Cameron’s battle with the desert despot may define him

Published in The Mail on Sunday (March 20th, 2011)

It is hard to think of two more different people – the urbane British Prime Minister born into privilege and the unpredictable dictator raised in the desert by illiterate Bedouin goat-herders. But this weekend, the pair are locked against each other in the fight of their lives.

David Cameron has ignored the siren voices of doubters and doom-mongers to persuade the international community to come together on the side of those seeking freedom in Libya. He has risked political capital, ignored the concerns of close allies and staked everything on stopping one of the world’s most ruthless political operators.

Up against him is Muammar Gaddafi, the posturing revolutionary who has proved over four decades he will do whatever it takes to stay in power. Yesterday, as his forces continued their assault on cities such as Misurata and Benghazi, despite a supposed ceasefire, he underlined again what a dangerous opponent he is.

This is a huge test for Cameron: the moment every politician dreads when they take a decision that could cost the lives of British troops. It is also the moment that forces a Prime Minister to make the tough calls that can end up defining them.

Think of Thatcher’s response to the Falklands invasion or Blair’s five wars that began with a much-praised humanitarian intervention and ended with messianic delusions over Iraq.

Many have been surprised by Cameron’s bold reaction. He went out on a limb with Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, to build an international coalition against Gaddafi, despite scepticism in Washington and Berlin.

He faced derision from Labour opponents, concern in his own party and, just one week ago, was accused of ‘headline-grabbing desperation’ by an adviser to the EU’s foreign affairs chief.

But his response was entirely in keeping with his actions in the past. The only surprise was the hesitancy shown when revolts first erupted in north Africa.

Cameron gave too much credence to the advice of the Foreign Office, still chanting the mantra of stability and outrageously telling him not to pick sides in a struggle between despots and democrats.

Now he has reverted to type – a liberal interventionist. I recall discussing his party conference speech last summer in Downing Street when he started railing against the foreign policies of his Labour predecessors.

He was angry at the hypocrisy of talking about spreading democracy in foreign lands at the same time as releasing the murderous Lockerbie bomber at home and conniving in the torture of suspected British terrorists abroad.

In Georgia,he flew to Tblisi to show solidarity with a democracy in the face of Russian aggression. And, once in office, he was unafraid to criticise Israel, even during a trip to Turkey.

Unlike some Cabinet colleagues, however, Cameron is not a neo-conservative who believes it is his mission to impose democracy upon the world; indeed, he was highly sceptical about the Iraq War in private.

But what he has shown this week, just as in opposition, is that when forced by events to make a choice, he comes down on the side of taking action to stop atrocities.

This is, after all, someone who has said his formative political experience was travelling in Eastern Europe as a student and sensing the excitement at the fall of the Berlin Wall. His heroes are the Italian freedom fighter Giuseppe Garibaldi and Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister famous for gunboat diplomacy and supporting a wave of revolutions that swept Europe in 1848.

And one of the books that left its mark on the Prime Minister recently is Unfinest Hour, a howl of moral outrage against Britain’s failure to intervene amid the bloodstained break-up of the former Yugoslavia. The book, which argues Bosnia ranks alongside Munich and Suez in the litany of Conservative foreign policy disasters, underlines that doing nothing can be a fateful choice.

Now Cameron, always prepared to take big risks in pursuit of his political goals, has made the fateful choice of stopping Gaddafi in his tracks. His creation of an international coalition was a personal triumph. But that was the easy bit compared with thwarting this wily desert despot.

Gaddafi should never be under-estimated. He may have lost swathes of his country, been deserted by allies and have only the remnants of his air force remaining. But he remains a cunning and ruthless strategist who has held on to power for so long by playing off political rivals, trading tribal loyalties and crushing dissent with revolting efficiency.

This is one reason why, unlike neighbouring regimes, he has clung on in the face of a popular uprising.

Now his tactics seem clear. The ceasefire was a feint to buy time while he sent his depleted forces to make an incursion into the second city of Benghazi and to recapture other rebel towns. The plan was to wrap his tentacles around as much of Libya as possible and, with troops in the suburbs of a city of one million people, make it harder for international forces to attack.

Meanwhile, he has turned up the tempo on his propaganda. There has been no mention of the ceasefire on Libyan television while there were claims Abdul Fatah Younis, the interior minister who resigned to join the opposition last month, had rejoined the regime.

There were also reports of secret police asking school pupils which news channels their parents were watching in a further sign of the screw tightening.

Gaddafi remains reliant on fear. He has little support beyond his family, tribe and key troops.

While continuing to blame jihadists for the internal uprising, he will try to whip up nationalist fears by accusing the West of making a colonialist grab on Libya’s oil and highlighting the double standards inherent in any foreign incursion.

The biggest fear is over how far the man once dubbed ‘Mad Dog’ will go to remain in power. Already he has made typically lurid threats of retaliation against European countries.

And we should not forget this is a man who has blown up passenger aircraft, waged wars on neighbours and even tried to torpedo a cruise liner filled with Jewish families.

He is also sitting on a stockpile of ten tons of mustard gas near his birthplace of Sirte – and when I was in Benghazi last month, I heard claims he had used chemical weapons in the past to crush a jihadist revolt in the nearby Green Mountains.

We must hope this vile regime rapidly crumbles into the mists of history. If Gaddafi had been allowed to recapture Benghazi the consequences would have been horrific. But any conflict is unpredictable.

These are dangerous days – and not just for the people who have already suffered four decades of repression under the maverick army colonel.

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