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David Cameron and the Decline of British Leadership

Photograph Source: Tom Evans – OGL

Critics lament the disintegration of the British political establishment under the impact of repeated shocks from the Brexit earthquake. Competent politicians and experienced civil servants head for the exit or are evicted to make way for more ideologically acceptable successors. Whatever one thought of the members of Theresa May’s final cabinet they were better than the clutch of opportunists and fanatics appointed by Boris Johnson.

The Brexit crisis has become an all-encompassing explanation of all that is wrong with Britain, with many idealising the sunlit uplands where we dwelt before the 2016 referendum. Retired civil service mandarins and politicians recall how everything used to run smoothly and sweetly before the Brexit barbarians stormed the gates and they lost their jobs.

It should be easy enough to check such rosy recollections because many of the retired politicians – if not the mandarins – use their retirement to write memoirs of great length and detail that need to appear swiftly if carefully hoarded nuggets of secret information are to appeal to the reader.

Publishers publicise such books by talking up those revelatory chunks where the author is rude about his successor or exposes the treachery and incompetence of old friends and allies. Editors and reviewers scan the index to see what old scores are being settled. Often ignored in all this, and dismissed as yesterday’s news, is fascinating information about what some powerful figure actually thought and did when he or she was in charge.

David Cameron’s autobiography For The Record is one such recently published volume that is deeply illuminating about how the author, as prime minister, responded to issues of war and peace. As one would expect from his public persona, he is fluent and plausible in describing his role in the wars in Libya and Syria sparked by the Arab Spring, but he is shallow and ill-informed about the forces at play. What comes across is that, like many more openly bellicose political leaders, the mild-mannered Cameron liked playing general and did so with enthusiastic but wrongheaded amateurism.

Cameron recalls with pride his role in the bombing of Libya in 2011, justifying it on the grounds that Muammar Gaddafi’s tanks and troops were advancing on Benghazi where they would massacre the population. He says that “on 20 March, American, British and French aircraft destroyed Gaddafi’s tanks, armoured carriers and rocket launchers, and his forces began to retreat. Benghazi was saved, and a Srebrenica-style slaughter averted. I’ve never known relief like it.”

There are a few things wrong with this as a description of what happened: a report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee later revealed that the belief that Gaddafi would “massacre the civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence”. It pointed out that Gaddafi had retaken other towns from the rebels and not attacked the civilian population.

Nor was Benghazi saved: drone footage of the city taken recently show that the centre of the city has been destroyed, not by Gaddafi’s soldiers but in the fighting over many years between the militias that overthrew him. Had Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Hillary Clinton not intervened militarily in the Libyan civil war then Benghazi might really have been saved, along with those who were killed and wounded in the long years of fighting that followed foreign intervention.

I was particularly interested in Cameron’s take on the Libyan conflict because, soon after the bombing started, I visited the frontline south of Benghazi where more journalists were visible than rebels. There was the occasional puff of smoke on the horizon when a shell exploded, but otherwise not much fighting going on.

This phoney war did not last long and Cameron explains why: “By May 2011 the war had sunk into stalemate, and needed a renewed focus. I agreed deals with France to commit Apache helicopters to help the rebels. I was on the phone to the leaders of the Gulf states to encourage their continued involvement which turned out to be crucial.”

In other words, Gaddafi was overthrown primarily by foreign powers and not by an indigenous rebellion. It requires considerable naivete on Cameron’s part to imagine that the Gulf states, the last absolute monarchies on earth, planned to replace Gaddafi with a secular democracy.

A dangerous blindness similarly pervades Cameron’s chapter on his frustrated attempts to take military action in Syria to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. He is disappointed that Barack Obama is not as gung-ho as himself and sometime feels that he picks up more information from the members of the Syrian diaspora he runs into than he does from his own diplomats.

He is angered by the action of the House of Commons and Obama in refusing to sanction air strikes in Syria after the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Damascus in August 2013. It becomes clear, however, that he never decided if this was to be a prolonged air campaign in support of the rebels until they were victorious or a slap on the wrist for Assad with a one-off cruise missile attack,which he would certainly have shrugged off, as he was to do when the US did launch such an attack in 2018.

It is worth studying what Cameron did, or thought he was doing in the Libyan and Syrian conflicts, because war reveals a political leader’s level of judgement as does nothing else. There has been much criticism of Cameron’s decision to first hold, and then lose, the referendum on membership of the European Union, but his second-rate attributes as a leader were already evident in his decisions about these two wars.

These failings are not confined to Cameron, but to what used to be called the British ruling class as a whole: its members have a a certain provinciality and sense of superiority that makes it difficult for them to play a weak hand well when negotiating with the EU. Such assumptions blend with inner self-doubt which sees Cameron continually trotting off to see Obama or Vladimir Putin, though this never seems to get him very far.

It is worth reading Cameron’s book to understand his failings since most of the party leaders in the upcoming general election are even worse.

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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