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Politics: 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. 

27 August 2011

7:00 PM

27 August 2011

7:00 PM

David Cameron’s public utterances often appear to have been crafted to make him sound as much like Tony Blair as possible.

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 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 prevented 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.

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