The retreat from Afghanistan leaves the Foreign Office and Foreign Secretary much diminished in reputation. Dominic Raab was unable, in his appearance on Wednesday before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, to efface the impression that until Sunday 15th August, the day the Taliban entered Kabul, he and his colleagues fell far below the level of events.
They were unable or unwilling to grasp how quickly the situation was deteriorating. Raab had gone on holiday, and at first refused to come back.
Sir Philip Barton, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State, who should have been directing the urgent redeployment of staff and other resources to meet the emergency, was likewise on holiday, and disinclined to return.
And one regrets to say that Sir Laurie Bristow, the British Ambassador in Kabul, had apparently been given instructions to leave, along with his staff, even though they were the people with the local knowledge needed to process the mass of applications from Afghans who had worked for the British – an order countermanded at the last moment as far as the ambassador was concerned.
It would be unfair to judge this lamentable performance against some imaginary standard of perfection. Evacuations are seldom easy, and this one could have been a hell of a lot more bloody, as Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, points out in this week’s Spectator.
And the wishful thinking which permeated the Foreign Office, the belief (as Raab said on Wednesday) that it was unlikely Kabul would fall this year, was widely shared, not only in Downing Street but in Washington.
Wallace makes an astute point about the impossibility of knowing exactly when a regime will collapse:
“History shows us that it’s not about failure of intelligence, it’s about the limits of intelligence. When the Soviet Union crumbled, when Libya collapsed, when the actual moment came in Afghanistan, intelligence hadn’t failed. It was just limited, as it always is at the very end.”
But in such circumstances, political judgement becomes all the more important. One needs to recognise the point at which changing facts on the ground have rendered the intelligence obsolete.
And long before that point, one has to be careful about relying too heavily on intelligence which says “we are winning”. When the intelligence agencies, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and others agree an assessment at the Joint Intelligence Committee, it is extremely difficult for them to be impartial.
No one has a strong incentive to say “we are losing” or even “my department’s work does not appear to be all that effective”, especially when the actual moment of defeat is probably still a long way off.
Raab and his officials are reported to be on poor terms. This is in part a matter of personality. Raab likes to have things under control.
Everything has to pass through the Foreign Secretary’s extremely large private office. Officials and junior ministers are allowed very little discretion. Relations with other departments are likewise kept under strict control, and are not at all good.
But this is not just a matter of temperament, important though that is. It is also a question of what kind of a department the Foreign Office is, and what it is for.
Forget for a moment nation-building in Afghanistan. Within the Foreign Office itself, there has also been a kind of nation-building going on: an attempt to bring the department into strict conformity with the most progressive ideas of how the British nation should be, as set out in the Equality Act 2010.
Ambassadors recently started stating at the end of an email their preferred pronouns, and at the foot of the staircase in the Foreign Office photographs were put on display of the first woman ambassador, the first black ambassador and so forth.
All this was in full accordance with what Tony Blair and his followers were preaching both at home and abroad. Liberal interventionism, set out in his Chicago speech of April 1999, had become the new orthodoxy.
In 2001, after the September 11th attacks, Blair at once declared, in his Labour Conference speech,
“The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.”
And in his memoirs, published in 2010, he writes, with reference to Afghanistan and Iraq:
“I conceived of September 11 as making all previous analyses redundant, or at least duty-bound for re-examination. We could no longer presume that countries in which this virus persisted were none of our business. In the choice between a policy of management and a policy of revolution, I had become a revolutionary.”
So the costly attempt to build a liberal democracy in Afghanistan had begun. Successive Foreign Secretaries followed Blair’s lead and have spoken of our moral duty to uphold women’s rights in Afghanistan.
This policy had the merit, for its advocates, of being impossible for any western politician to oppose. It nevertheless sounded like an inadequate reason for putting British troops in harm’s way, and now stands exposed as the most flagrant Blairite humbug.
All of which is rather confusing for the Foreign Office. To its dismay, it has lost the European Union, the cause to which so many of its best minds have been devoted since the 1960s.
True, it has gained the Department for International Development, but it cannot be said as yet fully to have digested this acquisition.
And yet through the fog of battle, elements of a new doctrine can be discerned. Spending on defence has already been increased, with the Treasury conceding, quite exceptionally, a four-year settlement, while spending on aid has been cut.
There has been a shift from soft to hard power; from liberal idealism to Realpolitik. The Prime Minister’s adviser on foreign affairs, John Bew, is the author not only of biographies of Castlereagh, one of the great Foreign Secretaries, and Attlee, but of Realpolitik: A History, a subtle study in which is found the observation:
“To define oneself as standing for or against something remains a natural human inclination, as does seeking reconciliation between one’s morals and the nasty, brutish world. Yet it is also an activity better suited to moral philosophy or theology than to foreign policy analysis.”
Realpolitik does not offer some simple key to foreign policy dilemmas. To understand reality, and act in accordance with that reality, is a complicated and never-ending endeavour.
But one of the themes running through the present Prime Minister’s career is a delight in exposing liberal humbug, and a keen appreciation of the real balance of forces in any particular situation.
Boris Johnson is not, palpably, a perfectionist. Nor is he a preacher who gets caught up in visions of his own moral greatness. He is a realist, an anti-Blair, inclined to take people as they are, rather than attempt, whether in Britain or Afghanistan, to remake them as they ought to be.
One aspect of realism in foreign policy is to recognise that success may hardly be noticed; may indeed be achieved because no one is boasting about it.
Our policy at the United Nations, carefully concerted with France and apparently working rather well, is a contemporary example of this.
Triumphalism in foreign policy can be a very dangerous sign. One thinks of Neville Chamberlain giving way to it after Munich. Nor is expertise of much value, when unaccompanied by a commonsensical estimate of what is and isn’t possible.
Sir Anthony Eden offers the great modern warning: an expert who lacked the mental robustness to cope at the highest level, and got us into Suez. In the mid-19th-century, we find Lord Aberdeen, the Conservatives’ most trusted authority on foreign affairs, a man with a deep horror of war, who got us into the Crimean War because he failed to impress on Tsar Nicholas I the danger Russia would run by seizing Turkish territory.
It is fruitless to seek for some golden age in British foreign policy. Even at the height of the British Empire, it consisted most often in the management of weakness.
No sane British statesman ever committed the British Army to a continental conflict except in case of dire necessity, and victory could only then be attained by building coalitions.
Britannia ruled the waves for a hundred years after Trafalgar, but the Royal Navy could not avert humiliations which occurred at numerous points on land, including the retreat from Kabul in 1842, from which there was only one survivor.
The expedition in early 1885 to rescue the wretched, rash, intruding General Gordon from Khartoum arrived just too late.
And within living memory we have seen America, as the great imperial power, exposed to similar humiliations, of which the worst was in Vietnam.
But America still emerged victorious from the Cold War. The retreat from Kabul has filled the August press, and prompted a cry of anguish from Blair.
It marks a change of tone in western policy: a move away from the hubristic policy of nation-building. But there is no reason why, in any but the very short term, it should signify a weakening either of the United States, or of the British Government’s development of a more realistic foreign policy, entrusted to a revived Foreign Office and, before long, to a new Foreign Secretary.