Tag Archives: United Kingdom

Fearmongering, pure and simple

‘Russia is ready to kill us by the thousands’. So reads a headline in today’s Daily Telegraph, one of Britain’s leading daily, allegedly high-brow (i.e. non-tabloid), newspapers. The headline follows a statement by the British Secretary of Defence Gavin Williamson concerning the deadly threat which the Russian Federation poses to the United Kingdom. According to Williamson, Russians have been photographing British power stations. Russians have also supposedly also been investigating the ‘interconnectors’ which connect the UK to energy supplies in other countries. Mr Williamson told the Daily Telegraph that:

The plan for the Russians won’t be for landing craft to appear in the South Bay in Scarborough, and off Brighton beach. They are going to be thinking, ‘how can we just cause so much pain to Britain? Damage its economy, rip its infrastructure apart, actually cause thousands and thousands and thousands of deaths, but actually have an element of creating total chaos within the country.’

Russia, claims Williamson, is willing to cause damage which ‘any other nation would see as completely unacceptable,’ a claim for which he provided no evidence and rather belies the enormous damage the United Kingdom and its allies have done to other countries in recent decades (remember the wholesale destruction of Iraq in 1990/1991 anyone?). The Russian Ministry of Defence is not amused. The British Defence Secretary’s comments, says Russian spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, are like something out of a children’s comic or Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In any case, there are some serious flaws in Williamson’s statement.

First, even if it is true that the Russians have carried out reconnaissance of British power systems, that it is not evidence of intent to attack them. Military intelligence collects data on such systems as a matter of course. You can bet your bottom dollar that within the British Ministry of Defence, the National Imagery Exploitation Centre at RAF Brampton, and elsewhere, the British military is collating information about potential targets inside the Russian Federation, and helping its American allies update the ‘Basic Encyclopedia’ (sometimes incorrectly referred to as the ‘Bombing Encyclopedia’) which assigns every such potential target a Basic Encyclopedia Number (BEN). That doesn’t mean that the United Kingdom actually intends to bomb any of these places inside Russia. And absence intention, there is no threat.

Second, one has to ask how Mr Williamson imagines that the Russians will be attacking these energy systems. If what he has in mind is military force – such as Russian aircraft bombing power stations – then what he’s describing is all-out, major war between the UK and Russia. How likely is that? And in that event, how many resources could the Russian military spare for the specific task of hitting British energy supplies? The scenario isn’t particularly credible. If, however, what he is in mind is cyber attacks designed to cripple energy systems, then one has to ask why that would require a major investment by the UK in military power, since military power isn’t much use against computer viruses and the like. Also, Russians taking photos of power stations isn’t really relevant for cyber warfare – photographs aren’t much use in such case.

Third, and this is what I find very revealing, the British military seems rather confused about the true nature of the Russian threat. Mr Williamson says of potential Russian attacks on British energy supplies that this is ‘the real threat… the country is facing at the moment.’ Apparently, this rather unlikely hypothetical is more ‘real’ than security problems such as terrorism as well as domestic political, economic, and social troubles. Yet, just a month ago the British Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, was claiming that the danger was something different – that the Russians might cut underwater communications cables connecting the UK to the rest of the world. According to Sir Stuart, this posed a ‘new risk to our way of life.’  But then again, just last week the head of the British Army, General Sir Nick Carter, was saying that the problem was Russia possessed ‘an eye-watering quantity of capability’, including ‘an increasingly aggressive expeditionary force.’ According to the General, Moscow ‘could initiate hostilities sooner than we expect”, and ‘it will start with something we don’t expect,’ which I guess rules out those potential attacks on power systems and underwater cables, since apparently Britain is now expecting them!

The British military industrial complex needs to get its story straight. The Russian threat keeps changing from week to week, as more and more potentially nation-destroying dangers emanating from Moscow are revealed. The only thing that all the scary stories about Russia have in common is that they repeat the mantra that Russia is dangerous, very dangerous, and that the UK should therefore spend more on defence. The BBC notes in an article about Gavin Williamson’s statement that, ‘It comes as the Ministry of Defence is under pressure to avoid cuts that could be coming from the Treasury.’ It’s quite obvious what’s going on here. It’s fearmongering,  pure and simple, designed to extort more money out of the British taxpayer.

The British Treasury should resist the demands for more money for defence. It should take a hard look at what the United Kingdom has got out of its military in the past few decades, and ask in what ways military spending has actually contributed to Britain’s security and to its welfare more generally. Were it to do so, it would come to the conclusion that military expenditure has not served the country well. Wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have not gone well, and have arguably made the UK less not more safe, while costing tens of billions of pounds. Military chiefs have chosen to invest funds in prestige projects such as aircraft carriers which have sucked the blood out of the rest of the armed forces but provided no obvious enhancement of the country’s security in return. British defence policy since the end of the Cold War has been one mistake after another. As a former officer in the British Army, I say this with some regret. I wish it wasn’t so. But it is.

It’s time for the British government to face reality, and abandon the post-imperial fantasies which cast the UK as a global military power and which imagine that the projection of such power serves the national interest. I recently published an article in Economic Affairs arguing that the British defence budget was not too low, but too high.  Elsewhere, I have laid out exactly how the British military could be cut. This would save the country money and enhance the safety of the nation’s citizens at the same time. By contrast, endlessly hyping up the dangers of the ‘Russian threat’ does the United Kingdom no good at all.

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The national interest?

This evening, the class I teach on military and defence policy will be discussing the concept of the ‘national interest’ and whether it has any value. One of the questions I will pose to the students is ‘who defines the national interest?’ That will lead us on to a discussion of the idea of the ‘military industrial complex’, and again we will debate whether this term has any value. The point will be to consider whether defence policy flows naturally from some objective ‘national interest’ or whether it is instead determined by certain narrow, vested interests (or perhaps some combination of the two).

In a happy coincidence of timing, the head of the British Army (of which once, a long time ago, I was a member), General Sir Nick Carter, has provided us with a relevant case study to chew upon in our class. The BBC reports that in a speech tonight to the Royal United Services Institute, General Carter will argue that, ‘Britain’s armed forces risk falling behind Russia without more investment.’ According to the BBC, General Carter ‘will say the Army’s ability to respond to threats “will be eroded if we don’t keep up with our adversaries” … He will add that Russia is building an increasingly aggressive expeditionary force, which already boasts capabilities the British Army would struggle to match.’

Making exact comparisons between countries is somewhat difficult, as exchange rates fluctuate considerably, and there is some disagreement as to what should be included as ‘defence’. According to some estimates (e.g. the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), Russia spends a bit more on defence than the United Kingdom, perhaps a little under US $70 bn, compared with about $50 bn for the UK. That might seem to support the general’s point. However, the most widely respected database on the subject, the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual Military Balance, lists British defence spending as being larger than that of Russia – $52 bn versus $46 bn. That doesn’t support the idea that Russia is more capable militarily than the UK. Perhaps a fair compromise might be to say that both countries’ spending is roughly in the same ball park. But Russia’s population is more than double that of the UK. Also, the UK is a very small country stretching just a few hundred kilometres from top to bottom, whereas Russia covers 11 time zones. The Russian armed forces have to defend not only their border with NATO, but also borders with the Caucasian and Central Asian states, China, and North Korea. The proportion of the Russian military which would be able to confront the UK in a conflict would be quite small. If you define capabilities in general terms, rather than a few specific items of military equipment, General Carter’s statement that Russia ‘boasts capabilities the British Army would struggle to match’ is rather hard to justify.

This is particularly so given that the UK is a member of NATO, and in the extraordinarily unlikely event that the UK and Russia ever went to war (the low likelihood of which is itself a point against General Carter), the British Army would never have to fight Russia alone. It would be part of a much larger alliance which outspends Russia by about 13 to 1. Just the European members of NATO outspend Russia by 4 to 1, and outgun it several times in terms of items of major military hardware (tanks, artillery, aircraft, ships, etc). NATO would certainly not ‘struggle to match’ Russia in the case of war.

The BBC notes that in his speech tonight, General Carter ‘will highlight Russia’s new cyber warfare capabilities.’ This is an odd choice of threat to highlight in order to appeal for an increase in defence spending. Combatting cyber threats isn’t an expensive activity, especially compared with, say, building and maintaining aircraft carriers. Mentioning it seems to serve only one purpose – to generate fear.

The BBC is quite clear about what’s going on here – there is ‘speculation of defence cuts’. To resist these, the Defence Minister has instructed the general to speak out about the Russian threat. The BBC says:

General Carter’s intervention is more driven by fears of further deep cuts to the UK’s armed forces. The Ministry of Defence has a black hole in its budget. It is rare for a military chief to make such an obvious and public appeal for more cash. But he’s doing it under the orders of the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. He has sent his generals over the top to put pressure on the chancellor.

When the Cold War came to an end, the justification for the British defence budget collapsed along with the Soviet Union. Defence planners instead came up with the idea of using the military to be a ‘force for good’, reshaping the world through armed intervention. Next, they used the terrorist ‘threat’ to justify increased budgets to pay for wars supposedly being fought against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. None of that worked out well, so the military has had to find a different justification for its money. And this is where Russia comes in useful. By exaggerating the Russian threat, the British army can make a claim to an increased share of the the country’s resources. The connection between the two – exaggerating threats and claiming resources – is quite explicit in this case.

We see here how the military industrial complex works. The army makes wild claims to justify its budget; the defence minister and his bureaucracy support the claims; institutions such as RUSI spread the word further among those who influence public opinion; and the press does its bit by giving space to the exaggerations. This isn’t a conspiracy – no doubt all these people believe in what they are doing. Long exposure to a given set of institutions tends to make people identify the national interest with those institutions’ interests. But the two aren’t the same. The British nation – that is to say its people – doesn’t benefit from conflictual relations with Russia; nor does it benefit from spending extra money on defence rather than on more productive activities (or alternatively, people getting their money back in the form of tax cuts).

Of course, the military industrial complex isn’t the only ‘complex’ making a claim on the government’s money. Other interest groups are pushing their own stories which justify them getting a large share of the pie at the expense of defence. They too will no doubt make exaggerations of their own. Government has to balance all the different claims for its resources from different groups, and in the process some understanding of the ‘national interest’ perhaps reasserts itself. But that shouldn’t deflect us from seeing in this story a crucial truth: one reason why Russia fear-mongering has become so widespread of late is that it serves powerful sectional interests to have an enemy.

The latest ‘existential threat’

Following the revelation that ‘Russia-linked accounts’ (an extremely broad category) spent a massive £0.75 on Facebook advertisements related to the Brexit referendum in the UK, I was amused to read in the Globe and Mail this morning that ‘Privacy officials in Britain and British Columbia are investigating how a Canadian technology company may have helped sway last year’s Brexit vote.’ There I was thinking that ‘Putin dunnit’, and it turns out it was Canada! Who’d have thought it?

All the recent hype about Russian hacking, Russian ‘information warfare’, Russian internet trolls, and the like makes it sound as if the Russians pretty much dominate the internet. At the very least, if the vast number of Russia-related stories are to be believed, Russians are certainly using the internet to exercise outsized influence on world politics. Supposedly, by manipulating online news, sending out adverts on Twitter and Facebook, and generally trolling web users, they have managed, it is said, to get Donald Trump elected; swing British voters in favour of Brexit; persuade the Dutch to support a referendum aimed at blocking Ukrainian entry into the EU; sow chaos and enhance racial tensions in American society; and influence elections in Germany and France, among other things. The internet, apparently, has been thoroughly ‘weaponized’ by Russia to enormous effect.

What then are we to make of a declaration yesterday by the British Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, that Russia could ‘catastrophically’ damage the British economy by severing underwater communiations cables and so cutting Britain off from the internet? According to the BBC, Peach ‘said Nato had prioritised the protection of the cables “in response to the threat posed by the modernisation of the Russian navy, both nuclear and conventional submarines and ships”.’ The BBC then quotes Conservative MP Rishi Sunak as saying that an attack on the underwater cables would pose an ‘existential threat to our security.’

I have a simple question for the Air Chief Marshal and Mr Sunak – ‘why would Russia want to shut down the internet?’ If there was an all-out war between Britain and Russia, then obviously destroying Britain’s communications would make sense, but short of that amazingly unlikely scenario, what would be the point? The BBC cites former NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Admiral James Stavridis as saying, ‘It is not satellites in the sky, but pipes on the ocean floor that form the backbone of the world’s economy.’ Russia is part of the world economy too. In what way would breaking that economy’s ‘backbone’ help it?

And besides, haven’t we been told again and again in recent months just how successful the Russians have been in using modern digital communications to influence the rest of the world? If that’s all true, then why would Russia want to sabotage them? Surely the Russian government wants people in Britain to be able to access its trolls’ many messages?

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t rationally believe that Russia is using the internet with stunning success for nefarious purposes, and also believe that Russia might want to shut it down.

So what’s this all about? There’s a clue in the BBC article. It says that Peach declared that the UK needed to ‘match and understand Russian fleet modernisation,’ and then notes that, ‘Britain certainly doesn’t have enough ships, submarines and aircraft to mount a constant watch.’ And now it’s clear. This is a pitch for more money for the British military. Since the end of the Cold War, the military has struggled to find a purpose. For a while, it was to act as a ‘force for good’, changing the world for the better by bombing it. That hasn’t turned out so well in places such as Iraq, Afthanistan, and Libya. Humanitarian intervention, regime change, and the like are no longer very persuasive arguments for higher defence spending. So the military has gone back to exaggerating external dangers and hyping up the ‘existential threat’ posed by Russia. Frankly, it’s more than a little bit irresponsible.

The international order

I’m off to England tonight for a conference at Ditchley Park on the subject ‘Russia’s role in the world today and tomorrow.’ I’ll be slumming it in a grand country mansion with a bunch of ambassadors, retired senior officials, and other people far more distinguished than myself, but as it’s all under the Chatham House rule, I regret that I won’t be able to report on it. Still, it provides an excuse to ponder the state of Anglo-Russian relations.

British Prime Minister Theresa May sought to divert attention from her Brexit troubles the other day with some inflammatory remarks about Russia at the annual banquet of the Lord Mayor of London. May remarked that Russia has

fomented conflict in the Donbass, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries, and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber-espionage and disruption. This has included meddling in elections, and hacking the Danish ministry of defence and the Bundestag [German parliament], among many others. It is seeking to weaponise information. Deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the west and undermine our institutions.

May accused Russia of ‘threatening the international order on which we all depend,’ and concluded by saying that, ‘I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed. Because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies, and the commitment of western nations to the alliances that bind us.’

As if to back May up, Ciaran Martin, the head of Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre, stated yesterday that, ‘I can confirm that Russian interference, seen by the National Cyber Security Centre over the past year, has included attacks on the UK media, telecommunication and energy sectors.’ To this Martin added, ‘Russia is seeking to undermine the international system. That much is clear. The PM made the point on Monday night – international order as we know it is in danger of being eroded.’

Along with all this comes alongside allegations that Russian internet trolls attempted to the influence the Brexit referendum. Evidence for this is a little weak since despite the hype, the Guardian reports that, ‘Prof Laura Cram, director of neuropolitics research at the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian that at least 419 of those [Russian Twitter] accounts tweeted about Brexit a total of 3,468 times – mostly after the referendum had taken place.’ It would be interesting to know how many tens of thousands, or for all I know, hundreds of thousands of tweets were posted about Brexit by Brits and peoples of other non-Russian nationalities, but the fact that the alleged ‘interference’ mostly took place after the referendum in any case rather weakens the argument for the prosecution.

But let’s put that to one side. And let’s put aside also May’s somewhat contestable claims about fomenting war in Donbass, regularly violating European airspace, and the like. Let’s accept, for simplicity’s sake, that Russia is trying to influence people in Britain and that its intelligence agencies are attempting to hack the computer systems of British institutions. Let’s face it, it would be pretty odd if they weren’t. This is pretty much run of the mill for states which imagine that they have some position on the international stage. The questions which then arise are: a) does this constitute ‘interference’? and b) does this constitute  an attempt ‘to undermine the international order.’

The answer to the first question depends, I guess, on how you define ‘interference.’ But, to my mind, trying to influence people isn’t interference; it’s just a normal part of human relationships. I think that people need to calm down a little bit on this matter. There seems to be a rather odd view that only people within a country can attempt to influence the citizens or the government of that country. That is, of course, not the way Western states operate – Brits, for instance, are continually trying to influence others. And in any case, it’s just impractical. Human interaction is a perpetual attempt to influence one another. The interaction between states and between states and the peoples of other states is just the same. For sure, Russians want to change the way people in Britain think. That’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with it. The whole ‘interference’ narrative is wrong-headed at the philosophical level.

To this, some might reply that the problem is not Russians trying to influence Brits, but that they are doing so by spreading ‘fake news’. Well, perhaps they do sometimes, though I think that the ‘fake news’ meme is greatly exaggerated, and if we’re talking about social media there’s no shortage of utter tripe, including manifestly untrue stories, appearing in the Facebook and Twitter posts of non-Russians. A few hundred Russian tweets really don’t matter very much in the larger scheme of things. But, at a deeper level, we have to ask, ‘who is determine what is ‘fake’ and what is not?’ Are you going to say that we should have some sort of media police which eliminates what we deem to be inaccurate? If so, we have censorship, not a free society.

And then we come to question b) – does this constitute an attempt to ‘undermine the international order?’ The answer to this is fairly simple – No, and two times no! Yes, the Russians engage in espionage. They try to influence people. They always have! And so have Western countries! This isn’t an attempt to undermine the international order. This is the international order!! Let’s not be naïve about this. The international order consists of a whole set of institutions and rules which states for the most part abide by. At the same time, they occasionally break the rules, by for instance carrying out espionage on one another. Yet the order continues on nonetheless. Russia spies on Britain. Britain spies on Russia (remember the British spy rock in Moscow, anyone?) That’s how the order works.

I’m tempted to go off into a bit of ‘whataboutism’ and talk about all the many times that the United Kingdom has egregiously broken the rules of the international system. It’s hardly an innocent in this regard. But instead, I’ll end on a different thought. If Mrs May really thinks that Russia is undermining the international order in general and more specifically British democracy, then shouldn’t she be reconsidering Brexit? Of course, Mrs May won’t do anything of the sort. She recognizes the result of the Brexit referendum as legitimate and binding. Yet Brexit is a huge shock to the international order, one of the biggest in recent years. Who ‘undermined the international order’? The British people, that’s who.

UPDATE:  According to Sky News, Yin Yin Lu of Oxford Internet Research has identified 22.6 million tweets associated with the alleged Russian ‘troll factory’. Of these, 400 were about or related to Brexit. As Ms Lu says: “First of all the number of these tweets is important to highlight. So there’s about 400 tweets here out of 22.6 million. That is a very infinitesimal fraction. So the word interference is perhaps a bit exaggerated.”

Murder most foul

Russian agents are running around Britain assassinating people with impunity, claims Buzzfeed in a series of articles published in the past week. The British authorities have ‘deliberately sidelined’ evidence indicating murder and passed off all the cases as death by natural causes. Buzzfeed, however, believes that it knows better, having been informed by ‘high ranking US intelligence officials’ that at least 14 people ‘have been assassinated on British soil by Russia’s security services or mafia groups, two forces that sometimes work in tandem.’

Let’s take a look.

In its first article, Buzzfeed looked at the case of Alexander Perepilichny, who died while out jogging in 2012. Perepilichny had previously helped launder money in the infamous case involving Sergei Magnitsky before fleeing to Britain and becoming a whistleblower. His death is currently the subject of an inquest, at which his wife has said that she does not believed that he was poisoned. Why does Buzzfeed think differently?

First, although the original autopsy revealed nothing suspicious in Perepilichny’s stomach, a later examination by an ‘independent plant expert’ identified traces of the toxin gelsemium. It is speculated that Perepilichny died after ingesting the toxin in a soup he ate just before going running, but that is only speculation. Furthermore, if Perepilichny was murdered, there is nothing in the Buzzfeed report to link that to the Russian state, rather than to crime syndicates, who were allegedly extremely angry at Perepilichny for blowing the whistle on their money laundering schemes. The assumption is just that the Russian state and the Russian mafia are one and the same thing. But nowhere is the connection proven.

Beyond that, though, the only evidence Buzzfeed is able to bring forward to justify the claim of murder is that ‘US spies said they have passed MI6 high-grade intelligence indicating that Perepilichnyy was likely “assassinated on direct orders from Putin or people close to him”.’ In other words, the entire story is based on accusations of anonymous officials in a completely different country, without any reference to the evidence used to justify the accusations. In short, it doesn’t amount to very much, but it sets the pattern for Buzzfeed’s other pieces – no actual evidence, but links between the dead men and organized crime (not, mark you, the Russian state), and unsubstantiated claims from ‘anonymous US officials’.

The second Buzzfeed article focuses on the case of Scot Young, an associate of Boris Berezovsky, who threw himself out of a window in London. Buzzfeed suggests that he was murdered by Russian agents, though just why isn’t very clear. And again, the online magazine doesn’t produce any forensic or other evidence to justify its case. Rather, it just says that ‘Four high-ranking American intelligence sources told BuzzFeed News they suspect Young was assassinated.’ Yet, the information in the article points in an entirely different direction.

Continue reading Murder most foul

Evidence not needed

A report by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) of the British House of Commons is causing a stir today. According to the headline in The Guardian: ‘Brexit: Foreign states may have interfered in vote, report says’. And The Independent announces: ‘Foreign hackers may have hit voter registration site days before EU referendum, say MPs’.

The report in question is entitled Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum and contains a short section concerning the crash of the British voter registration website on the last day of registration for the Brexit referendum. In this section, the report mentions in passing Russia and China. It is this which had led to the breathless headlines seeming to blame Russia and China for interfering in the Brexit vote.

Contrary to the headlines, however, the report doesn’t actually make a positive statement that Russia and China may have been behind the voter registration website’s crash. All it actually says is ‘PACAC does not rule out the possibility that the crash may have been caused by a DDOS (distributed denial of service attack) using botnets.’ So it doesn’t actually rule it in, it just doesn’t rule it out. And, in any case, it doesn’t in fact blame the DDOS on ‘foreign states’. It doesn’t say anywhere who might have carried it out, assuming that it even was a DDOS. The only mention of Russia and China is a sentence a little later, saying

Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals. The implications of this different understanding of cyber-attack, as purely technical or as reaching beyond the digital to influence public opinion, for the interference in elections and referendums are clear. PACAC is deeply concerned about these allegations about foreign interference.

This really doesn’t add up to much. Nevertheless, committee chairman Bernard Jenkin sought to stir the pot, telling The Independent that ‘it would have been “entirely in character” for “the Russians and Chinese” ’ to do such a thing.

And what is his evidence? It turns out that he doesn’t have any. The report itself comments that:

Although the Committee has no direct evidence, it considers that it is important to be aware of the potential for foreign interference in elections or referendums. The report on lessons learned from the website crash described it as ‘technical in nature, gaps in technical ownership and risk management contributed to the problem, and prevented it from being mitigated in advance.’

So, it turns out that the committee ‘has no direct evidence’ that Russia and China had anything to do with this, and it turns out also that the specialists who looked into the crash considered it ‘technical in nature’ and didn’t blame on it outside attack. As John Rentoul points out in The Independent, Jenkin’s insinuations are the ‘the purest baloney. The website crashed because lots of people left it to the last minute to register and whoever built the site failed to provide another capacity for the surge.’

Mr Jenkin, however, is unperturbed. ‘We’ve seen this happen in other countries’, he said, without saying which those countries were, and adding, ‘Our own Government has made it clear to us that they don’t think there was anything, but you don’t necessarily find any direct evidence.’

So even the British government doesn’t think the story is true. But never mind. When it comes to blaming the Russians, who needs evidence anyway? Just make something up and then say how concerned you are. Because, you know, it’s ‘entirely in character’, and what more proof do you need? Just make sure to insinuate something salacious, and you can then rely on The Guardian and The Independent to pick it up, exaggerate it even further, and spread your baseless allegation far and wide.

Selection and maintenance of the aim

Strategy, Clausewitz said, is about applying means to achieve ends. It follows that good strategy requires one first to select sensible and achievable ends, and second to ensure that one actually apply one’s resources in such a way as to advance towards those ends. This is what one might call ‘instrumental rationality’. Selecting objectives which don’t benefit you, or deliberately acting in a way which undermines your own objectives, is not instrumentally rational.

For good reason, therefore, the first ‘principle of war’ as taught to British and Canadian military officers is ‘selection and maintenance of the aim’. Pick a bad aim, or fail to maintain a good aim and instead get sidetracked into pursuing something else, and failure will almost certainly ensue.

This is pretty obvious stuff, but what is remarkable is how bad Western leaders are at putting it into practice.

Take, for instance, the so-called ‘War on Terror’. This began in 2001 with an invasion of Afghanistan designed to destroy Al-Qaeda. Having occupied Afghanistan, however, the Americans and their allies decided to shift focus to rebuilding the country, and so became involved in the longest war in American history, fighting an enemy (the Taleban) who don’t pose an obvious threat to the American homeland.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, in 2003, the UK and USA got further distracted and decided to invade Iraq, on the dubious grounds that there was a link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda and that Saddam Hussein might provide Al-Qaeda with weapons of mass destruction. Once Iraq had been defeated, the Anglo-American alliance found itself fighting yet another insurgency. This involved not just Iraq’s Sunni minority, but also its Shia majority, which received support from Iran. Attention therefore now shifted yet again, with Iran being seen as the enemy no. 1. Commentators began stirring up fears of the ‘Shia Crescent’, stretching from Iran through Iraq and into Syria. American security was now associated with defeating those who made up this crescent. This meant undermining Iran and toppling the Assad regime in Syria. In this way, a war on terror originally designed to fight Sunni terrorists morphed into a war against Shia states.

The Arab Spring in 2011 then added yet another objective – democratizing the Middle East. Now the aim became toppling dictatorial regimes wherever they might be, in order to give a boost to the wave of democracy allegedly sweeping the region. Thus, NATO bombed Libya to ensure the overthrow of Colonel Gaddhafi. This, of course, then enabled Al-Qaeda to spread its influence in north Africa, most notably in Mali.

In short, Western states, especially the USA and UK, have changed the aims of their policies in the ‘war on terror’ multiple times over the past 16 years. And they are changing them backwards and forwards as I write. One day, their focus is on toppling Assad in Syria; the next, it’s defeating ISIS; then it’s back to toppling Assad again. It is no wonder that the Brits and the Americans have made such a hash of things. They are incapable of keeping their eye on the ball. They have no strategy worthy of the name.

The problem derives from their inability to choose achievable objectives in the first place. As they fail to reach each objective, they feel obliged to change their target in an effort to avoid admitting defeat.

This fundamental lack of realism can be seen in the Anglo-American approach to Russia, which is based on the assumption that Russia can be coerced into changing its policies in Ukraine and Syria. Boris Johnson’s efforts this week to drum up support for additional sanctions against Russia are a case in point. Yet to date, the policy of coercion has achieved no success, and there is no reason to believe that it will be any more successful in the future. Russia just isn’t going to abandon Donbass or Assad. It’s not going to happen. Wishing it won’t make it so. Boris can demand regime change in Syria all he wants, but he’s not going to achieve it. Regardless of whether it is desirable, by selecting this goal, he is dooming himself to failure.

So why do Western states persist in selecting unachievable objectives, in putting so much stock in what they would desire as opposed to what they can actually do? The answer, I think, is that they seem to be unwilling to admit that the days of their hegemony are over and that they are not the bearers of universal moral truth. Despite all the overwhelming evidence that they are not able to mould the world to their wishes, they fear the consequences of admitting this more than they fear the consequences of trying and failing. That is because the costs of the latter are borne by their publics and by the people at the receiving end of their interventions, but the former are borne by the politicians in the form of a humiliating reduction in prestige. Unsurprisingly, the politicians choose to transfer the costs onto others, aided and abetted by the media and the military-industrial complex, which have similarly invested in current policies and wish to avoid the backlash which an admission of failure would involve.

Things will only get better when our leaders start selecting sensible aims. When they do so, they will find that they can actually maintain these aims, and so achieve success. But that will only happen when the illusions of military hegemony and moral superiority vanish. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon, due to the psychological distress and political damage it would cause. Alas, therefore, I see no obvious way out of this mess for some time to come.