29 May 2007

To debate or not

Today’s Wall Street Journal carries an article by Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University that makes me sigh with longing. Those darn stupid Yanks, I snarl. What do they mean by writing and publishing articles in an ordinary broadsheet that discuss political philosophy, concentrating on what it means to be on the right in politics? Aren’t they supposed to be too dumb to know what political philosophy is about?

Can you imagine any of our newspapers devoting space to the subject of “The Conservative Mind” (famously the title of Russell Kirk’s seminal book)? Then again, can you imagine anybody actually discussing the history of conservative thought in Britain where much of it originated?

The starting point of Mr Berkowitz’s article is one that seems to be self-evident but is rarely so. Political debate within a party is a good thing. How often have we heard from the Conservatives that they do not want to discuss “Europe” because it will tear them apart?

Under the Boy-King they have reached the stage of not wanting to discuss anything that is at all controversial because there might be disagreements in the ranks. The ongoing row about grammar schools and education in general is a very fine example of that attitude.

In fact, the Conservative Party under the Cameroons seems to have espoused Lenin’s theory of democratic centralism. It did not lead to anything particularly good in the world.

Disagreement, discussions, debates are signs of strength not weakness because they show that there is life and vitality in a party or, as is the case, in the United States, on one side of the political spectrum.
For, as Peter Berkowitz points out:
On a variety of issues that currently divide the nation, those to the left of center seem to be converging, their ranks increasingly untroubled by debate or dissent, except on daily tactics and long-term strategy. Meanwhile, those to the right of center are engaged in an intense intra-party struggle to balance competing principles and goods.
He then lists some of those issues: the war in Iraq, abortion rights and wrongs, same-sex marriages. Curiously, he does not mention illegal immigration and the proposed amnesty that really is tearing the country and the right apart.
The left, of course, assures all and sundry but mostly itself that it is the side of the intellect. There can be no thinking on the right, they proclaim magniloquently, ignoring such people as Jonathan Swift, Dr Johnson, Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton, T. S. Eliot, Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk and many, many others. (Those names came to me in the space of 30 seconds. Had I spent more time I could have come up with plenty more.)

The left also assures all and sundry but mostly itself that it, alone, can understand the reality and complexity of the modern world and its political systems, then proceeds to display the sort of ignorance of anything outside its own cosy little billet that ought to shame a secondary school pupil. If it understands so much of the world’s complexity, how is it that there are no debates, no discussions in its ranks? How is it that anyone who disagrees – Senator Lieberman, for instance – immediately gets drummed out?
This absence on the left of debate or dissent about moral and political ends has been aided and abetted by many of the party's foremost intellectuals, who have reveled in denouncing George W. Bush as a dictator, in declaring democracy in 21st-century America all but illegitimate, and in diagnosing conservatism in America as in the grips of fascist sentiments and opinions.

A few months ago, Hoover Institution research fellow Dinesh D'Souza published a highly polemical book, "The Enemy at Home," which held the cultural left responsible for causing 9/11 and contended that American conservatives should repudiate fellow citizens on the left and instead form alliances with traditional Muslims around the world. Conservatives of many stripes leapt into the fray to criticize it. But rare is the voice on the left that has criticized Boston College professor and New Republic contributing editor Alan Wolfe, former secretary of labor and Berkeley professor Robert Reich, New Republic editor-at-large and Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Peter Beinart, Berkeley professor George Lakoff, and New York University law professor Ronald Dworkin--all of whom have publicly argued in the last several years that conservatives form an enemy at home.

One explanation of the unity on the left is its belief that today's divisive political questions have easy answers--but because of their illiberal opinions and aims, conservatives are unable to see this and, in a mere six years, have brought democracy in America to the brink. This explanation, however, contradicts the vital lesson of John Stuart Mill's liberalism that political questions, as opposed to mathematical questions, tend by their very nature to be many-sided. Indeed, it contradicts the left's celebration of its own appreciation of the complexity and depth of politics.
Mr Berkowitz then spends some time analyzing the thinking of three important conservative writers: Hayek, Kirk and Leo Strauss, each of whom placed a different emphasis on the competing ideas that the right discusses: individual liberty and the retention of tradition.
In contrast to much European conservatism, which harks back to premodern times and the political preeminence of religion and royalty, in America--which lacked a feudal past to preserve or recover--conservatism has always revolved around the preservation of individual liberty. Of course modern conservatism generally admires virtues embodied in religious faith and the aristocratic devotion to excellence. It also tends to emphasize the weaknesses of human nature, the ironies and tragedies of history, and the limitations of reason and politics. At the same time, it wishes to put these virtues and this knowledge in liberty's service.

Balancing the claims of liberty and tradition, or showing how liberty depends on tradition, is the very essence of modern conservatism, the founding text for which was provided by Whig orator and statesman Edmund Burke in his 1790 polemic, "Reflections on the Revolution in France." The divisions within contemporary American conservatism--social conservatives, libertarians, and neoconservatives--arise from differences over which goods most urgently need to be preserved, to what extent, and with what role for government.
I shall not bother to paraphrase Mr Berkowitz’s more detailed analysis. The article is available and it is best if people read it themselves.

There is, however, a sad little lesson to be drawn here. It is true that much European conservatism is very different from the discussion of how to balance individual liberty and social tradition that American conservatism is. I am reminded of a German student who was in London working on his thesis about British eurosceptics, who was absolutely astonished when he heard that I considered myself to be on the right of the political spectrum. The traditional German right is very different though that, too, is changing.

However, American ideas did not spring fully armed out of Alexander Hamilton’s or James Madison’s brow. They were, before that, English and Scottish ideas. Which, inevitably, brings me to the question of why is it we do not have debates of this kind on either side of the political spectrum in this country.
Looking to the right of the spectrum, we see either conformity or discussions about such itsy-bitsy topics as to make one despair about the future of the conservative ideology.
All big topics are taboo except on blogs like this one or a few others that are really on the edges of the British political scene.
To take a few examples of subjects that we, on this blog, find interesting. There is a complete and unargued assumption whichever way one turns that involvement in Iraq has been a complete disaster; the war is unwinnable; everything is getting worse on a daily basis. When did we last have a real discussion, based on different kinds of information, about what is really going on in Iraq?

Moving on easily, one has to note a certain absence of any discussion of what defence is about and how it should develop in Britain. A good many Conservatives announce rather pompously that, of course, we must not get involved in the European defence structures, disregarding the fact that we already are involved. They then continue by pointing out that we must not follow America either or, at least, we must be “candid friends” to that country.

Then what? How are we to square the circle? Nothing. There seems to be no need to define what the aims of the defence should be.

And Europe. Now there is an issue that should set everybody’s minds and tongues working as it is linked closely with the question of what kind of state we want to live in. Sadly, all one gets is the odd platitude along the lines of being in Europe but not ruled by Europe and let’s not go beyond it as that will split the party.
Or, alternatively, there is the slight interest that is evinced in the subject by the odd journalist or blogger, concentrating mostly on some minor issue.

The biggest problem remains the obvious one: if conservatism is a question of debating the balance between individual liberty and the necessary social structures then there is precious little conservatism on our political scene. Whether we are talking about the war against terror (oh yes, it is very real, indeed) or where we employ our soldiers, or what sort of education we give our children or how we ensure that our streets are safe, we need to understand the underlying issues.

There is, as I said before, nothing wrong about disagreeing on these subjects and the relative importance of various factors: small government, individual liberty and how it affects other people’s liberty, low taxes, social mobility, defence of the realm. Debate, underpinned by ideas is a sign of health not of sickness. If, on the other hand, we really do think that a party discussing policies and ideas, tears itself apart and makes itself unelectable then there is little hope for our political life.


19 May 2007

Why Samara?

Not the least of the puzzles that surround yesterday’s EU-Russia Summit, which ended with a spectacularly “frank and open” press conference, is why it took place in Samara, a fairly large city on the Volga, whose history goes back to the sixteenth century. In fact, the Summit was outside Samara, in a sanatorium called “Volzhsky Utyos” (Volga Cliff, a direct reference to a popular Russian song).

It may be that Putin wants to remind his visitors of Russia’s turbulent and double-visioned history. Samara was originally built as a fortress during the early part of her expansion eastward and the continuing fight against the Tatars. For sixty years the city was called Kuybishev after a Soviet politician, to revert to its historical name in 1991. It was also the secondary capital during the Great Patriotic War, which is allegedly always in Putin’s mind, where the government was going to retreat if Moscow were taken by the Germans.

Or it may be that it was easier to prevent the arrival of opposition leaders, including Gary Kasparov, all of whom were stopped as they were trying to board the aeroplane.
"I'm concerned about some people getting problems in travelling here. I hope they will be given an opportunity to express their opinion," Merkel said.

One member of the The Other Russia coalition said he had been told the flight was overbooked while Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed transport police official as saying that the hold-up was caused by a discrepancy between the ticket and the passport of one of the leaders.

"Not one member of The Other Russia delegation... was allowed to board," Denis Bilunov, Kasparov's spokesman, told the AFP news agency.

Lev Ponomaryov, another opposition activist who was scheduled to have boarded the flight, said he suspected foul play.

"Uniformed men have taken our passports. They've taken 13 passports. I consider this is a criminal offence."

A presidential spokesman denied Kremlin involvement.
Well, he would, wouldn’t he.

Meanwhile, Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper and it is, more or less) reports [link in Russian] that in the week preceding the Summit, various journalists and news photographers were arrested and charged with a selection of crimes and misdemeanours. Though none seems to have gone to prison, the threat was palpable.

Incidentally, NG also points out that when journalists from REN TV, the remaining independent broadcasting company wanted to go to Estonia to cover the events in Tallin, they were prevented by members of the youth organization “Nashi” from entering the consulate.

The same youth organization is threatening to hold demonstrations outside the EU mission in Moscow next week to protest the arrest of one of their members in Estonia. Their week-long picketing of the Estonian embassy and attacks on the ambassador we have already noted. But it is not “Nashi” who are arrested, though there is some indication that militiamen would not mind dealing with them, but the members and leaders of “Other Russia”, whether they actually get to the place they are traveling to or not.

President Putin, as expected, dismissed complaints about the treatment of “Other Russia” at the time of the Summit or during the recent demonstration when they were beaten up and dispersed by 9,000 heavily armed security police. Pshaw, he said, every country deals with demonstrators. Germany does not intend anti-G8 protesters to get away scot-free. The United States still has capital punishment and, anyway, there is Guantanamo. (It is, however, noticeable that the few Russian citizens who did not manage to stay on in Gitmo, much as they wanted to, have disappeared without trace on their return to the homeland.)

Unfortunately from Putin’s point of view, Chancellor Merkel is not Chancellor Schröder on whose support he could always rely. She firmly announced that people who are rioting, smashing shops and burning cars have to be arrested, clearly implying that the Estonian authorities were not precisely in the wrong, but those who have not even arrived at their destination can hardly be accused of bad behaviour.

Prior to the EU-Russia Summit there was a certain amount of international diplomatic activity or, as Der Spiegel puts it, “ruffled-feather-smoothing”. First German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier went to Moscow to ensure that the many obstacles that were going to make this Summit difficult were smoothed out ahead of the actual event. The success of his mission is self-evident.

Then there was a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The purpose and, indeed, outcome of this remain somewhat mysterious. Theoretically, Condi was also smoothing the path for the Summit, though why she should care is not clear. In practice, there were other matters to discuss, particularly the proposed Missile Defence System that Russia is opposing vehemently even though it is Iran and North Korea that are supposed to be the aggressors against whom defence is needed; and then there is Kosovo and its possible independence.

Russia is opposing the nominal as well as de facto independence for Kosovo largely because it feels the need to support Serbia (though that might change if the Serbs change their government) and to oppose Western influence in the Balkans. There are, however, complications.

As it happens, Russia herself is eyeing one or two possible break-away regions, such as Transdniestria in Moldova as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both in Georgia. The first has already voted in a referendum to break away from Moldova and, in all probability, join Russia. The Georgian regions continue to cause headaches for the Georgian government that veers from attempts at negotiation to security crack-down. Russia, meanwhile continues to foment the discontent and uses it to undermine the Georgian government, to the point of periodic military intervention.

The question is does Russia really want these regions to secede and, perhaps, join Russia? On the one hand this would mean Russian expansion at a time when it is unlikely to happen any other way; on the other hand, Abkhazia and South Ossetia will become Russian problems and the leverage on Georgia will disappear.

Then again, if Kosovo becomes independent, Russia could raise a clamour for Transdniestria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. There is another aspect to the whole problem: Chechnya and the surrounding republics, in particular Dagestan. The problems there have reached a point where no solution seems possible, not least because it is not clear what the Russians would like to see as an endgame, apart from killing all those nasty kavkastsy.

Chechnya has been relatively dormant thanks to the particular bandits that the Russians have put in as political rulers. To be fair, there has been a complete media black-out on the area with the few journalists who dare to write about what is going on being punished one way or another, up to and including assassination. On the other hand, the troubles have spread to neighbouring Dagestan. By no stretch of the imagination can the Caucasus be described as peaceful or the Russian authorities, particularly the army in control.

If Kosovo becomes independent, the demands from the Caucasian republics will redouble. All these considerations must weigh with Putin.

It seems that Secretary Rice’s visit did not produce any agreement on either of the two big issues but then she could hardly expect it. On the other hand, it did, rather surprisingly, brought a semi-apology from the Russians for the language they have been using about the United States recently.

In his May 9 (Victory Day) speech Putin appeared to compare the United States under President Bush to Nazi Germany. It seems that all those who thought so were mistaken and what Putin meant was that the Islamist terrorists were like Nazi Germany. Or maybe not. In any case, he seems to have promised not to use such language again and this makes one wonder whether that undertaking was Condi’s real aim or whether other, so far unrevealed, agreements were also made.

In the meantime the renewal of the EU-Russia strategic agreement remains questionable. The problem of Polish meat was not resolved. Russia refuses to buy it but that means that it is boycotting EU meat in general much to the Russian government’s annoyance.

Latvia is complaining about the fact that the oil pipe has been closed down by Russia, allegedly, because repairs are needed. It seems that the flow of oil and oil products to Estonia has been resumed.

Estonia has run into difficulties over that famous Bronze Soldier. She is also complaining about cyber attacks, allegedly originating from Russia, on numerous websites, none of them pro-Russian.

President Putin cannot see what the fuss is all about and has suggested that the EU sorts its internal problems out; stops worrying about Russia’s democracy, which is doing just fine, thank you, being of a variety that is superior to the Western one; and controls certain countries’ “economic egotism”.

None of this looks particularly good for Russia’s relationship with the West, particularly the EU and its member states. Of course, it is possible that President Putin had expected Chancellor Merkel to be as nice to him as her predecessor had been but as Yulia Latynina pointed out earlier this week in the Moscow Times [available on subscription only], Putin’s friends in the West are disappearing with Jacques Chirac being the last one. It is time for him to find some new friends, says the respected journalist, adding
The only thing left is for him to head east and to make friends with the guys who will never be voted out of office – the kind who only leave office in a coup.
Yes, he might just do that. Except that he needs to sell his gas and oil to Western Europe. According to Handelsblatt:
The notion of a two-sided dependency -- repeated so often lately in Berlin -- is a fairy tale. There are dependencies (in this relationship), but they are one-sided. Not even Germany would make it through the winter without Russian natural gas.

Of course Russia is interested in good relations with its customers. But it has a choice of customers -- and if the Europeans act fresh (which they won't), oil and gas can be re-routed to other parts of Asia.

There is no reason for the Kremlin to sign an energy treaty -- for the good of some vague contract with Europe -- that would only narrow Russia's freedom in its most important economic sector.
Up to a point. Re-routing gas is not as easy as it sounds. Russia may well have signed an agreement with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to build a new pipeline that would bring the Caspian oil and gas through Russia rather than some other way, which would have been preferred by the European countries and the United States but that will not be built for some years. The same applies to the long-discussed pipeline to China, which has not even been agreed yet.

In the meantime, Russia needs to sell her gas and oil because they are the only more or less certain bases of her economy.

There has been a good deal of swaggering by Putin’s spokesmen and various political leaders in Russia recently, all meekly accepted by the Western media. Russia is regaining her strength; her economy is strong, her army is second best in the world (amazing modesty, incidentally), she is becoming a power in the Middle East, China wants to do business with her desperately. Even the Russian Church, divided into the “Red” and the “White” has now reunited. So, look out world.
Is that really how Putin’s behaviour strikes one? I have always maintained, to the surprise of some of my interlocutors, that the best thing that could happen to the West and, particularly, to Europe would be a strong and self-assured Russia with a stable economic and political system. Sadly, we have not got that.

What we have is a Russia that is temporarily and relatively rich because of the gas and the oil but unstable and somewhat fearful of the future. The country is obsessed with America and the need to rival the only superpower, while as far as American politics is concerned, Russia is just another problem.

The economy is not looking all that good. It is not just that there is over-reliance on oil and gas prices – they are unlikely to fall too far – there is also the problem of production. It has been falling. Exploitation of oil in Western Siberia is beginning to show signs of ending and the necessary push into the riches of Eastern Siberia requires enormous investment into infrastructure. The Russian companies, by now all state controlled, do not have that kind of capital and raising it in the West has become more difficult since the Shell and BP cases. (Stupidly but quite predictably, western companies did not heed the warning that the destruction of Yukos ought to have been.)

Furthermore, a good deal of the gas and oil is consumed domestically, which makes Russia’s position in a putative “gas OPEC” somewhat difficult. In the past if there was a fall in production, domestic consumption was forcibly cut back. If that meant a famine, well so be it. This route is no longer open to Putin and for that, at least, we must be grateful.

The Russian armed forces are in a mess. I shall leave discussion of their toys to my colleague but other aspects of the problem are clear enough. Those vaunted military reforms did not happen. The army remains a large unwieldy body of reluctant and often badly bullied conscripts. Its performance in the Caucasus has been terrifyingly bad. Possibly, it could still roll across the European plain but event that cannot be certain and the repercussions might not be to any Russian leader’s taste.

In the Middle East, Russia’s role has been largely support, both political and military, for Iran, a hazardous policy as Iran is likely to pass the arms it buys on to the Chechnyans possibly and the Islamist fighters in the Central Asian Republics certainly. Indeed, there is some indication that the Russians are having second thoughts about their relationship with Iran.

There is, undoubtedly, a great deal of bullying going on and this, if anything, is the sign of a weak and unstable regime. Russia is using its position of energy supplier to threaten the former Soviet Republics that have broken away and some of the former colonies. Not much is achieved during these crises from Russia’s point of view except for some more swaggering.

The putative victims have, one and all, defied the mighty Bear with no noticeable ill effects. On the other hand, every time there is a crisis of that kind, Russia’s clients in Europe start looking fearfully at alternative sources of energy. One of these days they might actually do something about that.

In the end, all this posturing and swaggering is for domestic consumption. While being a long way from another Stalin, Putin has adopted one of that tyrant’s favourite methods: keep the fear factor up.

Russia, mighty Russia, far from being one of the strongest powers on earth, is, if one listens to the President and his various henchmen in the government, in his office, in the Duma, surrounded by enemies, such as Ukraine, Georgia, the tiny Baltic states, old uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all. Furthermore, the place is riven with internal enemies, such as the few hundred or, occasionally, couple of thousand oppositionists or, for that matter, a dozen young Communist activists.

All of which proves that the Russian people must be ever vigilant and the Russian government must remain authoritarian (though relatively benign). Whether it will mean a change in the Constitution that will allow a third term for President Vladimir Putin remains to be seen. I am not sure anybody knows the answer to that, not even Putin himself.


15 May 2007

Who will give the true picture?

The negativity of the British media in its reporting of our activities in Iraq continues to be a serious problem, not helped by the fact that it is bolstered by our very own Members of Parliament. We take another look at this issue.

It was not so very long ago that we wrote a piece entitled What if we won and nobody noticed, followed in short order by a piece called Ignore the good news, all pointing to the manifest negativity in the media reporting of the events in Iraq.

These are now joined by a detailed piece on the same theme in American Thinker, written by Gerd Schroeder, currently a Major in the US Army. In writing his piece – which includes a fascinating analysis of the treatment of the power shortages in Iraq, he starts with these comments:

The US mainstream media are failing to provide the public the context it needs to accurately understand both the successes of our progress in Iraq. They do this either purposely or through incompetence and/or lack of intellect. I know many members of the media, and none of them lack intellect or are incompetent.
The tragedy is, as we have indicated in our own pieces, that what applies in the US applies equally to the UK. And, for an egregious example of media negativity, you need only look in The Sunday Times last weekend.

In that edition, there was a reference to the recent post by Michael Yon in which he described a professionally executed counter-ambush by the British Army, successfully taking out insurgent bomb layers.

In his own piece, Yon started with an observation that any perception that British forces had it easy in Basra was wrong. "In the nearly three weeks I've been here," he wrote, "I've seen more mortar and rocket attacks than during my cumulative time in Iraq." He the concluded with the words, "During one recent mission eight roadside bombs exploded and vehicles trailing us were struck, with tragic consequences. For the first time I witnessed our British brothers experience the loss of comrades in combat."

When it came to the Sunday Times, however, there was no mention at all of the British success. All we saw was the top and tail, conveying an unremittingly negative picture.

Thus is was yesterday that our parliamentarians took up the general issue of the British presence in Basra, during defence questions. Liam Fox, the Tory opposition spokesman started off with a question on the Mahdi army and the status of Moqtada al-Sadr, its leader. That elicited a response for defence secretary Des Browne, outlining the problems and, of particular relevance here, this statement:

In the south of Iraq, where we have forces deployed, a competition is going on - including, among others, the militia of the Mahdi army - for influence. That fact that we stand between them and the effect that they could have on the people of that part of Iraq, especially the city of Basra, causes them to attack us so frequently. That is why we treat them as we do, and we have had significant successes over the past month or so in dealing with them in that community…
The crucial phrase here is: "we have had significant successes over the past month or so", as indeed readers of this blog (but not the MSM) will be aware. But that slid past Edward Leigh, Tory chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, and of the right-wing Cornerstone group. Success, he would not have. "Everyone knows…", he said:

…that the incoming Prime Minister will ensure that all British troops have left by the time of the next general election. Whatever else is said, let us be honest about one thing: this is a political decision. Why do we persist in an illusion? Whether we get out in a month's time, a year's time or two years' time, there will be a mess after we leave. The only difference will be that more British troops will die. That is the reality on the ground. We are now the target - the magnet - for terrorists, particularly those from Iran. Why will the Secretary of State not be honest with the House and say that we have acted honourably, we have done our bit, and we should now withdraw?
Then we got Richard Younger-Ross, the Lib-Dem MP for Teignbridge, who then tasked the defence secretary with this question:

For 18 months, military commanders have been advising that the mere presence of British troops is provoking violence. How much provocation do our troops have to give before the Secretary of State will bring them home?
Des Browne put him straight, but need not have bothered. "Military commanders have been advising nothing of the sort," he said.

…what is happening in southern Iraq is a competition between the militia for political or economic advantage. In Basra city and its immediate surroundings, we are what stands between the militia and the damage that they would do to the people of Basra city. We attract the preponderance of the attacks because we stand between them and their objectives, but we hold that position until the Iraqi security forces, particularly the army, are able to take over from us. Increasingly, during the transition in Basra city, they have proved able to do that. We are not the cause of the problem; the militia are the cause of the problem. We just happen to be the people who stand between them and their intentions.
Yet, that, if anything, is as fair a summary as you can get of the current situation, and when it comes to successes, we not learn that, over the weekend, while these hypercritical MPs were tucked up safely in their constituencies, British troops were out and about in Basra scoring what the MoD website calls "a double success", mounting a series of raids which brought the discovery of a significant number of weapons and bomb-making equipment.

The one thing you can be sure of though, these MPs who profess to be so supportive of our troops will neither be aware of this, nor really care. Such news does not fit their "narrative".

Neither are they likely to grieve over the news that a Danish soldier was killed the following day and five other Danes and an Iraqi interpreter were injured in a gunbattle and roadside bomb attack on their armoured personnel carrier. Were they too "the magnet for terrorists"?

Strangely, it is the much-maligned Reuters which provides the answer to that. In a long report, which is worth reading in full, it warns that Basra could erupt into all-out war between rival Shi'ite groups seeking control of its vast oil wealth as British forces prepare to draw down. Furthermore, the power struggle between factions of the Shi'ite majority, it says, threatens to affect oil exports accounting for virtually all of Iraq's income.

That and much more – effectively supporting Des Browne’s summary – says that the British presence in Basra is vital, protecting the very economic well-being of Iraq. And, only today, The Telegraph records that Iraqi president Jalal Talabani told Tony Blair during a recent meeting that, "British troops are welcome in Iraq. They should stay".

This really does need to be reflected in the media and by our elected representatives. According to Gerd Schroeder, an information campaign is what is needed. Accurate, meaningful information that spans the full spectrum of subjects, including good news as well as bad, he writes, is critical to getting a true picture of the war.

Writing from the American perspective, his view is that if the information is slanted too far one way as it is now, the consequence will not just be defeat of the US, but could lead to mass murder and instability throughout the Middle East, Africa and the world at large. "That does not mean that it will happen," he adds, but an American defeat would have a chilling effect on our allies and embolden our enemies."

Interestingly, Schroeder dismisses the idea of focusing only on good news reporting. That would inevitably lead to laziness and complacency, obscure mistakes and inhibit the correction of mistakes. Thus, he concludes:

It is a balance that will not be reached via unbiased reporting. It is reached by the left and right pulling against each other to reach equilibrium. The moderates accomplish nothing; they sit and watch. We need the left to motivate the right to make progress as much as the left needs us to motivate them in the same way. The problem lies not with the media's left of center standing. The problem lies with the lack of effort on the part of the right of center people to counter the left. This is how balance is found. The right needs to cowboy up and counter the media.
And here we have our own unique problem. Mr Edward Leigh, who spoke so volubly in Parliament against the continued presence of British troops, is a leading right-winger.

Who then is going to give the "true picture" of the war?

- - - -

See also The Augean Stables.


12 May 2007

Unfinished business

It must have rained in Outer Mongolia because, contrary to our predictions, one newspaper has run a short report on FRES, none other than The Daily Telegraph.

However, as is so often the case in contemporary reporting of defence issues, we have the extraordinary situation of this being reported in the business section, rather than in the mainstream (entertainment) section.

Given the political implications of this system, to say nothing of the impact it will have on the future of the Army, it really is bizarre that the newspaper cannot find space to do the subject properly, and gives it to a business reporter rather than handing it to their defence correspondent.

As you might expect from a business report, therefore, the key issues are missed entirely and the reporter, Russel Hotten, merely cribs from the Defence Committee hand-out, majoring on the delays in introducing the system, portrayed in its usual simplistic terms as "a £16 billion contract for much-needed new vehicles for the Army".

Thus writes Hotten, under the headline, "£16bn Army contract delay our fault, admits Whitehall", that defence ministers "have bowed to criticism from MPs and industry" and admitted that the award of a £16bn contract for much-needed new vehicles for the Army "has taken far too long." He then homes in on the Defence Committee's criticism that FRES, had been a "sorry story of indecision, constantly changing requirements, and delay."

Then we get the Committee's view that, six years after the MoD identified a need for the new vehicles, "which would have been invaluable in Iraq and Afghanistan," FRES remained little more than "a concept".

It really is terribly disheartening going to all the trouble of understanding the nature of the system, writing at length on what is at stake, only to have this juvenile level of analysis and reporting, first from a House of Commons committee, and then from a newspaper.

In years to come, when decisions made now and in the near future come to fruition – and, as it looks, the wrong decisions have been made – the media will be joining the hue and cry, and we will get pompous declamations from MPs but, at the time when it mattered, the people who should have taken an interest are silent. If we are still around in those years to come, we will no doubt be reminding our readers of this, possibly to the same (lack of) effect we are having now.

Nevertheless, it is worth looking at a couple of the issues raised by the Committee, its claim that the new vehicles, "…would have been invaluable in Iraq and Afghanistan", and its charge that the project has been unduly delayed.

Taking the first claim, the fact is that if FRES vehicles had been built in conformity with the original concept, they would have been lightweight (less than 22 tons) armoured vehicles, bristling with sensors and electronic kit, and hugely expensive.

If anything, they would have afforded less protection from IEDs and RPGs than existing vehicles and would, therefore, have been of very limited value in either of our current theatres of operations. Add to that, their expense and complexity and, more like, the true situation would have been that they would have been a liability.

On the second issue – the delay – from the outset, the FRES concept represented the cutting edge of technology, with some (many) of the issues actually unresolved. Considering that not even the United States, with its huge resources, has been able to bring its parallel FCS project to fruition, it was and is wholly unrealistic to expect that FRES could have been brought into service in time to be of use in current operations, or even in the near future. The sort of timescale the Committee is thinking of would have been unrealistic even for a conventional armoured vehicle. For something like FRES (in its original conception), even 2012 was wildly optimistic.

However, while we get no sense or understanding from either the defence committee or The Telegraph, we do get a more considered analysis from Ben Judah, who writes for the current (online) edition of ISN Security Watch.

As one might expect, he starts with a topical political "hook", under the title of "Blair's model army", arguing that, as "Blair prepares to step down with his foreign policy achievements in tatters and his attempts to transform the army into a 21st-century rapid reaction force possibly stillborn.”

We could hardly disagree with that sentiment as it is precisely the conclusion we had reached in our piece yesterday.

What Judah brings to the table though is the first inkling of Conservative policy on FRES, citing an unnamed "source close to George Osborne", the shadow chancellor. He tells Judah that "they've [Labour] decided to waste money on the FRES for political reasons. We want to simply buy them off the shelf from America and call the whole thing off. The FRES has no place in David [Cameron's] tax and defence vision."

Judah also quotes a "polemic” from “the influential right-wing Bruges Group think-tank", arguing that FRES is both staggeringly expensive and part of a drift toward a common European army by stealth. It supports, says Judah, abandoning the project entirely and buying the vehicles off the shelf.

Actually, as author of that paper, I do not recall then even suggesting abandoning the project. The paper was a call for a debate. Subsequently, though, on this blog (on the forum, actually) we have called for it to be scrapped.

However, Judah then avers that the Committee rejected the idea of cancellation, although I can find no reference to that question being put, or answered in its report. Nevertheless, he tells us the committee concluded that purchasing the fleet off the shelf would leave the UK with an un-upgradeable army that might swiftly lose its interpretational capacity with an increasingly high-tech US force.

He also has it that the Committee argued that abandoning the FRES project, despite its high costs, might increase dramatically the wide gap between European and American militaries, harm transatlantic relationships and severely limit Britain's capacity to act in the future, especially since current technologies appear non-upgradeable.

Thus the conclusion was – again not identifiable in the report – what that, while the potential financial savings can be clearly calculated, the potential strategic calamity of scrapping FRES could be catastrophic.

Whether it is the Conservative Party of the committee, though, talk of cancellation misses the point. By allowing the weight rise to accommodate extra protection and thus downgrading the requirement for the vehicles to be air transportable, the FRES concept has already been abandoned. With the first part of the project focused on a "utility vehicle", the main role of which is a troop carrier, we are – as we pointed out in our earlier piece - effectively looking at no more than a replacement for the Warrior.

Needless to say, the MoD's troubles are not yet over. It has yet to define clearly (or at all) what type of vehicle it has in mind. If it is considering equipment with the classic armoured vehicle shape, and simply adding armour to give additional protection from IEDs, this may not be enough. Protection in this sphere is not just – or even - a question of armour, but of design, the importance of the "V"-shaped hull at last beginning to be accepted.

Furthermore, in its use of armoured troop carriers, the Army is undertaking two very distinct roles. Firstly, there is the assault vehicle role, typical of "high-end" warfighting, where a Warrior-type vehicle transports troops to the enemy – often cross-country - whence they dismount and fight. The amount of time they spend in a closed down vehicle is relatively short and the main threat is from enemy gunfire.

Then, currently, there is the task of patrolling in counter-insurgency operations, where the troops may remain in the vehicles for prolonged periods, requiring continuous protection, in often extreme climatic conditions, where the main threat is the IED. Much of the use is on paved – or, at least – navigable roads, with very often intensive use over long periods, where durability and ease of maintenance are significant issues.

Here, it is actually hard to see how the two roles can be satisfied with one design. The threats are different and the user profiles are so dissimilar that it makes more sense to have two different types of vehicle – one for "high-end" warfighting and the other for counter-insurgency.

To an extent, this is already happening, with the introduction of the Mastiff into Iraq and Afghanistan, and the possible purchase of additional vehicles. What we might then see, therefore, is an Army equipped with two different fleets of vehicles, which it deploys according to the role it is required to undertake.

This is certainly something neither the Army nor military planners envisaged when they first mooted the FRES concept, and nor did they budget for it. The real question, therefore, is whether Mr Brown's government – or a new Conservative government – is prepared to spend twice over for two fleets of vehicles. And, if not, and the counter insurgency requirement takes priority, as indeed it must, will what is left of the FRES project have to be abandoned completely.

As a final thought, this may be no bad thing. With the weight of the new vehicles being discussed approaching or even matching the Warrior, there seems every advantage in rebuilding all or part of the Warrior fleet, and upgrading with the some of the advanced communications, sensors and defence enhancements that would have gone into the FRES vehicles.

This is, in fact, what the US is doing with its Warrior-equivalent, the Bradley, reducing risk by allowing a phased introduction of new technology rather than the "big bang" that was to come with its own FCS programme.

Interestingly, for the moment, the Army is taking the "all or nothing" view. But, unless it finds an answer to the added burden of procuring and maintaining two fleets, the outcome, when it comes to FRES, may be "nothing".

Judah seems to think that this is a possible outcome, arguing that FRES could be in line to become another item on the litany of Blair's legacy of failures. The funny thing is that, should it so become, so few people know anything about the issue that it will scare be recognised as such. But, since the final decisions cannot any more be made by him, it cannot be Blair's failure. Success or failure lies in other hands. FRES, by any measure, is unfinished business.


01 May 2007

A view from the back

Another thing we intended to do yesterday was to fisk the piece by Max Hastings in The Guardian.

Hastings wants a full-scale defence review and complains that there is almost nothing in the MoD that could pass for intellectual debate. Because of this, he has, he writes, often suggested to senior officers and politicians that they should spend time with some of the wise old men of defence: academics such as Sir Michael Howard, strategists such as Sir Michael Quinlan. They are too busy, however, taking the salute at passing-out parades, launching ships, visiting bases, and performing all the other footling rituals of their jobs.

As a grand old man himself, however, it is a pity that Sir Max does not occasionally turn his gaze to the House of Commons and, in particular, today to Westminster Hall where a short debate was initiated by Tory MP Ann Winterton. With just the minister. Derek Twigg, and his parliamentary secretary present, she offered the following (no link as yet):

I have been applying for a debate such as this for several months so it is somewhat ironic that I was successful in securing one so soon after the debate in the House on Defence in the UK last Thursday. However, it is extremely convenient because it enables me to enlarge on what I have said previously about the war on terror and how the UK is dealing with insurgency. We should be in no doubt that our troops are engaged at present in two of the most difficult and deadly wars against a ruthless enemy, wars in which we all regret the loss of life but support fully those who serve in these theatres on our behalf.

It is a great pity that a debate on such an important issue should be held in Westminster Hall and not in the Chamber itself with many MPs present but, as a back bench member, I have to use any means in my armoury to draw attention to these important matters. Having been briefed twice by the MOD in recent months, I know that the Minister and his team also take these debates seriously.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, in military procurement terms, is not actually so very long ago. Much of our military hardware was designed for that era when the battleground was Northern Europe and war would be short and sharp and fought over quite limited distances, leaving our forces either defeated or victorious. Army vehicles, in particular, were never intended to travel over vast distances in inhospitable conditions where constant maintenance was required, consequentially imposing a heavy demand on spare parts.

Our troops are operating today, particularly in Afghanistan, with equipment designed for Northern Europe and another age. That equipment is now expected to fulfil a different, and indeed contrary, role to that for which it was originally destined. It is a fact that all nations operating in Afghanistan are finding the maintenance and supply of spares to be a nightmare and yet what surely is required is equipment which is not too technical, which can be maintained and repaired in the field and which can stand up to the rugged terrain and extreme temperatures. It is no good having manpower tied up in the field with equipment out of action, facing problems of supply and replacement of spare parts.

With the FRES programme, about which I have serious misgivings, looking at armoured vehicles, the powers that be need to bear in mind that what is required is basic, practical, simple and rugged equipment where maintenance costs are not greater than acquisition costs. I trust, too, that all military vehicles will be free of EU Health and Safety Laws, emission standards and the like, because the authorities have to understand that the MOD is not Social Services but has two wars on its hands which must be won.

Over the last two decades military thinking, as far as procurement is concerned, has been split between the integrationist European Union approach on defence and the link with the USA and, as a result of this, billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been wasted on projects by both this and previous governments.

For instance there is the joint US/UK/Tracer/FSCS programme to develop a tracked armoured reconnaissance vehicle. This was to replace the ageing Scimitar CV(R)T for the British Army. However, the MOD pulled out in 2000 before the first prototype was ready in order to pursue a European project, losing at least £131 million for absolutely no gain.

Then there is the Future Command and Liaison Vehicle – the "Panther": Italian built at a cost of £413,000 each, these were supposedly to carry out some of the roles of the ‘Tracer’ but are useless for patrolling or undertaking other functions in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The cost of £166 million for 401 vehicles is, therefore, dead money.

The "Cobra" anti-battery radar is another example of high tech equipment to detect the source of artillery shells, mortars and rockets. German built, 10 sets were procured at £17.8 million each. Buying US built "Firefinder" systems at less than £10 million each would have saved £82 million whilst giving the Army a perfectly acceptable anti-artillery capability.

The "Trigat" projects of medium and long-range anti-tank missiles is yet another case. British participation in these European projects (appropriately developed by "Euromissile") cost the UK over £314 million before we had to pull out after the systems failed to deliver, leaving the MOD with a total loss. A rush purchase of US-built Javelin missiles had to be made in order to equip the Army.

The Multi-Role Armoured Vehicle (MRAV) project, named the "Boxer" was a joint German, Dutch and British venture, managed as a European project. The MOD pulled out after the vehicle proved too big and too heavy for the RAF's fleet of Hercules transporters, with a total loss to the defence budget of £48 million.

The MOD has spent (or has committed) £1,045 million to developing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs); first the "Phoenix", losing £345 million, and now the "Watchkeeper" to be built by the French owned Thales company. Yet, despite this extraordinary expenditure, the MOD has no UAV capability in theatre other than the Desert Hawk mini UAV and is having to spend upwards of £60 million on buying or leasing US Predator UAVs. Had the UK bought the system in the first place, it might have saved more than £400 million.

The MoD has bought 22 Westland-Augusta Merlin HC3 transport helicopters and is now to buy another six. Working out the purchase price is well nigh impossible but at an estimated £30 million each, US equivalents would have been less than half-price. Alternatively, the RAF could have bought Chinooks at £25 million each, saving £110 million in total and considerably more on maintenance. The Merlins are currently exceeding expected maintenance costs by over 200%.

At over £60 million each, the Eurofighter aircraft are an acknowledged Cold War relic. Although rated highly as an interceptor, current versions have no ground attack capability. US built F-16s, an adequate fighter with a proven ground attack capability, would have cost in the order of £20 million each. With 232 notionally on order, the MOD could have saved upwards of £10 billion.

In addition to the aircraft are the weapons – the European designed Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile costs an amazing £1,000,000 each (£1 million!) for what is effectively a 1,000 lb bomb. Having bought 900 of them, the MOD could have saved over £830 million if it had bought the US equivalent, the JASSM (Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile).

The Eurofighter is also to be equipped with European designed air-to-air missiles which are known as Meteor. With the total costs at over £1.4 billion, purchase of US designed Raytheon missiles (which have been bought anyway as a stop gap until Meteor is ready) would have saved the MOD a cool £900 million.

Then in the rush for harmonisation, the MOD joined the French and Italians on the "Horizon" programme for a common frigate. Formalised in 1992, the UK eventually pulled out in April 1999 after failure to agree a common specification and amongst complaints of "unfocussed management" with an estimated loss of £537 million, leaving the French and Italians to continue with the project.

Co-operation did not end with the Horizon project. Although the MOD decided to go it alone with the platform emerging as the Type 45 Destroyer, the ship is largely equipped with European designed missile launchers and missiles. These largely account for the huge cost of £1 billion per ship, some £400 million more that the Australians were considering paying for the more capable US designed Arleigh Burke class missile destroyers. I understand they are now considering a version of the Spanish F100 Air Defence Destroyer thereby shaving another 1billion Australian Dollars off their costs. With five ships planned for the Royal Navy, we could have saved at least £2 billion if we had followed a similar path.

For the Type 23 anti-submarine frigates, the UK developed our own type 2087 sonar at £9 million per set. The development costs were an additional £300 million, given virtually as a free gift to the French company which bought the UK manufacturer, leaving it to free to sell cut-price versions to the French Navy. Had we bought from the Americans, the UK could have saved that £300 million.

And, finally, to the EU's Galileo satellite navigation system. By the time it is fully operational, the UK will have paid £400 million towards its development and commissioning costs – the system is then to be used to underpin the European Rapid Reaction Force. But the US "Navstar" GPS is already available and is totally free of charge. The £400 million pounds is, therefore, a total waste of money for what is merely a duplicate system.

Pulling together all these costs – but excluding the costs of Eurofighter which are a special case – the excess payments amount to £ 8.8 billion, and that for no gain whatsoever. That is considerably more than is spent in one year on procurement and would buy 35,000 RG-31 mine protected vehicles or 350 Chinook helicopters and goodness knows how many Hueys (Bell 212 aircraft). This is the measure of the wastage of valuable resources on defence projects and these figures make a mockery of those who say that the military are underfunded.

When the Prime Minister called for a debate on defence, like many others I welcomed it because the direction in which the UK is heading clearly needs to be defined. It is, for example, simply no good having equipment to wage war in the future when that equipment is not compatible with the Americans. The UK as a nation has neither the financial nor the military capability to divorce itself from reality. If we believe that the "war on terror" is our most serious threat, then the MOD should be planning to procure the right equipment for our troops, rather throwing them into situations where they are not best served by their kit.

I tried in the debate last Thursday to drive home the fact that technology can be of great assistance but simple platforms are often the best for delivery. These are easy to maintain and save on non-combatant manpower and spare parts, thereby proving not to be horrendously expensive. A good example is the Iraqi Air Force Sama light aircraft which is doing the same job on surveillance as the future Lynx helicopter. The RAF has as its trainer the Tucano T Mark 1 Aircraft and there is now a ground attack version ideally suited for the hot and cold conditions in Afghanistan.

This could give all round close air support to our troops instead of the present case in which an aircraft has to be called up, possibly even have to take off, arrives too late in theatre and then is unable to deliver because of the close proximity of insurgents. We should perhaps recall the lessons of Vietnam, Korea and even the Second World War – it is a fact that the smaller the fixed wing aircraft, the less likely it is to be shot down.

There should be a complete rethink about how we approach these types of operations where overspending can actually create a problem by providing over complicated pieces of equipment. The MOD and the military chiefs need to get back to the basics and, to prove the point, perhaps the Minister can tell me how many pack animals are being used in Afghanistan? After all, one cannot get more basic than that but it does give some idea of the type of terrain being faced by our troops serving there.

I welcome the recent announcement on, of all places, the European Defence Agency website that 180 Medium Protected Patrol Vehicles have been ordered for delivery in 2009, the contract value of which will be in the region of £20–100 million. Could the Minister tell me why this was not announced on the MOD website, itself not one of the most brilliant but one which would have been considerably enhanced by this news? Surely that is where any announcement should be first made; after all, the Minister is not trying to bury bad news but instead to give some rather encouraging news.

I am convinced that debates such as this one can have an influence on the direction of the MOD and I do believe the issues raised are being taken seriously and that, slowly but surely, military thinking and direction is changing. However, what I cannot make out is whether the MOD is being supported by the military chiefs and top civil servants or vice versa. Unless change takes place quickly, the UK will fail to give our service personnel the proper support they need to win the war on terror and there will be little or no chance of winning insurgency wars either now or in the future.
Of course, this debate will go unheeded by the "great and the good". But says Sir Max, "our armed forces must now confront their greatest enemy: the MoD". To that list he might add the indifference of a Parliament that can revel in the "Punch and Judy" show of Prime Ministers' Questions but cannot spare the time to indulge in a serious debate about defence.