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Cameron's no-fly zone fervour not shared by US

Mark Mardell | 22:54 UK time, Tuesday, 1 March 2011

David Cameron

Where would Tony Blair have been without George W Bush?

When accused of slavishly following America's lead over the invasion of Iraq, Mr Blair used to joke: "It's worse than that, I believed in it!"

But what would he have done if Mr Bush hadn't been keen on invading Iraq? The UK could hardly have done it alone.

The reason I ask, of course, is because UK Prime Minister David Cameron seems considerably more enthusiastic about imposing a no-fly zone over Libya than the US government.

On Tuesday, he told Parliament he had instructed the military to develop plans for such a move.

"We will look at each and every way of stepping up pressure on this regime. Further isolation of the regime by expelling it from international organisations. Further use of asset freezes and travel bans to give the clearest possible message to those on the fringes of the regime that now is the time to desert it. And we do not in any way rule out the use of military assets. We must not tolerate this regime using military force against its own people."

Nick Robinson, my colleague at Westminster, says he sees it as a defining moment in Mr Cameron's foreign policy.

Indeed, I've heard the phrase "his Blair moment" used.

Some Americans feel he is giving the moral lead that is lacking from US President Barack Obama.

To read the British press, you would think that the UK was the world's only superpower and that Mr Cameron would execute his plans, drawn up by the chiefs of staff, quite independently from any other country.

I suppose technically the Royal Air Force could, on its own, take on Libya, knock out its radar and missile defence systems and patrol the skies. But I am not sure it would want to do so.

The mood here in Washington is distinctly tepid.

When US defence secretary Robert Gates, who also served under Mr Bush, was asked about a no-fly zone, he said:

"I would note that the UN Security Council resolution provides no authorisation for the use of armed force. There is no unanimity within Nato for the use of armed force. And the kinds of options that have been talked about in the press and elsewhere also have their own consequences and second- and third-order effects, so they need to be considered very carefully."

Gen James Mattis, head of US central command, said such an operation would be challenging: "You would have to remove air defence capability in order to establish a no-fly zone. So no illusions here, it would be a military operation - it wouldn't be just telling people not to fly airplanes."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that there were arguments for and against. Tellingly, she referred to a degree of worry in the Arab world that America would invade Libya. That, she assured her audience on Capitol Hill, was not going to happen.

This lack of enthusiasm for a no-fly zone could change, of course. A concerted air campaign by Col Gaddafi, shown nightly on the news, could well alter administration minds.

But until that happens, Mr Obama doesn't seem to want more military action.

So what is Mr Cameron doing? Sabre-rattling on behalf of the Americans, striking a pose he thinks will be popular, providing a lead to a reluctant president?

Mrs Clinton's testimony made it clear she thought America should lead the world through what she called "smart power".

The UK still has to get used to a world where that doesn't always imply smart missiles.

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