08 August 2009


TTMF's comment yesterday that "I understand that there must be a strong military, but surely we are so strong by now as to be musclebound, and the muscle that resides between our ears needs to be retrained" has stayed with me over the last twenty four hours. This morning it has been joined by the opinion of General David Richards (former head of ISAF, who in just under three weeks will be head of the British army) that NATO forces will be in Afghanistan for "thirty or forty years".

I agree that a military is necessary (in a previous post I said that soldiers are a necessary evil, with the word "necessary" precisely equal in weight to "evil"). The word "strong" is more difficult. In one sense, if a military is not strong enough to protect, then there is no point in its existence; if it is too strong, it becomes a threat in itself and its society becomes (in Jim's word) musclebound. Where lies the boundary between the two – the line between "strong enough" and "too strong"? To state the obvious, the military must be strong enough to fulfil its function; but what is that function?

The function on which most of us could agree is defence of people and territory against attack. Another, less commonly acknowledged but very widespread, is projection of power beyond one's own borders in support of economic self interest. In the grey area between comes projection of power beyond one's own borders as a way of providing "defence in depth" – striking at an enemy before that enemy can strike you.

Then there is another one, honoured far more in rhetoric than in reality: projection of force beyond one's own borders in defence, as a matter of moral principle, of the weak against an aggressor or oppressor. This one also opens a whole new can of worms, to which I'll return later.

I'm not going to bog myself down in attempts to define where "strong enough" becomes "too strong", nor in disentangling "defence in depth" from "economic self interest" and "defence of the weak". But I will suggest that the world might be a very different place if we all thought seriously about, and debated, these questions.

The motivation for NATO intervention in Afghanistan is relatively clearcut (in so far as such things ever are): it is primarily a projection (however ham fisted and dubiously judged) of US power beyond US borders in response to an attack (September 11th 2001) against US population and mainland territory, seeking to remove an enemy perceived to have mounted that attack and any threat of another. NATO is bound by treaty to support any one of its members which is attacked, so has become involved in the same exercise. Look too deeply, and you discover all sorts of other agendas; but that one is top of the list, and will do for a simplified picture.

The invasion of Iraq presents an altogether murkier picture. There was certainly a large element of power projection in support of (US geopetroleum) self interest. There was equally certainly a large element of wishing to kick somebody, anybody, after September 11th. There also seems to have been a personal wish on George W Bush's part to kick Saddam Hussein in particular, on general principle, as soon as an excuse presented itself. Tony Blair, in Britain, had simply decided to unconditionally support the US. The public justifications, however ludicrously skimpy, were framed in the same "defence through projection of power to the enemy" terms as Afghanistan: transparent fictions about weapons of mass destruction and links with al Qa'ida, presented as clear and present dangers. But there was also in the air a certain "defence of the weak" element. There was widespread liberal public disquiet about the way Shi'a populations in Iraq had been incited to rise up against Saddam in 1990/1991 but then abandoned to their fate. Many liberal commentators were willing to support a war to end genocide there; I was, myself. Governments specifically denied this motive in advance of the invasion, but hastily dug it up again and dusted it off afterwards as a retrospective justification..

The "protection of the weak" element was a genuinely stronger component (among others; nothing is simple) in the 1999 case of NATO's (probably illegal) action against Serbia, the threat to Kosovo's ethnic Albanians coming as it did after the string of 1990s Balkan "ethnic cleansings". The actual conduct of that action blurred the exact extent of the motivation, but it remained a significant factor.

Sometimes, self interest and protection of the weak can be the same thing. When Tanzania overthrew Idi Amin in Uganda, 1978/1979, the immediate casus belli was counterattack after Ugandan assault on Tanzania (defence of people and territory). There was also a long term motive to remove an unpredictable and unstable neighbour (projection of power for defence in depth). But there was also a tertiary wish to remove a dictator whose policies were destroying his own population – a population which crossed the border to become an economic drain on Tanzania. Similarly, protection of Kosovans deflected the risk of a refugee tide flowing onto NATO territory.

A major factor in the moral use of force abroad is capability. If I see a large ten year old kicking the shit out of a small and bespectacled five year old on the street, I will almost certainly intervene; if I see a dozen large thugs with knives attacking someone, I will probably stay clear and call the police instead. A country which arms itself with the capacity to project power beyond its borders (especially if it then uses that capacity) also, thereby, places itself in a position to help the weak – and, therefore, to be judged on whether or not it does so. With power comes responsibility ... or, at least, the need to pretend responsibility.

According to information from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), for every dollar of world military expenditure the US accounts for roughly forty cents. Next down is China with a shade under six cents. Britain weighs in at between four and five cents. Looking at it another way, each member of the world's whole population spends on average somewhere around $250 (mean) or $35 (median) a year on arms; for the US, the figure is over $2000; China roughly $65; the UK about $1000. Britain, China and the US have all demonstrated that they are in a position to project power beyond their borders; Britain and the US, albeit on very different scales, have done so with global reach. They have therefore demonstrated their ability to intervene in genocides by smaller states. (China, of course, exemplifies another use of military power which I've not mentioned: internal control.)

If British military capacity was used to intervene protectively in situations such as Bosnia in 1992-1995, Rwanda 1994, Darfur 2003 onwards, I would feel that its size and investment were justified. It would strong enough. Since it is not, it is too strong. The same goes with even greater weight for the US, which couldn't possibly intervene constructively on a scale to match its military investment with humane return. Both are, to use Jim's metaphor, overmuscled; the US certainly, Britain probably, is also musclebound. US use of power abroad creates enemies; British "right or wrong" support exacerbates that, and spreads it around besides. Terrorism is part of the hidden cost of apparently cheap fuel and food; so is much of the military budget.

Whether we are "strong enough" or "too strong" depends on what exactly we want to be strong for ... something we almost never discuss.


Greg Parker said...

I just saw this, and the guy who said we'd be in Afghanistan for the next 30 or 40 years - and I had to have a laugh - I heard him say that too. Collectively we seem to have an extremely short memory as we have been over there, on and off, for well over a hundred years now.

My Dad was born in pretty much squalor in the East End of London in 1900 and to escape a grim existence he joined up (World War One) well under age! He went straight off to the North West Frontier (Himalayan foothills, Afghanistan and Egypt) and also took up (plate) photography at the same time - which is quite something for a completely uneducated kid on horseback (he was in the Lancers). This is just background.

In the comfort of his Devon home, Dad and I were watching the news and the Russian helicopter gunships were bombing the crap out of the Afghanistan desertscape. I remember saying to Dad "They don't stand a chance do they?" and he replied "Who doesn't?". I said "The Afghanis of course". "No" Dad said, "It's the Russians who will give up and go home". I thought Dad had gone a bit senile, but of course, he'd been there and knew far more than I ever would about life in general. He carried on, "We didn't win over there either. Do you know what happened?" I of course knew nothing so Dad carried on. "We weren't going to beat these people on their own ground, so we got the main tribe (this was the Massoud in Dad's day), and we paid them to keep the Khyber Pass safe and clear of all the other smaller tribes!!" It seems to me that nothing changes, with the exception of who is the dominant tribe.

So this has actually been going on for well over a hundred years as far as the English are concerned and the comment about another 30 or 40 is now seen to be a bit tame :) At least another hundred I would say if we can rely on history.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it be nice if we just brought
our "lovely boys" ( " he was my angel ": "he was such a kind loving boy " ) home..........?
If, we stopped tramping around the world
If, we stopped trumping and blowing away around the world
If, we stayed home and put our house in order
we wouldn't be iffing, uhmming and ahhing.
says Geoffrey Powell
who is sick of his own "iffing" opinions besides those of others.........talk about being Ramble Grump