An OLAAR you ask?
Well if my memory serves me right it stands for Operational Learning And After Action Report.
Basically something you write when someone or something has spanked in. And David Cameron’s plans have certainly spanked in. So I feel it would be interesting to attempt a summation of where we, the UK now stand.
TD in an earlier post has given some handy headings and I will structure my thoughts around these.
First of all what happened?
In my mind, too much, too fast. Labour and others had a very good point when they asked why things couldn’t be slowed down, why couldn’t the motions have waited until Monday when Parliament came back on its normal schedule and why was there this urgent impetus to get started with retaliation? These are profound questions. It is very arguable that the issue a lot of MPs had was not that Syria had done something evil, or that there had to be action, or that there was no real evidence.
It seems to me that they felt very strongly that things were not being given enough time to mature or develop; that there seemed little in the way of statesmanlike reflection and there was too much unnecessary haste and that they were reacting to someone else’s timetable and not the timetable suited to the UK.
I agree with this sentiment.
Why was there so much rush?
Hague gave a clue in an interview when a journalist asked him this very question. Hague explained that the retaliation had to be linked to the act – if too much time passed then somehow Syria was going to be shocked and be puzzled as to why all of a sudden their buildings were spontaneously exploding three weeks later.
It didn’t seem a very strong argument to me at the time – to link an act with another act is the simple expedient of announcing it being so linked in a press conference.
Or thinking outside the box the US could have called the operation, Operation Anti-Chemical Weapons Use or more likely knowing America, Operation Chemical Fucking Freedom.
One wonders if accelerated timetables were set so that action could take place before domestic opposition could sink their heels and get up steam but that is just speculation on my part. But it does seem that Cameron was following someone else’s timetable, probably Obama’s who was probably keen to get this done short and sharp to show a swift and decisive response.
Alas Parliament was not going to be rushed and it made its opinion known.
In hindsight Cameron would have done well to have pledged support but on a UK timetable, go it alone if you have to but we have due process to work through. He could have then waited until Monday or Tuesday in Parliament armed with a UN report, more chance for dialogue with Miliband and more chance to work his backbenchers.
Intelligence is the next failing.
The JIC assessment was awful, awful for the case for war, not at all awful if you want your intelligence to be unbiased and based on known facts.
The only solid evidence seemed to be some “highly sensitive” intelligence, everything else was a matter of compound fact and reasoning.
Legally, sound, but to be used as a case for war – very dull and unpersuasive. I think in this matter we have learned the lessons from Iraq – an insipid document it was, but a document it seemed based on nothing more than what they could honestly believe was fact – which wasn’t much.
What is odd is that Obama and the Daily Mail were telling us about eavesdropping and intercepted communications and munitions movements – these were not explicitly stated in the JIC.
Cameron didn’t get a dodgy dossier – poor form for his case for retaliation but excellent news for those of us who like their intelligence reports to have integrity. Nonetheless, a dull JIC report didn’t help Cameron.
So where does this leave us?
Couldn’t be better news really beyond the inability of Labour to act with good grace.
Cameron consulted the legislature, made his case, heard the result and accepted it without question on the spot.
Not one weasel word was used – he was resolute in accepting the decision. Parliament is effectively the supreme source of legitimacy in this country despite the now somewhat archaic constitutional details regarding the Sovereign. As we know, Cameron could have, in abstract theory have used the Royal Prerogative. To have done so would have caused a constitutional crisis. In other words Cameron ignoring Parliament would have been more damaging to our way of life (our fundamental interest) than sitting out a limited strike that is going to get done anyway, or even if nobody else was going to do it.
Cameron has now set a precedent that others will be expected to follow in the future, he has laid the foundations for consulting Parliament on matters like these and no warlike decisions are likely to have any legitimacy without endorsement by Parliament in the future. This is entirely proper although the details will need to be ironed out over the course of time.
So we’ve defended probably our most fundamental interest and Cameron should be applauded for having no doubts he would consult, and then applauded for accepting on the spot, the decision made.
International Prestige and Influence
I think some are over-egging the pudding here. We have sat out many US interventions, especially in the 1980s and outright opposed others such as Grenada. We have also received little in open support from the US during times of our own crisis.
The special relationship if one insists it exists is not a piece of China, it is more like an elastic band which stretches and contracts depending on various mutual interests.
France couldn’t have been more public about chinning off the Iraq invasion – it is still looked upon as a confident and independently minded state actor on the world stage and it shows how sitting out one intervention does not mean a withdrawal from the world stage it simply means you’ve chosen not to fight this one.
There are a number of examples of countries which have said “no thanks” to US intervention and yet still wield influence and have excellent, possibly better relations with the US than we did when we were following their coat tails. Canada is an example, as is Australia.
Likewise influence, influence is contingent – Cameron can now begin working to lead on diplomatic and economic sanctions and actions short of war for which there is plenty of support. He is not a dead duck and neither is the UK.
Personally, I think the US not being able to automatically rely on us is a good development and I think our choice will be perceived by most as the choice of an independent and sovereign nation that in the past has acted when it felt it had to.
Oh and by the way, we’re still fighting in Afghanistan in case we’ve forgotten!
I think the only long term effect will be that the UK is now seen as more independently minded and that can certainly open opportunities and build stronger bridges with other nations not as enamoured with the US.
I don’t envisage any changes at all. If anything, this whole scenario should show clear thinking people how easy it is to suddenly be encountered by something that is not a non-state actor or a crumbling defence system where you might need some “old fashioned” tools such as GBAD and Air Support Squadrons, CBRN kit and units and fighter CAP.
The MoD binned a lot of our CBRN units because they said no other power we were likely to face had a wide area CBRN capability.
International relations with the US, Middle East and Europe
The US will get over it.
I think there is an awful lot of sympathy with the UK position outside of Executive circles in the US.
I think there is a lot of sympathy with the UK position amongst eminent US lawmakers and military officials.
We must be clear, we have not abandoned the US in a clear struggle for life and death.
There are arguments either way, the issue is blurred enough for it to be far from clear cut – going either directions is justifiable. A huge swathe of Americans agree with the decision we’ve just made. We haven’t said no in the aftermath of the Twin Towers.
We’ve said no thanks in the midst of a complex and rushed crisis where a good chunk of the public, the government, the legislature, the military and the judiciary are unconvinced, both here and the US.
In Europe I see the decision as being welcome and a sign that we may start to move closer to Europe – I don’t see this as a bad thing.
And, SDSR 2015 and the next general election
The General Election, well.
In fairy-tale land Cameron would be seen as having done the right thing and put national interests above his own authority. Alas, politics it seems ain’t like that – he’ll be pilloried for weakness and others will smell blood and the knives will be coming out.
I hope I am wrong on this because it would be very tragic that the right decision ends your career and your Government.
As for SDSR 2015. I think this close call shows, as I have touched on above, the need to retain conventional peer to peer level capabilities that have lain very dormant since 1991.
We deployed Typhoon in their air to air role and would have been thinking very carefully about defending Akrotiri and keeping it functional in the event of a Syrian attack on it.
This means CBRN decontamination capabilities and runway repair and facility hardening.
I think our facilities on Cyprus would do well from some hardening – having looked at Google Earth I see little in the way of hardened bunkers or shelters. CBRN is the next big thing – no enemy with a wide area capability.
No shown to be total rubbish.
This will need to be regenerated; every confrontation in the Middle East sees CBRN become an issue again. We must refocus on it.
So in conclusion I believe Cameron rushed, and Obama has been rushing.
This was a fundamental error.
The need for speed (duh duh duh, duh duh duh duh duh duuuuh) scuppered Cameron’s plans as Parliament rightly saw no compelling need or evidence why things had to be rushed. Cameron made the right decision in immediately accepting defeat, had he attempted to subvert the decision the damage to our democratic institutions, our way of life, a fundamental interest, would have been damaged in a way Syrian chemical weapons use could not inflict.
I don’t think our standing in the world will change at all, if anything we will be seen as more confident (even if the decision was borne of a comedy of Cameron errors). Cameron will likely be punished for his selflessness in the next election (if he lasts that long) and finally, I think SDSR 2015 needs to ensure we concentrate on regenerating / maintaining a wide suite of peer level capabilities like SEAD, CBRN, A2A capability and GBAD.
The main lesson I think from all of this is to allow developments to mature, to wait for due process when you are able to and to spend time productively building your case and showing leadership and persuasion on the matter. Instead of seeing time on our side, we saw time as being against us. This was the fundamental error Cameron made.
He was never going to harm UK interests by allowing the evidence to ripen and to show and allow for reflection and contemplation. He needed time to persuade and to make his case and he did himself out of it.