Friday, August 30, 2013

The morning after the vote of the night before

"I believe in respecting the House of Commons....I get that"

By any standard, the defeat of the Government's motion in favour of military action was a surprise.  I do not believe that the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition saw this coming, especially as the vote was whipped.  

For those of you unfamiliar with the British system, when a vote is 'whipped' it means that individual MPs' are expected to follow the party line and support their leaders.  It is rare to lose a whipped vote.

So why did the Government lose its motion in the House of Commons?

An excellent question, which unfortunately has more than one answer, and is surprisingly complex.  The simple reason is that the individual MPs' recognise that following the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public appetite within the UK for military action overseas is limited.  The reasons for this could be as follows:
  • Legality. The UK public is not as unsophisticated as our leaders and the media think.  The public are well aware that recent military action involving UK forces could be perceived as being illegal.
  • Emotional exhaustion.  There is a clear sense that the number of deaths suffered by British (and other) servicemen and women have shocked the nation, and put bluntly there is a feeling that there have been enough British deaths in wars that we technically should not be involved in.
  • Arrogance.  The Prime Minister, David Cameron undoubtedly tried to lead from the front, and until Wednesday evening the general perception was that the UK and US military forces should be ready to intervene BEFORE the report by the UN weapons inspectors and in advance of any formal sanction for intervention from the United Nations.  Unfortunately, he failed to take into account the fact that his own party would not follow his leadership.
  • Iraq and Afghanistan.  The UK public have had their confidence in the political leadership heavily damaged by the debacle over weapons of mass destruction, and many simply do not believe that we should ever have been involved in Afghanistan, a country where the British have not enjoyed any real military or political success over the last century or two.
  • Lack of clear objectives.  As I argued in my previous post, the objectives of intervention are staggeringly unclear, and the long term consequences of action without that clarity would potentially be very grave.
All of the above reasons are valid; taken inividually maybe each one is not sufficient, however overall the MPs' in the House of Commons are very well aware that military intervention was going to be unpopular.

There are however further reasons for the defeat, which I believe have little to do with the above, and are far more complex.

The Chancellor says something I agree with!

 This morning, the Chancellor, George Osborne said in an interview:

"I think there will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world and whether Britain wants to play a big part in upholding the international system, be that a big open and trading nation that I'd like us to be or whether we turn our back on that"

Here, he has actually said something which I think cuts to the heart of the matter.  There has been a quiet debate that has been going on for some time now about the role that the UK plays in the international system.  Traditionally, the UK has been willing to intervene overseas for a number of valid reasons:
  1. Hangover from empire.  The historical facts are that the British Empire disappeared not because the british wanted to give up on its territories, but because the evonomic cost of two world wars meant that they lacked the ability to keep its territories.  On the whole, the transition was smooth, but Britain needed to intevene on occasion.
  2. Great Britain has a permanent seat on the UN.  With that comes some tacit and implicit responsibilities.  Put simply, Britain intervenes because it is expected to do so in line with its political, military and economic status.
  3. Because they can. Very simply, Britain intervened because it had the means to do so; the political, economic and military capability to support a robust foreign policy
However, the world has changed.  Great Britain... well it is not as great as it used to be econeomically or militarily. A lack of economic capability has led to a steady reduction in our military capability.  The shift in economic power away from the west towards the Middle East (based on oil) and the Far East (cheap labour). has seen british economic strength eroded. Withe the erosion of its economic strength, its political strength is alo eroded. Put bluntltly, the UK lacks the ability to pay to support  robust foreign policy, and other countries are better able to exercise political influence than the UK.

The Great British Public, as I have stated before are not stupid.  We are well aware of the precarious economic conditions that prevail, and they are also aware that whilst the US profited economically from interventions in Iraq through its control of the oil resources, the UK has not.  The 'special relationship' does not extend to share the economic spoils of war I'm afraid! The general public are well aware that in reality, further military intervention would not be a wise investment.  The US government are very careful to maintain economic hegemony in the Middle East, and it is fair to say that from an economic perspective we have nothing to gain and plenty to lose from military intervention.

There will be a debate because many UK citizens want to see a change in the role it plays in the world.  The majority of people I would argue believe that we do punch above our weight politically and militarily, however we simply are not equipped to play the part of the world policeman and enforcer alongside the USA.  Speaking to friends and colleagues there is the perception that the UK needs to step back from some of its global activities, and there is the desire that actually it is time for other countries to play their part.  Syria, for example, is a member of the Arab League, and there is now the growing expectation that the Arab nations need to spend less money on fast cars and european football clubs and more on ensuring the stability of the region.  Put bluntly, there is a perception that it is time that the Middle Eastern countries grew up and take responsibility rather than expect Britain to and other countries to clear up the mess in their own back yards.

Is that all?

No.  There is one last factor to look at, and that is the Conservative Party.  The real surprise here is that it was not the Opposition which defeated the Government, it was the rebellion by 30 Conservative MPs' that led to the defeat in the House of Commons.

So why did the Conservative MPs' rebel?

A very good question.  Put simply, the Prime Minister is not popular within his own party, and some of the rebels would have voted not out of conscience, or representation of the views of the public, but because they wanted to give David Cameron a bloody nose and undermine his authority both at home and abroad.

So not for any other noble reason, just political in-fighting?

Sadly yes. No doubt they will claim otherwise, but frankly, nobody in their right mind should ever trust a Tory MP.  Feel free to disagree, but the self interest of the average tory MP is really quite frightening.


What I have tried to show is that the factors influencing last nights' vote are complex.  There are no simple answers as to why the motion to intervene militairily in the Middle East was defeated.  What is clear, and which surprisingly the Chancellor has clearly and correctly identified is that there now will be a debate of sorts into the role the UK should play in the global political system.  I wish I could trust our elected representatives to lead a rational debate on this, but, just like the debate on Europe, electoral reform, the ongoing banking crisis, education etc. this is precisely what we are not going to get. After all, why let the facts get in the way of ideological posturing and sound bite politics?

As always, feel free to disagree with me....

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Something must be done!

I am writing this blog post with a high degree of trepidation.  I have not posted for a long time; not because I don't have anything to say, but due to the pressure associated with work and daily life.  I am not cut out for the life of the daily blogger!

So why are you writing now?

Well, it is for a poor reason.  I am slightly annoyed and irritated, and irritation is not a good reason to write, and expect people to read and think about what I say.  However, it's not going to stop me; anybody that reads this can decide for themselves if what I have written has any value.  It's not as well written or cogent a piece as it could be, and it will strike many as being overly cynical.

So what's got you all worked up?

The source of my irritation is the current debate ( I use the term loosely) on whether or not the international community should intervene in the Syrian civil war.

"It's appalling" I heard one person on a radio phone-in say, "Something must be done"

This is a phrase which always sets my teeth on edge. It was uttered by a very nice, pleasant lady who clearly felt that the situation in Syria was intolerable. There is, after all, the slaughter of the innocents, the abhorrent use of chemical weapons and the sense that this horrible conflict surely cannot be allowed to continue
The problem is, the speaker did not explain precisely what the problem was that should be resolved.  Was it the slaughter of the innocent?  Was it the use of chemical weapons? Was it the whole conflict?

I am not going to go into the details of the conflict - there are reporters, bloggers and academics who have a far more detailed insight into the causes, the rights and wrongs etc. of the situation than I do.  
The purpose of this piece is not so much about what I think should be done, but the way in which we appear to be deciding what we should or should not do.

Oh dear, this is going to be a rant isn't it?

Yes.  I make no apology for this.

So what's the problem?

I'm glad you asked.  When I was listening to the radio phone in this morning, I was struck by the number of people who were arguing for and against intervention without actually being able to state a clear political or military objective.  Surely the big question that needs answering before we carry out any political or military action is what are we actually trying to achieve?

OK, I'm lost.  What do you mean? Surely the issues are clear cut.  Chemical weapons are being used, people are dying!

This is true.  However, my point is that the UK parliament is going to be having a debate today on whether or not to intervene without a clear idea of what they want to achieve  Just like that nice Mr Blair and Mr Bush Jnr. did in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Western powers 'intervened' in Iraq and Afghanistan because of the outrage the majority of people felt over the 9/11 attacks and, in Mr Bush Jnr. case the completely unsupported notion that Saddam Hussein was responsible.  
It's easy to decide to DO something.  Action, can sometimes be cheap.  After all, there is the common view that it is better to be seen to be doing something, rather than nothing.  The problem is that taking action without having a clear idea of the end game leads to unintended consequences,  It is hard to make the argument rationally that the world is a fundamentally safer place because of the attacks on Afghanistan and Iran; in fact the opposite is probably true.

This is an academic argument.  Surely the fact that people are dying etc. is enough to justify taking action now?

No.  Military action may not be the ethical, correct thing to do as the consequences of taking action without clear goals will lead to unintended consequences, not just for the Syrians we purport to be acting on behalf of, or on the political and economic well-being of the UK.
To my mind there are some fundamental questions that need to be answered before we do anything else. 

Q: What are we trying to achieve?

This is the big one.  There are a number of options:
  • Regime change - get rid of the nasty Mr Assad
  • Stop the killing - get a cease fire in place and get talks started to resolve this crisis peacefully
  • Stop the use of chemical weapons
  • The development of a new western style democratic governmental structure for Syria
  • Create a state that will pose no threat to Israel
  • Expand the western sphere of influence against the rise of fundamentalist Islam
The issue here is that without more information it is difficult to set clear, unambiguous objectives that the international stakeholders in this conflict can buy into.What should also be clear is that the actions required to achieve one or more of the above will differ wildly.  The list of objectives is not meant to be comprehensive or definitive

What do we need to know then to help determine the objectives?

The following is a good start....

Q: Who actually used the weapons? 
Both sides in the conflict have claimed that the other is responsible.  The evidence to date appears to support the contention put forward by William Hague that the probability of these weapons being in the hands of the rebels is 'vanishingly small' but not impossible.  This is a key question, that sadly should be definitively answered, by the UN Weapons Inspectors - but their mandate it appears is so tight that all they are allowed to state is whether or not the weapons were used, not who used them.

Q: Who authorised their use. 
If it was the Syrian Army, was it a decision taken by the government (i.e. President Assad), or by the military command?  The answer here is key - we need to know who is actually responsible because that should help define what action the international community should take.  It also helps determine the political and military strategy - a military objective could be to wipe out the stores of these weapons, something that most people would find an acceptable objective.

Q: Where and when were the weapons used?
Again , proof of consistent pattern of usage.  This ultimately is information that is neeeded to help define the objectives

Q: What do the people of Syria want?
The killing to stop first and foremost I suspect would be the obvious answer.  The conflict came about through the desire to change the regime, but the unintended consequences of that desire and the subsequent actions means that this question is almost impossible to answer in a sensible and rational way, other than the desire to lead a normal life.  Any politician who says otherwise is mistaken. 

There are other important questions.... 

Q: Why should we intervene? Who gains from intervention?
This is a loaded question. Let's have a look at the key stakeholders....
  • David Cameron.  Ever since the Falklands, our political leaders have recognised that there is nothing like a nice little war to establish oneself as a heavyweight world leader
  • The Conservative Party (and David Cameron).  A nice, successful little war will probably win the next general election  - the Falklands effect again
  • The military.  After all, what is the point of having armed forces if we can't use them to right the wrongs of the world?
  • Industry.  Arms manufacturers love wars as this increases demand for their products
  • The petrochemical industry.  Fuel prices, and therefore profits will rise on the back of increased sales of fuel to the military, and world prices will go up in response to the political and economic uncertainty
  • Bankers.  Wars need to be paid for, and the bankers hav a chance to be politically useful and finance a conflict - in the name of patriotism of course....
  • The UK Government.  Military intervention in far off countries is what you do these days to show that you still matter on the global stage, even when you are economically insignificant.  It also distracts the attention of the public away from the difficult social and economic conditions at home
  • UK Citizens.  We can all sleep better for knowing that something is being done....

 Ummm...What about the citizens of Syria?

This may seem cynical, but I do not think that this debate is about the Syrian citizens.  Their lives are shattered, and there is nothing that military intervention can do at this stage to make the situation any better.  The political institutions are clearly non-functional, the economy is ruined and the infrastructure which people depend on largely wiped out. I fail to see how military intervention at this point is going to improve the lives of the Syrians.

The evidence of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts is that the lives of the citizens are not necessarily improved by western intervention and the destruction of the political and military capabilities.  The day to day lives of Iraqis remain worse economically today than they were under the nasty Mr Hussein.  Their are less jobs, the infrastructure of the country (electricity, water) remains dysfunctional.  Iraqi oil is under the sole control of the USA, with little economic benefit of their natural resources being received by any Iraqis.

The sad fact is that for all the platitudes, our political lords and masters care little for what the average Syrian citizen wants. The key stakeholders of military intervention within the UK have their own agenda.  

No, the interests of the Syrian people are not high on the agenda.

Q: How do we know if any planned intervention is successful?
You can only know if you have achieved your target by being clear on your objectives.  Once you know WHAT you want to achieve can you define measures of success.  Similarly, without clear goals, it is impossible to develop a coherent political, military or economic strategy.

To Conclude....

The point of this piece is simple. There is a lack of clarity about what the objectives of military intervention are.  It is clear that the conflict has escalted into a full scale civil war, and that the political goals of the participants vary widely from those who want a western style democracy to those who want to develop an Islamic state.  In these circumstances, it is tremendously difficult to plan to intervene without absolute clarity on the outcome that is wanted.  Without that clarity, developing the political, military and economic strategies to achieve the desired is not possible.  

Benjamin Franklin wrote: "Fail to plan, plan to fail".  Anybody who works in business knows that the failure to plan projects effectively leads to failure.  The former US Army Chief of Staff, General Sullivan wrote a book on the military titled 'Hope is not a method'.  In this he wrote about his experiences of planning from a military perspective.  We run the risk in the UK of trying to do what could be perceived to be the right thing but without a coherent set of objectives, and a clear plan of how to achieve them, we are almost inevitably going to fail.

"Something must be done!"
Be careful what you wish for.  The unintended consequences of intervention without the full support of the international community under the auspices of the United Nations (UN), without a clear agreement on what is to be achieved will only lead to an increase in tensions within the Middle East and mire us into a conflict that has the potential to be infinitely worse than Afghanistan and Iraq.  The goals and objectives of the nice Mr Cameron are not necessarily clear and they certainly do not necessarily reflect those of the Syrian people.