It’s not too late for Cameron to learn from his shambolic foreign policy failures

by Matt Cavanagh

Over the last fortnight, David Cameron’s approach to foreign policy has suddenly come into sharp and unforgiving focus. Not all his problems have been of his own doing, and veterans of previous crises will have felt sympathy at times. But the public, our armed forces and diplomats, our allies, and even our enemies have been left confused by contradictory messages.

A long-planned trip to the Middle East to promote trade and defence exports was hastily re-branded as a pro-democracy tour. A sluggish and uncoordinated response over Libya was suddenly replaced by unilateral sabre-rattling about no-fly-zones and arming rebels, only to be replaced in turn by another retreat to a more conventional multilateral approach. Even the SAS’s involvement – over-briefed by government sources the weekend before – turned into another fiasco, whether through bad planning or bad luck. And in the background, the government’s handling of defence cuts and military redundancies has continued to look botched as well as badly timed.

Some of the lessons here are about basic competence, both in pulling the levers of government, and in communicating the message. Cameron had already accepted the need to overhaul his Downing Street operation; it must be worrying that much of the new team was already in place, and must therefore share responsibility for the recent shambles. Perhaps he will also heed recent advice that he apply himself a bit harder, rather than trying to get by on intelligence and instinct. But there are more substantial lessons too.

Underneath the inconsistent messages, there has been a real shift in policy – indeed, yet another U-turn. Previously, Cameron had signalled a new approach, arguing that we should “think through much more carefully whether Britain should get involved in foreign conflicts”. Sympathetic commentators were encouraged to interpret this as a rejection of Labour’s “wide-eyed interventionism” in favour of a “new Tory realism”. The foreign office was told to focus on trade rather than geopolitics, and bilateral relationships rather than multilateral organisations.

This new approach did not survive the first week of the first medium-sized crisis. “Events” have reminded Cameron that there is more to foreign policy than trade, that opting out of foreign conflicts is not as easy as it sounds, and that for all their obvious flaws, organisations like the UN, NATO, and the African Union remain crucial. After a couple of false starts, we seem to have reverted to the familiar sight of a prime minister talking about Britain leading multilateral efforts to resolve the crisis, about combining hard and soft power, and about a foreign policy based on values as well as the bottom line.

This is the right place to end up. But it would have been better done in a more controlled way, rather than through a series of jerky adjustments mid-crisis, provoking accusations that foreign policy was being decided on the hoof by a prime minister trying to recover political ground at home. It would have been better still if Cameron had never had to make this U-turn – if he’d resisted the temptation to exploit the scars of Iraq and Afghanistan by implying that Britain was somehow going to opt out of foreign problems in future.

Cameron’s approach to Afghanistan is itself likely to come into sharper focus in the coming months – a process which began last week with a critical report by the all-party foreign affairs committee, relatively unnoticed due to the Libyan crisis. Cameron’s “new Tory realism” didn’t extend to pulling the plug on the Afghan campaign: neither News International nor the American relationship would allow it. In fact, despite the political capital Cameron made out of attacking Gordon Brown’s handling of Afghanistan, he has changed almost nothing of significance. There has been no marked acceleration of equipment: no increase in helicopters, nor IED-resistant vehicles, nor other counter-IED equipment, other than the roll-out of programmes already in the works. Nor have there been any significant changes in troop numbers or their disposition: the handover of Sangin to the US marine corps was under discussion well before the election. And of course there has been no change in strategy, which is set by the American generals in Kabul, within the constraints laid down by the American president. Perhaps more surprisingly, as the foreign affairs committee noted, there has been no change in the way Cameron and his ministers explain this strategy to the British public: for all their scathing attacks on their predecessors’ efforts in this regard, they have essentially stuck with the same tired phrases to explain why we are there, the progress we are supposed to be making, and the challenges that remain.

It is not enough to say that a successful outcome in Afghanistan will require both military force and political strategy. That has been widely accepted for years. The real questions lie in how the two are coordinated and sequenced. The military, especially the American military, believe that assertive action on the political track must wait until the insurgency has been defeated or at least weakened by military action. But this looks increasingly unlikely within the timeframe that has been set by their political leaders, which is why the foreign affairs committee was right to urge Cameron to use British influence to start the political track running in parallel with the military campaign.

Whether he takes this advice or not, Cameron must realise that his strategy so far, simply trying to take the heat out of Afghanistan as a domestic political issue, is not enough – and will be exposed over the coming months as the insurgency goes through its regular seasonal upswing. He needs to start seriously applying himself to asking what distinctive contribution Britain can make in what will be another difficult and controversial year.

The foreign affairs committee also shone the spotlight on Cameron’s only genuinely new contribution on Afghanistan, the introduction of a hard deadline for the withdrawal of British troops. This move was attacked by many on the right, but it deserved support, or at least sympathy. Obama, Brown, and now Cameron have all faced the same dilemma over Afghanistan, of reconciling contradictory messages to different audiences: showing resolve to the enemy while showing a “light at the end of the tunnel” to the public at home, and showing the Afghans a mixture of the two. The problem for Cameron – as with the no-fly-zone over Libya – is not the answer he came up with, but the way he came up with it: the foreign affairs committee revealed that, like his decisions over Libya, it was done on the hoof, without even consulting the national security council which he had just set up expressly for this purpose.

This is a particular problem for a prime minister who has made so much of his commitment to the formal structures and processes of government. Too much, in fact. Some of his reforms were sensible, but they needed to be combined with a more mature view about the complementary roles of civil servants and political appointments, as well as a more subtle recognition that all governments, indeed all organisations, need informal as well as formal decision-making processes if they are to avoid bureaucratic stultification.

The problem for Cameron now is that his promises about formal decision-making are starting to look not so much naïve as insincere. As well as the cavalier approach to the NSC over Afghanistan, and the inexplicable failure to convene either the NSC or COBRA in the early days of the Libyan crisis, we have also seen great concern inside the ministry of defence at the failure of the NSC to give adequate strategic direction during the strategic defence and security review, leaving the hard decisions to the usual last-minute private deals between chiefs and ministers.

The SDSR has been the focus of the defence committee this week. It is another area where we should start with some sympathy for the position Cameron and his government inherited, as well as a recognition that some of the decisions they made have been good ones, including continuing the previous government’s increasing focus on cyber security, and the post-2020 plan for a single carrier equipped with the carrier variant of the joint strike fighter. Even the scrapping of the Nimrod, painful in many ways, was close to inevitable.

But, in the end, neither the difficulty of the task nor the sensible nature of some of the individual decisions can hide the fact that the SDSR as a whole was badly handled, under-cooked, and over-sold. Too many men and women who had served their country with distinction heard the fate of their unit or ship on the news rather than from the chain of command. Too many truly strategic decisions were simply put off, like the future of the nuclear deterrent and the size of the army and reserves. And there was no significant re-balancing of the future defence programme towards priority areas like UAVs, or heavy air lift, or counter-terrorist capacity-building overseas.

What this confirms is that the real driver of the review was not strategy but, as usual, unseemly haggling between the service chiefs. Consider, for example, the cuts to our amphibious capability, and the scaling back of planned purchases of Chinook helicopters: even before the reminder of recent events, any credible strategic view of our future defence needs would have identified both as a high priority; unfortunately, neither is anywhere near top of the list for any of the three service chiefs. The same dynamic explains the otherwise inexplicable decision to have aircraft carriers with no aircraft for a decade: this makes no sense from a military or even a financial point of view, until you realise that it saves some face for both the chief of the naval staff, who gets to keep the carrier, and the chief of the air staff, who gets to keep the Tornado.

In fact, despite the word “strategic” appearing in the title and liberally throughout the various ministerial statements and forewords, I have yet to meet anyone other than the professionally obligated who really thinks this was a strategic review, as opposed to a fairly hasty attempt to work out the ministry of defence’s contribution to the government-wide spending cuts. Even viewed in those terms, it didn’t do a particularly good job. There was no real attempt to address the biggest driver of the structural over-spend, which is the ever-increasing unit cost of fast jets, surface ships, and submarines. Instead, there was an attempt to hide behind over-optimistic assumptions about “efficiencies”, which are now unravelling – with the result that further, as yet unidentified, cuts to military capability are now inevitable.

Far from fading into the background, the SDSR’s flaws are becoming clearer by the week. The calls for it to be re-opened cannot simply be dismissed as scoring political points or defending vested interests. In many cases, they reflect a considered, informed judgment that as a strategic review it was a badly missed opportunity, and even as a cost-saving exercise it was flawed and incomplete. Now recent events have also made it seem out of date, as Jim Murphy has argued, joining a list of distinguished former chiefs.

So this is the final lesson for Cameron: he should seize on recent developments in North Africa and the Middle East, and his own developing foreign policy, as a respectable excuse to re-open the SDSR and do it properly. If that is too humiliating, he could authorise an update (or a “new chapter”, similar to the one Labour produced after 9-11), or at least a more strategic and public version of the MoD’s annual planning round, one that allows earlier decisions to be revisited.

If Cameron wants a model for how this should be done, he could start by looking across the Atlantic. Liam Fox is a fulsome Atlanticist, but he doesn’t actually seem to have learned anything from his American counterpart, Robert Gates. Secretary Gates has signalled the same determination to get on top of systemic problems in defence planning and procurement – problems which are less unique to Britain than Fox would have us believe. He shares exactly the same sentiment which Fox, Cameron, and Osborne routinely use to justify their defence cuts: that threats to our economic stability and prosperity, including the deficit, can threaten our national security if left unchecked. The difference is that Gates has wisely chosen to tackle these issues in a careful and strategic way over the coming decade, rather than opting for shock therapy in the middle of a war.

In foreign affairs there is no shame in learning on the job: the nature of our politics means that many prime ministers enter Downing Street with their foreign policy less than fully formed. But it takes hard and rigorous thinking, a steady hand and a calm head, none of which have been on display over the last fortnight – nor in the SDSR, nor, it now seems, in the settling of the deadline for Afghanistan. In foreign policy even more than domestic, governments should avoid chasing the headlines, try to think long term, and try to send clear and consistent messages, to friends and enemies alike.

Matt Cavanagh was a special adviser on defence in the ministry of defence, treasury, and Downing Street from 2005 to 2010.


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One Response to “It’s not too late for Cameron to learn from his shambolic foreign policy failures”

  1. Hi Matt,

    Unless you are in command and control of the high ground, are you no more than just worthless and as cannon fodder for all manner of amazing astute attacks from legions of anonymous phantom defenders of/in/from a Novel SMART Space which has no bounds to limit territorial claim and can choose to have no boundaries to justify any excuse for every action, …. should any be warranted, that is, to any higher command and control.

    There would appear to be much that is not yet learned, and that may be a gross and catastrophic act of pure negligence and raw incompetence on behalf of the not so secret intelligence services in offering all necessary lessons.

    And who is Cameron other than just another new inept political tool to provide column inches and float out media mogul shows to distract dumb public attention away from even dumber city actions with some right dodgy wonks and global power elite grabbers in the shadows.

    [blockquote]”I don’t think that we can afford to think of “cyber” security as another, separate function.” ….. Shiver meTimbers

    Others would counsel, Shiver meTimbers, that you cannot afford not to afford yourself the separate function, and excel at IT.

    To be anything less than In Control of the Cyber environment, will extraordinarily render one as an IT puppet to others with Remote Virtual Control, and regimes and systems on Earth will be just as their Playthings and LOVE toy, programmed to do their bidding with the passing of Instruction Sets to Power Units and Currency Controllers …… Market Manipulators.

    http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/04/dot-mil-cyber-security-spending-now-extra-fubar/ [/blockquote]

    Fact is stranger than fiction, they say. Do you doubt IT?

    “This entry was posted on Thursday, March 10th, 2011 at 11:30 am” …… Crikey, a lot has happened in just three weeks. Can you imagine where things will be next month?

    I suppose under all possible terms and conditions of the Official Secrets Act would you be duty bound to specially advise lifelong on matters of national security interest, no matter whether presently employed and active in the current shambolic political field, or just “resting” and/or licking old wounds, whilst observing and commenting on it.

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