Our semester starts today, with the first class in my course ‘Defence Policy and Military Affairs’. Early on, we’ll look at models of how a rational defence policy would in theory be made, and then we’ll go through each step of the policy process in more detail. Along the way, students (if they’re paying attention) should become aware that reality doesn’t fit the ideal model. Both process and outcomes can be decidedly odd.
As evidence, let’s take a look at some of the defence policy stories which popped up on my radar over the Christmas holidays.
The most recent, dating from yesterday, could be well titled ‘The Blob Strikes Back’ – the ‘Blob’ being a derogatory term for the American security establishment, an amorphous being which defies easy definition and is decidedly hard to pin down, but which exerts enormous power and which seems to be impervious to outside realities, continuing along its chosen path regardless of all the disasters it confronts, and causes, along the way. As alert readers will be aware, just before Christmas, US president Donald Trump announced that he intended to withdraw American troops from Syria. The reaction of the Blob was total outrage. Starting wars is something the American security establishment can cope with; ending them is something which causes it real difficulties. To be fair, the way Trump made his decision didn’t exactly fit with the rational policy making model. It seems like he was going to do one thing, but then spoke with Turkish president Recep Erdogan, and spontaneously decided to do something different. But that is his prerogative, and that part of the Blob which works for Trump couldn’t directly contradict him. Instead, we got what we might call ‘bureaucratic obstruction’. Officially, the policy remains in place, but the bureaucracy will enact it in such a way as to render it effectively null and void.
This became clear yesterday when National Security Advisor John Bolton declared that the US withdrawal from Syria is ‘conditional’. Bolton insisted that it depended on the final destruction of the Islamic State and on the US receiving assurances from Turkey that it would not attack America’s Kurdish allies. This means that US forces could remain in Syria for ‘months or years’. Trump – who gives the impression of being an extremely weak president, unable to hold his own against his officials – apparently caved in, declaring that he ‘never said we were doing it that quickly’. The result is that US policy is now apparently to withdraw, but also not to withdraw.
The Trump presidency would seem to be a paradigm of bizarre policy making processes – impetuous announcements from the leader followed by bureaucratic opposition, resulting in what can only be described as an incoherent mess. But it would be wrong to see this as a peculiar outcome of Trump’s unusual character. A quick look at defence policy in Canada, where I live, indicates that things aren’t much better elsewhere. The ongoing saga of Canada’s efforts to buy fighter planes is an indication. And then there was this story which appeared in the Canadian press earlier this week:
Nearly three years after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to send weapons to Kurds in Iraq the armaments are still sitting in a military warehouse in Montreal. … The government went as far as arranging to have a military aircraft transport the weapons to the Kurdish region of Iraq, where Canadian special forces were to distribute them to Kurdish soldiers. … But the armaments, with an estimated value of around $10 million, got no further than the Canadian Forces Supply Depot in Montreal, where they remain. … A Department of National Defence official said no plans currently exist to distribute weapons in Iraq.
The reason for this fiasco? Before Trudeau announced that he would arm the Kurds he never bothered to check with the Iraqi government whether it was ok with that. As it turns out, the Iraqis weren’t ok with it, as they didn’t want Canada providing weapons to what they regard as a separatist force. As we used to say when I was in the army, ‘you don’t need the brains of an Archbishop’ to know that arming Kurds is somewhat incompatible with the objective of creating strong states in Iraq and Syria, likely to cause problems further down the line, and unlikely to be popular in Baghdad. As Canadian journalist David Pugliese points out, ‘ Some defence analysts warned the Canadian government and military from the beginning that providing the Kurds with weapons was a mistake.’ But I don’t think that anybody has ever suggested that Trudeau has the brains of an Archbishop. I don’t have insider information on how the government reached this decision, but it strikes me as likely that its zeal to be seen to be ‘doing something’ got in the way of rational analysis. This is defence policy as gesture politics. It’s not at all what it’s meant to be about. But it’s often what it ends up being.
Finally, we have an example of ludicrous policy making from British defence minister Gavin Williamson. For some time now, Williamson and his generals have been warning Britons about the terrible threat to their security posed by Russia. According to Williamson, Russia is ‘a bigger threat to Britain than were insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.’ According to the policy making models I show my students, in a rational world threats drive policy – you structure your defences to combat the dangers you perceive. So if Williamson really believes that Russia is the no.1 danger, his priority should be doing something about it. Instead, just after Christmas he gave a very bizarre interview to the Daily Telegraph in which he declared that he wanted to build new military bases in the Caribbean and the Far East!! Apparently, Singapore, Brunei, Montserrat and Guyana are on the shortlist.
Let’s return again to my policy planning models. In these, you’d come up with the idea of a base in Montserrat, for instance, if when going through the process you determined that there was some vital national interest in the Montserrat area which was under threat and so required the presence of British military forces. Suffice it to say that this is not what Williamson has done. He mentions not a single reason why British security requires its military to be in Montserrat. Rather his logic is that post-Brexit:
This is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world is expecting us to play. … This is our moment to be that true global player once more.
According to Williamson, foreign military bases would give the UK ‘influence’. Britons underestimate how other nations look at them, he claimed, adding that, ‘the rest of the world saw Britain standing 10 feet tall – when we actually stood six feet tall – Britons saw us standing five feet tall, not the six, and certainly not the ten.’ Williamson ‘also predicted Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Caribbean states and nations across Africa would look to the UK for “the moral leadership, the military leadership and the global leadership”.’
This really is preposterous nonsense. I know of no evidence that the world ‘is expecting’ Britain to play some enormous global role and is looking to the UK for ‘moral leadership, military leadership, and global leadership.’ This is just swagger – waving a big stick so that you can feel better about yourself. The giveaway is Williamson’s talk of feeling five feet tall when you’re actually six and others think you are ten. Simply put, his proposed military bases serve no military purpose. They’re just a means of letting Williamson feel that he’s taller than he actually is.
In all these cases – the United States, Canada, and the UK – we see utterly dysfunctional defence policy. There is a reason for this, I think. As I said above, in the ideal, rational model, the policy flows naturally out of analysis of threats. But Western states don’t actually face the sort of threats which require large-scale military establishments to keep them safe. If they were to follow the rational decision making model, they’d have to radically downsize their armed forces. But the Blob doesn’t like that. It’s wedded to the idea that military power is the measure of power. And so it goes around hunting for ways to keep the military’s profile high. Consequently, defence policy ceases to be about defence and becomes about ‘doing something’, prestige, and that extremely vague term ‘influence’. In all this, evidence that ‘doing something’ does any good, or that military activity really does bring prestige or influence is sadly absent. It should be no surprise, therefore, that so much defence policy is incoherent. We expect education policy to be about education; health policy to be about health; and so on. But for some reason, we don’t seem to worry that defence policy has so little to do with defence. Until that attitude changes, we’ll continue to get things wrong.