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September 13, 2006

Is David Cameron the man who opposed the Iraq war before he supported it (and then - sort of - opposed it again)? - asks Brendan Simms

Posted by Brendan Simms

With his recent foreign policy speech, David Cameron has lost the one prize asset that the Prime Minister still enjoys - ideological and strategic consistency. This is the argument of Brendan Simms, Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society. Furthermore - in attacking Tony Blair for uncritically supporting US foreign policy - David Cameron misses the point that Tony Blair has been a more long-standing and consistent supporter of a robustly interventionist foreign policy than George W. Bush.

Ironically this may, however, be grounds for supporters of an interventionist foreign retaining some optimism about David Cameron's foreign policy stance - during the 2000 Presidential election Bush sounded distinctly like Cameron does today. The views expressed in this article are those of Dr Simms, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

It is so hard to be humble

John Kerry, the Democratic Party's candidate for the US election of 2004, had an excellent war record - unlike president George W. Bush - and he voted for the war to remove Saddam Hussein. All the same, the impression that he was "soft" on national security was a major contributory factor in his election defeat. The sense that Kerry did not really stand for anything was for many epitomised by his remark, when challenged on having opposed some defence measure, that he had "voted for it before he had voted against it".

A year later, many also doubted that the new Conservative leader, David Cameron stood for anything. But in one sphere, at least, his views seemed clear: that of foreign policy. In the summer before he was elected, Mr Cameron had set out his stall on national security in a remarkable and courageous speech. His continued support for the removal of Saddam Hussein and his apparent endorsement of the new democratic order which Mr Bush and Mr Blair envisaged for the Middle East, marked him out to many as a "neo-conservative", although he himself did not use this term.

Since then Mr Cameron had largely kept his own counsel on foreign policy. On 11th September 2006, he spoke out again, and this time even more people were listening.

There are still significant traces of his earlier thinking, for example his support for the general proposition that in the medium and long term democracy is the best guarantee of our security. He is also clear that anti-Americanism is "an intellectual and moral surrender". But Mr Cameron now announces that he is not a neo-conservative but a "liberal conservative". He says that the time has come for a strategy which:

moves beyond neo-conservatism, retaining its strengths but learning from its failures.
By this he means that Britain should no longer approach problems in terms of black and white; that Britain should be a close friend but not - as is allegedly the case with Mr Blair - an "uncritical" ally of the United States; that democracy cannot be quickly imposed from outside; and that he will eschew glamorous soundbites for "humility and patience". He quotes with approval John McCain, the man many think will be the next Republican nominee for the presidential election.

Accompanying this has been a series of background briefings designed to position Mr Cameron as someone who will break with the mistakes of the past and play a more "mature" role within the international community. The Daily Telegraph reported:

According to allies, Mr Cameron was always privately opposed to military action in Iraq ... although he is reluctant to say so categorically in public.
This is probably true. I am completely innocent of any acquaintance with Mr Cameron, but it is no secret that he had reservations about the legality and wisdom of the invasion, though he swallowed these when it came to the parliamentary debate. To round off the appealing picture, we are told that the young Cameroons danced to The Specials' "Free Nelson Mandela".

The critique of Mr Blair is legitimate opposition rhetoric of course, but it masks an apparent confusion in Mr Cameron's thinking. As someone who took the plunge with Sinn Fein in the Good Friday Agreement, the Prime Minister is hardly unfamiliar with shades of grey. He stuck by Mr Arafat as his authority shrank to that of a beleaguered compound in Ramallah. Moreover, the notion that Mr Blair has somehow uncritically followed Mr Bush is worrying not for its polemical slant - which is fair enough - but because it suggests that he has not grasped the fact that the Prime Minister's creed long predated that of the President.

It was Mr Blair, after all, who proclaimed the doctrine of international community in his Chicago speech of April 1999, in which the two dictators put on notice were Slobodan Milosevic - and Saddam Hussein. At this point, it was Mr Bush who spoke in Cameronian terms of the need for greater "humility" in US foreign policy; he was as sceptical of "nation-building" during the 2000 election campaign, as the Conservative leader appears to be today.

Moreover, the favoured candidate of the neo-conservatives at that point was none other than John McCain, the very man to whom Mr Cameron has sought to build bridges in his speech and whom he is scheduled to meet later this year. Drawing a line under neo-conservatism and Mr Blair's humanitarian interventionism, is going to be far more difficult than some think. Rather than The Specials, perhaps Mr Cameron should borrow from Mac Davis:

Oh lord it is so hard to be humble when the world around you is so imperfect in every way.
None of this will lose Mr Cameron many votes, and it will certainly gain him many. But he has for now lost one prize asset, which the Prime Minister still enjoys: ideological and strategic consistency. He risks going down in history as the man who opposed the Iraq war before he supported it (and then sort of opposed it again).

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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"John Kerry, the Democratic Party's candidate for the US election of 2004, had an excellent war record - unlike president George W. Bush".

This is a pretty misleading remark. Bush has no Vietnam war record at all because he never fought in Vietnam. He was, however, a fighter pilot in the Texas Air National Guard (TANG). CBS's attempt to smear his TANG service turned out to be based on crudely forged documents.

Turning to the Kerry part of the claim, if "excellent war record" is a purely formal claim (i.e., a claim about the paper trail), then it may be true. But Simms has no way of knowing it to be true since Kerry has failed to give his permission to the US military archives to release the full record (including the details of his discharge), despite repeated requests. If, by contrast, the claim is substantive (i.e., a claim about what Kerry actually did), then the Swift Vets (among others) provided much evidence and testimony to suggest that the claim is false.

Posted by: Parsi at September 14, 2006 10:21 PM
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