the UN resolution backing the air strikes that allowed the Benghazi-based rebellion to take hold. And it was Britain and France that flew the lion’s share of the sorties that followed.
It is a fact not lost on the Libyans. The two European leaders were met with some adulation in both Tripoli and Benghazi yesterday, by jubilant, cheering crowds. The apparent swell of gratitude is heart-warming. But the enthusiasm of Libyans does not let the British and French leaders off the charge that their visit was made in unseemly haste; a case of too much, too soon.
In fairness, there was an effort to avoid triumphalism. The Prime Minister talked of his pride that Britain had played a part but stressed “it is your revolution”. He also warned of more work to be done and “difficult times” ahead. But the image of two heads of government lined up for the benefit of the world’s media was of far greater impact than the rhetoric, giving the impression of rich patrons swooping down to bless their successful project.
This is an unhelpful impression, which risks reinforcing those who criticise Western involvement in the Libyan rebellion as little more than neo-imperialism. It is also politically dangerous. Mr Cameron should resist the temptation to try to offset stuttering domestic progress with ersatz foreign policy successes. He should also beware of being co-opted into President Sarkozy’s pre-election posturing.
There is nothing wrong with supporting the fledgling post-Gaddafi state. Indeed, the concrete proposals that accompanied the visit, such as unfreezing £600m of Libyan assets, or providing funding for mine clearance, are wholly constructive. The problem is one of timing. Gaddafi is still at large and his supporters are holding out, despite heavy fighting in Bani Walid and Sirte. Not only that, the situation even in the rebel-held areas of the country is still highly uncertain, as is the character of the National Transitional Council (NTC) itself. Neither of the two men who hosted yesterday’s summit – the NTC chairman, Mustafa Adbul Jalil, nor his de facto Prime Minister, Mahmoud Jibril, are elected representatives, nor is there anything more than a skeleton timetable for full elections. Meanwhile, the cohesion of the Council is looking increasingly strained. In part, it was natural that the Western leaders’ trip should include both Tripoli and Benghazi, the birthplace of the rebellion. But it was also evidence of the new Libyan leadership’s geographically-divided power base, and the unresolved discord within its ranks . The murder of the rebel commander Abdel Fatah Younis in July is still unsolved, and there is a growing struggle between the NTC and the Tripoli Military Council.
Of even greater concern are continuing allegations of reprisals against suspected Gaddafi supporters. Amnesty International is calling on the former rebels to uphold human rights. In such a context, it is insufficient for Mr Cameron and Mr Sarkozy simply to call for “forgiveness” and “no settling of accounts”. With the situation in Libya still so far from a substantive conclusion, yesterday’s ceremonials had strong tinges of both hubris and circus. It was too soon for either.