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Foreign Policy

Chris Newton: David Cameron is no military heir to Blair

Chris Newton is a former defence adviser in the Conservative Research Department. He is a political consultant and content director of Blue Collar Conservatism, and is currently studying for a PhD. He blogs at www.chrisnewtonuk.com. Follow Chris on Twitter.

When David Cameron came to power, few people would have thought that he would become involved in more conflicts in addition to his inherited commitment in Afghanistan. But, since then, the government has intervened in Libya, provided support to French operations in Mali, and David Cameron has declared that ‘we are in the midst of a generational struggle’ against Islamists.

Much has been made over the past few weeks of the idea that David Cameron is increasingly becoming the ‘heir to Blair’ with respect to foreign policy. But looking at the interventions that Cameron has initiated himself so far, there are some key differences with the Blair years.

Firstly, this Government is putting a great deal more emphasis on gaining international legitimacy for military action. When the Prime Minister started his Libyan campaign, he emphasised the fact that it was on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1973.

Secondly, the Government has been eager to use diplomacy, aid, intelligence, and the armed forces in a much more co-ordinated fashion. The Conservatives in Opposition observed the mistakes made by the Labour government when it intervened in Iraq and Helmand Province, when there was insufficient co-ordination between the different government departments and agencies. The current government immediately set up the National Security Council in order to provide this co-ordination at the top level.

Thirdly, although David Cameron has increasingly used the armed forces as a tool of his foreign policy, his approach to interventions has been pragmatic and relatively limited compared to Labour’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Air power is now an important feature to David Cameron’s approach to intervention, along with maritime force projection and limited ground support from special forces or military training personnel. The government has displayed a reluctance to engage in major land operations, partly due to current commitments in Afghanistan, but also because they would be unpopular. Allied or local forces would do the overwhelming bulk of the land fighting instead.  

But the differences with Blair end there. The key problem with the Labour government was that it placed heavy demands on the armed forces but did not resource them sufficiently. In another forum in September 2010, five months before the Libya intervention, I suggested that the Coalition government would come to rely on air power more, and I argued that it would make no sense to make substantial reductions in aircraft numbers.

But the SDSR cut key air assets such as the Harrier force, and as a result, Britain is spending nearly a decade with no carrier strike capability. The SDSR also proposed to scrap Sentinel surveillance aircraft, which have proved crucial in Afghanistan, Libya, and Mali, in 2015. This raises questions as to whether even the Government’s current approach of relatively limited air-based intervention is sustainable, especially in the period up to 2020. This is reflected in the Defence Select Committee’s report on Libya, which stated that ‘the Government will face significantly greater challenges should an operation of similar size be necessary in the future’.

There is an additional consideration. There is still plenty of time for the world to spring even more surprises on this Government. We must not totally discount the idea that the UK’s next operation might not end up like the Libya. Recent history has shown that interventions might become more difficult than governments initially presume. The intervention in Iraq soon transformed from a short regime change operation to a protracted counterinsurgency campaign. Even the main concern in Libya modified from preventing the immediate potential sacking of Benghazi to the overthrow of Gaddafi. And the French and Malian forces are finding the fight against the Islamists more complex than originally expected, as the recent Islamist attacks on Gao illustrate.

Therefore, not only must the Government address the concerns of the Defence Select Committee about its ability to mount another Libya, it must also ensure that it has a policy and sufficient resources to cope with other unexpected operations too. Whilst David Cameron’s pledge to protect defence spending from 2016 is welcome, the problem is that – given that ministers have said that the world is already becoming more dangerous – the armed forces require the extra resources before then.

The last Labour government started off by conducting a number of interventions that were, on the whole, relatively successful. It then found itself embroiled in operations in Iraq and Southern Afghanistan for which it was not prepared for both in terms of having the resources or strategic understanding. If the current Government is not careful, it may find itself repeating history… and then David Cameron really would be ‘the heir to Blair’.

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