Cameron still lacks a foreign policy vision

What kind of a power do we want to be? How do we achieve that ambition? Cameron is unsure.

Nato's mission in Libya looks like a foreign policy success for David Cameron, but that is not the same thing as having a successful foreign policy.

First, the obvious caveats: it is early days; the battle is not over, let alone the war. There are easily enough military and diplomatic traps ahead for the Libyan intervention to become a failure. The prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the foreign secretary and the defence secretary have all said as much. But for now, the politics of the situation are favouring Cameron. He took a big decision under considerable pressure and, after some nerve-wracking months, it appears to have paid off. "He definitely leapt before he looked," was how one senior Ministry of Defence official put it too me early on in the campaign. (The same source also said of the anti-Gaddafi rebels "the only good fighters among them are the al-Qaeda ones", a slightly wild allegation which should nonetheless be reason enough to put blind optimism for the future on hold.)

Libyans will decide whether they are better off in the long run for the UK's military partisanship in their insurrection-cum-civil war. The point is that, in the eyes of the British public, Cameron has effectively led a short war. There are usually political dividends to be drawn from that position.

But I suspect they will be limited in this case because, as with so much of Cameron's leadership, the good news story doesn't slot into a wider strategic narrative. It is worth remembering that the Conservatives came into power signalling reluctance to reshape the world - a la Blair - by military excursion. The new doctrine, as spelled out by William Hague in a series of speeches in July 2010, was a kind of bilateral mercantilism. The UK would continue to promote freedom and democracy around the globe, the foreign secretary said, but the main tool would be aggressive pursuit of trade interests. Overseas embassies would be reconfigured as pushy chambers of commerce.

Barely weeks before taking action in Libya, Cameron declared: "I am not a naive neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000ft." The fact that Cameron then decided to use British military assets against Gaddafi doesn't signal some visionary conversion to fanatical interventionism. Libya might be a one-off; Gaddafi might just have been low-hanging despotic fruit.

To get the maximum political advantage from the intervention, Cameron has to frame the episode in terms of his vision of Britain's role in the world - and it isn't clear that he has one. The project of expanding our national influence by trade is looking trickier as the global economy falters. As an ambition it is of a pair with George Osborne's hope of rebalancing the economy and driving growth through exports - which relies on a level of overseas demand for UK goods that has not yet materialised.

A big gap in Cameron's world view (at least the publicly known portion of it) is his sense of how Britain's position in the European Union will evolve as the single currency lurches ever onward in financial and institutional crisis. As I mentioned in my column this week, this omission is stirring dissent in the party. A lot of Tories see the eurozone crisis as an opportunity to start a wholesale renegotiation of Britain's EU deal, but there isn't much appetite for that at the top of the party. (This is partly because the leadership's view of all matters EU is coloured by their "modernising" crusade in opposition, so there is an association between public expressions of fierce euroscepticism and unelectability. Then, of course, there is the problem of the stubbornly Europhile Lib Dems.)

The Arab Spring; global economic turbulence; structural crisis at the heart of the European Union - three giant themes that raise profound questions about Britain's position in the world. What kind of a power do we want to be? How do we achieve that ambition? I don't get the impression that Cameron is any closer to having persuasive answers to those questions than he was when he moved into Downing Street last year.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.