Leader: Cameron should not seek to be the heir to Blair in North Africa

Shortly after his election as Conservative leader, David Cameron is said to have described himself as “the heir to Blair”. Rarely has this sobriquet seemed more appropriate than in the days following the Algerian hostage crisis and its bloody conclusion. In an uncanny echo of Mr Blair’s rhetoric after the 11 September 2001 attacks, Mr Cameron spoke of a “generational struggle” against jihadism in North Africa, of an “existential threat” from groups that want to do the “biggest possible amount of damage to our interests and way of life” and of a global war that could last “decades”. He ended his statement to the House of Commons on 21 January by declaring: “We must frustrate the terrorists with our security; we must beat them militarily.”

Mr Cameron’s words are in part a necessary counsel against complacency. The west has been slow to recognise the emergence of new jihadist fronts across North and Central Africa. Only now is it acknowledged that the western intervention in Libya had the unintended consequence of allowing trained fighters and vast quantities of weapons to spill over into Algeria and Mali, where France deployed forces this month. Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, described the proliferation of weapons out of Libya as being on “a scale greater than [in] any previous conflict”. Malian army officers report being overrun by rebel forces equipped with anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets smuggled in from Tripoli.

The overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, where the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra is leading the rebellion against the Ba’athist government, could have similar consequences. After the uncomplicated euphoria that greeted the Arab spring, the west’s calculus of risk has shifted.

If the threat has previously been understated, Mr Cameron is in danger of committing the equal and opposite error of overstatement. In another echo of Mr Blair –who once declared, “If we don’t fight [terrorism], it’s going to come after us” – the Prime Minister told MPs, “We should be working with others to help make the world safe all over the place, Mali included, because if we do not, the threat there will grow and we will face it as well.” Yet there is no evidence that the groups Mr Cameron to which refers, increasingly localised and fragmented in nature, are either willing or able to mount attacks in Europe.

By emphasising the “global threat” from al-Qaeda and its surrogates, he is also in danger of replicating the greatest mistake of the “war on terror” – that of conflating groups with little or nothing in common. Largely disparate outfits should not be handed a banner of unity under which to shelter. In defining the conflict in Mali, Mr Cameron should have taken greater care to distinguish between the Tuareg separatists, who have been waging an insurgency against the central government since 1963, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which opportunistically seized control of the revolt last year.

A more nuanced tone has been struck by the US administration, which has highlighted the localised nature of the conflicts and has avoided rash talk of a threat to the western “way of life”. In his second inaugural address, Barack Obama spoke of “a decade of war” coming to an end and declared: “Enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”

For now, there remains a welcome gulf between Mr Cam - eron’s rhetoric and his government’s policy. He has wisely avoid committing British troops to the action in Mali and has emphasised the need to train local forces and address the political grievances that give rise to extremism. Yet the risk remains that Mr Cameron, like Mr Blair, will eventually be tempted to seek refuge from his domestic woes in foreign adventurism.

Before making any further pronouncements, he should reread the thoughtful speech he delivered on foreign policy in 2006. “It is not responsible to try [to] polarise debate through simplistic exercises in political positioning,” Mr Cameron said. “Foreign policy decisions are not black and white, something which the public well understands. We need a sense of balance, judgement and proportion in handling the complex and dangerous challenges of foreign and security policy in the 21st century.”

That is as true now as it was then. Although it is the neoconservatives in Mr Cameron’s party who have dominated debate in recent times, there is a rich tradition of Tory pragmatism for the Prime Minister to draw from. If he is to avoid repeating the errors that characterised a decade of western foreign policymaking, his response must be defined by patience, caution and scepticism. The UK has paid a high price for reckless interventionism in recent years. It must not do so again.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez