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Don’t be fooled, Dave is no dove

Cameron continues to defend the Iraq war and his shadow cabinet is brimming with hawks

On 15 January, standing in front of a vast map at Chatham House, David Cameron unveiled the Conservatives' new national security strategy and signalled a reluctance to send British troops to fight abroad. "We've got to think through much more carefully whether Britain should get involved in a foreign conflict, and, if so, how to cope with the consequences," he declared.

So is the era of New Labour military adventurism over? Not quite. As is often the case with Cameron, perception trumps reality: he is obviously no dove. Take Iraq. Despite whispers that he had doubts about the 2003 invasion, Cameron, at least in public, still stands by his decision to vote for it. In a recent interview, he declared, in effect, that like Tony Blair he would have gone to war without evidence of WMDs. "I look back over what I said to my constituents and the argument about weapons of mass destruction was just one of the points that I put," he said. "I think the fact that Saddam Hussein was in breach of so many UN resolutions, and was such a menace to the region, were also relevant points."

You might think that a media pack obsessed with Iraq would have picked up on Cameron's hawkish remarks. You'd be wrong. The right-wing apologists were as soft on the Conservative leader on international issues as they were on domestic ones.

Or how about the Tory line on Afghanistan? Brigadier Ed Butler, the former commander of British forces in Helmand, told me last year that he had privately warned Cameron that the Afghan war would be his "biggest foreign policy challenge" in government. But Cameron's approach is largely indistinguishable from that outlined by the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband (see page 37), in spite of what the Tory leader might want us to believe.

In his speech to the party conference in October, Cameron called for an Afghan strategy "that is credible and doable". His suggestion? "Send more soldiers to train more Afghans to deliver the security we need. Then we can bring our troops home." Plausible? Maybe. Original? No. Even US Republicans have voiced their doubts about Cameron's ability to offer a coherent or compelling international vision.

War cabinet

In a scathing critique published on the website of the Foreign Policy journal last August, William Inboden, a former National Security Council official in the Bush administration, dismissed Tory statements on foreign policy as "vague", "anaemic", filled with the "usual platitudes" and lacking "any substantial geostrategic analysis of the state of the world". Specifically citing the Conservatives' proposal to establish a "National Security Council" - or "de facto war cabinet", to borrow Cameron's phrase - Inboden pointed out that "the prominence of process reforms in Tory statements inadvertently reveals the paucity of other substantial new policy ideas".

Nothing has better illustrated Cameron's inexperience and lack of judgement than his intervention in the South Ossetia conflict in 2008, when he rushed to Tbilisi to declare his support for embattled Georgia, which, he wrongly claimed, had been "illegally invaded" by Russia. However, as the former Tory foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind pointed out at the time, "Britain, France and Germany are not going to go to war with Russia over South Ossetia", adding that it was "totally unconvincing" to claim that the conflict wouldn't have happened had Georgia been in Nato.

Pro-war neoconservatives hailed Cameron's posturing over Georgia. But it is too simplistic to dismiss him as another neoconservative. He has rejected the label - preferring the tag "liberal Conservative" - and argued that "we cannot impose democracy at the barrel of a gun". Nonetheless, as one senior Tory backbencher pointed out to me, Cameron's shadow cabinet is brimming with neocon hawks, such as George Osborne, Michael Gove, Liam Fox and William Hague.

In government, would the policy-lite Conservative leader be able to resist the belligerence and slavish Atlanticism of these influential figures on his front bench? Or would he gravitate back towards the traditional Tory school of scepticism in international affairs, as personified by ex-foreign secretaries such as Rifkind and Douglas Hurd?

For Cameron's sake, as well as the country's, we can only hope so.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war