Cameron's speech bodes ill for UK's Israel policy

Cameron: The key to defeating terrorism is to "win the trust of the majority Muslim community."

Blair olmert 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Blair olmert 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The leader of Britain's main opposition party has criticized as a failure Anglo-American "neoconservative" Middle East policy in a speech Monday that called for a cordial but cautious relationship with the US. Conservative Party leader David Cameron's speech to a British and American audience on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attack signals a change in British policy - should the Conservative Party come to power - not only toward the US but toward Israel as well. With Tony Blair's Labor Party in open revolt against him, motivated in part by his American and Middle East policies, the prime minister's forced retirement from office next year is expected to usher in a new political landscape, one less hospitable towards Israel. Cameron stressed he sought to preserve Britain's "special relationship" with the US, condemned anti-Americanism and endorsed the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. However, he said, his government would not be "America's unconditional associate in every endeavor." "We must be honest in looking at what has happened in the world during the five years that these [neoconservative] beliefs have been the guiding principles of British and American policy," he said. "On any reasonable measure, the challenges are greater today than five years ago." His government would pursue a foreign policy guided by "liberal conservative" values which would "not turn a blind eye to the excesses of our allies - abuses of human rights in some Arab countries, or disproportionate Israeli bombing in Lebanon," he said at the JP Morgan annual lecture for the British American Project in London. His negative characterization of Israel's retaliatory offensive against Hizbullah comes in contrast to the actions of Blair, who, despite intense pressure from within his party and from the media, refused to condemn Israel's actions as "disproportionate." Cameron's speech also contrasted with remarks made the same day by former prime minister Margaret Thatcher at the White House. "With America, Britain stands in the front line against Islamist fanatics who hate our beliefs, our liberties and our citizens," Thatcher said. America and Britain "must not falter. We must not fail. We need to renew our resolve that, however bitter or lengthy the struggle, this evil shall not prevail." In contrast, Cameron said that "neoconservative" policies lacked "humility and patience" and "represented a view which sees only light and darkness in the world." He disparaged references to an "axis of evil" in the world as unsophisticated, saying "foreign policy decisions are not black and white." "We are not engaged in a clash of civilizations" but in a series of discrete conflicts that require "us to be a little smarter in how we handle those connections" between conflicts, he said. Cameron described himself as a "liberal conservative, rather than a neoconservative." Liberal "because I support the aim of spreading freedom and democracy, and support humanitarian intervention" and conservative "because I recognize the complexities of human nature and am skeptical of grand schemes to remake the world." Democracy cannot be imposed from above on unwilling peoples, Cameron argued, noting that, while "the ambition to spread democracy is noble and just," it "cannot be quickly achieved to suit a political timetable." Cameron said that the key to defeating terrorism was to "cut off their life support systems." This meant "winning the trust of the majority Muslim community," resolving issues "of crucial concern to Muslims, like Palestine," and winnowing it away from a "deformed vision of Islam." Liberal British newspapers applauded Cameron's speech, with the Guardian describing it as "moderate, sensible and liberal" while the Daily Mail found it "significant and statesmanlike" and hoped Cameron would distance himself from the "warmongers who surround Mr. Bush." Conservative papers were less supportive, with the Times suggesting the appeal to liberal conservativism came near to appearing more "glibcon than libcon." The Times saw the speech as an appeal to those unhappy with the conduct of the war on terrorism but supportive of the overarching aims of the war, while the Daily Telegraph noted that the speech was "an attempt to outflank Tony Blair, who has faced growing criticism at home for his strong and uncritical support of President Bush's use of preemptive military action." Cameron's speech followed a Populus poll published in the Times on September 6 that found that 73 percent of those surveyed believe Blair's "foreign policy, especially its support for the invasion of Iraq and refusal to demand an immediate cease-fire by Israel in the recent war against Hizbullah in Lebanon, has significantly increased the risk of terrorist attacks on Britain." More than 62% believe that to "reduce the risk of future terrorist attacks on Britain the government should change its foreign policy, in particular by distancing itself from America, being more critical of Israel and declaring a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq." Were elections held today, Cameron's Conservatives would likely take power. A Populus poll published in the Times last week found 36% of respondents would vote for the Conservatives in the next general election, 32% for Labor and 20% for the Liberal Democrats. In May 2005, British voters returned Labor to power with 365 seats in the House of Commons, followed by the Conservatives with 197 and the Liberal Democrats with 62. An election must be held before June 3, 2010, although the prime minister may dissolve Parliament and call an early election at his discretion. Blair's common Israel policy with the US is not likely to be shared by Cameron, given the political fallout in Britain from the offensive against Hizbullah. A YouGov poll commissioned by the Telegraph last month found 63% believed the Israel's actions against Lebanon was disproportionate, 53% thought Blair had bungled the crisis and 64% believed Blair uncritically followed US policy. On September 7, Blair announced he would step down within a year.