Wednesday 25 February 2015

Military weakness is not as dangerous as military delusion

I joined the Liberal Party in 1979, as a student journalist, having interviewed all the local parliamentary candidates. Dermot Roaf, then the Liberal candidate for Oxford City, spent well over an hour with me in the middle of the day, when he must have had more urgent people to deal with – and, by the end, I was convinced. I went off then and there and paid my subscription.

But one of the reasons why I embraced the cause so enthusiastically – rather too enthusiastically for my own good – was my growing sense of irritation at the political discourse.

Why was it that the people who had particular ideologies bred into them seemed to cling to these bundles of ideas, some of which seemed contradictory – apparently because they were psychologically pre-disposed to do so?

Why was it, for example, that Conservatives tended to oppose public spending – but not, apparently, when it came to defence? Why was it that Labour supporters seemed to back all kinds of extra spending – but not, again apparently, when it came to defence?

It was all very odd, and I wondered this morning when I heard the news about sending troops to the Ukraine – can Cameron do that without a vote in the Commons? – whether the same contradictions applied.

I am clearly different these days. I recognise a tyrant when I see one, and Putin is one. There are clearly risks to the Baltic states, and it would be a setback for civilisation if they fell back under Russian control. Perhaps as much as Nazi control was of Poland.

What I do find indefensible is the way that successive governments, but the Blair government in particular, approached these issues with their preference for symbolic gestures to real action. It meant that, briefly at least, they could cut defence spending and still invade Afghanistan. And Iraq.

In the long run, it meant the humiliation of UK forces, and the undermining of our reputation for military competence – because our forces were not equipped or trained or prepared or numerous enough for the role they were supposed to be playing.

Is this what Cameron is doing? Sending 75 troops to Ukraine because it is a cheap gesture? Or is it the same kind of gesture as the one that Spanish government used during the first Gulf War: they would send forces to support the coalition, but on condition that they would leave if there was any fighting?

Because this kind of symbolism is far more dangerous that doing nothing. Sabre rattling might have its place, but if you sabre rattle when you have long since sold off your sabre, then you can get into difficulties – which the rest of us will have to pay for.

Am I advocating strong defence? Not necessarily. But the current mismatch between political rhetoric and military swagger, and the actual military resources we have at our disposal, is so stark that it is downright dishonest.

Something has to give. We are heading next month to the centenary of the Dardanelles expedition (March 18: the first attempt to force the narrows by sea), and it is a good moment to remember the psychology of military incompetence.

The commanders in 1915 deluded themselves about the enemy they faced, putting out reassuring orders to the officers explaining that Turkish troops were afraid of the dark. The result was inevitable.

It isn’t necessarily weakness that precedes military disasters. It is delusion, and this generation of politicians may be even more subject to delusions than any before them.

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