Will Gaddafi’s fall go to Cameron’s head?
David Cameron’s public utterances often appear to have been crafted to make him sound as much like Tony Blair as possible. But when he discussed the fall of Tripoli on Monday, he was trying to do the opposite. There was no democratic triumphalism, no paeans to liberty and no kaleidoscopes being shaken. Instead, he emphasised the post-conflict planning that had already gone on and warned, ‘no transition is ever smooth or easy’.The subtext was clear: ‘Libya is not Iraq, and I am not Blair.’
Iraq was meant to have put the public and politicians off foreign adventures for a generation. But Britain ended up getting involved in another, new military intervention in Libya even before the inquiry into the Iraq war reported its conclusions.
Tellingly, this Libyan operation was London’s — and Paris’s — idea: the Americans would not have intervened if it had been left up to them.The campaign has provided proof, were it needed, that Britain remains an expeditionary nation keen on shaping the world.
Yet the legacy of Iraq has shaped the contours of the Libyan mission. From the outset, the government knew that this couldn’t be another Western operation which led to British troops trying to keep the peace on another set of Middle Eastern streets. As a consequence, there has been a determination to secure Arab support for Nato’s mission, and ensure that the West expresses its support for the rebels with Tomahawk missiles rather than boots on the ground.
Cameron is determined not to repeat what he perceives as Blair’s foreign policy mistakes. He has thrown himself into the role of winning and maintaining Arab support. Like an eager schoolboy asking for more homework, he has asked Arab leaders to call him. On Monday, Cameron — in between sneaking glances at the cricket — talked not only to Obama and Sarkozy, but to the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates and the prime minister of Qatar, whose countries have both contributed to the operation.
The Arab role in Libya may soon increase even further. I understand that British ministers currently envisage Jordan being put in charge of helping the reconstruction effort, with the help of the Emirates and Qatar. How having three non-democratic monarchies take the lead will bring about a ‘free, democratic and inclusive Libya’ is far from clear. But it does show just how keen Britain is to maintain a regional focus on the whole effort.
Britain’s role — and, indeed, that of Nato — remains limited to air support.
The Iraq effect is felt most acutely in the desire to restore order as soon as the fighting in Tripoli has finished. British officials involved in post-Gaddafi planning are painfully aware that the decision to allow looters to run wild in Iraq after the fall of Saddam contributed to that country’s descent into chaos. So the British focus has been on cajoling the rebels’ governing body, the Transitional National Council, into thinking about this problem even before victory has been secured. Andrew Mitchell, the Development
The highs of success abroad can send prime ministers scurrying off around the world in search of their next fix
Secretary, has been urging them to get hold of the phone numbers of police officers in Tripoli so they can send them text messages assuring them that they’ll be paid if they turn up for work.
The chances of success are higher than one might expect. The Libyan rebels have proved adept at administration in the towns they have been running these past few months. Indeed, the problem with them so far has been their fighting skills, not their bureaucratic ones.
Should things go to plan, Cameron will have his first foreign policy triumph. This can be an intoxicating, premiership-changing moment for a leader. Kosovo, some former colleagues of Blair say, changed him forever. People in Pristina repeatedly interrupted his speech with chants of ‘Tony,Tony’. It’s easy to understand the effect that might have.
Where progress in domestic affairs can be infuriatingly slow and hard to detect, successes abroad can be quick and visible. Cameron can look back with pride on a massacre pre-
vented in Benghazi. He would not be human if the picture of Libyan rebels holding up a banner with his face on it thanking him was not one of the high points of his premiership. It certainly beats having to retreat on NHS reform in the face of opposition from the British Medical Association.
Already, those close to Cameron are taking pleasure in having confounded their critics. They point out how at nearly every stage, Cameron was told he had it wrong. He was mocked for suggesting a no-fly zone, and had his idea rejected by the European Union. But he persevered and won UN support, and Gaddafi has now been removed from power without a single British life being lost. There’s a fine line, however, between a sense of vindication and a dangerous level of self-belief: the feeling that you are always right.
The highs of success abroad — compared to the drudgery of domestic reform — can send prime ministers scurrying off around the world in search of their next fix. In Downing Street, they are aware of this danger. Even before the Libya conflict started, there were complaints about how much of Cameron’s diary is taken up by foreign policy matters. I’m told he devotes about half his working day to it — far more than Blair did in the early stages of his Downing Street career.
Cameron cannot quite conceal that he has an emotional side when it comes to foreign policy. For all his chiding of the ‘naive neocons’, he is a foreign policy romantic, with a curious admiration for Garibaldi. He can get excited and want to go further than some of those around him consider wise. Ed Llewellyn, his chief of staff, a diplomat by training and cautious by nature, often takes it upon himself to calm the Prime Minister down.
In public, Cameron resists the urge to brag. But as one of his Cabinet colleagues puts it, the Prime Minister will now justifiably have ‘more confidence in his own judgment’ on foreign affairs. He has proven himself a ‘man of consequence’ on the international stage.
This thought may alarm Tories who fear that the Prime Minister has Blair-style tendencies. But they can console themselves that these will be kept firmly in check by those two legacies of the Blair years: a gargantuan budget deficit, and a public deeply sceptical about foreign wars.
‘You only went into politics so you could leave our summer holidays early.’
SPECTATOR.CO.UK/COFFEEHOUSE For the latest on the Libyan conflict the spectator | 27 August 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk Charles Moore
Ever since the Franco/British-led intervention against Gaddafi in March, the Guardian and the Daily Mail — whose foreign policy in all matters relating to the Muslim world is oddly similar — have been droning on about the Libyan ‘quagmire’. Nor would you ever have known from the BBC, until last weekend, that the rebels had a chance. In the Guardian, my friend Simon Jenkins, clever and original though he is, has said (1 April) that Gaddafi would win a victory over the West like the one he claimed after the American bombing in 1986, that (19 April) ‘The great lie has once again been rumbled, that air power can deliver any sort of victory’, and that (2 August) nearly six months of combat had produced ‘full-scale fiasco’ and ‘no sign’ of the rebels winning. All the critics may well be right that the next phase will be difficult, but they put themselves in an absurd position by arguing that the combination of the rebels and Nato could not defeat Gaddafi. Because of our rather ignominious association with the ‘mad dog’, we British knew about what weapons he had and didn’t have. We also knew that he had virtually no support from other Arab regimes. We were able to get inside information against him, and the National Transition Council told the truth when they said that they had people on their side in every Gaddafi brigade. He ended up only with mercenaries, and his hard core. And the bombing worked exactly as intended, to overcome otherwise insuperable obstacles for the rebel troops on the ground. The modern doctrine that the bomber can never win is just as rigidly mistaken as the 1930s one that ‘The bomber will always get through’.
Simon Jenkins complained (2 August) of ‘sound advice’ being drowned by ‘a tide of patriotism’, but actually patriotism was rather shockingly absent. People seemed uninterested in just how skilled, brave and restrained British pilots were being. Even if things turn out messily, the likely end of Gaddafi is surely a good thing for the patria. He has done more damage to this country, for longer, than any other foreign leader. He supported the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, and of Messrs Douglas and Padfield,
the hostages in Lebanon, and, of course, the death of 270 people over Lockerbie. He corrupted some of our universities and elements in our previous government. He even invented the Third Way. Now that Britain and France have led, Nato’s European arm has at last shown muscle. We have a chance of being on the right side of change in the Middle East, assisting it but not running it; we make life more difficult for Assad in Syria; we strengthen those in the US administration who do not share Obama’s tenderness towards Muslim, anti-western dictators. ‘Gaddafi remains stubbornly in power, and the Prime Minister is staging a humbling retreat’ said the Daily Mail (27 July). No.
One postscript, though. It is not true that military success in Libya proves that the Strategic Defence and Security Review is just fine. The order of battle for Libya was pre-SDSR. It would not have been possible if the review had already been enacted.
Wekeep being told not to have a ‘kneejerk reaction’ to the riots. The cliché is an odd one, because when doctors tap your knees, the jerk is exactly the reaction they seek: anything else shows that there is something seriously wrong with you.
Another argument that seems misapplied is the ‘ ’twas ever thus’ one. We are reminded that riots have often taken place in Britain, as if that should comfort us. It is true that, if something has happened before, we are more likely to know how to deal with it, but this ‘Oh yes, we often get bubonic plague in these parts’ line of reasoning is not reassuring. It shows how bad most human societies are at containing, punishing, reforming human nastiness. It also shows how wrong it is to describe rioters as ‘mindless’. Surely most rioters, in their base way, do exercise their reason quite carefully. They observe how the police are behaving and how available are the pickings. They use the technology needed to communicate, and then they strike. As soon as the authorities respond firmly, as they did from 9 August, the rioters slip away, having enjoyed themselves and, if they are lucky, escaped with trainers, phones etc. If the authorities believe that such people are mindless, they cannot work out what they might do. If they recognise that they have minds, they can then try to read them.
P erhaps it is a symptom of ‘Broken Britain’ that I and seven others were able to walk out in broad daylight last week, fully armed, and kill about 250 of our opponents. There was no visible police presence. We were shooting grouse on the Duke of Northumberland’s moor in the Lammermuirs. Actually, the Duke is now a popular hero because of his resistance to the building of wind farms and his refusal to allow them, despite the colossal bribes offered with public money, on his own land. The survival of these wild hills so close to Edinburgh has been miraculous (it is as if, in relation to London, there were grouse moors in Croydon), but now, each time I go, the appearance changes because of the turbines, as if an army of alien giants was stalking over other people’s moors. There are currently 1,038 commercial turbines constructed, consented or applied for in the Scottish Borders local authority area alone. Across the country, this is the biggest despoliation of landscape since motorways. Unlike motorways, the wind- farms are of little use to anyone. We felt like vigilantes defending our landscape.
After my day on the moors, I drove down to Edinburgh to see our son perform in the Fringe. His was a serious play, a relief after the industrial amounts of comedy on offer. My wife’s constant reading at present is A Field Guide to Bird-Dropping Mimics (the tortrix moth variety). Bird-Dropping Mimics would be a good name for an Edinburgh comedy gig.
the spectator | 27 August 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk