Foreign policy has finally surfaced in the UK election debate. In light of the recent deaths of refugees and migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean, Ed Miliband has criticised David Cameron for his failure to engage in serious post-war planning following military action in Libya, suggesting that the chaos that ensued contributed to the increasing number of people taking ever more desperate steps to escape that country.
This is part of a broader attack on Cameron’s foreign affairs judgement. While Cameron’s leaderly qualities were once hailed as a potential trump card for the Conservatives in the election, these qualities have been sorely lacking in the realm of foreign affairs.
In the case of Libya in 2011, there was a strong humanitarian case for using military force to stop an impending massacre of civilians by Colonel Gaddafi’s forces. On this basis, military action was widely supported by the international community, and the NATO mission was conducted under the auspices of a United Nations resolution. The humanitarian mission soon expanded in scope, however, and resulted in effective regime change when Gaddafi was killed in October 2011.
In the aftermath of the conflict, Cameron visited Libya in 2013 and pledged that Britain would stand with Libyans “every step of the way” to rebuild the country. But as Libya has since descended into chaotic civil war, Cameron has clearly failed to uphold this promise.
To this extent, Miliband is right to blame Cameron – along with other members of the international community – for the state of Libya today.
Cameron’s record did not improve after the Libyan intervention ended. At the same time as he was trumpeting Britain’s “successful” action in Libya, an even more serious crisis was unfolding in Syria, and it was two years before the prime minister really tried to step up.
Syria’s civil war had been raging for several years in that country when Bashar al-Assad crossed one of Barack Obama’s “red lines” for military intervention by using chemical weapons in an attack on a heavily populated area in August 2013.
Despite William Hague’s declaration that Britain’s relationship with America would henceforth be “solid, not slavish”, when Obama called on Britain to support military action against Syria in 2013, Cameron hardly hesitated to provide it – despite the lack of any vision of how air strikes would bring about either stability or promote humanitarian goals in the country.
But having hastily taken the decision to support military action in Syria, Cameron then failed to provide the leadership necessary to secure parliamentary approval for it, and the proposal was rejected. Cameron seemingly assumed that parliament would support military action, and subsequently failed to marshal the backing even of his own party.
In contrast to Libya, Miliband took perhaps his boldest decision as leader of the opposition and refused to support action in Syria – handing the government a humiliating defeat.
On the fringe
The two years leading up to the 2015 election have been increasingly dominated by relations with Europe – and again, Cameron has failed to become the leader he was expected to be.
From the regulation of banks to the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, Cameron’s tactics have consistently isolated Britain from its European partners. He has also consciously put Britain in the back seat on the response to the crisis in Ukraine.
Most significantly, Cameron’s promise of a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU has truly opened the door to Britain’s exit from that body – and the ensuing uncertainty is already having unpleasant consequences.
If Cameron’s stance towards Europe were based on principle, he might perhaps deserve some credit. It is, however, abundantly clear that much of Cameron’s attitude to Europe, in particular the guarantee of an in-out referendum is simply red meat for the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party and a brazen attempt to neutralise the threat posed by UKIP.
All in all, when it comes to foreign affairs, Cameron has shown a serious deficit of both judgement and leadership. Foreign policy may rarely play a major part in British elections, but the leadership qualities it demands are undoubtedly important to the electorate – and now Miliband has put them front and centre, Cameron’s standing will only suffer.
Thomas Mills is affiliated with the Labour Party (he was previously a member, and is currently a volunteer).
Authors: The Conversation