Paul Robinson

Are we wasting money on defence?

Backing the Americans in Iraq has not served the national interest, says Paul Robinson; we’d be more secure if we adopted a less interventionist foreign policy and reduced our military capacity

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Backing the Americans in Iraq has not served the national interest, says Paul Robinson; we’d be more secure if we adopted a less interventionist foreign policy and reduced our military capacity

Soldiers are not social workers. They fight and they kill — that is what they are trained to do. They are not trained to ‘do good’. Yet turn to the Ministry of Defence website and you will see that the very first words on the ‘Army Jobs: Army Life’ recruiting page are, ‘The British Army is a force for good.’ The site then goes on to stress the army’s activities ‘around the world’. Defending the UK barely gets a mention. Similarly, the Labour party’s defence website, under the heading ‘Our Approach’, states immediately that ‘Labour believes that Britain should act as a force for good in the world.’ (One wonders whether they think that Conservatives believe that Britain should act as a force for evil.)

The ‘goodness’ concept seems to have evolved over the past seven years from being something of an afterthought to being the central plank of the UK’s defence policy. In the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) the phrase ‘force for good’ did appear, but at the very end of the document, without any great emphasis. Kosovo, however, seems to have convinced Tony Blair that military force was an appropriate means of reshaping the world for the better. The 1999 Defence White Paper elevated the concept to its first chapter under the heading ‘Our Security Priorities’. Even then, being a ‘force for good’ was the last of the defence priorities listed. Four years later, however, the idea had been promoted again, and was now one of the defence ‘visions’.

The 2003 Defence White Paper identified three ‘visions’ for Britain’s armed forces. These were: defending the United Kingdom and its interests; strengthening international peace and security; [being] a force for good in the world. The second of these is superfluous. Either ‘strengthening international peace and security’ is one of the interests of the United Kingdom, in which case it belongs in the first category; or it is not, in which case we are concerned with it solely out of a desire to ‘do good’, in which case it belongs in the third category. In effect, therefore, defence policy as envisioned by the Blair government has two purposes — defence of the UK and transforming the world for the better. The first is what defence policy always has been, and should be, about. The second is a startling new concept. It redefines the entire purpose of the British armed forces.

One can argue that we have moral responsibilities to help others, that it benefits us to do so, and even that force is an appropriate tool in this regard, but it is hard to present a case that one has to intervene in this way. Had the UK failed to attack Yugoslavia in 1999, it is not obvious how the security of the UK would have suffered. Indeed, one of the justifications used in the conflict was precisely that Nato’s action was not based on self-interest. Similarly, we could have left Sierra Leone alone, and suffered no harm from that. These things were not things that we had to do.

The question, then, is whether military intervention overseas on the scale now envisioned by defence planners is strictly necessary for our security. Could we have dispensed, for instance, with attacking Iraq and still remained secure? Or were vital security interests at stake which made intervention essential? The answer to the first question is yes, and to the second, no.

The logic behind interventionism is roughly as follows: post-Cold War the world has become more unstable, and is a more dangerous place; crises produced by failing states may spill over borders and damage our interests; the UK, furthermore, has numerous enemies overseas, who if left alone will seek to attack us; we must, therefore, take the fight to them and intervene in their countries to restore order, reduce instability and pre-empt attacks upon us.

There are numerous faults in this reasoning. In the first place, the idea that the world is more unstable now than in the past, although popular, is mistaken. It seems that people have incredibly short memories. The perception appears to be that Cold War rivalries kept a lid on conflicts, as the superpowers acted to ensure that the world never became too unstable. In fact, throughout the Cold War the complaint was the opposite — that superpower rivalries incited conflict and instability, through mechanisms such as proxy wars. During the past 60 years there has been no shortage of wars, insurgencies and the like, including the numerous conflicts in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America. Most of these have now come to an end. It is true that a number of bitter ethnic conflicts erupted in the death throes of the Cold War (in Yugoslavia and Nagorno-Karabakh, for instance), but ethnic conflict is nothing new. Furthermore, despite the visibility of these examples, the incidence of ethnic conflict worldwide actually fell in the 1990s.

This is also true of war more generally. Several surveys of international conflict using a variety of methodologies have shown that the incidence of war has declined in the past 15 years (as indeed has the incidence of terrorism). The world is getting more peaceful.

Two events though, have proved to be godsends for the doom-mongers. The first was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. This gave credence to the rhetoric of ‘rogue states’ and ‘weapons of mass destruction’ as terrible new threats to Western security. The second was the horrific attack on America which took place on 11 September 2001. This highlighted a new threat from Islamist terrorism. Mix together a ‘nexus of rogue states, terrorists and weapons of mass destruction’ and you seem to have a devastating threat which requires urgent preventive military intervention.

The problem with this ‘threat’ is that it is grossly exaggerated. In the first place, the intent of ‘rogue states’ to attack the UK has never been demonstrated. During the past decade the US has given seven countries that appellation: Cuba, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Syria. Of these the first, Cuba, is on the list purely for domestic political reasons and poses no threat to anybody; the second, Pakistan, is now America’s ally; the third, Libya, has come in from the cold (indeed, Mr Blair has described its leader, Colonel Gaddafi, as ‘courageous’); and the fourth, Iraq, is now occupied by us. So the entire ‘rogue state’ threat comes down to three rather weak nations — Iran, North Korea and Syria — none of which could have any possible reason for launching an unprovoked, and surely suicidal, attack on the United Kingdom, and none of which has the slightest capability of doing so even if, for some inexplicable reason, it wished to.

In the second place, the hype about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD), and indeed the very phrase ‘WMD’, masks the fact that most WMD are nothing of the sort. Nuclear weapons are certainly capable of mass destruction, but it is a terrible error of categorisation to place chemical and biological weapons (CW and BW) beside them. CW and BW are comparatively poor weapons, which are extremely difficult to use in a way that would cause mass destruction (this is especially true of BW). The main role of such weapons is to disrupt rather than kill — to close down areas for long periods while they are decontaminated. Certainly, if a terrorist acquired viable CW or BW, he or she could cause a huge amount of chaos and expense. But the loss of life would probably be small. One can kill large numbers far more effectively by packing fertiliser in a truck and blowing it up, as shown in Northern Ireland and Oklahoma.

In the third place, the idea pushed by Blair that the West is in ‘mortal danger’ from the ‘existential threat’ of terrorrism is just bizarre. However much power terrorists have, they certainly cannot destroy Western civilisation or our way of life — unless we do it for them by over-reacting and destroying it ourselves. The threat from terrorism is one to individual lives, but not to our collective existence. Since 11 September 2001 a much-reduced risk tolerance has prevailed. One can observe this in Mr Blair’s justification of the invasion of Iraq: ‘Do we want to take the risk? ...This is not a time to err on the side of caution.’ But the threat from Iraq to the UK was zero. It had no WMD, no links with al-Qa’eda, no meaningful offensive military capability, and no intent to attack the UK. If we had erred more ‘on the side of caution’, no harm would have come to Britain as a result. Instead, almost 100 Britons (including 90 soldiers) have lost their lives, over 2,000 have been wounded, our international reputation has been damaged, and we have boosted the cause of Islamist terrorism.

The philosophy of military intervention to tackle imaginary threats from overseas is not merely unnecessary, therefore, but actually harmful to our interests. Why, then, has it taken hold of the military establishment? Three reasons stand out.

The first is the existence of a capability to intervene, and the lack of constraints against it. We intervene because we can, and because nobody can stop us. The temptation to deploy military forces in support of diplomacy is too great and, having started down the military road, we find ourselves unable to stop ourselves going the whole way. As the late Major-General the Revd Ian Durie, until 1996 Director of the Royal Artillery, noted in early 2003: ‘There is a rush to war and, as those of us who are military men know, such large-scale troop deployments carry with them an almost inevitable need to use them.’

The second reason for military intervention is bureaucratic. The end of the Cold War deprived the military establishment of its raison d’