“Never was anything great achieved without danger”
Bucharest, Romania. 11 December. Credibility is everything in strategy. Watching John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, savage US Secretary of State Ashton Carter this week as I was about to brief Alliance commanders on NATO’s southern flank was sobering. The argument between McCain and Carter essentially boiled down to the search for a ground force that could do the West’s bidding in Syria and how to pay for it. However, implicit in the stand-off was a dangerous malaise that now afflicts all Western powers; how to achieve large structural changes in international strategy for the least effort and the lowest political cost. If Joe Nye once defined grand strategy as the organisation of large mean in pursuit of large ends what was witnessed in Washington this week was hollow politics or power without strategy.
For much of the Cold War NATO’s Southern Flank incorporated Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. Today, it stretches across the Middle East and North Africa and indeed beyond. Much like Europe’s Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648 NATO’s southern flank incorporates a plethora of tensions and conflicts all of which will require sustained strategic engagement by the West in support of regional states over decades if legitimate stability is to be re-established. However, the West has become a lame duck with lame duck leaders bereft of clear strategic or political objectives who are simply not up the challenges now posed. Perhaps it was a mark of how desperate things have become that Germany’s Chancellor Merkel was this week named by Time magazine as “Person of the Year”, having narrowly beaten IS leader al-Baghdadi to the accolade.
McCain also berated Carter and by extension the Obama administration for having no timeline for the campaign against IS. After all, the timeline is the essential backbone of any strategy. Critically, there is no absolutely sense of power applied over time, distance and cost towards any real end, other than the vague hope that air containment (for that is what the strategy amounts to) will somehow ‘degrade’ IS. In other words, a real anti-IS strategy would necessarily need a ground force that goes significantly beyond Carter’s suggestion of a “Expeditionary Targeting Force”, which sounds like something out of a Jason Bourne movie.
Such a strategy would also need a defensive as well as an offensive component, and far more joined-upness with allies than exists if it is to be sustainable. The Lebanese Prime Minister told David Cameron recently that he believed for every 1000 migrants entering Europe illegally there are at least 2 Jihadis embedded therein. This means some 16,000 IS fighters have probably entered Europe this year alone and now. And yet, all Europe’s leaders can seem do is quibble over which European institutions and which European borders should be strengthened and how best to get the ongoing influx off TV news. Talk about rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. Or is that ostriches sticking heads in the deck of the Titanic?
The reason for this political nonsense is that no Western leader wants to be honest (so few are these days about anything of substance) about the vital strategic end implicit in the fight against IS; the restoring of stability across the Middle East and North Africa. Specifically, they do not want to admit they a) have no clue; b) cannot agree; and c) even if they could agree the time and cost required to achieve such an end. Air containment is thus the latest of the strategic placebos Western ‘leaders’ prefer to real strategy and action. Hollow politics means if a problem cannot be resolved before the next election ignore it as much as possible and use the words ‘long’, ‘term’ and ‘strategy’ endlessly. When something ghastly happens express condolences in grave tones, talk vaguely about doing everything that can be done, and then move on.
Take last week’s extension of Britain’s air strikes against IS from Iraq to Syria. To what end? Yes, attacking the oil exports from which IS benefits might help at the margins. Stopping financial flows to IS and disrupting IS cyber-propaganda might disrupt the group for a time. Professor Rosemary Hollis of City University, London made the valid point that stepping up air containment can only be a first step. That begs a question; what are the second, third, fourth and indeed many more steps that will be need to achieve the ultimate goal of returning political stability and physical security to Syria, the wider Levant, and in time the Middle East? Well, there will be no strategy until Sunni states across the Middle East agree to form an international coalition to fight IS on the ground, restore stability to the Levant, and stop the funding flowing out of them into IS coffers.
A coherent Western strategy? Hollow politics means that beyond the re-stating of lofty, ill-defined ends there will be no commitment of diplomatic, economic, let alone military means, because there is no political commitment to necessary ways, beyond symbolic air containment. First, there can be no strategy without US leadership and there will be no such leadership until at the very earliest after the November 2016 US presidential elections. Second, Europeans are incapable of crafting such strategy, due to both political and military weakness, and cannot even agree how to defend their own homelands and against which adversary – Russia or IS.
There is another essential Western dilemma reflected in and by hollow politics; the eternal confusion of values with interests from which Western power suffers nowadays and which render all strategic ends broad in scope, but limited in commitment. Contrast Western ‘strategy’ with contending Russia strategy. Russia has established limited strategic objectives on a relatively narrow end designed to leverage much wider strategic effect and is investing the necessary means to establish the strategic end as credible. However, the Russian end is not the preservation of the Assad regime, which is merely the means, and most certainly not the destruction of IS, which for the Russians is merely a sideshow. The end is the preservation of a Russia-friendly Syria and specifically an air and naval base in Syria which Moscow sees as vital to ensure Russian influence and interests can be maintained across the Mediterranean basin and much of the Middle East. In other words, Russia has little concern for the broader stability of the Middle East so long as it does not affect Russia’s ability to use the Middle East as a platform for its interests.
What air containment also reveals is a refusal to confront cause and effect beyond the ‘something must be done’ manta central to hollow politics. IS only numbers some 30-40,000 fighters which could be defeated in relatively quick order on the battlefield, especially so if they continue to aspire through the Caliphate to the creation of a relatively conventional military force. However, implicit in the Syria conflict is the very real prospect that the West could soon find itself not only embroiled in a general Middle Eastern war between states, and a simultaneous religious and sectarian war, that would look much like the gruesome 1618-1648 Thirty Years War. Sadly, such a war could be hastened not delayed by Western inaction and irresolution.
In that light air containment is merely the putting of a small Western toe into very hot water. As such, unless the air containment of IS is accompanied by revealed strategy and commitment, precisely because there is no revealed relationship between ends, ways and means it will soon come to be seen as an extension of weakness, rather than a statement of strength. ‘Strength’ in this instance would need to include a demonstrable determination by Western powers to use ‘all necessary means’.
Now, there are times when sound statecraft demands military action in a political and strategic vacuum. There are indeed times when power must be used in the absence of strategy in an effort to change the relationship on the ground between ends, ways and means. Such action is taken precisely to create the conditions for successful strategy. However, the current action masks no such intent. Rather, they are the lame duck actions of lame duck leaders either clueless as to the reality of the threat posed to and by what is happening in the Middle East, and/or determined as ever to keep reality filed in the too politically difficult file. In other words, it is hollow politics masquerading as strategy.
Talking of lame duck leaders. David Cameron was also in Bucharest this week pretending to negotiate a new relationship for Britain in the EU. At least I was in Bucharest doing something serious!