The widespread perception is that he has fluffed his first big foreign policy test.
The ferment sweeping the Muslim world is the first test of British foreign policy under Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative-led government and already there are fears that, judging from what analysts have variously dubbed his “martial” and “belligerent” rhetoric” especially over Libya, he risks plunging Britain into a Blair-like military adventure.
Is there a danger, then, that Libya could end up as “Cameron's Iraq?”
This is the question being asked after he told MPs on Monday that his government was exploring military option to “isolate” the Qadhafi regime and prevent it from using force against its own people. In remarks that had echoes of Mr. Blair's warnings to Saddam Hussein in the weeks leading up to the Iraq invasion, Mr. Cameron threatened the “use of military assets” to force out Libyan ruler Muammar Qadhafi if he did not leave on his own.
“My message to Colonel Gaddafi is simple: go now. We do not in any way rule out the use of military assets, we must not tolerate this regime using military force against its own people,” he said in the Commons.
The Prime Minister said he had already ordered his defence chiefs to prepare plans for a military “no-fly zone” over Libya prompting speculation that a military option might involve deploying ground troops, though Downing Street denied this.
Mr. Cameron also suggested that Britain could consider supplying arms to the Libyan opposition groups saying it “is certainly something we should be considering”.
With memories of Iraq and Mr. Blair's controversial doctrine of “liberal interventionism” (widely seen as a code for “western imperialism”) still fresh, Mr. Cameron's remarks sent alarm bells ringing in world capitals. Most European countries were quick to distance themselves from the plan. His tone caused surprise even in the normally gung-ho Washington with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggesting that outside military intervention could backfire. Testifying before the House foreign affairs committee, she said the Libyans were opposed to “outside intervention” and keen to be seen “as doing this by themselves”.
“We respect that,” she said.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates also made clear his reservations saying there was “no unanimity within NATO for the use of armed force”.
“And the kinds of options that have been talked about in the press and elsewhere also have their own consequences and… so they need to be considered very carefully,” he said while a senior White House official described talk of military intervention as “premature”.
In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the idea of a no-fly zone “superfluous” and Turkey dismissed NATO military intervention as “unthinkable”.
Mr. Cameron also appeared isolated at home with senior military officials warning that it could drag Britain into another long-drawn out and potentially dangerous adventure even as British forces were still bogged down in Afghanistan. Experts questioned the legality of any foreign intervention in Libya without the approval of the U.N. Security Council.
With no takers for the plan, Downing Street initially appeared to row back arguing that it was only “contingency planning”. But soon Mr. Cameron returned to his old theme telling the Commons that he stood by his proposal despite the lukewarm response of other countries.
Mr. Cameron's macho stance has caused surprise. This is the man, critics point out, who until recently revelled in deriding his Labour predecessor's internationalism and vowed, instead, to put bilateralism — especially bilateral trade — at the heart of his foreign policy. In fact, his emphasis on trade diplomacy spawned jokes that he had a “mercantilist view” that saw the world as “a giant Tesco branch”, in the words of Telegraph's Mary Riddell.
In the Financial Times, Philip Stephens noted that Mr. Cameron's “journey from innocence to experience” had been “brutally short” while the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland described Mr. Cameron's transformation as “dizzying”.
So, what changed?
His supporters claim that he has been a victim of bad advice. Another view is that it is a case of “rush of blood” having the better of a young and inexperienced Prime Minister seemingly in a hurry to make his presence felt on the world stage — another British Prime Minister (an heir to Mr. Blair, if you like) seized by an evangelical urge to sort out the world. Others have called it calculated “posturing” to grab headlines and distract attention from his domestic difficulties as anti-recessionary cuts in public spending start to bite amid signs of a public backlash.
Whatever his motivation, critics say there is a basic hypocrisy at the heart of the British position. For the fact, they argue, is that over the past decade the British establishment has been the “best mates” with Mr. Qadhafi who was hailed as the biggest success story of the West's “civilising” mission in Africa and the Muslim world. The man now being described as a “murderous tyrant” was held up as a model for countries such as Iran to follow if they wanted western legitimacy.
In recent years, British businesses — and not just oil companies — have thrived on lucrative deals with Libya; British armed forces have trained Libyan soldiers now being used to terrorise the people; and Britain's cash-strapped academic institutions have fallen over each other to attract Libyan funding. The venerable London School of Economics is among several British universities that have benefited from the Qadhafi family's generosity. It accepted a £1.5-million donation from the Qadhafi's International Charity and Development Foundation. It came courtesy Mr. Qadhafi's son Saif al Qadhafi, who spent three years at LSE producing a Ph.D. which, it is now being alleged, was partly ghost-written.
LSE director Howard Davies admits he feels “embarrassed” by the university's links with the Qadhafis and that the decision to accept the funding had “backfired”.
The Qadhafi regime shamelessly used oil, cash and contacts in high places to promote its interests and the Labour government under Tony Blair, who became a personal friend of the Libyan dictator, ensured that Tripoli got a resounding bang for every buck it spent. Of course, now, Mr. Blair says he is horrified by what his old friend is up to (“ I am as appalled as anyone else about what has been happening,” he told The Times) and he has been on phone to the “colonel” urging him to quit — a plea that, predictably, has fallen on deaf ears in Tripoli.
Meanwhile, as for Mr. Cameron, the widespread perception is that he has fluffed his first big foreign policy test with many in his own party questioning his handling of the Libyan crisis. Observers say there appears to be a “distinct” lack of strategic direction in Downing Street giving the impression that it has simply picked up where Mr Blair left — not a great advertisement for a party that came to power promising to “draw a marker under Blair's wars”, as a seasoned Whitehall watcher noted.
One Tory MP accused him of making “policy on the hoof.”