It is perhaps no coincidence that Parliament was gripped yesterday by the debate on whether the UK should join in bombing ISIS/Daesh in Syria and that today the House of Lords is debating the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015. (I commented on this on its publication last week here.)The sharpest questions posed were not to do with numbers or hardware or whether such attacks constitute the UK “going to war in Syria”, but to what end these means are meant to lead. Strategy is the plumbing that leads to the achievement or fulfilment of a vision – the end.
And the haunting question behind yesterday's debates in both Houses was: if this is a strategic move, then what happens when the bombing has stopped?
I (somewhat notoriously) wrote to the Prime Minister in August 2014 to ask if there was a coherent strategy behind our responses to events in the Middle East and elsewhere – and, if so, what it was. As I observed at the time, simply repeating the mantra that “our strategy is clear” neither provides a strategy nor makes it clear. Clearly, the same concern still applies: is the UK response to terrorism and other international threats reactively tactical rather than strategically coherent?
This isn't a dig; it is a genuine question.
The debate about Syria was shadowed by lessons learned (or not) from interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Given that we can't later decide to un-bomb the ruins, where is the strategy to win the peace? And how realistic is the vagueness about timescales, given that the time needed for changing minds, establishing some sort of peaceful and achievable settlement, creating robust institutions and security for the people, is likely to run into decades and not months? I seem to remember that George W Bush celebrated 'Mission Accomplished' in Iraq after about three weeks.
Today's debate on The United Kingdom's role in supporting international security and stability in the light of the Strategic Defence and Security Review is haunted by the same area of questioning. Put simply, is the Government's plan a proactive step in building a flexible and adaptable security force … or a reactive response to the challenges of today that might not be those of ten years time when the hardware will be in place?
This is not to diminish or understate the complexity of predicting the unpredictable in an increasingly uncertain world. But, it is to bang the drum for greater joined-upness between arms of government (DfID, FCO, Home Office, MoD), a more clearly worked out strategic plan for achieving a clearly articulated and attainable vision, and a realistic timescale to which we must – if we decide to act – commit ourselves.
So, what are the short-, medium- and long-term plans for Syria and Iraq? And who are the key players who will need to coalesce in some way to enable this to happen? And how is the SDSR to integrate with wider military, diplomatic and politico-economic initiatives/realities in order to avoid largely reactive tactical engagement?
These are the questions that will not go away.