At the dispatch box with David Cameron

David Cameron, the leader of Britain's Conservative Party, visited the editorial board Friday to discuss the U.K. role in the Iraq war, the relationship with the United State's and his own party's future. Cameron recently scored a series of political victories. Britain's Labor Party Prime Minister Gordon Brown stumbled with some lackluster policy initiatives Cameron claims to have invented and was forced to cancel a scheduled election due to sinking public opinion poll numbers.

Troops out

Sonni Efron: I want to ask about the Prime Minister's decision to draw down the troops in Basra, do you support it?

David Cameron: Yes I do. I think the key determinant should be the level of security in Iraq. That's always been our position, that the priority should be building up the Iraqi army, and if security conditions allow a drawdown of the troops we support it. But we've never supported a sort of artificial timetable. Um, and I think there are some questions to answer, which I put into the House of Commons on Monday, about what he calls the second stage of overwatch, and the extent to which the British forces will be able to be deployed in that second stage. And so my job as leader of the opposition is to sort of ask those questions. But on Iraq there's been a lot of bipartisanship and consensus in Britain, and I think on issues of foreign affairs where you can agree for the national interest I think it's very important that you do.

Marjorie Miller: So are you saying you'd like to see them draw down even further?

David Cameron: As a way, I mean, you know, we all want to see the troops come home, but that should only be done, that should be done as conditions allow. And as security in southern Iraq increases.

Marjorie Miller: But what are your questions on overwatch then?

David Cameron: The question to me is in the first stage of overwatch it's very clear to me that the British troops if necessary could deploy, um, in support of the Iraqi army. There was some uncertainty in the House of Commons on Monday when we moved to the second stage of overwatch, whether the British forces, um, will be able to deploy. And so we need a bit more clarity on that. And so it's very important that we not have an artificial timetable on that. It should be very hardheaded, very realistic about the capacity of the Iraqi security forces to maintain order.

Jim Newton: Are you encouraged by the capacity of the Iraqi forces to maintain order?

David Cameron: Um, it's been much slower than we would like. If you go back, it's quite clear mistakes have been made. If you go back to the invasion, I supported it, I don't change my view about that. But whatever one's view of that, the decisions taken subsequent to the invasion, you know, have, you know, have, Britain and America have made some very bad mistakes. And I think not a high enough priority was given to the issue of order and security the whole way through. And then I think, you know, that is the major lesson we should draw from it. [...]

Still supports the invasion David Cameron: I think what's been disappointing is you haven't seen the political surge. You don't see the Sunni, Shia and Kurds coming together to form a really cohesive and a strong government.

Tim Cavanaugh: Is there any prospect of that, and is there any possibility that the kind of hands-off — by comparison with the American style of management, this is my understanding from a great distance — the British manner of allowing a little more control on ground by the local people has exacerbated that situation in the sense that we now have sort of Shiite death squads running, uh, the show, down south.

David Cameron: Well I think the conditions are different down south are different than they are in Baghdad, and that's why we've been able to draw down. I think the conditions are different. Um...

Tim Cavanaugh: I guess the question is what do we think of the people we're turning power over to down south?

David Cameron: Um, look it's, that I think is the whole problem. The situation is nowhere near as democratic and attractive and cohesive as we would like. But we have to deal with the reality. We have to deal with what it is. And I think the major lessons to learn from the Iraqi experience is, a much greater emphasis needs to be given to security and order. And I think the main lesson we've learned is you can't drop a fully formed democracy out of an airplane. And I think we need to learn these lessons in Afghanistan as well, where we are in danger of making the same mistakes. And we need to focus on the things that really matter.

Nick Goldberg: And none of this makes you rethink the legitimacy of the initial invasion?

David Cameron: I just, I mean, I think, I thought about it at the time. I was a junior bank bencher MP, I had to decide how to vote. I thought about it very carefully, and I thought there were a number of reasons — including the argument about weapons of mass destruction, which clearly now is not valid — but I thought the arguments in terms of enforcing the will of the U.N., and the U.N. resolutions against Saddam, and the need to remove Saddam, I thought those were still, those are still overwhelming reasons.

Jim Newton: They stand the test of time?

David Cameron: I think so, but I think the mistakes made subsequently...all the material in the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City raise serious questions for politicians to answer. In the U.K. we haven't had a proper — we've had serious inquiries in the U.S. — in the U.K. we haven't had a proper inquiry on the conduct of the war and the period after that. [...]

Is there any difference left between the Conservatives and Labor?

Tim Cavanaugh: What's the bright line difference between the Conservative position and the liberal position on Iraq?

David Cameron: Conservative position and the Labor position?

Tim Cavanaugh: Yes, yes, sorry.

David Cameron: We have a small Liberal party that was opposed to the war. Uh, I don't think there is, there is... There are differences of emphasis. I've been emphasizing for the last few years the importance of prioritizing buildup of the army. We think that should be a higher priority. But there's been fairly bipartisan approach, and as I say I think in issues of foreign affairs where British troops are involved, a bipartisan approach is often the right one.

Jim Newton: How about domestically? What are the defining issues that distinguish the two parties?

David Cameron: I think the Labor view is much more a top-down, state-control big-government knows best. And the Conservative position is much more bottom-up, trust people, devolve power, devolve responsibility, let people have more power and control over their own life. I think that's still, the parties are much closer together than twenty years ago when I first got interested in politics, but I still think that's quite a difference in approach. And I think that applies in, whether you're looking at the economy or education, or law and order. There's just a belief in big-government activism on the other side — particularly Gordon Brown, who is different in that respect.

Nick Goldberg: What are the big differences between Blair and Brown in your view?

David Cameron: Well they worked, I mean Brown was very much involved in the Blair government. I mean, he was the man who wrote the checks for the last ten years. I think though, he's instinctively more, he's more instinctively and tribally a Labor politicians... I think he's more of a believer in top-down, big-government approach than Blair was. I mean Blair was pushing through some reforms, which we supported. In fact he only got them through the House of Commons because we supported them. Allowing new schools to set up in the state sector. And there are signs that Brown is backpedaling. In public service reform, I think he's a little less enthusiastic. But we'll see. I mean, I think one of the reasons the election was called off was not just because we had a good conference and came up with good ideas, but I don't think Gordon Brown has yet set out what his position is. He's sent out a laundry list of ideas but no explanation of how they will be achieved, and no story about how, what Labor is now for. And in my view you win in politics when you've got the answers to the big questions.

Green taxes

Jim Newton: On the environment, you mentioned a certain identification with Gov. Schwarzenegger. Is there an evolving sort of center-right position internationally on the environment? What would distinguish your position from the Labor position?

David Cameron: I think one is a sort of values approach, which is that center-right parties belief in stewardship, you know, passing on to the next generation. So you know, conservation should be part of conservatism. So there's a values piece of that.

But I think there's also something about the tools we use to get environmental changes. I think a lot of that should be market based. Incentive-based. Using green taxes, using carbon-trading systems. These are all things that the right, the center-right is very comfortable with. And one of the points I make to my party is you shouldn't leave these issues to the left, because they will bring back taxation and regulation and an ever-growing state. We need to get hold of this issue, and show how market-driven mechanisms and incentives can actually help people to lead cleaner and greener lives. And there's an argument, for instance in Britain we're saying let's put taxes on pollution, but let's put taxes on families down. Now the Labor party agrees with us that green taxes are a good thing — although the green tax as a share of total taxes has actually fallen over the last decade — but they just want to take the money and make the state larger.

Jim Newton: What's a green tax? A carbon tax?

David Cameron: Yeah I mean, the chancellor, in his budget Monday, just swiped one of our great ideas, which is to switch the tax that we have on people who buy airline tickets. We said switch that and make it on the flight, and make it a flight tax that relieves the pollution an airplane actually causes. Um, and so that is a green tax because it's targeting the pollution of an airplane, rather than passenger traveling on it.

Tim Cavanaugh: Does it have any effect on the amount of...particulate that's actually released into the atmosphere?

David Cameron: Yes, it'll do two things. It'll encourage fuller planes, because at the moment in Britain the full plane and the empty plane are taxed — the full plane pays a lot of tax and the empty plane pays nothing. So we encourage fuller planes. It will encourage cleaner engines because we'll put in place the incentives that will encourage the manufacturers to ever-increase the greenness of the technology that they use. But it's absolutely clear that airline travel is going to increase, but if we're really serious about climate change we have to recognize every area has to make its contribution to reducing carbon emissions. And air travel at the moment in Britain 4.5% of greenhouse gases, but by 2050 will be 25%. So making sure it makes a contribution to the reduction is important.

"Political surge"

David Cameron: We need to encourage the Iraqi politicians to come together, to make a compact, to...

Marjorie Miller: How do we do that? It seems we've been trying that for five years.

David Cameron: I think one way — which we've suggested as an opposition party which I don't think the government has fully taken up — is to involve Iraq's neighbors in an international contact group. What we have had are these things called neighbor conferences, but we'd like to see a, you know, official permanent secretariat.

Marjorie Miller: But how would you get the U.S. to sign onto that? We're the ones who have resisted that.

David Cameron: Well, I, I'm a huge believer in the Atlantic relationship. It runs through my DNA and the DNA of my party. But where we have um, disagreements, you know, things where you think things should be done differently, we should, you know, be straight and talk about it. And this is an area where we think the ideas in the Baker-Hamilton report need to be implemented. There needs to be a political solution, not just a military solution.

Marjorie Miller: How would you be more effective than Tony Blair at influencing the U.S. on policy like that?

David Cameron: Huh, I think, um, I think Tony Blair was right in emphasizing the importance of the Atlantic relationship like that. I think it is the most important relationship for Britain; it would be if I was Prime Minister. But I think it needs to be a relationship where we speak frankly, and where when we have things we think really need to be done, we talk about them. And I think there was a danger with Tony Blair where sometimes some of these points really weren't raised enough.

Marjorie Miller: So he didn't stand up enough to Bush?

David Cameron: Huh, I, you know, I don't want to go off the record, ha ha. You know I think the special relationship... We are the junior partner, we'll always be the junior partner. But it should be a relationship based on frankness, based on solidity rather than being too slavish about it. That's what I've said in the past, that's what... I've always thought Britain should be the U.S.'s best friend rather than the newest friend. The newest friend tells you things you want to hear; the best friend tells you things you need to hear.

Iran: threats from all over

Sonni Efron: Switch to Iran for a moment. The U.S. has had a bad time in the U.N., as has your government, trying to get to sanctions. And Merkel's government particularly has been a disappointment. What's going on with the Germans? And do you have any new ideas for how to get the Russians and the Chinese to play ball.

David Cameron: Very good question. We try to be very constructive about this. William Haig, my shadow foreign secretary, has set out the approach that we would take, which is all about trying to combine incentives and sanctions. That we need to convince our European partners that sanctions are necessary. Just as in the U.S. you have named and put sanctions on particular financial institutions, we in Europe should do the same thing. And we in Britain should take the lead in persuading... Europe has done a lot of talking to Iran but not much sanctions. America has done a lot of sanctions but not much talking. And what we need is both incentives and sanctions from both. And that should be the major objective of the British government in trying to achieve those things. [...] I've always said we shouldn't rule out military options, but I don't think we're at that point now, and the maximum amount of pressure in terms of incentives and sanctions should be put on. As my colleague William Haig put it, it would be a calamity if we attacked Iran, but it would be calamitous if Iran obtained nuclear weapons.

Jim Newton: There's a fairly significant rumble in Washington about the prospect — and Sonni knows it better than any of us — about the prospect of a military action, in the not so distant future. Are you concerned about that?

David Cameron: Well, I don't think the time is yet come for that. I think we're trying to move through this approach of incentives and sanctions.

Tim Cavanaugh: If the time came, if Washington decided the time had come, what would the junior partner do?

David Cameron: Well, I don't think we're at that stage now.

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