By Martin Ivens
SEEKING to justify the loss of blood and treasure, Gordon Brown once described Afghanistan as “Britain’s frontline”. Put beside the Arab uprisings on Britain’s doorstep, the fate of that benighted country looks positively marginal to British interests. A glance at the price of a barrel of oil provides an eloquent reminder of the importance of energy security to Britain’s stuttering economy.
All sorts of historical analogies are employed: “The springtime of nations” in the revolutionary year of 1848 or eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But in 1989 we knew the people involved were “ours”. They shared our values, our ideology. We knew they wanted to rejoin Europe. Today, every Western government is scrambling after events. We haven’t a clue where the Arab people are headed.
It’s rare to see the British foreign policy establishment so humble. Barack Obama wobbled over the fall of Egypt, Nicolas Sarkozy sacked his foreign minister for taking freebies from the Tunisian government and Germany has been mired in an absurd scandal about its Defence Minister’s plagiarised thesis.
The speed of events provides a tough test for Downing Street, and for the past fortnight David Cameron has appeared to zigzag. He must learn the lessons of his recent domestic policy fumbles.
The case against the British Prime Minister goes like this. First came the Foreign Office’s botched evacuation of British nationals from Libya and accusations that No 10 was slow off the mark. His shiny new National Security Council was in place, but someone had forgotten to press the “go” button.
Then Cameron was derided for taking arms salesmen on a Gulf tour while preaching democracy to the peoples of the Middle East. All prime ministers like the glamour of “securing” big foreign contracts, but forget that arms deals have a habit of going embarrassingly awry.
Sending in special forces to pluck British nationals from Libya last weekend looked bold, but then Cameron floated in the Commons on Monday a no-fly zone to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s vengeful rage.
The following day he appeared to backtrack: the no-fly zone was merely “a contingency plan”. A rebuke was duly delivered from on high by Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, who slammed London’s “loose talk”.
Then The Times printed what one senior Tory called “the first major leak from cabinet under the coalition”, revealing divisions among idealists and realists over foreign policy. Most colourful was the account of Education Secretary’s Michael Gove’s eloquent advocacy of armed intervention. Ministers deny the conversation generated real heat, but the story gave an impression of a government in mild disarray.
And yet the substance of Cameron’s foreign policy is sensible. He shows some inexperience, but that is not unusual in a prime minister with only 10 months behind him. A traditional Tory, Cameron has no pet foreign causes: American electioneering, for instance, which so fascinates his friend George Osborne, leaves him cold, and he was sceptical of dropping democracy on high from a bomb bay. For all that, he showed pluck in becoming the first Western leader to visit revolutionary Egypt — just as he had in opposition by flying to Georgia after the Russian invasion. He was entirely right in Kuwait to call for the Arab people to be granted “their basic rights”.
The public service chiefs commend his grasp of the issues. As ever, Cameron’s problem is his improvisational style. Good in a crisis, he does not anticipate events; and a threadbare policy unit, so influential in Margaret Thatcher’s successes, does little to arm him for them. A no-fly zone is not a matter for improvisation. It entails bombing air defences. In the Balkans it didn’t prevent massacres, so it might lead to deploying troops. Britain would need allies to make it work.