Designed to be Leaked

I've just read Defence Secretary Liam Fox's letter to the Prime Minister on the subject of cuts to military spending. The full text is here in the Telegraph.

One thing seems very obvious to me: that this is not the "private letter" it purports to be. Sections like this:

If [the SDSR] continues on its current trajectory it is likely to have grave political consequences for us, destroying much of the reputation and capital you, and we, have built up in recent years. Party, media, military and the international reaction will be brutal if we do not ...

and

This will be exacerbated by the fact that the changes proposed would follow years of mismanagement by our predecessors.

... are clearly designed for media consumption. These are things that spindoctors say. Anybody who only intends to drop a quiet note on his leader's desk on the eve of a key meeting can make the point much more succinctly and without turning it into a party political broadcast.

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So what is its purpose? The first signs of open rebellion? The idea that some services are too important to be cut? Maybe. But it certainly isn't a surprise that a Tory is going to pick the military as something that is too important to cut back on rather than the front line public services our society depends on.

Yet I have to say that cutting military spending at the same time as the UK is in the middle of a war does strike me as being a particularly stupid thing to do. So Liam Fox is probably making a good point by saying:

Frankly this process is looking less and less defensible as a proper SDSR (Strategic Defence and Strategy Review) and more like a “super CSR” (Comprehensive Spending Review).

More than anything seen so far (though I expect other rebellions to come to the surface before too long) this clearly exposes the folly of a government which has set out to cut public spending as its main, probably only, policy. Financial cost seems to be the only yardstick by which they know how to measure anything. What they should do first is ask what it is they want to achieve, assess how much it will cost to do it, and then raise the money to do it through taxation. It is ridiculous to do it the other way round. And this applies to every area of public spending, not just the military.

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The idea of a Strategic Defence and Strategy Review is sensible, but it needs to look five, ten or twenty years into the future. To cut £4bn or more a year out of a £37bn budget right now, in the middle of a war, is ideology gone mad. The sensible thing is surely to get out of Afghanistan as soon as we safely can ... and by that I mean the safety of our servicemen and women rather than the stability of the country, for the attempt to fight for one corrupt government just because we think it's slightly better than the alternative has been doomed to failure from the very start. And of course we need to make sure that we don't get dragged into the USA's next military adventure which currently looks like it's going to be in Iran, Yemen or Somalia. If we can but do that, we save money.

I am certainly not against maintaining strong defences, and I would want an independent Wales to do exactly that, as I outlined here a few years ago. But whatever decisions a government takes need to be framed in the context of what we want to achieve. As I see it, the priority must be to defend ourselves first, and be prepared to use the armed forces necessary to do that elsewhere in the world on UN or similar missions when our own security is not immediately threatened. But the one thing we should not attempt to do is maintain the sort of armed forces that are necessary to invade or occupy other countries half way round the world. If we get those principles right, we get effective and affordable defences. It concerns me greatly that NATO, which was set up to be a mutual defence organization for Europe, is fast becoming a tool for fighting aggressive wars in other continents.

I only wish the UK shared this sort of attitude, but it doesn't. Successive UK governments still hold on to the idea that it's the UK's job to be a major world power, and to project military might all over the world whether the world wants it or not.

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8 comments:

Anonymous said...

yes but the war 'We are in the middle of' is an unjust war...and one that should never have been fought! So the idea that the british military should be exempt from spending cuts when the rest of the public sector is to be cut to the bone is completely untenable!

Leigh Richards

Anonymous said...

Is at an unjust war? I thought it was sanctioned by the UN.

MH said...

Leigh, I was trying to say that we should withdraw from Afghanistan. But I don't have much confidence that the ConDem government will see it that way ... and even Ed Miliband said he supported this Afghan war in his speech yesterday.

If Liam Fox doesn't get sacked, it will be a sign that the UK government is going to make an exception for military expenditure in this round of spending cuts. This was hinted at by the BBC here, where they say:

"Reports have suggested that ministers decided to ringfence the Afghan mission from any future cuts."

I would suggest that this "leak" that Liam Fox now describes as "appalling" is just an orchestrated part of the process by which the government will U-turn on its previous position that defence would not be immune from these cuts. I'll leave it to you to decide whether this is what they intended all along.

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Anon, the original strikes against Afghanistan were in immediate response to 9/11. I have to say that I do not think it was wrong to take this action (the US and UK took action unilaterally, with the support of the Northern Alliance). ISAF was only set up after that, sanctioned by the UN. It was originally meant to secure the area around Kabul to make it a secure home for a new Afghan government. But what has happened since is a classic example of "mission creep", for in 2003 the remit was extended to the whole of Afghanistan with the result that we started fighting to take the southern areas out of the hands of the Taliban.

The picture I have used before is that of a football pitch. There was no national government in the years before 2001, just two main sets of warring factions, loosely the Northern Alliance in one half, the Taliban in the other, with Kabul in the middle. We took sides with one faction because Bin Laden was in the other. We got the "ball" as far as the centre circle, and declared ourselves the "winners" because we could set up a government in Kabul. We then called it the legitimate national government and did all we could to prop it up even though it had very little control of the south. We are now engaged in trying to win the south by military means.

In other words what started as what I could see as a justifiable "surgical strike" to kill or capture Bin Laden became something else (less justifiable, but maybe OK) then something else again (not justifiable at all, because it's a war we can't win). We are now just fighting for one of the sides in an ordinary, run-of-the-mill civil war ... and there is simply no point in over-stretching our resources to do it.

Welsh Ramblings said...

I disagree with Syniadau over the strikes against Afghanistan. Plaid Cymru and most of the SNP group at the time made the correct decision to oppose that move. We have to remember though, rationality and logic were simply drowned out at the time by the sheer emotion of such an event as 9/11. The fact that none of the hijackers were Afghanis was barely noticed.

I believe the original strikes were illegal- there is a strong argument along those lines. I don't think Islamism has been weakened by the war in Afghanistan- I think the opposite has happened. Look at how Pakistan has been destabilised.

"In other words what started as what I could see as a justifiable "surgical strike" to kill or capture Bin Laden became something else"

Elfyn Llwyd stated at the time that he would not have opposed a surgical strike against a location that the people that sanctioned 9/11 were occupying- i.e an attack on Bin Laden. That is a relatively credible position, though such surgical strikes never took place.

I strongly agree with your final conclusions about how the war has developed and how you now oppose it. Your last comment hits the nail on the head. It's a case of weighing up the human cost. The price we are paying in lives and resources is too high.

glynbeddau said...

Perhaps the simple question is. Does the UK want to pretend its still a World power? If the answer is yes then it will have to copy the USA, Russia and China in a highly visible military presence spending billions on the symbols of this . Trident replacement,. a large Navy, troops scattered throughout the world etc.
If on the other hand we admitted the truth and that we are only a subordinate arm of the US military machine and this is of no real benefit to our security, then we should remove our troops from the Middle East and cut our military expenditure accordingly including scrapping Trident.
I don’t think that it is disloyal to the ordinary troops to point out that both the senior staff (career officers) and arms manufactures have a vested in interest in ensuring the UK carrys on the way it is. The former because it means their careers are safe and the latter because of the huge profits they eschew.

Welsh Ramblings said...

Glyn nails it on the head. Clearly the UK can't afford to fund its own imperial fantasies. The UK has an existential and psychological crisis on its hands- the government isn't economically able to pursue the mythical world role it uses to justify the UK's continuation, today's controversy with Liam Fox is a manifestation of the symptoms.

MH said...

As you say, WR, it's hard to detach the events of late 2001 from the emotional response to 9/11. Whether right or wrong, it was very clearly impossible for the US public to allow their leaders not to take military action. As they would see it, what is the point of having all that military might, but not to use it?

To be picky, there is a difference between justifiable and justified. I think we have to accept that people might have different views and take different decisions, but for these still to be within the bounds of "justifiable". I would go along with the decision to go into Afghanistan on the basis that it was to find Bin Laden and destroy whatever network he had set up. If Afghanistan had been a functioning state it would have been different; we should then have backed the Afghan government in trying to do that job in broadly the same way as we are expect the Pakistan government to do it in their country. The fact that Afghanistan was so war-torn that there was no government that could do it is what swung the balance. If we're looking to find common ground, I would call that a "surgical strike".

The big question of course is whether the US had other intentions beyond trying to get Bin Laden ... i.e. to establish a regime in Afghanistan that they wanted. If that was the bigger intention, then of course I do not support it, in just the same way as we'd both oppose the same sort of regime change by military means in Iraq. I guess the same dual (not necessarily double) standards might apply to both wars: the reasons which politicians "sell" to the public are sometimes not the only, or even the main, reason why they do things.

In a sense, my argument (apart form being what I believe, of course) is specifically designed to get our politicians off the hook they now seen to be stuck on. Iraq is easy, we can say it was wrong from start to finish; that's why Ed Miliband can now safely agree it was wrong and "draw a line under it". But Afghanistan is trickier and Ed Miliband can't bring himself to dissociate himself from that. Nor can the Tories. To concede that military action in Afghanistan may have been right back in 2001 (and maybe for a few years after that) but that "mission creep" has turned it into something else is one way by which politicians can now justify withdrawal without being accused of being two-faced.

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And yes, I fully agree with Glyn too.

Welsh Ramblings said...

"The big question of course is whether the US had other intentions beyond trying to get Bin Laden ... i.e. to establish a regime in Afghanistan that they wanted. If that was the bigger intention, then of course I do not support it, in just the same way as we'd both oppose the same sort of regime change by military means in Iraq. I guess the same dual (not necessarily double) standards might apply to both wars: the reasons which politicians "sell" to the public are sometimes not the only, or even the main, reason why they do things."

Can't argue with that!

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