The greatest damage to our nation over the past 10 years has not been done by the enemy: it has been done by ourselves. And it has not been done, contrary to what we often believe, by what we have not done. It is not the result of the money we failed to raise, the equipment we failed to purchase or the actions we failed to take. The damage that we have inflicted on ourselves comes from our decisions to get involved in theatres such as Iraq, and Helmand in Afghanistan.
The gap, the fundamental problem, with the SDSR—it was true of John Nott’s review in 1982 and Lord Robertson’s review in 1998 and it is true of our review today—is a gap of strategy. It is a gap of thought. We are spending over £30 billion a year on a military without developing the policy and strategic capability to decide where we are prepared to be involved, and what, fundamentally, our national interests should be. Our national interest is dependent, above all, on two things: an understanding of what our priorities are and how to match our resources to those priorities, and an understanding of our limits—what we cannot do.
What is striking about Lord Robertson’s report is that there he is, in 1998, making confident statements about Britain’s future and the risks it faces—confident statements about weapons of mass destruction and terrorism—but the proof of the pudding was in the eating. We then launched ourselves into Iraq and Helmand, and in doing so took on issues that did not match our national interest.
What is the solution to that problem? The solution, first, is to understand that our model of policy making is at fault. The military, rightly, have a very traditional view of policy making. They imagine that politicians define the national interest, the Foreign Office creates the policy framework and the generals advise and then implement the policy—perhaps giving operational advice on how to implement that strategy. The reality is, of course, quite different. The world has changed. We need to recognise that; the military need to recognise that; the SDSR needs recognise that. The reality is that although in constitutional theory it is the politicians who make the decision and the Foreign Office that provides the policy framework, in practice the strength, the authority and the charisma of the senior military is higher today than it has been at any time in British or American history.
To see that, one needs to look only at the experience of President Obama dealing with General McChrystal in 2009. What, in effect, happened is that McChrystal issued a report in 2009, saying he needs 40,000 more troops. The President of the United States attempted to respond. He went into a nine-week consultation process, at the end of which, entirely predictably, he could do only exactly what his General requested, but a little bit less—give him 35,000 instead of 40,000. Yet the assessment was disastrous. In the small print, General McChrystal says, “I need 40,000 troops but my strategy will never work unless the Afghan Government sort their act out. And by the way, I, General McChrystal, am not responsible for sorting out the Afghan Government; that will be done by somebody else. It will be done by the State Department. It will be done by USAID.” Yet nobody appears to be able in the system to challenge him. Why not? Although theoretically the politicians have the decisive ability and the policy is owned by someone else, nobody is going to face down a man with a row of medals on his chest who has served six years on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and who says, “This is what I need.” No Democrat President and, I would suggest, no politician in Britain today would have the authority and confidence to disagree with such a man.
What is the solution to that problem? It is that we spend more money and invest far more in a policy capacity whose primary function is to keep us out of wars—to make it more difficult for us to engage in disastrous and costly adventures of the sort we have seen in the past decade. That means, above all, investing in the Foreign Office, which needs to remember that its function is fundamentally policy and politics. It is about understanding exactly what is happening in a particular country, so that if a Prime Minister were to suggest, for example, that he wished to invade Iraq, we would not have the situation we had last time in which not a single senior serving diplomat in the Foreign Office in London disagreed in any way with the Prime Minister’s statement. That happened because we did not know anything; we had not invested in knowing anything. We did not have diplomats on the ground and our intelligence assets were very limited.
The military imagine, quite rightly, that they exist in a context in which other people will disagree with them. They feel embattled and that they have to challenge civilians—that they have to thump the table and demand things. They assume that somehow Prime Ministers or diplomats will push back against them, but that push-back does not happen. We could help not only by having more political focus and more diplomats and embassies focused precisely on these issues, but by insisting that every batch of young diplomats has at least one or two members of the foreign service who are posted to the military for one or two years at the beginning of their careers, not posted to staff college at the age of 40. They should be sent on the equivalent of a gap-year commission or national service, so that we begin to redevelop what we had instinctively in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, which is civilians who understand both the strengths and the weaknesses of the military.
The military in the meantime need to understand that that context does not yet exist and that they cannot expect the Foreign Office to have the confidence or the resources to push back against them. General McChrystal, to return to the less controversial ground of the United States, should be producing reports saying not, “I need 40,000 troops to win,” but, “Unless somebody sorts out the Afghan Government, and I see no evidence that anybody’s going to do that, there’s no point giving me 40,000 troops because I’m not going to be able to win.” In other words, in the absence of a real civilian check, the military are going to have to provide that check themselves.
Why is that relevant to the strategic defence review? Without that form of analysis and intelligence and policy work, we will not have a definition of our national interest. Without a definition of our national interest, we cannot have a strategy. Without a strategy, there is no point having a strategic defence review.