2 May 2011

No Bonapartism Please, We’re British

In an article in The Times on 22 April, ‘Job done. It is time to get out of Afghanistan’, Paul Gibson argued that rather than fighting on in Afghanistan until 2014, most British troops could, and should, be withdrawn this year. He concluded:
The wind of change blowing through the Middle East should also be blowing through the Ministry of Defence. Afghanistan is yesterday's war. The Prime Minister needs to bring our troops home now, so we can be balanced for the next one, which may not be far away.
After all in Libya:
If a humanitarian assistance force or UN peacekeeping force is required, current form suggests that Mr Cameron will want to be in the lead and the Armed Forces need to be ready. Apart from the powerful humanitarian arguments, intervention in Libya is clearly in the UK's strategic interests because of its Mediterranean littoral, its oil and potential for trade.
Not everyone shares Gibson’s view on the value to the UK of the Libyan involvement. For example, Max Hastings in the Daily Mail on 23 April, who thought that for the UK to be:
preparing to undertake a long-term military training mission to empower the Libyan rebels to look after their own security, shows the Government still floundering deeper into the swamp it has entered.
The longer this bloody business drags on, the more willing the world will become to blame Britain for the humanitarian tragedy, for which we chose to assume responsibility, rather than Gaddafi who is of course the perpetrator. Finally, there is another, British dimension. As a strong supporter of the Cameron government’s domestic programme, which faces plentiful difficulties of its own, I regret that the Prime Minister has chosen to take such risks in Libya, where Britain has no vital interest.
… We have got ourselves into a fine tangle. Our objective now should be to escape from our folly through a political deal, not a military victory.
Hastings had taken a similar line a few days earlier in the Financial Times:
The western allies are in a fine Libyan pickle. The real mission of the British and French military “advisers” being dispatched to the rebel camp is to explore what the west might do to get out of it. The declared objectives of the national leaderships are much larger than the means available to achieve them. It was because defence chiefs on both sides of the Atlantic foresaw this that they were reluctant to intervene in the first place.
Hastings referred to senior military opinion again in his Daily Mail piece:
From the moment we started bombing, every senior soldier I know on both sides of the Atlantic took it for granted that we had picked up the burden of what happens to the country hereafter.
Hastings' views seemed to be at variance with Gibson’s insiders in The Times:
The understandable focus on Helmand has distorted our defence horizons and ambitions. This must be rectified. The Army must build bridges with the other services, which feel particularly bruised by the cuts to their capabilities caused by ring-fencing the Afghan operation. Inter-service rivalry is an enduring feature of the Armed Forces but the recriminations have plumbed new depths after the flawed Strategic Defence and Security Review and - threaten our ability to conduct joint operations. In Sierra Leone, Brigadier David Richards, now a general and Chief of the Defence Staff, led a world-class operation in which paratroopers were supported by guns from HMS Chatham, Harriers from HMS lllustrious and RAF Chinook helicopters. We must be able to repeat that success - possibly quite soon in Libya.
Hastings’ opinions are based on his extensive experience as a journalist and war historian, but not on military service. The Times’ contributor on the other hand was described thus: “Brigadier Paul Gibson is a former Director of Counter Terrorism and UK operations”. But presumably Gibson is retired, as surely it would be inappropriate for a serving officer to be publicly so at odds with government policy? In particular on the timescale for leaving Afghanistan, criticism of SDSR, and identifying strategic interests for the UK in Libya (oil and potential for trade) in terms way outside the scope of UN Resolution 1973.

Gibson’s photograph in The Times presumably dates from his time in uniform, as he probably doesn’t wear combat gear in retirement.

While the UK is hardly likely to succumb to Bonapartism*, perhaps former military people should encourage the revival of the description “(retd)” attached to descriptions of their quondam rank. Then, when they are expressing their personal opinions in print, dead tree or virtual, readers will not be left under any illusion as to their status, or who they are speaking for.

*According to Wikipedia, "the replacement of civilian leadership by military leadership within revolutionary movements or governments" – not that the Coalition are that revolutionary!

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