This government’s back-of-the-envelope approach to national security must change

by Matt Cavanagh

Con Coughlin’s article in today’s Telegraph will make uncomfortable reading for those Conservatives (and News International journalists) who like to pretend that Cameron’s national security council (NSC) is a genuinely radical reform based on a serious attempt to learn the lessons of the last decade. Coughlin writes:

“To judge by the NSC’s increasingly inchoate response to the challenge presented by Gaddafi’s regime, it seems to me that all it has achieved so far is the replacement of Blair’s much-derided “sofa government” with a new, back-of-the-envelope approach.”

argued in November that Cameron had persistently over-sold his reforms to our national security machinery, which really amounted to “a tinkering and re-badging exercise”. In the first couple of weeks of the Libyan crisis, the continuing lack of strategy, coherence, and grip was obvious.

The narrative changed when Cameron was able to take the credit for British diplomatic efforts to secure UNSCR 1973, and for being one of the first leaders to call for military intervention. The changed narrative didn’t change the facts – that Cameron’s call for intervention was more a response to immediate domestic pressure than part of a real strategy, and that UNSCR 1973 itself didn’t seem to be part of a real strategy – but it did push these inconvenient facts into the background. At that stage, what mattered was that Cameron seemed to be winning the international argument.

Now what matters is who is winning on the ground. The curiously timed joint letter by Sarkozy, Cameron and Obama, insisting that Gaddafi must go, hasn’t made that outcome any more likely compared to the various possible outcomes which leave him in place – the potential collapse of the revolution outlined by Anthony Loyd in this month’s Prospect, or a protracted stalemate, or a messy negotiated settlement. The letter has, however, increased the extent to which the West’s reputation, as well as Libyans’ future, is on the line.

It might therefore be time to look again, not just at the implications of the Libyan crisis for our defence and foreign policy – reopening or updating the strategic defence and security review (SDSR) – but also at the implications for our national security machinery. It needs real reform, rather than tinkering and re-badging, if we are to increase the chances of our foreign and security policy being driven by strategy rather than emerging out of the interaction between media coverage, domestic politics, and bureaucratic dysfunction.

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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2 Responses to “This government’s back-of-the-envelope approach to national security must change”

  1. Henrik says:

    Enjoyed your thoughtful piece in last week’s Spectator – some unpalatable truths in amongst the quite natural self-justification.

    As to strategy, I can’t recall the last time the UK either had a coherent national security strategy or the machinery to define and implement it. I suspect that strategic thinking was another casualty of the end of the Cold War and it was all too difficult – certainly our security and foreign policy since then has been both reactive and almost entirely politically-, rather than interest-driven.

    The NSC is a start and is a considerable improvement over a gang of lawyers huddling around a sofa, but it’s still nowhere near enough. One of the difficulties is that Realpolitik can’t be discussed anywhere, in case the media – or the Opposition (whoever they might be, both sides are guilty of this) get to hear about it. Hence what passes for strategic thinking is a set of fluffy platitudes, rather than a clear statement of the end state required – which is actually the best definition I’ve heard of strategy – and consequent development of the operational and tactical measures needed to achieve that end state.

  2. Maxy says:

    I believe the haste with which Cameron acted on Libya shows why Cameron failed to in an outright majority in the last general election. Cameron lacks intellectual depth and it shows in the way he engages in political discourse. We have already seen too plentiful evidence of the Mr nice well-mannered David Cameron mask slip time and time again in Parliament. Judging by the standard of the debate in Parliament, I am struck by the lack of intellectural rigour displayed by both sides. The only three MP’s that come out of this debacle with any dignity are John Barron, Jermy Corbyn and Caroline Lucas. As for Diane Abbot and Andrew Slaughter I say shame on you!!!!!!

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