David Cameron once famously scoffed that you don’t impose democracy from 10,000ft up.
But that is just what he — courtesy of NATO bomber jets — has done in Libya.
Having just about won the first foreign conflict he’s been involved in, the Prime Minister is now straining every sinew to avoid triumphalism.
Tough decisions: Mr Cameron, with troops, shouldn't go the same way as Tony Blair.
There will be no repeat of George Bush’s laughable 2003 made-for-TV assertion of ‘mission accomplished’, even as Iraq descended into post-war chaos.
That is the first of many lessons that Cameron hopes he has learned from that debacle.
To remove a tyrant, as Bush and Tony Blair discovered, is the easy part. It’s reconstructing countries numbed by dictatorship and torn apart by war that’s desperately difficult. Which faction is best suited to rule? What kind of political system should follow? How long should international forces be involved?
These are just a few of the questions facing the foreign leaders.
What Mr Cameron — and his advisers — must be wary about now is that this victory does not give him a taste for other foreign adventures.
Downing Street sources suggest that he spends as much as half of his day on foreign policy, and while it is right that Libya receives due attention, there is a danger in becoming too caught up in events beyond our shores.
Nearing the end? Rebel fighters gesture as they stamp on a part of a statue of Gaddafi inside the main compound in Tripoli.
When, alongside France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, he decided in January to launch air strikes to defend the city of Benghazi, the short-term aims were clear and laudable: to prevent a potential atrocity on the scale of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in the Nineties.
It was the legacy of the world’s appalling decision to turn away then that spawned the notion of ‘humanitarian intervention’ — the idea that states should use military force, where necessary, even if that meant flouting the traditional rules of sovereignty.
Blair, a man who had shown precious little interest in foreign affairs before he entered Downing Street soon found himself consumed by the idea that he could police all kinds of problems around the world and burnish his reputation on the international stage in the process.
He ended up fighting four wars in his first five years of office — Operation Desert Fox, during which Iraqi targets were bombed in 1998, Kosovo in 1999, Sierra Leone in 2000, Afghanistan in 2001, and then, fatefully, the war in Iraq in 2003.
It is easy to forget how, before the Iraq imbroglio, Blair was feted wherever he went. One high point was a trip in 1999 to Aachen, a city on Germany’s western border, to receive a prize as the world’s most respected international statesman that year.
Terror over? One of Gaddafi's men is arrested during search for the Libyan leader - but will Cameron take the credit?
The award is named after Charlemagne, the first Western emperor — and it was particularly notable that it had been given to a man who had come to see himself in that role.
Two years later, straight after 9/11, Blair luxuriated in the ovation he received from the American Congress for the support he had offered in America’s darkest hour.
He was rewarded with the unofficial title of Bush’s special emissary, tasked with winning round recalcitrant figures such as Vladimir Putin of Russia and General Pervez Musharraf to supporting Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan, and the ‘war on terror’. At that point, Blair was in his element and succeeded in securing a broad alliance for these ventures.
He believed that the UK’s place in the world was defined by our proximity to whatever administration was in office in Washington. This was standard Whitehall practice, but Blair took it to a logical extreme.
Cameron is working in a somewhat different environment. Bush, the ‘toxic Texan’, is long gone. Barack Obama has shown a studied reluctance to become the world’s policeman-in-chief, knowing that fighting global battles no longer goes down well on Main Street U.S.
His support on Libya was cursory. In spite of the effusive words during his summer visit to London — and the perfect picture opportunity of the barbecue for service personnel on the Number 10 lawn — Obama no longer regards the British premier as the first button to press on his speed dial.
Agreement: French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to back intervention in Libya.
What little attention he does pay to foreign affairs, he has concentrated on the economic threat posed by China. It is not just the diplomatic landscape that has changed when it comes to committing British forces abroad. So have the economics.
While administering 8 per cent cuts to the defence budget, Cameron has found himself involved in two major conflicts: Libya and Afghanistan.
A recent House of Commons Defence Select Committee report pointed out glaring inconsistencies — ones that should cause any premier with a growing fascination with foreign adventures to pause for thought.
How, it asked, could the PM preside over a sudden intervention in Libya and a continued engagement of attrition in Afghanistan while cutting back the armed forces?
‘We are not convinced, given the financial climate and the drawdown of capabilities arising from the Strategic Defence and Security Review, that from 2015 the Armed Forces will maintain the capability to undertake all that is being asked of them,’ the MPs noted.
As for Cameron’s claim that the UK retains ‘full spectrum defence capability’ — that he could fight the good fight wherever he wanted — the committee was caustic: ‘We can only conclude that the Government has postponed the sensible aspiration of bringing commitments and resources into line.’ In other words, get real.
Cameron seems to have learned half the lessons of the Iraq debacle. Certainly, he was keen to avoid the duplicity and machinations of Blair and his ministerial team (although coalition ministers have been worryingly reluctant to divulge the costs of the NATO campaign in Libya).
Thus was Cameron was eager to secure the support of the UN, which approved the aim of saving Benghazi (but not the add-on of removing Gaddafi).
Dogs of war: It is hoped Cameron doesn't get as 'hooked' on war as Tony Blair and George Bush were.
Now, Libya is on the verge of erupting in celebration at the fall of the tyrant, at which point and Cameron and Sarkozy will discreetly give themselves a pat on the back. It will be worth celebrating the removal of one more despot. But many of the questions that dog interventions such as these will remain unresolved.
Blair fell in love with his own image on the international stage. It was so much more enjoyable than trying to reform recalcitrant public services, not to mention the myriad other squabbles and deal-making that make up the tedious slog of domestic politics.
During his wars, the hero worship from a small town in Germany to the U.S. went to his head. He then fell to earth with Iraq, his reputation in tatters. Cameron, as is so often said, believes himself to be the heir to Blair.
His aides have studied the speeches and read the books.
But having made a good fight of the North African venture, the Prime Minister would do well to keep his confidence in check, and to work doggedly for a coherent reconstruction of Libya.
And all the while, he would be wise to remember that ultimately prime ministers are re-elected — or not — on their performance in domestic affairs.
A Britain still recovering from the riots and in the throes of economic malaise is in need of all the care and attention that some premiers prefer to expend on countries thousands of miles from Downing Street.