LONDON—As the world watches in wonder at revolutions sweeping the Arab world, Britain’s David Cameron has been at the forefront of Europe’s response, traveling to Egypt shortly after the fall of Hosni Mubarak and speaking energetically about helping rebels and imposing a no-fly zone in Libya.
But Cameron has had to backtrack on talk of aiding the Libyan opposition, an embarrassing technical glitch hit the effort to airlift Britons from the North African nation, and his muscular talk on no-fly zones received a tepid response from important allies. Much like the Libyan rescue flight stuck on the runway last week, Cameron’s foreign policy is having trouble taking off these days.
“They’re just completely floundering,” said Dan Plesch, an expert on diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies, when asked about the British government’s response to the Libyan crisis. He was particularly dismissive of Cameron’s plans for a no-fly zone, something he called “hugely impractical.”
“Basically this is just knee-jerk nonsense done for domestic bombast,” he said. “It was a bit of saber-rattling, to make some nice headlines.”
Criticism dogged Cameron’s Egypt trip.
The 44-year-old leader was among the most outspoken critics of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak’s attacks on pro-democracy protesters. But when he visited Egypt shortly after Mubarak’s ouster—theoretically as part of a campaign to boost political reform—journalists and critics couldn’t help but notice that he traveled with an entourage of arms dealers.
“This trip may be about the ballot box but the bullet is in there too,” the BBC’s James Landale quipped. Arms control campaigners were incensed, accusing the government of supporting reform on the one hand while peddling weapons to their oppressors on the other.
Controversy over arms sales intensified as the unrest spread from Egypt to Libya, not least because U.K.-built armored riot trucks were spotted cruising around as protesters were shot and killed in the street. Britain is the world’s fifth largest arms exporter, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and Libya was among its customers, scooping up a wide variety of gear—including the trucks, tear gas, crowd-control ammunition and sniper rifles.
Quizzed by lawmakers on Monday, Cameron defended Britain’s arms control legislation as some of the toughest in the world, although he acknowledged that “we should be looking at this and seeing what more can be done.”
There were other embarrassing moments, like the press conference at which foreign minister William Hague suggested that Gadhafi had fled to Venezuela (Hague later said he was repeating what he’d seen in the media) or the time when a charter jet intended for desperate Britons stranded in Libya languished on the tarmac at London’s Gatwick airport for 10 hours, grounded by a technical fault.
“There are lessons to learn,” Cameron said of the evacuation.
Later, Cameron suggested he might support sending weapons to Libyan rebels fighting Gadhafi and was making plans to impose no-fly zone. That, combined with his warning that Britain did not “in any way rule out the use of military assets,” made for explosive rhetoric which allied officials spent the next couple of days trying to defuse.
The U.S. brushed aside talk of arming the rebels, while Russia—which wields a veto at the U.N. Security Council—said a no-fly zone would be superfluous. Hague later suggested that a flight ban might be imposed even without U.N. sanction, but he was contradicted by incoming French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who said that no such intervention would be undertaken without the international organization’s mandate.
“So much for a foreign policy that works,” Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper wrote in an opinion piece Wednesday.
A parliamentary report published the same day suggested that concerns over the prime minister’s foreign policy stretch beyond the Arab world. The report, which centered on Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that the U.K. was failing to control the grinding Taliban insurgency which has claimed more than 350 British lives. The report, compiled by senior British lawmakers—including several from within Cameron’s own party—added that the prime minister’s rationale for imposing a 2015 deadline on the withdrawal of British troops from the country was both unclear and risky.
Plesch, who heads his school’s Center for International Studies and Diplomacy, said that Britain’s options were quite limited. In Afghanistan, he said, Britain was tethered to the U.S. Elsewhere, Cameron didn’t have the resources to back his rhetoric.
For example: Britain is in the process of scrapping its flagship aircraft carrier, the HMS Ark Royal, so imposing Cameron’s no-fly zone without allied support might require Tornado jets to patrol Libyan airspace from faraway Cyprus, an extremely expensive proposition at a time of deep defense cuts.
Cameron would have to learn not to let media-friendly pronouncements on fighting for democracy set his country up for international embarrassment, Plesch said. “Our room for maneuver is slight and our influence does not accord with our ego,” he warned.