British PM's u-turn on Libya exposes dilemma
Prime Minister David Cameron's rapid about-turn on his vow that Britain would spearhead a military no-fly zone in Libya has drawn heavy flak.London -- Prime Minister David Cameron's rapid about-turn on his vow that Britain would spearhead a military no-fly zone in Libya has drawn heavy flak and highlights his limited options on the crisis.
Before he came to power in May, Cameron was highly critical of former premier Tony Blair's decision to take Britain into five conflicts in 10 years and said he was "sceptical of grand utopian schemes to remake the world".
After nine months of what The Guardian newspaper called "mercantile" diplomacy, Cameron is suddenly keen to show his solidarity with the democratic aspirations of North Africa and the Middle East.
But if the Conservative Party leader seems unsure of how to support the revolt in Libya, it could be because he is constrained on all sides.
Britain has close relations with some of the autocratic regimes in the region and some have considerable investments in London, including holdings linked to deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.
And Cameron also seems hamstrung by divisions in his own party on the issue.
Many current leading Conservatives, such as finance minister George Osborne, identify themselves more with the foreign policy of Margaret Thatcher, which is closer to the beliefs of today's American 'neo-cons'.
The BBC's chief political editor, Nick Robinson, suggested Wednesday that "there has always been a battle for David Cameron's soul on foreign policy -- and it is a work in progress".
Many other commentators were blunter, pointing to three examples of mixed messages from the prime minister.
His visit to Kuwait, Qatar and Oman last week began with an impromptu stop in Cairo, where the overthrow of Mubarak has for the moment resulted in a transitional military government.
Observers cautioned it was deeply unwise of Cameron to hail "the wind of change" in the Gulf while on a visit accompanied by bosses of weapons manufacturers touting for business.
In the House of Commons on Monday, Cameron appeared keen to move on from a gaffe from Foreign Secretary William Hague, widely derided for repeating a rumour that Kadhafi had fled to Venezuela.
The prime minister, also hoping to seize the initiative after a flawed start to Britain's efforts to rescue its citizens from Libya, claimed that London was leading the way on establishing a no-fly zone over the country.
His officials intimated to journalists that Britain could even help to arm the rebel forces in Libya.
The tone had changed sharply when Cameron gave a news conference with visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday. Now Cameron said the talk of a no-fly zone was just part of preparing "for every eventuality".
On the issue of helping the rebels, he also appeared to row back, saying only that it was essential to make contact with them "so we can know them better and what their intentions are."
Kadhafi's son Seif al-Islam dismissed Cameron's words. "Everybody wants to be a hero," he sneered in a Sky News television interview, adding: "We are not listening to him."
It would have made uncomfortable reading for Cameron that even the pro-Conservative newspaper The Daily Telegraph said Wednesday that "hollow threats impress no one".
And back in the Commons on Wednesday, Cameron found himself the victim of unfortunate timing. Amid the talk of Britain enforcing a no-fly zone, his government had announced the timing of the first wave of defence cuts.
Denis Hiault / AFP / Expatica