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We should stop fighting major wars outside the European theatre

By Paul Goodman
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We should stop fighting major wars outside the European theatre.

The thrust of Bernard Jenkins's response last Friday to my article on defence the day before is that we must combat threats he doesn't name with budgets we haven't got.  Since Bernard is an intelligent man, he knows that he needs to do more than this to complete his argument.  But since he is also a politician, he knows that it would be unwise to make the case that would do so.  This is that the defence budget should not be capable of funding the defence of the realm but also large-scale wars outside the European theatre - along the Afghanistan and Iraq models.

As he says, "the real question is about what sort of nation we want to be" - thereby conceding that the choice isn't to have defence or no defence, but whether or not to fund major wars outside Europe.  If you doubt it, read on, to the point where he worries that we could become "even less capable of contributing to US and global security concerns".  This isn't just a reference to combatting piracy, protecting trade or securing energy supplies.  It's also code for Iraq and Afghanistan-style commitments, based not on our national interest alone, but on those of other Governments whose policy may not always coincide with ours.

Those who support fighting such wars should say so plainly

Since this is the case, those who hold this view should spell out some of the scenarios they envisage.  Do they believe that we should maintain a major military presence in Afghanistan after 2015?  Do they foresee us increasing our footprint in Iraq now that we have decreased it to a bare minimum?  Are they willing to go further than tightening sanctions on Iran - which certainly should be done - by putting British boots on Persian soil?  Do they think that if Libya deteriorates we should contribute to "an occupying force"?  I'm not asking for prophecy, merely illustrations of the kind of contribution to which Bernard obliquely refers.

As I wrote last Thursday, I believe that we should not be fighting full-scale wars outside the European theatre.  We should perhaps have made a small contribution to the Iraq venture, and certainly have deployed forces in Afghanistan to combat Al Qaeda.  But the attempts to build a liberal democracy in the second and to change the regime in the former was not in the national interest.  Bernard may agree with me on this point, since we voted in the same lobby not only for the Iraq War, which he had a ringside view of as the Party's Shadow Defence Secretary, but also for an enquiry into why and how it happened.

Instead of preparing to do so, we should follow a Vigilant Britain defence policy, equip our forces properly - and make savings to help stop taxes rising further.

He will certainly not disagree that, as I wrote last week, our troops have recently been sent to fight without the right equipment, training, or support.  And that the price some have paid is death and disability, and the lot of their families is loss and anguish.  One of the benefits of a Vigilant Britain defence policy is that it would release funds to better support their care.  He answers that such an approach would endanger Britain's defence industry.  But while the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee highlights the role of defence exports, he makes only a glancing reference to the "incompetence and extravagance" of the MOD.

A more balanced approach would be to consider the good alongside the bad; follow Douglas Carswell in probing the relationship between the MOD and contractors - see here, here, here, and here, for example; acknowledge that exports furnish neither our own armed forces nor, necessarily, those of our allies, and resist the attempts of the military/industrial complex to persuade us that everything it does comes wrapped in the Union Flag.  To hold otherwise would be to display - as Bernard puts it in his bluff manner - "an asinine, sub-GCSE mentality".

Mention of costs returns us to the main point.  Defence policy should ensure both that the defence of the realm is maintained and that value for money is delivered: it is, as Richard Coates wrote in a comment on my last piece, a kind of insurance policy.  The question is to what degree that policy should pay for the safety of homes other than our own - some of which, like Afghanistan, are not exactly well governed.  I think it should pay for less; Bernard for more.  But either way, a decision must be made.  To do otherwise would reflect, to borrow another Bernardism, "a massive failure [of] strategic thinking".


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