David Cameron's 40,000-ft drop

He voted for military action against Saddam, but without his friends' certainty

Share

I interviewed Joe Biden once, you know. The Vice President is coming to see David Cameron on Tuesday and their conversation might be relevant to one of the puzzles of British politics: what is the Prime Minister's foreign policy? All that most people know about Biden is that he is a bumbler who talks too much, but I drove from Washington to Wilmington to speak to him in 1995 because, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he advocated American intervention in Bosnia. I was in the US to report for the BBC on the pressure on John Major to do something about Serb aggression.

As it happened, the pressure was not that great. Paddy Ashdown had been on his high liberal horse for a while, demanding that Britain should use force if necessary to stand up to "ethnic cleansing", then a phrase still unfamiliar in English. Tony Blair, who became Labour leader at the time of the genocide in Rwanda the year before, had joined him. Thus Major sounded like a world-weary pragmatist as he defended a policy of inaction.

But Major was under little pressure from his Nato allies, naturally wary of entanglement. In particular, Bill Clinton thought that, if the Europeans were so bothered by the siege of Sarajevo, they could bomb Serb supply lines themselves.

In early 1995, Biden was the leading voice in the Senate urging US military action – even John McCain did not support the use of US force until after the Srebrenica massacre in July. So off we went to Wilmington, in Biden's state of Delaware, to hear the case for a new doctrine in world affairs that had been forming since the end of the cold war in 1989. It wasn't called "liberal interventionism" then, but it has been the most important idea in US and British foreign policy ever since.

At the time, David Cameron was a public relations person for Carlton TV. His views on foreign policy were unformed, but he was a Thatcherite, and Margaret Thatcher also advocated intervention in Bosnia, often allowing her impatience with her successor to show. So maybe that was where he started. And he was impressed by Tony Blair, although more by his political skill at home than by his moral force abroad. Less than two years after becoming an MP in 2001, he voted for military action against Saddam Hussein, but he lacked the certainty of his friends George Osborne and Michael Gove.

When he became Prime Minister, Cameron's priority abroad was to extricate British forces from Blair's interventions. The pull-out of combat troops from Iraq was completed in May 2011. Next, with his Blair-like facility for saying contradictory things in the same sentence, Cameron set a deadline for withdrawing from Afghanistan (the end of next year), while stating that this wouldn't help the Taliban time their next big offensive.

The first big moment in Cameron's foreign policy came in early 2011. He led a trade mission to the Gulf, at his most Majorite, a pragmatic, business-minded Tory. He even gave a speech to the Kuwaiti parliament in which he declared: "I am not a naive neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet."

But he was forced to stop over in Egypt en route, as the Arab spring was under way and Mubarak had just been overthrown. Within days, as the Libyan insurgency threatened Gaddafi, Cameron suddenly became the kind of neocon who thought you could, after all, drop democracy out of an aeroplane, and with President Sarkozy of France he made the case at the UN for a no-fly zone over Libya.

Barack Obama was reluctant, just as Clinton had been in the Balkans, but now Biden was Vice President and the idea of intervention was no longer a novelty. The big difference was that liberal interventionism had lost its innocence in Iraq. What was surprising, though, was the zeal with which Cameron took it up. And it was unexpected that he should seek the advice of Blair himself, under the cover of updates on the progress made by the former prime minister as the Quartet representative in Jerusalem.

Hence the two risks that Cameron has taken this year. First, he has given British support to the French intervention against al-Qa'ida-inspired forces in Mali. He could just have said that we were a bit busy in Afghanistan, but he seems to have become convinced that Britain should play its part (although we should remember that he also needs EU allies in the negotiations to come).

Second, he has used astonishingly Blairite language, of the kind he might once have described as that of "a naive neocon", to connect Mali with the hostage-taking in Algeria and the continuing struggle in Libya. "We are in the midst of a generational struggle against an ideology which is an extreme distortion of the Islamic faith," he told the Commons. On the same day, as the Spectator editor Fraser Nelson pointed out, President Obama said in his second inaugural address that "a decade of war is now ending".

Perhaps, when Joe Biden comes to Downing Street on Tuesday, Cameron could ask him to have a word with the boss and decide whether the leaders of the free world are coming or going.

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul; j.rentoul@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own