Boris Johnson’s Libya gaffe was dreadful, but the UK’s track record there is worse

Blond derision. Stefan Rousseau/PA

Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary, has been spectacularly offensive lately, even by his usual standards. Fresh from reciting a colonialist poem that mocked Buddha during a visit to the most sacred temple in Myanmar, he did at least as much damage to British diplomacy during a discussion about Libya at a Conservative Party conference fringe event on Tuesday October 3.

He was talking about the potential of the central coastal city of Sirte, and plans by a group of British businessmen to turn it into the “next Dubai”. Having noted the potential of Libya’s “bone-white sands” and “beautiful sea”, he said all that was needed to realise the Sirte plan was to “clear the dead bodies”. Cue outrage at the insensitivity of a politician renowned for insensitive comments, including calls for his dismissal even from fellow Tory MPs.

The reference to dead bodies referred to the fact that ISIS was driven out of Sirte last year by the Libyan government, backed by US bombing, having held it for about a year. But to fully appreciate the crassness of the foreign secretary’s remarks, you need to look a little further back into Libya’s recent history – and the UK’s involvement.

The sins of 2011

We should remind ourselves that ISIS was able to find a foothold in Libya because of what the UK did in 2011. In the midst of the Arab Spring, David Cameron’s coalition government pushed for and then participated in an intervention which ultimately led to the overthrow and death of Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan president.

There is significant debate about whether or not this intervention was justified – but less consideration about the lack of adequate planning for what happened afterwards. Libya fractured into multiple centres of power. Fighters and weapons flowed out of the country, helping to destabilise other countries in the region – particularly Mali – and stoking Europe’s gathering refugee crisis. The vacuum in Libya provided a perfect opening for ISIS to establish a base in north Africa, creating untold misery for people both within the country and beyond.

The UK and its partners essentially bombed Libya, eventually ensuring Gadaffi’s demise, and then packed up and went home. Barack Obama is on record as saying that “failing to plan for the day after” the intervention was his biggest mistake as US president. An inquiry by the UK parliament’s foreign affairs committee said that because the UK led the intervention (along with France), it “had a particular responsibility to support Libyan economic and political reconstruction”. This was impossible, it went on, because of a “failure to establish security on the ground”.

When it comes to deciding whether a humanitarian intervention is morally justified, one criterion frequently used is whether the country will be better as a result. There can never be perfect foresight, but as I argue in a forthcoming book, interveners certainly ought to consider the consequences of intervention and take reasonable measures to ensure they do not make a situation worse.

The UK and its partners utterly failed in this task. Despite the fact that real human rights abuses were occurring, this failure arguably undermined the case for intervention. This is what makes Boris Johnson’s remarks so odious: they ignore this history and the dire situation Libya now faces, which the US Institute of Peace last year described as “a spiral of deteriorating security, economic crisis, and political deadlock”.

Libya now

Johnson attempted to justify his comments on Twitter, saying the bodies he referred to were those of ISIS fighters. I am not sure that makes it any better. He also argued that Britain is playing a key role in reconstruction. But this does not justify the country’s failures in 2011, nor UK businesses aiming to profit by creating a playground for British holidaymakers.

The nationals of those that led the 2011 intervention should not be allowed to profit from the aftermath – above all when Libya has still not even adequately stabilised. The country remains a major jumping off point for refugees fleeing conflict and starvation across Africa.

So far in 2017 alone, more than 100,000 people have taken their lives in their hands in this way – somewhat down on previous years but still considerably higher than in the Gaddafi era. Juxtaposing a vision of shiny skyscrapers and profligacy with desperate migrants betrays a serious lack of moral reflection on the part of the foreign secretary.

At the same time, the UK has failed to provide significant protection to these refugees, and has in fact, along with the EU, supported efforts to prevent them from leaving Libya in the first place.

Far from thinking about money-making opportunities in this war-torn country, the UK should be rolling up its sleeves and trying to make amends. Boris Johnson deserves all the criticism he has received for his remarks about Libya and Sirte, but we should not lose sight of the grave national failure that lies behind them.