Fraser Nelson

Cameron’s principled stand over Libya

Cameron's principled stand over Libya
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Slowly, David Cameron seems to be mutating into a hawk over Libya. I've been increasingly impressed with the way he has made the case for a no-fly zone - knowing that it is an unpopular cause outside of the Arab world. Since the evacuation chaos, which he apologised for, he has pretty much led calls for some form of military intervention to stop Gaddafi bombing his own people back into submission. He was laughed at to start with; accused of making it up on the hoof. But now the 22-nation Arab League backs this position, as does Sarko. It may have been messy at first – but that’s how these things go. From the offset, Cameron was articulating a basic principle: we need to help the Libyan rebels, not sit and watch them get butchered. As Cameron put it, “This man is brutalising his own people and we cannot stand by while that happens.” A solid improvement on what he was saying at first. I look at all this in my News of the World column today.


Cameron has been far clearer than Obama, who is still muttering about the cost-benefit analysis of a no-fly zone. Encouragingly, Cameron doesn’t seem to worry too much about a UN resolution, which he’d never get. (The Russians are against it). Nor a Nato mandate (the Turks are against it). Kosovo didn’t have UN permission, but events dictated that something had to be done. As Gaddafi is making fast progress against the rebels, the same could be said here – another fortnight may be too late. Cameron wants broad support  for a no-fly zone and, above all, Arab support. He now has that, in spades.


Sarko, as so often, puts it best: “We cannot stand idly by and watch civilians be massacred.” This is not what the EU thinks – so it resisted his attempt (and Cameron’s) to insert such language into a communiqué. And rightly: the EU cannot and should not attempt to have a common foreign or defence policy. Its member states are sovereign, and have wildly differing priorities.


Britain and France would, of course, need America were they to implement a no-fly zone – our armed forces haven’t a chance of doing this alone, even if Gaddafi is reduced to Soviet-era MiGs and 30-year-old helicopters. Britain isn’t exactly a showroom for the latest defence kit. We literally have more attack aircraft in the RAF Museum in Hendon then there are in RAF Strike Command. So this needs Obama to get behind it. Hillary Clinton is meeting Libyan opposition in Egypt next week, and some US “assets” (as the newspapers now refer to the navy) have left Greece, ready to be deployed. But there seems to be precious little sign of any resolution from Obama.


Interesting to see that Bill Clinton now supports the no-fly zone. He was not always this way inclined. He took some persuading to back a Nato bombing campaign over Kosovo, after initially prevaricating a bit like Obama does now. Tony Blair had to call him up, and put steel into his spine. Over the last two weeks, I think we have seen that Cameron has the steel. Whether Obama has the spine is a different matter.


This is crucial, not just for Libya but the world. As we say in the leader of this week’s Spectator, if Gaddafi survives he will have taught the world a dangerous lesson: that, if you’re brutal enough, the West may huff and puff but they won’t do anything, because lawyers now decide whether the West goes to war. When the Arab League met, the death toll from the Japanese tsunami was just about coming level with the number of people Gaddafi has killed this year alone. You can’t do anything about natural disasters, but you can avert political ones. Cameron’s instinct is to do so – and it’s a very encouraging sign.

I have been critical of Cameron's unwise decision to transfer £2.6bn from defence to overseas aid over four years when we are at war. To talk as he is now doing is welcome, but he'd be taken more seriously if the British army wasn't being scaled back to its smallest number in two centuries. My hunch is that events, such as Libya, will prompt Cameron to reassess his plan for such aggressive defence cuts. 


P.S. Cameron’s initial message to Gaddafi, for all its ineffectiveness, remains one of my favourite Cameron quotes: “What on earth do you think you are doing? Stop it.” That’s what I call a nanny state.