David Cameron is continuing his tour of Africa today and is — according to the New York Times — ‘boasting a sheaf of commitments to new partnerships in the fields of defense, counterterrorism, intelligence-sharing and military training’. He was in Tripoli yesterday, where his approval ratings ought to be sky high having been instrumental in the operation to depose Gaddafi. He was urging a no-fly zone at a time when even the Pentagon was mocking him for the idea.
Last week, he upped the stakes and spoke of a ‘generational battle’ in Mali. The PM is turning into quite the hawk: after Afghanistan and Libya, the decision to contribute C-17s and 330 troops to the French effort can count as his third war in just over two years. The decisions he is taking, and the speeches he makes to justify them, are reshaping British foreign policy. I look at this in my Telegraph column today. Here are the main points:
1. Cameron has changed his position on foreign affairs. George W Bush famously scorned the idea of nation-building before he became president. Cameron began seeing foreign policy as a series of trade missions, and embassies were instructed accordingly. This was a rather tawdry policy, that meant he was in the Gulf with a bunch of arms dealers when the Arab Spring kicked off. It was not a good look. During that trip — in Egypt — Cameron was taking swipes at Blair saying he was not a ‘naïve neocon’ who thought you could ‘drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet’.
He was right: the Tomahawk missiles he ordered just three weeks later cruised at 400 feet before hitting Tripoli — and, yes, ushering in a new democracy. Cameron was being cheered in Liberty Square in Benghazi just a few weeks later, and went back to Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli yesterday as a follow-up. He is visibly warming to all this.
2. All this is personal for Cameron. You can hear more his voice in more than any other area of government policy. Even the military chiefs were anxious about Libya (and still are about Mali) but Cameron is simply giving voice to a policy decided by a committee. He is leading, something that doesn’t happen enough. His European speeches may have an elephantine gestation period, but his foreign intervention declarations trip off the tongue. He’s going with his instinct, and the foreign policy is being formed in the process.
3. So let’s look at the Cameron doctrine, in his own words:
‘Together with our partners in the region, we are in the midst of a generational struggle against an ideology which is an extreme distortion of the Islamic faith, and which holds that mass murder and terror are not only acceptable but necessary… We must frustrate the terrorists with our security, we must beat them militarily, we must address the poisonous narrative they feed on, we must close down the ungoverned space in which they thrive, and we must deal with the grievances that they use to garner support.’
This is not a doctrine you will find in any Foreign Office document. It declares that France’s struggle against Islamic tribesmen should be regarded as Britain’s struggle. It states as UK objective the defeat of the Saharan jihadis and commits Britain to ‘close down’ an ‘ungoverned space’ as big as France itself.
4. Cameron is volunteering Britain’s services as a roving African policeman ready to track down Islamic jihadis in this ‘generational struggle’. And God knows there will be more opportunity to do this, as the Arab Spring will create more opportunities for the Islamic nutcases whom the old dictators threw in jail. You can think Cameron’s wide brief is a good thing or a bad thing (I’m in favour) but it does have implications about the use, and the budget, of the British military.
5. There is nothing in Mali that directly threatens Britain. This ‘al-Qa’eda in the Islamic Maghreb’ (AQIM) is a scary name given to what started out as an Algerian insurgency (rather than a Bin Laden offshoot). The current lot, ‘Those Who Sign In Blood’, used to make a living a bunch as smugglers and kidnappers. They grew stronger and richer when the French were dumb enough to pay up.
So AQIM is not like al-Qa’eda in Yemen, whose key asset is an innovative bombmaker who made the printer bomb (found in East Midlands Airport) and the metal-free underpants bomb (which malfunctioned on a flight to Detroit). The Yemeni division of al-Qa’eda spend their time thinking of how to blow up aircraft, etc. There is no evidence that the Saharan lot — or the leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar — have much any interest in anything in Europe. Belmokhtar, an Afghanistan veteran, avowed himself to al-Qa’eda in 2006 creating lots of headlines (which is what it’s all about) but later fell out with them. His four wives are from Mali, hence the links. But the Tuareg will work for the highest bidder: they are mercenaries, not jihadis.
During the Algerian gas plant siege Belmokhtar asked for the release of the Blind Sheikh in America which was taken by some to indicated that he did have global ambitions and that Mali was the new Afghanistan. But this demand can be better-understood as laying a claim to grandeur. A bit like the bit in Die Hard, where Hans asks for the release of members of Asian Dawn in Sri Lanka – he just wanted to give off the vibe of having an international agenda. But there is no evidence of any links between AQIM any British terror cell, or anything in mainland France.
That doesn’t mean such links may not be built, that Belmokhtar has his Islamists are not truly evil (read this report about what the Islamists did to Timbuktu for proof of that) or that he does not threaten British interests (i.e. expats and factories) in Mali.
But it’s important to draw a distinction between the opportunistic Belmokhtar and, say, the badlands of Pakistan (still the no. 1 threat to the UK) where there is much more traffic to the UK and there are still terror camps that train jihadis to strike back here.
6. The ghost of Bosnia. When trying to understand why Cameron feels so strongly about this, one ought to remember Bosnia. The last Conservative government failed to act — in common with other European powers and the pathetic UN — and the result was the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. A striking number of those in No. 10 have either worked in Bosnia or know it well. William Hague’s special adviser came to Britain as a Bosnian refugee. So yes, deploying the military has its risks. But sometimes, the consequences of failing to deploy the military are even greater. This was the lesson of the mid-1990s. It’s seldom mentioned but the ghost of Bosnia still haunts the Conservative Party, and when Gaddafi was getting ready to move into Benghazi one argument being deployed was that Britain cannot stand back and witness another Srebrenica.
7. Cameron and Osborne have swapped sides. In 2003 when they were prepping Michael Howard for PMQs, Cameron would tease Osborne for being a ‘neocon’ his enthusiasm for the war on terror. But now, I gather, Osborne is the one nervous about Libya and Mali. He regards war as a huge expense that doesn’t win votes (Libya cost about £200 million). To Cameron, it’s about the national interest — and hang the cost.
8. But Cameron needs to fund the military to meet his ambitions. When he was deciding the latest military budget, Cameron said at one point ‘We’ve had enough pain — what about some fudge?’ And there was fudge aplenty, especially in the odd plans to double the size of the TA when they can’t even fill it to its 15,000 strength right now.
9. Cameron wants an army that can fix problems from the Hindu Kush to the Sahara. And one that can voluntarily join countries like France in missions that don’t affect Britain because Cameron thinks it’s he right thing to do. This is a noble position, quite in line with Britain’s traditions and role in the world. It is almost pointless deciding foreign policy before entering office — it is decided by world events and the PM’s response to them. Cameron has responded quickly and (I think) brilliantly. His decision is that Britain is a country that tries to shape the world, rather than be shaped by it.
10. Cameron has surprised others — and perhaps himself — in the decisions he has taken about foreign policy. He spoke about a generational struggle the same day that Obama said ‘a decade of war is now ending’. Of the two, I think Cameron is being more clear-sighted while Obama is being too dismissive. But the lack of American interest means a lack of American arms: already the French are going begging for equipment (C-17s, drones) and if this is the new world then it will be even more expensive.
Tony Blair caused great damage to the UK military by over-stretching it. The victims were not just the soliders who died from lack of proper protection but the people of Basra who lived (and in many cases died) under the Shi’ite death squads because the UK presence there was too small to protect them. Blair was so lucky that the media didn’t really pick up on this. I’ve long argued that the way we left Iraq, not entered it, was Blair’s real war crime.
In opposition, Cameron rightly lambasted Blair for fighting two wars on a peacetime budget. In office, he cannot very well fight three on even less money. His decision to cut the MoD budget by as much as he increased the aid budget was bizarre, for a PM already at war. If he was going to ignore Mali, he could perhaps have justified the military cuts. But he wants an army capable of solving problems Sangin to the Sahara — and rightly so. The Spending Review comes in June. Cameron has decided what sort of military he wants. Now, he has to pay for it.