Cameron Bets on Obama

The British prime minister is a lot more like the American president than you think. And he clearly believes Barack is headed for victory in November.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Barack Obama and David Cameron, who have been meeting in Washington this week, are two leaders who owe their present positions, in part, to the backlash of the post-9/11 era. But both the U.S. president and British prime minister have also demonstrated surprising continuities with their interventionist predecessors while in office.

Obama, of course, rose to prominence as a critic of George W. Bush’s "dumb war" in Iraq. Cameron, in addition to his pledges to cut spending and get Britain’s fiscal house in order, took special effort after rising to leader of the opposition in 2005 to distance himself from the interventionism of Tony Blair.

While Blair’s position in British politics had once been unassailable — he had completely overhauled a Labour Party that was hostile to capitalism and committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament and won three successive general elections in the process — he paid a heavy political price for the support he gave to U.S. policy after the 9/11 attacks and in particular for committing British forces to the overthrow of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

Cameron took full advantage. On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Cameron gave a speech on foreign policy in which he described himself as a liberal conservative rather than a neoconservative. Echoing the Augustinian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, Cameron decried a simplistic vision of a world order divided between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, and he expounded the virtues of humility and patience.

However, just as Obama’s presidency has surprisingly come to be defined by drone war, special operations raids, and a troop surge in Afghanistan, Cameron in government is more interventionist than his statements in opposition suggested he would be. And his relations with Obama are warmer than observers of both men’s political records might have predicted.

Cameron’s Blair-like tendencies have been much greater than the continuities in foreign policy between Cameron and John Major, the Conservative prime minister from 1990 to 1997. To the despair of Margaret Thatcher, whom he succeeded in Downing Street, Major presided over the greatest catastrophe in British foreign policy since the 1956 Suez crisis: Western inaction in the Balkans. Major completely misinterpreted the war in Bosnia as a recrudescence of intractable ancient hatreds. Possessed not by realism but an amoral conservative quietism, Major’s government not only urged no-intervention but actively obstructed the efforts of its NATO and European Union allies to counter Serbian aggression.

In 1999, two years after his first landslide election victory and at the height of the Kosovo crisis, Blair gave a notable speech on foreign policy in Chicago. He cited both Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as threats to international stability. The emphasis of that speech refutes the absurd and insulting charge that after 9/11 Blair acted as "Bush’s poodle." In reality, Blair was arguing a case for the responsibility to protect threatened populations while Bush, then governor of Texas and an aspiring presidential nominee, was opposing the Bill Clinton administration’s supposed entanglements in the Balkans.

Cameron was elected to Parliament only in 2001. He voted for military action in Iraq, yet three years later controversially joined with anti-war separatist parties and left-wing Labour MPs in calling for an inquiry into the decision to commit British forces. My own newspaper, the Times, declared on that occasion that Cameron should not have aligned himself with political eccentrics.

It was a fair reading of Cameron’s comments on foreign policy, as well as those of William Hague, now foreign secretary, that the Conservatives thought that the disasters of postwar planning in Iraq and Afghanistan were inherent to a hubristic project to establish Western-style constitutional democracies. It was widely expected that Cameron would pivot away from the foreign-policy adventurism of the Blair era.

But from Afghanistan to Libya to Syria, Cameron’s foreign policy has been quite different from the modest, Major-like attitude that was expected of him. Interestingly, Cameron’s seeming political weakness on domestic issues has given him some room to maneuver abroad. Cameron is the first British prime minister to lead a coalition government in peacetime since the 1930s. Many commentators assumed that the inconclusive result of the 2010 general election, in which the Conservatives won most seats but failed to secure a parliamentary majority, would hamper him. In practice, it has worked to his political advantage, allowing him a freer hand than if he had been elected head of a government comprising only Conservatives.

It was also expected that the Anglo-American relationship would not be as strong under Cameron and Obama as it had been in the days when Bush and Blair bonded over Ben Stiller movies at the ranch in Crawford. British politicians frequently and smugly refer to the "special relationship" between the United States and the United Kingdom. And though there are obvious historical and linguistic ties between the two countries, this is a historically dubious notion. For much of the postwar era, relations between the United States and Germany have been closer and more consequential than the Anglo-American alliance.

The famously warm regard between Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, as well as between Blair and Bush, was historically unusual. In a fundamental misstep in foreign policy, Thatcher (unlike President George H.W. Bush) failed to see that German unification after the fall of the Berlin Wall was inevitable and desirable. Major’s Balkans policy was not only catastrophic for Bosnia, but it also caused a serious fissure in Anglo-American relations. There was every prospect that the Obama-Cameron relationship would be, if not of that order, at least cordial and muted rather than enthusiastic. Some British commentators also expected Obama, on grounds of his family history and justified criticisms of British colonial rule, to be less receptive to the Anglo-American alliance than were his immediate predecessors.

None of this has been borne out by experience. In the face of international crises, the transatlantic alliance has been notably strong — in the closeness of Anglo-American relations, and, more surprisingly, in the participation of France in an interventionist consensus.

In Afghanistan, for instance, the national leaders would in any event have worked closely together, if only owing to the policies of their predecessors. The Afghanistan mission has become untenable, as March 11’s one-man rampage sadly makes clear. But the drawdown of Western forces in Afghanistan is a logistical exercise founded on the scaling back of earlier ambitions. It is not a creation of Cameron and Obama’s common endeavor.

Two issues, however, take precisely that form. The first is the Western response to tyrants in Libya last year, where Cameron joined Obama and Sarkozy in a swift intervention to save the city of Benghazi. The move cemented the tripartite transatlantic alliance but froze out German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was widely criticized for opposing the war.

Syria presents an altogether tougher proposition in which there is no pressure, let alone consensus, for Western military action. But the least that can be said is that Western diplomacy is united in decrying President Bashar al-Assad’s depredations, rather than hopelessly divided and futile, as it was 20 years ago in the Balkans.

The recollection of the Iraq intervention still permeates the British foreign-policy debate, but it is less potent than Cameron’s critics assume. At its zenith, hostility to the Iraq war cost Blair some seats in the 2005 general election, turning what might have been a third landslide into a more modest but still convincing victory. Public opinion during the Libya intervention generally followed the progress of the military campaign — support declined as victory appeared elusive, but spiked as the war of attrition against Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces eventually succeeded. British public opinion is not anti-war; it is averse to defeat and wary of long-term military commitments.

Then there’s Iran. Cameron and Obama have found common cause in exerting pressure on the Iranian regime to get back in line with its requirements under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as the most likely ways of preventing an Israeli preemptive strike and neutralizing a potential Iranian military threat.

Much of the message of the Obama-Cameron summit is purely symbolic, but symbols are important. Obama wishes visibly to reciprocate the hospitality he enjoyed on his state visit to Britain last year, cement the notion that transatlantic relations are in good shape under his administration, and finally dispel some of the less informed speculation that he is cool toward the Anglo-American alliance.

It is notable that Cameron is not meeting any of the Republican candidates for the presidency and is therefore placing a lot of weight on Obama’s prospects for reelection. Cameron will be particularly interested in two issues of substance that bear on British foreign policy. He will be anxious that the U.S. drawdown of forces in Afghanistan should not leave British troops exposed. And he will wish to impress on Obama that there is no political possibility that Britain will negotiate with Argentina over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands.

These are points of possible friction that the two leaders would do well now to anticipate and defuse, but despite what many expected when Cameron came into office in 2010, they are two leaders with remarkably similar political trajectories and outlooks.

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