Thursday 5 August 2010

Cameron's not yet in the Gerald Ford class for gaffes

David Cameron has been accused of making a wide number of foreign policy gaffes, though these fall into different categories.

I think there is often a plausible defence of (somewhat inconvenient) truth-telling, even if Cameron's recent comments about Pakistan appeared off-the-cuff rather than a deliberate strategy of increased public pressure.

Beyond that, Cameron seems (laudably) interested in talking about foreign policy in a demotic and accessible way - yet seems to risk losing his grip on the details when he is shooting the breeze in this way.

China was not pleased to be cited as a reason for the Trident nuclear deterrent during the leader's debate. That is certainly a longstanding US neo-con talking point, but not one Dave usually subscribes to.

I assume Cameron does know the history of world war two - and he has been pretty apologetic over his embarassing slip in stating that Britain was a junior partner to the USA in 1940.

So what of his latest statement out on a meet the people tour about Iranian nukes.

"I think [Turkey will] be a good political influence because they can help us solve some of the world's problems like the Middle East peace process, like the fact Iran has got a nuclear weapon."

Downing Street has explained that the PM "mis-spoke". Another "slip of the tongue" - though still an embarassing one when stopping Iran getting a nuclear weapon is such an important foreign policy priority for the government.

Could any more be read into this as a Freudian slip?

Some may hear fearful echoes of the ramping up of the threat from Iraq's WMD. But the opposite reading is possible - one of a stoic high Tory pragmatism about the inevitable threats of a dangerous world. Maybe Cameron does not see an Iranian nuke as an existential threat to be countered at all costs if he can, it seems, already imagine living in that world, and getting on with the job in reaction to it.

Iran ought to be on his mind, for matters of high diplomacy and low politics.

Foreign Secretary William Hague might want the PM to pay more attention to his vigorous round of op-ed articles and interviews to toughen the sanctions regime. (Perhaps I could also recommend Malcolm Chalmers of RUSI and his useful Fabian Review essay on an effective diplomatic strategy towards Iran for the PM's summer red box!).

Iran does have the potential to cause trouble for the Coalition at home too. The LibDems' decision to offer a manifesto commitment ruling out military action against Iran in any circumstances did not exactly send shockwaves through the United Nations back in March. Nick Clegg will not have particularly weighed up the chances of being in a Tory-led Coalition when making it.

But perhaps the reaction to Cameron's off-the-cuff diplomacy also tell us something about media framing. I suspect that had Prime Minister Brown in 2007 - or John Major in 1990 - mis-spoken so often on international affairs in their first three months, many commentators might have read more into the pattern. The media seem agreed that Cameron has taken to the public performance aspect of being PM like a natural, though he isn't necessarily known as a master of detail. Mis-speaking does not fit with that script - so not so much is made of it.

To be fair, none of the Cameron gaffes have yet been in the Gerald Ford class. The US President failed basic high school cold war politics in the 1976 Presidential debate in promising he would never allow any Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

Still, the PM might want to brush up on his geopolitics before he gets a reputation.


Chris said...

It looks like, the latest one aside, his gaffes/truth-telling/undiplomatic language partly arise from thinking only of his direct audience, and wanting to please them. I can't imagine him using the same tone and delivering the same message about Gaza to an Israeli audience, about the ISI to a Pakistani audience or about the history of WWII to the House of Commons, which is why any nonsense about his bravery seems misplaced.

As for why, I suppose other reasons mught include finding it easier to ask forgiveness rather than think ahead, and just not recognising, now he's PM, that he can't pull the same sorts of stunts and not have them reported as much - he'll be in for even greater surprises once the press turn.

BrianB said...

To my mind, although I realise not to everyone's, one of Cameron's landmark foreign policy gaffes was using his shared platform in a joint press conference with President Obama in the White House to excoriate the Scottish Justice Secretary's decision to release al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted (probably wrongly) of complicity in the Lockerbie bombing. As prime minister of the whole of the UK, Cameron had a clear duty, especially when addressing a world audience from foreign soil, and after Obama had attacked the Scottish minister's action, to point out that the decision was fully in accordance with Scottish law; that it followed due process; and that it was defensible on purely humanitarian grounds -- even if he, Cameron, would have decided differently had the decision been his. But he said none o0f these things in defence of a conctituent government of his own country. He tamely echoed the denunciation of the decision by his, er, senior partner.

As Chris says in his comment here, Cameron's comments on his travels abroad seem to be designed purely (or impurely) to please his immediate audience, irrespective of their effect on the wider audienceand their possible international and national consequences. In this case a consequence of his remarks about al-Megrahi's release will have been to strengthen support for the SNP in Scotland, and thus for eventual Scottish independence and the break-up of the UK. I can't believe that's something that Cameron wants his premiership to be remembered for. He can't even claim that it was just another slip of the tongue, or that what he had meant to say was that the al-Megrahi decision was a brave one that he strongly supported.