Adrian Hamilton: Now you see the PM, now you don't

International Studies
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The Independent Online

We haven't heard much from David Cameron of late about Libya, despite the fact that at the beginning of the conflict you could hardly stop him making statements, and that it remains one of our two biggest military commitments. But then we haven't heard too much from him about the other commitment, Afghanistan, either, despite the fact he has just been there. He seemed keener to talk about the more pressing concern of phone hacking back at home.

Little wonder really. Foreign policy, just as domestic policy, has become an area where the Prime Minister starts by talking the talk but then distances himself as soon as the going gets rough.

And the going is certainly getting rough on foreign policy, just as it has on the NHS, court sentencing, benefits cuts and pension curbs. The Libyan intervention, which seemed so moral and so purposeful when it started, has now descended to a remorseless, and hardly ennobling, pattern of daily air bombardment that has left Colonel Gaddafi in place on one side and is gradually eroding the unity of Nato and the UN on the other.

It is still likely to end in the Libyan leader's fall as his supporters see it in their interests to divorce themselves from him. And then, no doubt, Cameron will be back on the airwaves claiming his part in Gaddafi's downfall. But it was something that could have been achieved by commercial and diplomatic isolation rather than an open and divisive pursuit of regime change through military means. Oil revenues kept the colonel and his regime alive. Lack of them would have starved him out.

Meanwhile, the Afghan venture is hardly proceeding more gloriously. In spite of the Prime Minister's visit and the efforts in his statement to the Commons yesterday to spin this as a brave and unique British effort, the reality is that our troop force has been marginalised by the US surge. As President Obama talks of exit, we appear more and more as the powerless partner of their actions, not our own. Whether we delay the withdrawal of the next 500 until late next year, as indicated in the statement, or do it now is neither here nor there.

The third major area of international policy is, of course, Europe. And here, again, David Cameron seemed to start so well, confidently handling the talks on the growing debt problems of Ireland and Greece and suggesting that, for all the murmurings of the backbenchers, Britain was going to play an active and constructive part in European politics. No longer. As the problem of Greek debts has become more intractable, and more threatening to the union as a whole, the British Prime Minister, and his Foreign Secretary, have retreated to a stance of "now't to do with us, not our problem, mate" – ever the security zone of ministers when Europe is mentioned.

There is a cynical interpretation for Cameron's habit of retreat. As the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, is discovering, alongside Michael Gove, Andrew Lansley, Kenneth Clarke and Vincent Cable, when the going gets tough, the Prime Minister gets going in the opposite direction.

His supporters would have you believe that this is because, at the beginning, his inclination was to let his Cabinet colleagues get on with things. It's only when they have got into difficulties that he has been forced to intervene with u-turns and reversals.

You don't know your Etonians if you believe that. Collegiate responsibility is not taught at that august institution. The right to rule is. It suits the prime minister to see his Cabinet brethern and possible rivals trip over themselves, leaving only himself and his Chancellor standing. William Hague is not immune to this policy of "giving them enough rope to hang themselves with" – even more so considering his previous standing. The other interpretation – and the more likely one – is even more depressing. It is that we are witnessing abroad, as at home, the lack of any overarching policy at all.

David Cameron, like his hero, Tony Blair, is very good at tone, at sensing moods and riding them. But there is no coherent view of the world behind. The trouble with foreign policy is that events always catch you out in the end.

The law shouldn't decide Srebrenica

The verdict of a court in The Nethrlands that the Dutch government had failed in its duty of care in Srebrenica and should be held financially responsible for the deaths its troops did not, or could not prevent, has obviously been welcomed by the families of three Bosnians handed over to their certain death.

Whether it opens the way to the families of the 8,000 others massacred at the time, and in particular the case taken by the Mothers of Srebrenica against the Dutch government, is open to question. This judgement concerns three individuals – including an electrician and interpreter – who had been employed by the Dutch peacekeeping force and had tried to take refuge in their offices. The troops were lightly armed, were under UN orders not to fight and had no backing from air or land had they decided to.

One can see the point of developing law about the duty of safeguarding civilians in extreme circumstances. One can sympathise with the feelings of outrage at the troops who should have protected the Bosnians and failed to do so. But is it really going to help promote UN humanitarian interventions in the future to try to remove its immunity and bandy around words like "cowardice" at the troops involved? And does bringing monetary compensation into moral questions do anything more than confuse the issue?