‘Lovely new aircraft carrier, sir, but we’re fighting in the desert.’ That headline appeared during the UK’s recent strategic review, as Britain debated how to allocate scarce resources to the military. Now we are fighting over and above another desert, not a landlocked but a coastal one. An aircraft carrier would be useful. So it goes. As we attempt to wage intervention on the cheap, we are unprepared conceptually and militarily to wage war on a sovereign state again. We don’t know what will unfold in Libya. But this crisis demonstrates some disturbing flaws in the country’s capacity to think coherently and plan strategically. Whatever happens, we have entered this crisis more with a spasm than a strategy.
The government’s strategic review privileged the Army and its war against guerrillas in Afghanistan. It was persuaded that we live in a globalising world of sub-state and transnational menaces, where we must pro-actively spread stability. In the competition between services it put the Army first, and its constabulary role, before the tools of major war and the country’s capacity to project air and maritime power. The future would resemble the present. Fixing broken third world states and erecting new cyber defences was in; heavy firepower and heavyweight platforms lost out.
The strategic review was hastily completed, against the clock, in the shadow of a deficit reduction and in a country where classical strategic thought is a rarity. As a result, the hard business of strategy suffered — of carefully aligning resources with goals. The state announced that there would no strategic ‘shrinkage’ or scaling back of ‘ends.’ Yet it reduced the country’s military means. This is a serious imbalance. It is not intrinsically wrong to lower deficits and reduce capabilities — but a refusal to scale back ambitious goals accordingly violates the dialectical principle of strategy. A smaller military force requires a smaller policy.
Britain’s hard-nosed fiscal disciplinarians of 2010 morphed into crusaders, embracing muscular liberalism on the fly against a tyrant. Having weakened the country’s military power, the same government began devising an ever more expansive role for it. As Colonel Qaddafi’s forces closed in on an under-trained and outgunned rebellion, a new moral urgency was in the air. Suddenly, the cause of confronting brutal authoritarian states was all-important, when, during budget season, we under-valued the capabilities we would need to do it.
Of the many problems thrown up by this new adventure, here are just a few.
First, interstate conflict won’t go away. The UK for better or worse finds itself at war with another sovereign state, for the fourth time since 1999. The UK’s perceived national interests clash with other states. It continually turns to the military to defend them. The state is still a major player on the chessboard, and state power remains a coveted object of warring groups. If we face a drawn-out conflict here, we may lack the capabilities needed to sustain it.
Second, this latest burst of moral outrage looks like an incoherent spasm. The Prime Minister claims that we ‘cannot’ and ‘must not’ tolerate a brutal tyrant slaughtering his own. Yet we plainly can and do. We manage to live with atrocious states elsewhere in the Gulf, and in the world. It may be that there is a case for selective liberal vigilantism, that in our internationalism we should act where we can even if we often cannot. But that is not the government’s public argument. The government has rhetorically elevated one case into a universal principle.
So we are entitled to ask, if Libya, why not Bahrain? If we are trying to spot predators and victims in these civil wars, what if the ‘good guys’ are oppressed Shiites and potentially Iranian clients, clashing with our own authoritarian Saudi partners? Where is our absolute liberalism then? Without an overarching theory about what matters to us, and where and when it matters, we are confused, reacting to events without a compass.
Third, our interests and values often conflict, both internally and with each other. To promote human rights is not necessarily to promote stability. If it is true that we cannot afford to have an unstable oil-rich state on our ‘southern flank’, the obvious move is not necessarily to sponsor a revolutionary war that may well prolong the conflict into a stalemate, or replace a vicious ruler with a volatile new coalition about which we know very little. If it is true that we don’t want a humanitarian and refugee crisis, a limited intervention that is not enough to overthrow Gaddafi but enough to alter the balance and create a stalemate could also generate a refugee and humanitarian crisis. A state in drawn-out civil conflict does not serve human rights well. We cannot afford moralism if it is innocent of such dilemmas.
Fourth, diplomatic affairs like life are full of surprises. This revolutionary moment in North Africa and the Gulf has wrong-footed just about everybody. Intelligence analysts can’t predict such upheavals reliably: it is impossible to forecast triggering events, or estimate whether discontent people are confident enough that others will join them in taking to the streets. If this is so, how wise is it to model our national security strategy around being anticipatory, preventative and acquiring foreknowledge?
Fifth, there is the nature of war itself. Its purpose may be to serve policy. But its nature is to serve itself. Without rigorous and constant efforts to realign ends and means and recapture coherence, it tends to escalate, slip out of control, and become a master rather than a servant. A sanctioned limited campaign to curtail massacre balloons into a war of regime change, and for Tripoli, a war of political survival.
We have entered this war without carefully calculating what exactly is at stake. We have not soberly considered how far we are willing to go, how much we can extend our liability, and how we will respond when things go wrong. Without making these judgments about the meaning of the war, a no-fly zone adopted as a limited effort to curtail a despot could be only the beginning of a deepening diplomatic commitment that grows like a cancer.
If the regime holds on, as it well might, the UK will ‘own’ the problem and may be locked in by its own expansive liberal rhetoric. Would the UK be prepared for the long haul, to police the skies over Libya, as it became a ward of the international community? Territorial control and the threat of a successful land invasion could be crucial. But without an indigenous actor strong enough or an international actor willing enough to wage a ground war to overthrow Qaddafi, what would be the endgame?
Over time this would raise fears about the damage to our credibility. It would raise fears about the lurking security risk of a vengeful cornered opponent. Our time and political capital would be diverted, agonising over the Libya question. The limited war of 2011 would refuse to be quarantined. After all other options were exhausted, it could culminate in a land war against Tripoli. Distressingly, we would shoulder the burden of invading, pacifying and administering this country. Occupation would probably lead to resistance – and Libya propelled more foreign-born jihadi volunteers into Iraq than any other nation. A new front in the War on Terror would open up. Idealists now calling for humanitarian rescue would discover that all along they opposed Western imperial hubris.
Only weeks ago such forecasts seemed remote. Since then, the war takes on a life of its own. We can’t know the future. But we can do a better job of knowing ourselves, ensuring that we are willing to pay for what we want and only want what we are willing to pay for. We can define our interests more tightly, ensure that we generate a surplus of power, and be in a stronger and more coherent position to react to the unexpected and unknown. This is a revolutionary moment after all.