18 August 2011

‘We don’t have to stay, Henry’

The review section of the Daily Telegraph on 15 August offered readers its Pick of the paperbacks, starting with Leading from the Front by General Sir Richard Dannatt, ‘A searing indictment of how Labour failed the armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan’. (Back in May, I commented on Dannatt’s appearance at the Hay Literary Festival in connection with this book, and in April posted on Matt Cavanagh’s articles on Labour and the generals.)

In contrast, but also on 15 August, Sir Rodric Braithwaite reviewed in the Financial Times Frank Ledwidge’s Losing Small Wars:
… a savage indictment of the military leadership that got British soldiers into one impossible situation after another in Iraq and Afghanistan. His conclusion is stark: “The reputation of the British army has been seriously damaged. The British were at sea in both places, devoid of viable doctrine, without awareness of their environment, lacking adequate forces and minus any coherent strategy to pursue. All this was coupled with a hubris which attracted its inevitable riposte – nemesis.”
Braithwaite concluded:
The generals can be blamed, as Ledwidge says, for not insisting that they were given objectives that were clear, consistent, adequately resourced, and achievable within a reasonable time. Instead, they assured ministers that they could do whatever was asked of them, in a misguided desire to show off their prowess and secure their future budgets. They acquiesced, may even have believed, in the dubious proposition that we needed to follow the Americans to Iraq and Afghanistan to pay, in Tony Blair’s distasteful phrase, “a ‘blood price’ to secure [Britain’s] special relationship with America”. No wonder they failed to produce a convincing military plan. It was, however, a failure of moral fibre rather than strategic thinking.
The real problem, however, goes far beyond two failed wars and it is not only the politicians and generals who are to blame. The British public, too, seems to want the country to have aircraft carrier and missile submarines so that we can “punch above our weight”, sending military expeditions hither and yon, provided the price in blood and treasure is not too high. That will not change until Britain finally works out what sort of country it is – a floundering former empire still dreaming of a global reach, or a serious medium-sized power with a realistic view of its national interests. Then it can decide what kind of armed forces it really needs and is prepared to pay for. Meanwhile, Britain will have no coherent strategy and its foreign and defence policy will remain in its present sad muddle.
Sir Rodric has been UK ambassador to Moscow and Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), and is the author of the recently published and well-regarded Afgantsy, a history of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. So lesser mortals ought to take care when picking over anything he writes, but nonetheless …

Firstly, was it ‘Tony Blair’s distasteful phrase, “a blood price” ’? In 2002, prior to a visit to the US, Blair gave an interview for a BBC Two programme, Hotline to the President. The BBC News website still has an item (image below) on the programme, headed Britain will pay 'blood price' – Blair, and starting with:
Britain must be prepared to pay a "blood price" to secure its special relationship with the US, Prime Minister Tony Blair has told the BBC ahead of talks on Iraq with President Bush.
But further on it reads:
Hotline to the President presenter Michael Cockerell asked Mr Blair whether one of the elements of the UK-US special relationship was whether "Britain is prepared to send troops to commit themselves, to pay the blood price".
Mr Blair replied: "Yes. What is important though is that at moments of crisis they (the USA) don't need to know simply that you are giving general expressions of support and sympathy.
"That is easy, frankly. They need to know, `Are you prepared to commit, are you prepared to be there when the shooting starts?'"

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely, according to the BFI, that this programme will be turning up soon on YouTube or anywhere else. But from the BBC webpage it appears that it was Cockerell’s ‘distasteful phrase’, not Blair’s. Unless, of course, Blair had used it earlier, somewhere off the record, and Cockerell was primed to spring it, gobbet-style. Although an admirer of Cockerell’s work for many years, I knew very little about him, so his entry on Wikipedia (which, of course, may not be accurate) proved worth reading. He is 71 this month and has had seven children from three relationships, two former wives coming from high Tory circles.

Secondly, Sir Rodric’s remark ‘The British public, too, seems to want the country to have aircraft carrier and missile submarines’ touched on something I posted here, much less elegantly, earlier this month:
Perhaps in 2011, if the UK is envisaged in some quarters as having accepted being on the way to minor power status (eg eventually abandoning its nuclear deterrent, aircraft carriers and a serious intelligence capability), keeping on good terms with the US is not seen as worth the price. However the UK would need to be confident that it could address the current and future threats to cyber security without close cooperation with the US.
and I quoted the National Security Strategy:
2.11 Our strong defence, security and intelligence relationship with the US is exceptionally close and central to our national interest.
It’s difficult to argue against a former Chairman of the JIC if he thinks it a ‘dubious proposition that we needed to follow the Americans to Iraq and Afghanistan’, but I wonder what Sir Rodric would make of the programme Document broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 15 August. (Don’t worry, dear reader, you have the rest of your life to catch up – apparently it will be ‘Available until 12:00AM Thu, 1 Jan 2099’; hopefully so will the BBC).
Mike Thomson investigates the collapse of the US UK special relationship in 1973, via a revealing transcript of a phone call between President Nixon and Henry Kissinger which suggests the split was deeper and more severe than previously thought.
As Britain joined the EEC, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger became increasingly annoyed at the lack of support by Edward Heath's government for American foreign policy. Mike uncovers papers which suggest that in retaliation, the US switched off the supply of intelligence to the UK.
Among those Mike speaks to are former Defence and Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington and Lord Powell, later Margaret Thatcher's Private Secretary.
The problem which arose in 1973 had been described in Richard J Aldrich’s GCHQ, and he appeared in the programme. This is an extract from the chapter, Trouble with Henry (pages 289-90):
Kissinger was looking for a symbolic area to hit that would send a clear message to London. He chose the intelligence relationship. The next day, intelligence relations between the two Countries were halted. NSA went quiet, and officials told Heath that the CIA had 'suspended the supply of certain intelligence materials to us’. NSA and the CIA had been instructed to cease intelligence exchange with GCHQ and SIS. British officials regarded this as ‘sinister’.  ... the JIC discussed Anglo-American intelligence relations at four consecutive meetings during late August and early September as it struggled to address the problem. Kissinger's 'cut-off' had the desired effect, and sent shock waves through the British establishment. This event is so sensitive that even after more than thirty years have passed, the Cabinet Office still [2007] refuses to declassify further documents on the subject.
The reactions of the American intelligence agencies to Kissinger’s insistence on a cut-off varied. NSA offered a legalistic response, insisting that its relationship with GCHQ was governed by 'a binding international treaty", so it would have to investigate and see what could be done. This was a polite way of telling Kissinger that it intended to ignore him. The CIA also fudged its reply on the matter of human intelligence or reports from agents that were supplied to SIS. Certainly at a station level, some cooperation continued. The area that was hit hardest was imagery the supply of top-secret photographs from spy planes and satellites. The senior RAF officer tasked with collecting this sensitive imagery, who travelled to Washington once a week on an RAF Comet airliner, turned up and found that 'The bag just was not there.'
The Document programme had uncovered a recorded telephone conversation between Nixon and Kissinger. The President’s exasperation with the emergent EEC led him to remark: ‘We don’t have to stay, Henry’ [ie we can withdraw US forces from Europe].  Document ended with contributions from Powell and Carrington, the former very pro the UK/US special relationship, the latter now very sceptical – “ … a figment of the British imagination”. Aldrich records (page 282) Carrington’s attitude at the time:
Carrington explained that the Anglo-American partnership was perhaps a natural one, given that the two allies' 'geography and size are so different'. Although the scope and scale of Britain's residual empire was continually declining, the small remnants were nonetheless supremely valuable. Carrington continued:
Because of the number of our remaining island dependencies, we are able to provide the Americans with facilities which they would get from no one else on a comparable scale. Indeed, the very fact of our possession of these dependencies enables us to make a considerable contribution to an alliance which is important to both of us but in which otherwise our respective contributions might be very ill-balanced.
All this allowed Britain to benefit from what he called 'the massive American military technological and intelligence machine'. Carrington argued that the hidden reciprocal benefits to Britain were in three areas: nuclear weapons, research and development, and intelligence. While these things were relatively invisible compared to the requested British real estate, they were nonetheless extremely valuable. Without American intelligence, he argued, 'and particularly that derived from the NSA/GCHQ Agreement', Whitehall would be unable to assess the key military developments inside the Eastern Bloc and China, and indeed would struggle even to produce good intelligence on lesser threats in the Middle East.
Sir Rodric is surely right to propose that Britain should ‘… decide what kind of armed forces it really needs and is prepared to pay for.’ However, what if the UK concludes that it must have the capabilities provided by ‘aircraft carrier[s] and missile submarines’? Since RN submarines are equipped with either Trident or Tomahawk missiles, both from the US, and the future carriers are likely to carry the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, perhaps we should not forget what happened in 1973. The film, Fair Game, recently released on DVD, is a reminder of the US’s intolerance of anyone who wasn’t ‘with us’ in 2002. Whether Bush’s White House would have behaved like Nixon and Kissinger’s is something that only insiders can judge.

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