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.

 

Yesterday in the House of Commons the Prime Minister made a statement about the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015. It was later repeated in the House of Lords, where I was present.

This work takes seriously the needs of the country in a challenging and changing world. It faces up to the demands of a world in which asymmetric warfare and cyberwarfare have changed the game for all players. The last review in 2010 was not a review based on security or military need; it was Treasury led and financially driven – purely to save money in the wake of the global financial collapse of 2008 and its aftermath. It satisfied no one, but means that the 2015 review starts much further back from where it should do. (The inadequacies have been noted in many other places, so I won't bang on about them here.)

The 2015 review can be read here and the Prime Minister's statement here.

In the short question session following the reading of the statement in the House of Lords it was noticeable that speakers were preoccupied with hardware and numbers rather than principle or strategy. This is not a bad thing in any sense – and probably inevitable given the experience, expertise and interests of members in the House to hear the statement.

However, my concern lay elsewhere, and I rose to put a different question (in Hansard and, therefore in context, here):

My Lords, would the Minister agree with me that some of the language we are using in this debate reflects an assumption that the world is binary and divided into allies and enemies? The reality is that allies become enemies, and enemies become allies. In any strategic approach to the future, could we be assured that that possibility will be taken into account? I worked on elements to do with Iraq in the 1980s, and we can see what happened in the 2000s.

Arms and resources that we sell to people who are rebels in Syria can then be used against us. Is that sort of strategic thinking about a non-binary, more eclectic world being taken into consideration?

The response by Earl Howe was sympathetic:

The right reverend Prelate reminds us of a very important point of principle. As I hope he will find when he reads this document, running through it is a thread or theme that makes clear that government has to be joined up in all of this—much more joined up than it ever has been in the past. The way in which countries abroad are assessed as friendly, non-friendly or something in between is absolutely essential in our long-term planning. Having said that, we are very clear that we have our prime allies with whom we wish to collaborate, specifically when it comes to defence—not least the United States, France and, increasingly, Germany. However, it is possible for countries around the world to unite around a common objective, as we saw recently with the United Nations Security Council resolution, where all the members of the Security Council voted in one direction. That was a remarkable event in itself, and we should take our cue from that in deciding how to proceed further in the context of the Middle East conflict.

The point of my concise question was to recognise that conflicts are no longer simply between static states, but more eclectic – as are alliances and enmities. We fed Iraq in the 1980s because our enemy's enemy was deemed to be our friend at that point; but things changed. We have a similar problem today with, for example, Saudi Arabia: are we prepared for the implications of an eventual change of regime in Saudi and the legacy of having ignored human rights abuse there in the interests of commercial and economic trade? We are now to have more frigates in order to add capacity to the UK's anti-submarine capability, and it is clear that this relates to an increased threat by an increasingly belligerent Russia. Yet, we will also need to ally with Russia in relation to resolving conflicts in places such as Syria and Iraq.

Therefore, we need to draw into any strategic thinking the impact and implications of a non-binary world and a rapidly changing set of international relationships and interdependencies.