Kim Sengupta: Flushed with his success in Libya, the PM may aspire to a Blair-lite foreign policy

Palmerstonian tendencies may be tempered by the constraints of lack of resources and realities on the ground

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The Independent Online

There is a school of thought that Tony Blair considered himself to be too big to be the leader of a second-rank power. Thus the continuous deployment of British forces abroad, allowing him to strut the world stage. The wars of liberal intervention – East Timor, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan part one – were all relatively successful. Then came Iraq.

In his speech to the United Nations yesterday David Cameron also stressed the need for liberal military intervention, declaring it would be immoral to stand by while repressive regimes slaughter their citizens. This stance may be seen as changed from one he had taken in the past, when he argued broadly against promoting democracy and deposing dictators by military means. But does it actually mean that the Coalition will be pursuing a "Blair-lite" foreign policy?

The answer appears to be: only up to a point. Mr Cameron is flushed with victory in Libya and the welcome he got on his visit to Tripoli and Benghazi, although to most of us there he was upstaged by his fellow guest Nicolas Sarkozy. Nevertheless, being feted as a saviour of an oppressed people is bound to be intoxicating in comparison to, say, the campaign on the AV referendum back home.

But the Palmerstonian tendencies that Mr Cameron has will have to be tempered by the constraints of lack of resources and realities on the ground. It could be seen as a foregone conclusion that, with relentless Nato bombing, and even with the ineptitude of the rebels, Muammar Gaddafi would fall. But it took much longer than anticipated, it was costly in monetary terms and demonstrated the problems a Nato mission faces without the Americans doing the heavy lifting. The future of Libya, meanwhile, remains uncertain with the former dictator and his henchmen still free, the loyalist strongholds still fighting, and deep divisions already emerging among the revolutionaries.

Even the speaking out has been tempered. A passage calling for tough sanctions on the Assad regime in Syria has been removed by Downing Street so as not to irritate the Russians and the Chinese and with the US advising not to use too strident a tone at this juncture.

So how does the most major international move of the Cameron government, the Libyan mission, fit in with the foreign policy espoused when they came to power?

A theme repeatedly stressed was that much more must be done to promote British trade abroad. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that the support for the rebels in Libya, now in charge of the country, will help UK firms, along with those from France and others, to get oil contracts and also lucrative deals in the projected $200bn investment in the reconstruction of the country. The head of the new government, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, said publicly that this would be the case in a joint press conference with Mr Cameron and Mr Sarkozy in Tripoli.

The Government would say that this was a cynical interpretation of a humanitarian mission. Perhaps. But it would be interesting to see where else British troops are deployed in the future. Tony Blair, after all, can rightly point out that there were no discernible commercial motives for his liberal intervention in places like East Timor and Sierra Leone.

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