To turn an army on one’s own people is bad enough. But to call in foreign mercenaries, as Colonel Gaddafi did this week in Libya, is a rare form of savagery, one which offers a chilling glimpse into the real nature of his dictatorship. He should be stopped. We have heard this week the familiar calls for Britain to sit back and watch what is an internal matter for the countries involved. But like it or not, Britain is involved in Libya. Quite apart from the various oil contracts, the last government granted licences to export £8 million of arms to Libya. The SAS have even been training Libyan forces, as part of the deal which Tony Blair personally agreed with Gaddafi in a tent outside Tripoli eight years ago.
David Cameron cannot be held responsible for the situation he inherited. But as events are rapidly demonstrating, it is time for a new British foreign policy — and a far better one than he has pursued so far. The Prime Minister entered office determined to avoid foreign entanglements. He had no desire to be the heir to Blair when it came to conflict. The Foreign Office was told its new mission was the promotion of trade. The permanent secretary at the Department of Business was sent to run the diplomatic service. Britain’s ambassadors were summoned to London and told to beat the drum for British business.
Strategic diplomacy was deemed a luxury that debt-ridden Britain could no longer afford. Just a few months later, this rather tawdry policy has proved to be hopelessly unsuitable. Mr Cameron’s recent trip to the Middle East was conceived as part of an effort to boost Britain’s share of trade — including the arms trade. So while it was quickly converted into an attempt to promote reform and liberalisation, the Prime Minister spent a significant portion of his time explaining why six of the delegation’s members were arms manufacturers. This decision missed the spirit of the occasion by some distance.
The objective of British foreign policy should be the promotion of democracy. This goal was often viewed with scepticism, if not outright disdain, in the era of Tony Blair and George Bush. But the Middle Eastern protests have underlined two points that should have been clear all along. First, that there is a strong appetite for democracy amongst people who are starved of freedom. And,Events in the Arab world highlight the rather embarrassing vacuum where the government’s foreign policy should be second, that democracy does not need to be ‘[dropped] out of an airplane at 40,000 feet’, as Mr Cameron once put it. The threat of force may still have a place, however, particularly when it comes to dealing with Gaddafi’s murderous acts of self-preservation.
The Prime Minister is at his best when responding to a shifting landscape. Arms dealers aside, meeting Egypt’s new military governors was a welcome statement of interest and intent. The same might be said of his subsequent speech in Kuwait. It was encouraging to hear our Prime Minister, in the heart of the Middle East, stress that ‘denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse’.
This should be the object of Britain’s foreign policy agenda. Our old policy — see no evil, buy cheap oil — reaped a bitter and abundant harvest in the 11 September attacks. And while the interests of our defence and oil industries are important, they must not be allowed to contort foreign policy. If the Prime Minister wishes to promote business, he should cut taxes and regulation. The defence companies are making their own way to the Middle East: to conflate Britain’s national interest with the interest of its largest corporations is deeply unbecoming. Being dazzled by the prospects of oil contracts was what led Tony Blair to cut such generous deals with Gaddafi just 15 years after the Lockerbie bomb.
As James Forsyth wrote in this magazine a fortnight ago, the events in the Arab world highlight the rather large, embarrassing vacuum where the government’s foreign policy should be. Mr Cameron and William Hague have failed to establish a coherent strategic view of the world — and of Britain’s place in it. In this failure, they have been indirectly assisted by the timidity and cluelessness of Barack Obama — but they should hold themselves to higher standards.
It is understandable that Mr Cameron wishes not to be drawn into world affairs. Many new leaders would love, if they could, to mind their country’s own business and dole out charitable donations. But history often has other plans. When the Princeton academic Woodrow Wilson was elected, he said it would be ‘a great irony of history if my presidency were dominated by foreign affairs’. That was in 1913.
Mr Cameron must deal with a rotten legacy from the Labour years, both economically and in a foreign policy that gave too much support to butchers such as Gaddafi. But he also inherited a country which has a far greater stature on the world stage than our size and military strength would suggest. It would be negligent not to use our international influence now — not just for our own interests, but for the sake of those struggling at the barricades for democracy in the Middle East.