The Prime Minister spoke extensively about the situation in Libya and the UK Armed Forces involvement in it during an interview on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme. He also went on to discuss the Defence Budget and the decisions resulting from the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).
Mr Cameron was asked whether he has drawn any lessons for liberal intervention as an approach to foreign policy from what the Libyan experience has been. He said:
I think the point about the intervention, in this case, was that there was both a moral imperative to do so to stop a slaughter in Benghazi, but there was also the ability to do it because we were able to get the backing of the UN and the backing of the Arab League, so we were able to do something that was right to do.
And I think there was a big political advantage because success in Libya means the Arab Spring can continue and that’s good for democracy, good for the world. And there was a national interest argument, too, because Gaddafi was a monster, he was responsible for appalling crimes, including crimes in this country, and the world will be much better off without him. So there were a unique set of circumstances and I think they meant it was the right thing to do.
Mr Cameron was asked whether there were similarities with the situation in Syria. He said:
Well, there are many similarities. You’ve got a dictator who is doing dreadful things to his people; the problem is that there isn’t the same backing in the Arab League, there isn’t the same backing internationally.
In fact, we’re having problems at the United Nations even getting a strong resolution that says tougher sanctions and travel bans and asset freezes and all the things that we, in Europe, are putting in place.
So every set of circumstances is different. I think the whole point about having a consistent approach in foreign affairs is recognising that you face a lot of different circumstances; if you try and apply too many common rules you can get yourself into some difficulties.
Mr Cameron went on to say that he thinks lessons have been learned from Iraq:
We were doing this in a different way; there was no occupying army, no invading force,” he explained. “You know, I think there’s a big danger today, actually, of people in the West taking too much credit for themselves, and, frankly, this is a Libyan triumph, this is the Libyan people who have rid themselves of a dictator and they’ve suffered appalling loss of life from some very brave actions in Zawiya, in Misurata, in Tripoli and elsewhere.
This is important because I think one of the reasons why Tripoli is getting itself back together again in relatively good order - and of course there’ll be difficult days - is because it wasn’t a foreign force that knocked over Gaddafi’s regime, the Libyans did it themselves. This wasn’t done to them, they did it and so they are rapidly mending it.
Commenting on the RAF’s involvement in the NATO Libya campaign Mr Cameron said that out of around 8,000 NATO sorties the RAF performed 1,600 of them, so around a fifth of strike sorties.
I think that is punching, as it were, at our weight, or even above our weight. I think we played a very important role not just in the number of strike sorties but also in the fact that we were there right from the beginning; it was Britain and France with America together that actually called time five months’ ago on Gaddafi and said that we’re not going to allow this slaughter in Benghazi.
I think Britain can be proud of the fact we’ve played a very significant role and I also pay absolute tribute to our Armed Forces, and particularly to our pilots who have flown mission after mission with great bravery.
Asked whether the UK has missed not having an aircraft carrier to deploy, Mr Cameron said:
I don’t think we did, no. I mean, I discussed this with our pilots in Gioia del Colle in Italy and we had Typhoons and Tornados that were performing brilliantly in the skies above Libya. Because we have basing ability all over the Mediterranean I don’t think we did suffer from not having a carrier, and if you look at the role that we played and the number of sorties that we flew. We also then brought in attack helicopters on board HMS Ocean.
You have to make difficult decisions in defence reviews, but I think the decision we made to keep Tornado rather than Harrier was the right decision because Tornado is a more capable aircraft.
We do need an aircraft carrier, and that’s why we’re building what will be one of the finest aircraft carriers in the world,” added Mr Cameron. “Indeed, we’re building two of them.
The question for us in the Defence Review was, ‘how are you going to deal with this appalling inheritance you’ve got, a Defence Budget £38bn overspent? How are you going to handle this transition?’
And we took the decision to keep the Tornado because it’s such a capable aircraft - proved once again in Libya, and to go ahead with building the aircraft carrier but to accept that there was going to be a gap between now and then.
I believe it’s the right decision - and there was a lot of military evidence to say that was the right decision, but in future we will have one of the most capable aircraft carriers anywhere in the world.
Mr Cameron was also asked whether it is his belief that, in 10 years’ time - when we hope the economy will be stronger than it is at the moment - the proportion of our national income devoted to Defence will rise above the level to which it is descending. He said:
We still spend two per cent of our national income on Defence. That is what NATO says you should spend, and we’re one of the few European countries in NATO that spend that.
The second point is even after the Defence Review, where we are cutting defence spending by eight per cent in real terms, in cash terms it’s hardly declining at all; at the end of that process Britain will have the fourth largest defence budget in the world. So I don’t accept the argument that we’re not spending enough on Defence.
We’ve spent £35bn on Defence. That is the figure for 2011; in 2015 we’ll still be spending around that number. There’s no cash cut in defence spending.
At the end of this process we will have a nuclear deterrent, we’ll have a fleet of new submarines, we’ll have a brand new aircraft carrier, we’re going to have the Typhoon and the Joint Strike Fighter in terms of our Air Force, we’re going to have brand new destroyers - the best built anywhere in the world. We’re going to be a full-spectrum defence player.