Magazine article The Spectator

Beware of the Hawks

Magazine article The Spectator

Beware of the Hawks

Article excerpt

Supporters of intervention in Syria will be the first to desert Cameron when the going gets tough

What is the one consolation for an MP who has beaten all their colleague s to the top job? It can hardly be the luxury of having your life, circle and income open to alternate snorts of envy and derision. Nor can it be the quagmire into which nearly all attempts to solve the nation's domestic problems now fall.

Only one thing allows prime ministers of a country such as Britain to feel they have power. That is exercising it. And nothing exercises power more than deciding which wars to fight.

In opposition, David Cameron did not much like the idea of war, and derided his colleagues for their admiration of Tony Blair. Yet in office - as Syria is revealing - he is treading a very similar path. We are told that he is phoning the White House to discuss Syria and hoping to put steel into Barack Obama's spine, just as Blair did with Bill Clinton over Bosnia. Cameron is doing so not because he emulates Blair, but rather because it is the path almost any leader would take at this point in our history.

The global axis of world power is turning. Obama's America is retreating from international leadership. China and Russia are resurgent and happy to prove it. Despite our diminished resources and influence, the best shot at seriousness any British leader can have is still to bestride the world stage.

And they can do so at a knock-down price.

Blair was delighted to discover that the UK still 'punched above its weight' and that he could behave like a world leader even while slowly decimating our armed forces. Cameron is cutting the military still further, yet seems just as eager to deploy forces soon to be smaller than at any time since the preNapoleonic era.

In his leading of the charge in Libya and now in Syria, Cameron is demonstrating a recognisable desire to do something with his office: to say that Britain is a force for good - a nation that likes to shape the world rather than be shaped by it. It is a noble impulse.

And it is understandable that he should seek to rise above the impossibility of his domestic role by confronting tyrants. Whether it is wise is, of course, another matter.

When Tony Blair was preparing to become prime minister he expected his legacy to be domestic. But then everybody always does. Nobody climbs their party hierarchy by harping on about changing the outside world. When the Princeton academic Woodrow Wilson was elected president of America, he mused that 'it would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs'. This was January 1913. Few leaders have much choice in the matter.

In opposition, Cameron was not interested in war. When he had to talk about foreign affairs he chose to decry the alleged hubris of Blair's foreign interventions. 'I am a liberal conservative, rather than a neo-conservative, ' he said. 'Bombs and missiles are bad ambassadors. They win no hearts and minds;

they can build no democracies.' But he was no more in favour of action closer to the ground. His priorities were underlined by his spending decisions after he was elected:

the military budget was cut while the foreign aid budget soared by a third.

Yet this is the same Prime Minister who persuaded close colleagues of the need to intervene to prevent Colonel Gaddafi massacring the citizens of Benghazi when they rose up. The same Prime Minister is now leading the international charge against the Assad regime in Syria. And the preferred method he is now advocating is deploying those very same 'bombs and missiles' which he now seems to have found some faith in.

To understand Cameron's journey, one must consider Tony Blair's much-scrutinised but little-understood premiership. For Blair the important moment was not Iraq or Afghanistan but Kosovo. There were two epiphanies about that conflict in particular that are worth understanding. …

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