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

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Syria's Kurds have little choice but to flee amid the desolution, ruins and danger they face

Patrick Cockburn
A bartender serves two Mojito cocktails  

For the twenty-somethings of today, growing up is hard to do

Simon Kelner
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones