4 September 2013

The Prescience of Mr Powell

As yet the consequences of the use of sarin nerve gas as a weapon against civilians in Syria are far from clear. For the present, it looks as though the UK will not be involved in any punitive attack by the Western powers. In the days since the recall of the House of Commons and the vote by MPs on 29 August which forced the government to drop its plans to participate, there has been extensive media comment. Much of it is in the “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” vein, but not all. In an article in the Daily Mail on 31 August, A savage defeat for Cameron... and he brought it on himself, Max Hastings, avoided coming down clearly on the side of “Don’t”:
… the only proper test of a policy for Syria is not whether it will make David Cameron feel better about himself, but whether it will assuage the plight of the Syrian people. On this measure, the Government’s current ‘short, sharp shock’ proposal fails comprehensively.
Once the first cruise missile lands on Syria, we would have been in the struggle up to our necks. Cameron claimed that any strike would only be a little one, but you cannot do a little bit of military intervention. Once the United States and its allies start shooting at the Assad government, they are committed to regime change, and it is a gross deceit to pretend otherwise.
What worried Hastings was the UK’s longer-term position:
… in my view there’s no doubt the Prime Minister has made a colossal fool of himself, on a matter of the utmost gravity – that of war and peace. Almost the worst part of the fiasco is that one day we shall need to deploy our shrunken armed forces against a real threat from a real foreign enemy. And because our leaders have so often deceived us in the past, crying wolf amid their own hubristic delusions and pretensions, the British people will not believe them. That will indeed be a tragic day, and Mr Cameron has followed Blair in bringing it upon us.
But it was this passage which interested me most:
A couple of months ago, I was due to meet a British general for a routine chat when I received an embarrassed email from him, saying that all such meetings must now be approved by the Defence Secretary’s office. This had been refused. I wrote first to Philip Hammond, and then to David Cameron, asking why they were seeking to kill the sort of private dialogue with the armed forces that I have had for more than 40 years. Both the Prime Minister and Defence Secretary wrote back, defending their gagging decision. They said that there has been far too much military leaking to the media, and they are determined that this must stop. This sort of clumsy control-freakery derives in part, of course, from the fact that our leaders know that our professional soldiers are contemptuous of their antics on security policy generally, and Syria in particular.
It reminded me of something I had posted in January 2011, but which took almost the opposite point of view, quoted from Jonathan Powell’s The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World, published in 2010 (Powell was Tony Blair’s Downing Street Chief of Staff from 1997 to 2007 and his book, he said, was not a memoir but combined a present day evaluation of the applicability of Machiavelli’s maxims, lessons on leadership and power based on his experience in Number 10 and supporting anecdotes for the use of future historians):
... When Mike Jackson retired as chief of the general staff in August 2006, the MoD sent over to No 10 the CV of his proposed successor, asking for the prime minister's agreement. Tony's foreign policy and defence adviser Nigel Sheinwald came to see me and we agreed that it wasn't worth consulting Tony about such a trivial subject, and Nigel wrote back to the MoD agreeing to the appointment on the basis of Mike Jackson’s recommendation. A few months later we faced a serious problem with the new chief, Richard Dannatt, when he chose to attack the government through the pages of the Daily Mail while we were in St Andrews engaged in crucial Northern Ireland peace talks. Tony complained about him to me, and I, forgetting what had happened earlier, said that it was his fault as he had appointed him. He denied that he had and said he had never been consulted. I went back to the files and discovered that he was right and had to confess to Tony. (pages 89, 90)
Powell returns to this incident later in the book:
General Dannatt's attack on the deployment of British forces in Iraq caught us completely unawares in 2006. Tony and I were engaged in delicate Northern Ireland negotiations in St Andrews. When we were told the news of the interview he had given to the Mail, saying that the presence of British forces in Iraq made things worse and they should get out soon, we couldn't get hold of anyone. Des Browne, who had succeeded John Reid as Defence Secretary, was in a plane on his way up to Scotland. The Chief of the Defence Staff was in Australia and unreachable; the Vice Chief was giving a lecture and couldn't be disturbed. And Dannatt himself was refusing to return calls. We thought for a moment about sacking him but concluded that that would just make him into a martyr. His comments certainly didn't help our troops in Basra; Muqtada al-Sadr's JAM militia leaders celebrated, claiming that his comments proved that their efforts were working and that they should redouble their attacks on British forces. We immediately received complaints from the NATO Secretary General, the Americans, Australians and other countries with forces serving in Iraq. Although some of the responses in the military internet chat rooms were favourable, his fellow chiefs were furious with him. In the aftermath, we arranged for Tony to have a sandwich lunch with the service chiefs in Jock Stirrup's office at the MoD. Dannatt insisted on talking, and after a few minutes it was quite clear to me that he was unsuited to his job. Tony explained to those present that politicians would not support maintaining a first-division army if they were caused too much political pain by serving generals speaking out against their mission. It was always easier for politicians not to risk soldiers' lives". But I fear he was too subtle for Dannatt, who was divinely convinced of his own rightness. (pages 269, 270)
Perhaps Cameron and Hammond aren’t being quite so foolish as Hastings seems to think. Nor was the development which peeved Hastings entirely unheralded. During the Libyan operations in 2011, Cameron was quoted as saying about the military chiefs "There are moments when I wake up and read the newspapers and think: 'I tell you what, you do the fighting and I'll do the talking'." But on revisiting Powell’s book, it was the next paragraph which caught my eye:
The sort of surprise attack that Dannatt launched will make political leaders think twice if military action is proposed in future, certainly if the military engagement is likely to be sustained over a year or rnore. Our armed forces will no longer be deployed so regularly and will lose their cutting edge. We will gradually become more like Germany and other Continental countries, unable to put our armed forces in harm's way. That is a choice, but one we should make consciously and not just stumble into it. It would be another step towards losing the ability to control our destiny as a country, a far more important one than sharing our sovereignty in NATO or the EU. (page 270)
The UK seems to be in danger of stumbling in the direction Powell so presciently identified three years ago (or possibly four, when actually writing it). So far I haven’t come across any comments by him on the situation the coalition government now finds itself in.

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