David Cameron’s wars: How the PM learned to love precision bombing

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

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

What is the one consolation for an MP who has beaten all their colleagues 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 pre-Napoleonic 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. The first was that the use of targeted strikes against the forces of Slobodan Milosevic succeeded in preventing any further ethnic cleansing of the Kosovar Albanians. Thus military force — which was connected in Blair’s generation of lefties with brute, evil imperialism — was revealed as capable of being a force for good. Military force could be progressive; it could relieve human suffering.

The second part of Blair’s Kosovo epiphany was the more intoxicating. Britain had succeeded in taking part in the coalition against Milosevic (and helped lead it) without losing a single British life. The same was not true with Afghanistan, which turned into more than a decade of largely failed state-building. Iraq, which both Washington and London expected to be a swift and clinical regime ‘decapitation’, turned into a bloody and sectarian mess. And one which is ongoing: 520 Iraqis died last month alone.

So Kosovo turned out to be an exception. But it stuck with Blair. It was after Kosovo (incidentally, not approved by the UN and thus an ‘illegal war’) that he was riding high on the world stage. It was visiting those people he saved that he was at his most popular. Libya was similar for Cameron. Nobody was lost on the side Cameron ordered into battle. And it was in Tripoli and Benghazi that he and President Sarkozy were treated as liberators, statesmen and saviours.

If Blair’s conversion happened over years, Cameron’s took days. The week before the Libya campaign he was in Egypt and once again trotted out his line that he was ‘not a naive neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet’. In fact there was no time to decide whether to send the Royal Navy’s Tomahawk missiles into Tripoli; Gaddafi was preparing to rout the rebels in Benghazi and there were only a few hours to implement a no-fly zone. This was the moment when Cameron himself grew up and, like Blair before him, learned to love the precision-guided bomb.

We saw the newly hawkish Cameron again in January, when Islamic terrorists seized a BP gas plant in Algeria. The Algerian government responded without consulting him, to his undisguised dismay. But in his speech to the Commons, Cameron sounded very much the war leader. ‘We are in the midst of a generational struggle against an ideology which is an extreme distortion of the Islamic faith,’ he declared. It is far from clear that Barack Obama agrees. That same day, in his second inaugural address, the President told Americans that ‘a decade of war is now ending’.

So Britain finds itself once again in the position where a prime minister is urging an American president to act. If Cameron has an advantage in this it is that he has become Prime Minister in an era where nearly everyone is an interventionist. It may be strange, considering the course of the Afghan and Iraq wars, but politicians and public of left and right now routinely express the desire that Britain should act. Just as once it was the pictures of Milosevic’s victims, or Saddam’s or Gaddafi’s, now the impetus comes from photos of the residents of a Syrian suburb shelled with chemical weapons. The pictures come out and the same cry goes up. Even Samantha Cameron, fresh from visiting Syrian refugees in Lebanon, is apparently of the same mind: ‘something must be done’, ‘you can’t just stand there’. What is a prime minister to do in such a situation?

Many, primarily on the left, will say that anything and everything must be done to relieve the appalling human suffering.  But such voices should come with a health warning.  They are the first to fall away once the inevitable consequences of ‘something’ occur. When the first school or hospital is accidentally struck by a precision-guided bomb the ‘something must be done’ brigade are the first warriors to retreat even from their own armchairs. It is a similar tale on the slightly less interventionist right. Once the story turns — once there are atrocities which can be put down to ‘us’ and not ‘them’ or British casualties actually pile up, the calculus always shifts. But the person who has ordered action — the Blair or the Cameron — is left holding the thing.

As readers of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher will know, this is the most isolating moment of leadership. It will be what the PM will be weighing up now. If Tomahawk missiles are aimed at Syria, then what next? Might Britain end up being sucked into an ethnic conflict? Perhaps he was lucky in Libya. Had the Gaddafi regime held on for much longer, British stockpiles of the necessary munitions — already seriously depleted and not replaced — would have run dry.

Whatever he decides, he must recognise that the problem of Syria is both like other cases and wholly different. The repercussions of many interventions in recent years suggest that there are three golden rules.  Never get involved unless you are clear on your objective. Never pursue that objective unless you are willing to go in far further if needed. And finally, be prepared to lose everything.

At present there is no clear objective in Syria. Everyone deplores the regime’s use of weapons — chemical and conventional. Sending a few missiles as a slap on the wrist could be weak and ineffectual. Toppling Assad is an option. But to what end? He is certainly bad, but the alternatives look even worse.  Anybody can spot plenty of ‘bad guys’ in the Syrian civil war. It is finding the ‘good’ ones that is tricky. In addition, we have neither the desire nor the capability to own the country if our actions break it. There is no appetite to go further than dropping liberty from 10,000 feet. Given the quality of Syrian air defences, is Cameron willing to lose pilots this time? Or be dragged further in if a post-Assad Syria makes post-Saddam Iraq look like a cakewalk?

The diplomatic questions are just as ugly as the military ones. Is he willing to stand up to Russia and China? Is he willing to accept that the UN Security Council will not approve any action and that he will thus be ordering (ridiculous term) an ‘illegal war’? If he proceeds regardless, and things go badly wrong, is he willing — as Blair turned out to be — to stake his whole political career on a bloody and benighted country he barely knows?

One military chief recently pointed out in private that everybody — the military included — makes their own problems.  The military thought Libya couldn’t be done on available resources.  The PM overrode their objections and was proved right. As the military source pointed out, that may mean the PM is less willing to listen to the military next time.  He went on: ‘I fear that it will take another debacle — another Suez-style debacle — for British politicians to learn how far they have stretched the military.’  Of course ‘next time’ is now ‘this time’.

And that is the really vital thing about power that any leader ought to know. Not just when to exercise it.  But when to refrain from doing so.

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  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Look at the big picture, guys. Iraq via Afghanistan. Iraq via Syria. The major plus is that it speeds up the inevitable decline and fall of the United States of Torture. Britain should be mending a few fences, not falling into line as America`s chief henchman.
    Jack, Japan Alps

    • martinhoran

      Obama would not be pushing the issue any more than Clinton would have over Iraq. Clinton pushed his dream because he knew that Blair wanted his place in history. Obama is doing likewise because the knows Cameron’s a clone of Blair. One thing the four of them all have in common is the are dedicated to their New World Order. It’s been on the cards for a long time.
      JFK stood against it. So did Margaret Thatcher. Both were removed because they were thwarting it.

      Like them or loathe them what you got was what you saw. In spite of their faults both put their own countries first and only intervened in things when it was a threat to their countries’ interests.

  • martinhoran

    The same guys were sabre rattlilng against Egypt for taking on the same Muslim Brotherhood because the Egyptians, like the Syrians, know just how these people operate.

    The MB used gas on the Syrians, not Assad, knowing it would get fools like Obama & Cameron on their side. They have been proved correct.
    interesting that neither Blair nor Obama have cared a hoot about the MB slaughter of Copts in Egypt or of burning down churches and the MB obsession to wipe Israel off the map & kill Jews wherever they find them.
    Wallid Shoebat (a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood & PLO terrorist) became a Christian–the death penalty for Muslim apostates–and states clearly on his blog that the MB are behind this and gives evidence why. Other former Muslms like Tass Saadra (Arafat’s right-right hadn man who tried to assassinate Jordans’ King Hussein), Mark Gabriel (a former Cairo IMAM), Pastor JD Farag and Joseph Farah will tell you the same thing. Please Google these men, because the liberal-left controlled media won’t tell you about them or let you know what they teach.

    All of these men know how the MB operate. Gassing even their own people is not a problem for them. They have trained children to be suicide bombers for decades. Besides, they believe they’re sending their Muslim victims to paradise and infidesl to hell so it is a blessing either way for them..
    Obama & Cameron, like Prince Charles, need to have the Koran thumped very hard on their heads till some of what it actually preaches gets through their thick skulls. These three fools live in cloud cuckooland. They need to be woken up.
    Sadly, they are not alone. We have a media that is full of idiots as willfully ignorant as they.

    • Moa

      Great post. Yes, the Left-leaning media have an agenda and certainly hide the facts about poltiical Islam from the general population.

      The problem is, many in the West equate Islam with Christianity and Judaism. The former is a political ideology that has a fig leaf of superstition over it. The latter two are personal faiths that have morphed into being non-violent.

      Islamic Law (“Sharia”) also asserts jurisdiction over non-Muslims, whereas Christianity and Judiasm do not. That is a huge and *fundamental* difference between these superstitions. Do not be fooled that “Islam is a religion of peace” it is anything but (take a glance at http://thereligionofpeace.com/ for the facts of the daily carnage caused by *mainstream* Islamic doctrines – jihadis are extreme in action only, not in their interpretation of Islam).

      Please also note that Islam has three sets of scriptures. The Qur’an, the Sira (Life of the evil pedophile warlord Mohammed), and hadith (sayings about Mohammed by others).

      The hadith illuminates the Qur’an. The whole of the conflct between Jews and Muslims has *nothing* to do with the land. Even if the Jews moved to Antarctica the Muslims are still commanded by Islamic ideology to commit genocide on them. See hadith Sahih Muslim 6985.

      Furthermore, the Jews/Israelis are just first on the hit list. As the Palestinians say, “First comes Saturday, then comes Sunday”. First they will kill those who worship on Saturday (the Jews), then they will subjugate those who worship on Sunday (Christians and secular Westerners). This is mandated by Islamic doctrine in the Qur’an in many places, for example:

      Sura 9:5 and 9:29 and these Suras “abrogate” (replace) any peaceful verses from earlier in Mohammed’s career.

      Islam is not a religion of peace. It is a totalitarian, theocratic, barbaric, supremacist, *political* ideology whose stated goal is to subjugate the whole world (as stated in the Suras I referenced).

      Anyone who denies this either doesn’t know Islamic doctrine (most Muslims don’t know their official doctrine) or is lying to your face (there are four types of lying permitted in Islam, “taqiyya” and “kitman” are the most famous: here is a description of the others:

      The political ideology called “Islam” and global “Enlightenment Culture” are utterly incompatible once you understand both. Read the Qur’an and hadiths. No right-minded person will ever defend the evil that is Islam once they do this.

  • The Laughing Cavalier

    A pedant’s plea against the misuse of the word “decimate”. It means to reduce by ten percent. If Blair, Brown and Cameron had only decimated the armed forces, they would be very much stronger than they are now.

    • Abhay

      Just expanding the pedantry slightly…

      ‘Decimate’ is of Indo-European linguistic origin based on ‘ten’ – Latin ‘Decem’, Sanskrit ‘Dasham’, Avestan ‘Daha’, Greek ‘Deka’, Gothic ‘Daihun/Taihun’

      • Moa

        Historically “decimation” is a punishment used by the Roman (Republican, IIRC) armies for poor performance in the field or insubordination.

        A displeased commander would order his troops to draw lots and every tenth man would be killed by his more fortunate peers.

        While this is the traditional definition, it is well understood these days that when people say “decimate” they usually actually mean “annihilate”. You can be pedantic if you wish, but the intended meaning is not usually lost on non-pedants.

        • Abhay

          All that you have said is correct. TLC knows it. I know that too. I use the word in the sense of ‘destroy’ or ‘annihilate’. Our posts above, let me clarify, are half in jest. Light banter.

  • Abhay

    Thank you for a very mature article, rich in anecdotes and serious in its conclusions.
    As European leaders struggle at home, they will seek legacies overseas against weak and failing countries. Don’t expect them to stand up to China or Saudi Arabia. At home, such leaders are struggling to do anything meaningful as consensus building becomes harder and treasuries are drained and strained.

  • These Writings

    The True Story of Syria is that Anglo-France wanted a Regime Change in Syria, and so they Funded and Supported Foreign Mercenary Terrorists to try to Overthrow the Legitimate Government of Syria.

    This Criminal Action that is against International Law has caused the Deaths of 100,000 Men, Women, and Children, and has created 1,000,000 Refugees, along with much Damage to Private Property and Government Infrastructure.

    This has greatly harmed the Syrian Economy, because Anglo-France are Twisted and Nasty, and so it wants to Continue being Twisted and Nasty, because that is who they are.

    We have no way of believing Denials by Anglo-France, that one of their Several True Intentions are to damage the World Economy.

    Anglo-America has been spying on the Entire World, and the United Nations Experts know that they can either be Bribed or Intimidated to go along with Anglo-France’s Lying Script.

    Anglo-France have not been able to topple the Legitimate Syrian Government after more than 2 years of these Tactics, and so Anglo-France have Invented this Lie that the Syrian Government has used chemical weapons; whereas, the Facts are that if chemical weapons were used, then it was Supplied by Anglo-France, and it was done on the Orders of Anglo-France, and People are asking as to the timing of these things.

    We know that September 11 is coming up soon, and so the American Government is Keen as Ever to Deceive People that those Attacks were not Conducted by American Elites.

    There are Many American Experts who know that 9/11 was not done by Foreigners, but by American Elites at http://www.911truth.org/ , and http://www.ae911truth.org/ , and http://www.youtube.com/user/ae911truth .

    If we look at the Video of the Collapse of Buiding 7, which was not hit by a plane or anything else, then we can see that this was a typical Controlled Demolition at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqG6v7KZ_s8 .

    What this teaches us, is that Truth, even Obvious Truth, has no Place with most of the Anglo-French Politicians, who are Vampires who have an Insatiable Lust for Blood.

    The Only Concerns of most of the Anglo-French Politicians is to Lie, to Cheat on their Taxes, to Accept Bribes, to be Criminals, and to Murder as Many People that they can, while Falsely Claiming to be Pure, with the help of the Bribed and Corrupt Western Main Stream Media.

    A former French Foreign Minister says Britain had been planning a war against Syria some two years before to the unrest broke out in the Arab country, and the News Article is Titled: UK planned war on Syria before unrest began: French ex-foreign minister at http://www.presstv.com/detail/2013/06/16/309276/uk-planned-war-on-syria-before-unrest/ ; and this is an Unbiased and Reliable Source, and it comes as no surprise to those who know the Unprincipled Methods and Evil Deeds of the English Empire who fight against Al Qaeda in some places but are Allies of Al Qaeda in other places, and one Example is the News Article Titled: Iraq arrests five in ‘al-Qaeda chemical weapons plot’ at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/al-qaeda/10094187/Iraq-arrests-five-in-al-Qaeda-chemical-weapons-plot.html .

    It was England’s Unofficial Secret Puppet Colony of America that England used to start a War in Vietnam, and England sent its Official Puppet Colony of Australia fight with America against the People of Vietnam, and the American Secretary of State John Kerry said that the use of chemical weapons were long ago abandoned by the civilized world, and he conveniently ignores the fact that America used Agent Orange when he was in Vietnam, and Depleted Uranium in Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, but then again, he is technically correct, because Anglo-France were Never part of the Civilized World, and Anglo-France are not part of the Civilized World, even as these day.

    Kerry knows that England’s Puppet of America has the Biggest Biological and Chemical Weapons Stockpile in the World, and that America has used them in 4 wars in recent times, and is Uncivilized by his own Admission, but even as Truth has no place with Anglo-France, neither do Standards or Principle for these Hypocritical Vampires.

    The True Intentions of Anglo-France to Syria, is that if Anglo-France is not going to be able to Dictatorially make Syria a Puppet of the Anglo-French Vampires, then they are going to cause damage to anyone who they think has the Audacity to Value their Human Dignity and Freedom.

    To do this, Anglo-France needs their Lies of how they Respect Human Rights, and they have had this Contingency Plan to Maliciously Slander Syria in order to cause even further deaths and damage to the Innocent Men, women, and Children of Syria.

    Anglo-France has said that there are Precedents based Entirely on Lies for Nazism, not only from Hitler’s time, but from the time English Empire began, and in 1999 NATO attacked Serbia, without a Security Council Resolution.

    Anglo-France knew that they were Lying when they said that action was needed to protect civilians in Kosovo, and the Documentary Titled: It Began With a Lie at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pujC5qlujiA , and the Video: Michael Savage exposes Bill Clinton’s lies against the Serbian people, and it starts at the 2 minute mark of this short Video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdCCBL4WcmE .

    We all know that England and America are the Most Advanced with regards to Genetically Engineered Lethal Viruses that can kill 99 % of the Earth Population in less than a week, and the CIA who I am and where to find if they want to.

    What I need as a Human Being, is that President Barack Obama goes on National Television, and tells the World that the 9/11 attacks on America was done by the American Elites, because then I might know that we could possibly both live on this Planet, because otherwise this President Barack Obama is saying that this Planet may not be BIG Enough for the 2 of us, and then at a Minimum, one of us might have to die under those Circumstances.

    The Anglo-American Elites have made such a Mess of handling the Economy, that they may think that using the Genetically Engineered Lethal Virsues is how to Best Manage the matter.

    This should not been seen as a Threat to Anyone, but it is mu Opinion that the Anglo-American Elites who have been Vaccinated against Genetically Engineeered Lethal Viruses may Decide that they want to use them on the Human Race.

  • dusko

    intersting insights!

  • dusko

    iran’s reaction is enigma? russia lousy defended many of its allies (remind me of iraq betrayal)

  • TheOtherTurnipTaliban

    Thank God we haven’t intervened in Syria, even now while engulfed in a complex sectarian and proxy war it is STILL more stable and less likely to become an out-and-out terrorist/rogue state.

    There are also 50,000 foreign militants in Syria, paid for and supported by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the EU and the USA. Staying out of this bloodbath sends a powerful message to wealthy states in the middle East who think they can drag Western countries into fighting wars on their behalf.

    It seems a fight to the death with the Syrian state has been postponed, God knows the middle East needs some stability and a little less foreign interventionism going on.

  • Iain Hill

    If everyone is an interventionist, what has happened to change that in a few days. Neocon fool! Read the polls.

  • Peter Stroud

    “Something must be done.” A very dangerous phrase; yet all political/national leaders seem to utter it at some time.

    Sam Cameron said it, so did Dave. But beware of just doing something in Syria without great thought.

    The article makes a very important point. Certainly the Assad regime is bad: very bad. But what will be the alternative should it fall. The BBC only yesterday reported that the number or extreme Islamists joining the rebels, has increased. What if Assad is replaced by an Islamic Republic. What will happen to the Christians, Shias, Kurds and the secular democrats?

    Cameron was hawkish over the Islamist terrorists in Algeria. Now he risks putting similar types in charge of Syria. So he considered Libya as a triumph. But remember that since our intervention the US Ambassador and some of his staff have been assassinated. And graves or our war dead have been smashed.

    Be very careful Prime Minister. Be very careful. Parliament voted against military intervention. Leave it at that.

  • bengeo

    Russia is the UK’s most developing market.

  • hdb

    Ah, yes! ‘A force to shape the world and not be shaped by it’. Great words! And in the same week that Bulgarian announces it will have high speed rail in ten years just as we are giving up. Delusions of grandeur I think the phrase is.

  • lighthorse16

    Look more closely at the people advocating War They are NOT Christians and a few had the nerve to invoke the memory of the alleged holocaust as the casus belli for raining Missiles down on Syrian citizens. Cameron is merely a mouthpiece for his Rothschild’s paymaster.