A little more than five years ago, on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-Conservative Party leader David Cameron gave adesigned to distinguish his own foreign policy vision from that of both the sitting prime minister, Tony Blair, and American neo-conservatives. Although the timing of the speech revealed an unflattering shade of political opportunism on Cameron's part, it spelled out an approach to foreign policy and the post-9/11 world that was actually far closer to Blair’s and American neo-conservatives’ than was understood by most commentators at the time. With hindsight, perhaps Cameron’s decision to intervene militarily in Libya to prevent a humanitarian disaster and remove Muammar Gaddafi’s regime should not have been a surprise to anyone.
For one, Cameron recognizes in his 2006 speech that there might be times when the British government will act militarily for reasons not traditionally put forward by states. While not as effusive as Blair’s 1999 speech in Chicago defending the right of NATO to intervene in the Balkans to stop the slaughter there, Cameron did state that he believes “we should be prepared to intervene for humanitarian purposes to rescue people from genocide.”
And while Cameron, in his address, suggests that Blair has been too much the junior partner in the “special relationship,” he also notes that “Britain just cannot achieve the things we want to achieve in the world unless we work with the world’s superpower.” Surely this is a point 10 Downing Street appreciates now more than ever, given the key military capabilities—such as intelligence, precision-guided weapons, and air-refueling support—that the United States needed to provide for the NATO operation to succeed in Libya.
Nor does Cameron distance himself from neo-conservatism in matters of foreign policy; to the contrary, he stipulates that he in fact agrees with its core precepts as he understands them: first, Islamist terrorism is a unique and deadly threat; second, military preemption is sometimes called for; and third, the promotion of political and economic freedom “is an essential objective of Western foreign policy.” And while one could argue whether any of these is a uniquely neo-conservative principle, it is certainly true that critics of America’s post-9/11 policies often point to each as somehow representative of the so-called neo-con turn in American statecraft.
In fact, the real distinction Cameron appears to draw between his own foreign policy vision and that of neo-conservatives is less about those general propositions than, by his estimation, their hubristic application. What had been lost was a sense of “humility” and “patience” when it comes to the conduct of policy. In short, the difference to be drawn between Cameron’s self-avowed “liberal conservatism” and “neo-conservatism” is mostly a matter of prudence in how a policy should be implemented and expectations of its timely success. Or, as he succinctly put it, “we must be wise as well as good.”
For the future prime minister, this was especially the case when it came to pushing the freedom agenda. Echoing a long-standing Tory view that true democratic rule is a product of long habituation, Cameron argues that it was wrong to believe that it could “quickly be imposed from outside. Liberty grows from the ground—it cannot be dropped from the air by an unmanned drone.”
No serious student of international affairs, including neo-cons, thinks otherwise. Indeed, if anything, just as prevalent and problematic is the traditional Tory and conservative view that building a democratic state is not only difficult and time-consuming but virtually impossible in countries of the world’s backwaters.
Perhaps it is understandable that Cameron would want to avoid the cloud hanging over the American and allied efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan; certainly the political cost to both Blair and Bush was enormous. But the Bush administration did not go into either Afghanistan or Iraq with the primary intention of establishing democracies there. The primary goal was to remove from power regimes that either were protecting terrorists that had attacked the United States or were thought to be a security threat that could no longer be tolerated in a post-9/11 world. Yet if the goal was removing despots from power, it necessarily followed that they had to be replaced with something. And, putting aside for the moment the strategic merits of possibly establishing a stable democratic order in one or both of those nations, what democratic leader today is going to suggest that it’s perfectly okay for the new regime to be despotic as well—just as long as he’s our despot. In short, at times, democratic nation building is not nearly the option some think it is.
It’s possible, of course, that Prime Minister Cameron will escape Colin Powell’s maxim that “you break it, you own it” when it comes to Libya. However, if reports of roaming militias, factionalism, and outside players like the Qataris having an outsized influence within post-Gaddafi Libya are accurate, then there may well be considerable cost to taking the current, largely “hands off” approach. Sometimes being an effective “liberal conservative” just might mean being a “neo-conservative” in practice.