hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Being Right Better in Brussels and London

9 June. London. Big day. Big issues.

In the morning I gave an interview about NATO and Libya to the BBC’s main morning radio news programme – “The Today Programme”. It was strange being back in a studio I used to attend fairly regularly in the 1990s as a ‘Presenter’s Friend’, a turn to expert on security matters. I am older now, not sure wiser. You can be the judge of that.

The issue at hand was the NATO Defence Ministers meeting in Brussels and what is likely to come out of it. Regular readers will know of my concern about NATO’s Operation Unified Protector. However, before I spoke I listened to a desperate plea from Misrata for NATO’s continued support. It was heart-warming to know that we (and by ‘we’ I mean the democratic West) are on the right side of history in our support of the Libyan people. I just wish NATO would be right better at it.

The figures are nevertheless impressive. NATO aircraft have now flown some 9500 sorties and some 4000 strike sorties to enforce the No Fly Zone. Countries about which I have been traditionally rude, such as Belgium, are for once pulling their weight. Critically, so are a few Arab countries – Jordan, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. There really is no love for Gadhaffi amongst the Arabs.

We may also be approaching a tipping point. Although I need to issue a health warning here; the ‘infallibility’ of the Lindley-French prediction model normally at this point falls flat on its face. The arms embargo has effectively prevented any munitions reaching the Tripoli regime. The introduction of British and French attack helicopters (few though they are) has further restricted the movement of regime forces and there are encouraging signs that the Libyan Army leadership are beginning to consider a Gadhaffi-less ceasefire, which is after all what this is now about. People have to stop dying as soon as possible.

In Brussels some form of solidarity has been crafted from the rubble of national caveats and restrictions over the use of force and the NATO Defence Ministers will agree to extend the mission for another ninety days.

Two things now need to be carefully considered – how we support the Libyan people in establishing an enduring ceasefire, and how we support them in crafting a peaceful political transition.

To that end, three conditions must first be met for a ceasefire: all attacks on civilians must cease; all regime forces must verifiably withdraw to bases, including the very nasty paramilitaries; and full access should be guaranteed for humanitarian relief.

Critically, the political transition will require the Libyan people and their regional partners front and centre. First, any intervention to guarantee the peace must be asked for by the Libyan people. Second, the Arab League and the African Union must be in the lead. Third, all actions must be UN-mandated. That will ensure ‘we’ continue to be right.

Gadhaffi’s personal future? Ultimately that is up to the Libyan people to decide, not us.

And then I went to the British Parliament. I had been summoned to give evidence to the House of Commons Defence Committee on the UK’s National Security Strategy and the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). My central contention was blunt; both ‘strategies’ describe a very big world getting bigger and more complex by the day and then promptly make Britain smaller and weaker.

At the military level the Strategic Pretence and Impecunity Review (and the new ‘SDSR2’ which is currently being conducted) will damage Britain’s standing in the world for the foreseeable future and impose upon Britain and its armed forces a much greater level of risk than the British people (and their American allies) have a right to expect. Forget the promise by the Government to reinvest in the armed forces from 2015. From what I am hearing that is not going to happen.

The official line is that Britain’s retreat, for that is what it is, is simply a function of being broke. That would not be unreasonable with the national debt 60% the size of the economy, even if the solution seems to be to disarm the baby and then throw the baby, the bath-tub and the bathroom out of the window. Of particular concern is a conversation I had over tea (what else?) with a senior official whom I very much like and admire very, who had a hand in drafting the SDSR and with whom I profoundly disagree.

His argument was that taken together the NSS and SDSR are not temporary adjustments to cope solely with being broke. Rather, it is a structural change to lessen the reliance of British governments on the armed forces as a tool of strategic influence and shift the balance of effort and investment to other tools such as aid and development and diplomacy. In principle that is a perfectly defensible position, even if it does smack of strategic political correctness.

There is a genuine dilemma. For many years the understandable fixation with Al Qaeda and terrorism has masked the nature and pace of strategic change. Moreover, the threat to British values and security from hyper-immigration has undoubtedly forced British governments to switch resources from projection to protection.

However, when I look at this world of ours as I do and see the nature of dangerous change driven as it is by hyper-competition between democracies and non-democracies I see all the conditions for the kind of instability that needs western democracies to have credible and capable armed forces. ‘Credibility’ and ‘capability’ are defined not by navel-gazing but by properly understanding what is out there and what is likely to be out there. As President Obama said in London if ‘we’ do not play an active role for the better in such a world then who will?

Sadly, if the strategically correct are permitted to hijack and undermine Britain’s security and defence policy all they will succeed in doing is destroying our credibility internationally, our alliances and the very international institutions that are central to Britain’s influence.

And, in the end? Some poor bloody infantryman from Sheffield will find himself in a foxhole under fire armed only with a UN-mandated plastic bottle and a broken elastic band. That is what is at stake if this folly continues.

I just wish London would for once be right…and be better.

Julian Lindley-French

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