Uniquely among European nations, Britain does not lose wars. Yet we are
on the verge of losing two at once, in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is
the long term strategic significance of Sir Richard Dannatt’s
intervention last week, in which he called for British troops to leave
Iraq “soon”. The challenge for the
country, and for the Conservatives, is
to develop a right of centre critique of Tony Blair’s foreign policy,
before defeat/withdrawal in Iraq is exploited by the Left. For if the
Left are allowed to dominate the ensuing debate, the consequences will
be grave indeed: a surge in anti-Americanism jeopardising the special
relationship, a tilt in public opinion in the opposite direction
towards a federal Europe, and a dangerous reversal in the War on Terror.
The general public, in my experience, seem intuitively to understand
that we are heading towards a foreign policy crisis. For them, this is
the biggest political issue. Yet, for some reason, the only group more
in denial of this than Tony Blair is the Conservative Party. True, in
his recent foreign policy speech, David Cameron began to tiptoe away
from following George Bush & Co over the top one more time. And he
and William Hague described Israel’s attack on Lebanon as
“disproportionate” (surely an empirical fact, given the Israeli
reliance on air power). But the official Conservative line on Dannatt
has been remarkably sotto voce. I listened to Liam Fox, the party’s
defence spokesman, on the radio and could not actually understand what
he was going on about.
Perhaps it is because some among Cameron’s close circle, such as Michael Gove and George Osborne, cling improbably to a “neo con” position based on pre-emptive strikes and imposing democracy by force, despite all the evidence of failure (I write, I am embarrassed to say, as someone who was originally in favour of the war). I hope they are not beyond redemption. For that is a politically suicidal stance. A poll in the Sunday Express, for instance, shows that over 70% of the public agrees with Dannatt. And the military view, based on experience, is clear: the Iraq mission has failed and that benighted country is sliding into civil war. The final nail in the Iraq War’s coffin is likely to come from major setbacks for Bush in the upcoming mid-term elections. In short, Washington has blundered.
What has been particularly outrageous, if not bone-headed, are the comments over the weekend from Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Portillo, who described what Dannatt had to say as unconstitutional. They suggested he should be sacked. These two, remember, are former defence secretaries. Both were responsible for the savage cuts in the defence budget, which began under the Tories, and which have left the army medical services unable to cope.
But Dannatt’s decision to speak out is emphatically not unconstitutional. On the contrary, he is simply exploiting the glorious nuance of the British constitution. True, there is a convention that Generals should keep their views to themselves. But the point about a convention is that it can be broken in exceptional circumstances. Such flexibility and adaptability are the advantages of an unwritten constitution. That is the underlying legal principle, not the absurd suggestion, by implication, that Dannatt has broken the law.
In Britain, as in other Anglosphere nations, we have a volunteer army not a conscript one to be deployed by fiat. As Dannatt points out, there is an established covenant that the army will follow responsible orders from the Government, as long as the Government keeps its side of the bargain and ensures soldiers are adequately equipped and the wounded properly treated. That covenant has clearly been broken by Labour. Don’t Rifkind and Portillo realise that this is a chance to embark on a great cause, attacking Tony Blair for embarking on a disastrous war and Gordon Brown for refusing to pay for it? By suggesting he has acted unconstitutionally, Rifkind and Portillo are lending a legal façade to the inevitable retaliation by Labour. Indeed, the Sunday Mirror reports that a campaign to sack Dannatt is already underway. Remember what they did to David Kelly.
So what should the Conservatives do now? Tomorrow (Tue) Open Europe is holding a small, private conference on the crisis in defence and security policy. It will be conducted under Chatham House rules, so what those who attend – such as Field Marshall Lord Inge and Col Tim Spicer – actually say will be under embargo. But I hope it will be the first step towards developing a foreign policy based not on ideology, but on a practical understanding of the world as we find it.
Britain’s biggest threat is evidently militant Islam, but that does not mean we should be swaggering around the Middle East, stirring up hornets’ nests and getting shot at. Much of our battle against Islamic extremists is not a matter of foreign policy, but of domestic policy. We should secure our borders, ban the hijab in schools and government buildings and deport foreign criminals. We also face other overseas threats: from North Korea, for instance, and from unstable regimes in Africa, from Sudan to Zimbabwe. Shouldn’t we be concerned that China is gobbling up vast chunks of that continent’s natural resources? Or about Russia’s aggressive use of its energy resources?
My own belief is that we should revert to a more traditional foreign policy practised successfully for most of the last 300 years, where, as Palmerston said, we only had permanent interests rather than permanent alliances. As it happens, that would probably mean being allied to the Americans and our fellow English speaking nations more often than not. But we would show more independence than the craven, hand-wringing position of the Yo! Blair era.
Rather than embroiling ourselves in foreign expeditions in which the British Army is used as a garrison force – something for which it has never been suited – we could do worse than to rediscover the old truth that the army is essentially a projectile fired by the navy and the airforce, to be use precisely against specific targets. And we should remember too the lessons of Empire, when prestige, deterrence, setting an example, and the manipulation of the balance of power were our first lines of defence. Such a policy would require a significant increase in the defence budget, which has been halved since the Cold War (which Sir Richard Dannatt also hinted at in his interview). But progress here would not cost much. The reversal of Labour’s disastrous infantry cuts, for instance, would cost only a few hundred million pounds.
Above all, we should prepare cool-headedly for the great political event of our time – the end of Tony Blair, who will only be remembered for leading Britain to its first defeat since Suez.