Alphen, Netherlands. 15 August. T.E. Lawrence wrote, “In fifty words: granted mobility, security (in the form of denying targets to the enemy, time and doctrine (the idea to convert every subject to friendliness), victory will rest with the insurgents, for the algebraic factors in the end are decisive, and against then perfection of means and spirit struggle quite in vain”.
Western leaders should heed Lawrence’s words but not in the way they may think. Seared by failure in Afghanistan and Iraq, paralysed by the situation in both Syria and Ukraine the West has retreated into politics at the expense of considered strategy. Indeed, having understood that the threats they face from across the great belt of insecurity require a big, long-term strategy it is as though having batted badly in the first inning they have decided to leave the field to the opponent.
Indeed, uncertain what to do political leaders across the West have retreated into a series of military/humanitarian sound-bites ignoring some catastrophes, focusing on others on the grounds that they can at least do something. In Britain these days it is not the government that runs British foreign and security policy, but BBC Television News.
And yet what is happening to Europe’s east and in the Middle East is forced change by opponents with potentially catastrophic consequences for the West. Indeed, far from being the exception to the twenty-first century rule such conflict is fast becoming one of its defining features.
British strategist Basil Liddell Hart wrote in the 1930s that, “In Strategy the longest way around is often the shortest way there. A direct approach to the object exhausts the attacker and hardens the resistance by compression, where as an indirect approach loosens the defender's hold by upsetting his balance”. The Russians in their crafting of a ‘new’ doctrine of ambiguous warfare are in fact simply applying Liddell Hart’s dictum. The way for the Western leaders to out-manoeuvre Russian ambitions in Eastern Ukraine is also (in fact) relatively simple. They must up the Russian ante by offering a better future for ALL Ukrainians if they remain Ukrainian. Make the costs of ambiguity too high for President Putin and he will seek a face-saving solution to extricate himself from bad strategy.
The Middle East is of course more complex, as indeed it always is. My assertion some time ago that the entire Sykes-Picot state structure is at risk has now become fact. Indeed, what the Islamists of Islamic State/ISIS have successfully achieved is to create a sense that they are unstoppable. They have been allowed to get away with this partly because politically-correct Western leaders worried about offending minorities somehow accept that the Western action over the past decade was implicitly a form of colonialism/ imperialism. They selected the aim and then abandoned it and now want to keep the threat at strategic distance by either appeasing it, ignoring it or both.
And yet what is happening in the Middle East is acutely important. Faced with such circumstances ‘strategy’ should mean a collective ability to see the very big picture of this very big picture conflict. However, contemporary Western strategically-illiterate political leaders seem unable to do that. At the very least Western leaders should and must challenge the two assumptions upon which this grand insurgency is established. Firstly, that the majority of people in the Middle East actually want a Caliphate and the return to medievalism that it entails. Secondly, that in this struggle between the state and the anti-state the state is somehow a doomed anachronism.
Of course, direct engagement of the Islamists by booted and suited Western troops would give Islamic State/ISIS exactly what they want. It would be presented as a form of anti-imperialist legitimacy of the kind (not without irony) that Lawrence turned against the Turks during World War One - hence the need for the indirect approach.
The problem with Western leaders is that because they routinely put 'no significant military action too close to an election' politics before strategy they have lost the will, the patience and the statecraft to deal with complexity. And yet if the West is to re-generate twenty-first century grand strategy - the pursuit of large ends via large means – it is precisely statecraft and a new approach to dealing with complexity that they need. Indeed, complexity is the very stuff of international relations.
Therefore, the West must generate its own form of ambiguous warfare by turning the insurgency against itself. This means in the first instance properly supporting groups such as the Kurds who can help stop the advance of Islamic State/ISIS. Over the medium to long term diplomacy, aid, development and above all consistency will be central to any such strategy with a particular aim of renovating the idea of the legitimate state in the Middle East and helping to ease the many grievances the Islamists exploit. And, from time to time direct military expeditionary intervention will also be needed and Europeans in particular must pay heed to the need for such military capabilities.
The indirect approach works because as a strategy it implies not just that the ends are political but also the ways and means. Specifically, that means Americans and Europeans together engaging to find a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict AND actively helping to remove the forces that can only benefit from conflict, such as the Assad regime in Damascus. At times such a strategy will mean uncomfortable bed-fellows such as Iran; at times it will mean offending this group or that at home. Above all, ‘strategy’ will mean a truly joined-up, whole of government approach to strategy that is so lamentably lacking from the celebrity politics of the age led by political vision and reinforced by political back-bone.
However, unless the West together helps the people of the region generate a better future in the Middle East no-one else will and given the ensuing vacuum spill-over to Europe and beyond could be catastrophic. In that light the dropping of aid to ease the plight of the Yazidi people (important though it is) is not a function of a Middle Eastern strategy but rather a mask for the retreat from it.
The strategy-vacuum at the top of Western governments was put best in an email yesterday from a very senior American friend of mine. “Obama has no-one to do any serious thinking and doesn't seem to know he doesn't have it. It is the great "unknown unknown." And the Europeans are not in the game, not even the Brits, whose government is all talk and no walk”.
Sadly, need I say more?