A new chairman for the Defence Select Committee

James Arbuthnot has been an MP since 1987, and has chaired the Defence Select Committee since 2005. It has kept him busy. His time scrutinising defence matters has coincided with the British government prosecuting several wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and embarking on two bouts of serious defence restructuring. In 2006 we adopted the Future Army Structure, and now we have Army 2020.

But this is all about to end for him. He has decided not to contest his North East Hampshire seat at the next election and, by way of anticipation, is relinquishing control of the committee to give him time to think properly about what he will do next. He is currently sixty-one years old, so there’s a bit of powder left in the old flintlock yet.

The Select Committee system is not that old, beginning in 1979, but it has a crucial role to play in parliamentary affairs. While MPs and Peers are, of course, expected to hold governments and ministers to account in their respective main chambers, there is only so much time available for questions and debates. It is the committees that provide the extra time. Not only are further questions raised, but they are done so at greater depth than might otherwise be achieved.

The question of ‘Who gets to chair the committee?’ is therefore important. Get a complacent, lazy buffoon and important things are missed; get an observant, energetic mastermind and problems are identified and remedied. There’s a spectrum there somewhere, and I make no comment on where Mr Arbuthnot sits, but it is important the right person succeeds him. Getting the right person might not be quite so important in other areas of government activity, but it is certainly important – nay, crucial – when considering life and death matters of defence.

Douglas Carswell MP asks this question, and concludes that only ‘free-thinkers and rebels’ need apply. He mentions a few characters that might fit the bill: ‘Julian Brazier, author of some good ideas about reservists, the uber-sound Julian Lewis, James Gray and Bob Stuart, the widely respected Keith Simpson, the excellent Crispin Blunt, Tobias Ellwood and Rory Stewart.’

Mr Carswell has a reputation for wanting Parliament to flex its muscles a little more brutishly when it comes to tackling government ministers – who he seems to think are too often occupied in a conspiracy of either incompetence or malice. So it is understandable that he is pondering what is little more than a procedural matter.

He wants someone who has defied the party line on at least one occasion; who can work with people from a different political party; who is alive to the pressure he or she will be put under by a defence industry looking for preferential treatment; and who has a good idea of what defence policy is for. Someone who satisfies all four of these criteria is, presumably, perfect.

I have no idea which individual best satisfies Mr Carswell’s criteria, or if indeed Mr Carswell’s is the criteria being used to choose Mr Arbuthnot’s successor, but the question makes me think of Viscount Haldane. He is the man recognised for transforming the British Army just over one hundred years ago, and creating something strong enough to help France stop Germany overrunning the country.

What did he do? Not enough, some might say, considering how the Great War progressed. But had his reforms not gone through at the time, it is generally accepted that things would have been a whole lot worse – swift German victory over France, German concentration on the Eastern Front, victory over the Russians, a European continent dominated by the Kaiser and his aggressive chums.

To prevent that lot he restructured the Regular Army and created a force of five cavalry brigades and six infantry divisions, all with the necessary engineers, artillery and supply services attached. He then created the Territorial Force, bringing together the Militia, Yeomanry and Volunteer forces operating at that time as three separate entities with no real wartime purpose. The Territorial Army that we have come to know exists because of his foresight and determination to create an army fit for its primary purpose – namely to fight a war. His first order question was always this: ‘What is your purpose in war?’

We might benefit from his return to the War Office (now rather less impressively called the Ministry of Defence), but he would do equally well chairing the Defence Select Committee. He was a successful barrister, who reached the pinnacle of his profession when he sat on the Woolsack as Lord Chancellor; he was quite prepared to defy his own party, disagreeing with the Liberal Party line over imperial strategy and the importance of a strong navy; and he understood what defence was for.

Haldane deduced that British interests were best served by a strong navy to protect Britain and its imperial interests; by an efficient and mobile army capable of foreign service, that could be expanded by a well trained, motivated Territorial Force with links in all parts of the country. Some might disagree – some thought Britain needed a large conscript army capable of fighting the Germans; and, we never know, had we had one we might have defeated Germany much sooner. But agree or disagree, he was capable, perhaps more than anyone at the time, of thinking strategically and having a strong view of what defence policy was for and how to create an army to implement it.

Viscount Haldane, therefore, is my choice. It’s just a pity he’s not around anymore.


Ukraine suffers consequences partly of its own making

A report is doing the rounds that the chief of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Aleksander Vitko, has issued an ultimatum to the Ukrainian Armed Forces: surrender or face a full assault. ‘Surrender or face annihilation!’ would have sounded better – Yield of die!, better even than that – though perhaps the Russians are going soft. Yet whatever Russia’s intentions, it would seem this report is not quite true (according to BBC sources).

Yet Russian forces are still de facto in control of Crimea.  In other words, they have peacefully invaded another country and seem unwilling to leave.

The pretext is pretty flimsy. The Russians claim to be assisting vulnerable Russians living in Crimea, who are in danger of attack from the ultra-nationalists who are supposedly behind the revolution. There is a report that the ousted President of Ukraine, Mr Yanukovych, is the one who has asked Russia to intervene militarily, but that is almost certainly part of Russia’s pretext.

In their eyes, Yanukovych is still the President of Ukraine (they have a point). This being the case, they are perfectly entitled to come to the assistance of a legitimate government. It is the new authorities who are illegitimate (again, they have a point).

I don’t really buy this, though. And I don’t think many countries with a free press buy it either (although, Russian media suppression is coming in useful right now, that’s for sure). The Russians are not acting out of genuine concern. They know what they are doing and they know they are exploiting the situation in Ukraine for their own purposes.

But this is the point. And this is why the protesters were ill-advised in ousting President Yanukovych. He was a bad egg, certainly, screwing as much money out of the country while in power as he could. But he was democratically elected and so held power in just the way the West wants governments to hold power. His removal by protesters was an attack on democracy, and it gave Putin just the sort of excuse he needed.

It also proved the point I made earlier – that revolutions, no matter how well-intended, tend to incite undesirable and unintended consequences. And this is what it looks like. Ukraine has well-known civilisational and cultural divisions; the uncertainty of the coup or revolution or legitimate protest – whatever we call it – has made people jittery and exacerbated those divisions. Hence where we are now.

Several Ukrainian military commanders insist that they have been given an ultimatum by Russia to surrender early on Tuesday. If this is true, if they resist and if Russian forces attack them, we will see the full implication of what’s been happening over the last few months. I don’t blame the protesters for wanting a better government, but they opened a can of worms when they chose to oust the elected President with undemocratic methods.

We can only hope that saner heads prevail now.

Samuel P. Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis provokes unreasonable anger

In a perfect world human beings would probably wish for world peace, as they do on the beauty pageants. But the world is not perfect; even the taffeta-wearing beauty contestants know, deep down, that war and conflict are going to be a feature of the real world for a few more years yet.

What then can we hope for? If we cannot stop conflict then we can at least try to understand what causes and sustains it. For this, a culture of intellectual enquiry that promotes open and honest debate would help. Yet on occasions this also seems too much for humanity, even in those places where liberality and toleration of opinion are well established, such as in Britain.

An episode of the BBC Radio 3 Night Waves programme, broadcast on 2 October 2013, illustrates the point. Philip Dodd presented the show and what followed was a lively – and dispiriting – discussion on Samuel Huntington and his thesis, the Clash of Civilizations, between Maria Misra, Gideon Rose and Douglas Murray.

Even the phrase, Clash of Civilizations, is contentious, as is the name of its author; it has the undeserved knack of making people groan with despair, even those with only a passing interest in international relations and history. It is unfortunate, but some topics are just like that: they provoke argument, disagreement and often outright hostility, but in a way that elevates the disputation above the ordinary. It is, however, ironic – though unsurprising – that discussions like this, concerned with global conflict and ways to mitigate and reduce it, so often become belligerent themselves. And so it was in this instance.

Samuel Huntington was a Harvard political scientist, and first published this thesis as an essay in 1993, in Foreign Affairs, the US magazine on international relations. The basic argument was this: in the post-Cold War world, future conflict would be caused more by culture than ideology – religion being a prime example of where cultural identity could create friction points between one broad civilisation-group and another.

The discussion began well enough, with Gideon Rose – current editor of Foreign Affairs, member of the Council on Foreign Relations and former student of Huntington – commenting on the context of this twenty-year-old publication: The old paradigm of the Cold War had gone; the United States of America bestrode the world in what Charles Krauthammer called the ‘uni-polar’ moment; and two explanatory ideas, one optimistic and one pessimistic, were in vogue.

On the one hand, optimists were suggesting that the world had made a breakthrough and liberal democracy, peace and prosperity were in more-or-less permanent ascendancy; and on the other hand, pessimists were suggesting the world was in a temporary phase, soon to be followed by a return to the sort of geopolitical conflict to which the world had become accustomed during the long years of the Cold War. Huntington took a third view.

For Huntington, both the optimists and pessimists were missing an important point. He argued that conflict was sure to return, but that this conflict would occur less along the traditional fault lines of ideology and geopolitics and more along those of cultural identity. The world had, in more recent history, been preoccupied, quite understandably, with Communism, Nazism and traditional power politics as causes of conflict, which had obscured the role of culture. And he chose to express this through the fairly well-understood notion of civilisation because civilisation represented cultural identity at the broadest level.

This is where the debate began to go awry. Douglas Murray – journalist, commentator and Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society – began to say that Huntington had a point. Expressing this view, however, turns out to be a little like expressing the view that Enoch Powell also had a point. But that is another discussion. Huntington’s argument was ‘highly plausible and prophetic’ he said. Then he read a quote: ‘Somewhere in the Middle East the half-dozen young men could well be dressed in jeans, drinking coke, listening to rap, and between their bows to Mecca putting together a bomb to blow up an American airline.’

One can see why this sort of comment might make people uneasy, just as the mention of Enoch Powell makes people uneasy when discussing immigration and national identity. It confronts people with inconvenient images and arguments that are often too much to bear. The idea that young men from such a broad geographical region as the Middle East, who are every bit as easy with the baubles of modernity – jeans, coke and rap music – as their Western counterparts, can then just as easily decide to attack the culture and civilisation which provides them is difficult to process.

But this – or something pretty similar – is what happened on 11 September 2001 when four airliners were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the fourth crashing into a field short of Washington, which is presumed to be its intended target. While few doubt that these attacks took place for a number of reasons, some of which are closer in nature to more traditional explanations for conflict, two things are worth noting: Huntington understood enough of the growing Islamist threat, and its cultural dimension, to include this predictive anecdote; and we see in conflicts across the world, from Sudan to Syria to Iraq, that cultural identity is at the very least a key determiner of the nature of that conflict. Those that recognise this are not taking an unreasonable position. While culture is certainly not the only factor of conflict, it is nevertheless a factor in many instances.

Maria Misra, Lecturer in Modern History and Fellow of Keble College Oxford, was then invited to join the discussion. She did not agree. ‘I don’t think that the concept of civilisations clashing has any explanatory or analytical power whatsoever,’ she said, followed by the obvious comment that ‘six young men does not constitute Muslim civilisation.’

People, in the sort of intellectually free society we value in the West, are free to choose their analytical method; and if Maria Misra doesn’t think the idea of civilisations clashing can help her historical studies, then that is her affair. But to reduce Huntington’s arguments to the title of his essay alone, and to ignore the thousands of words he has written expounding the matter, is not helpful and it is certainly not respectful.

As Douglas Murray pointed out, the proposition is not that the six men of this predictive anecdote, let alone the nineteen people who actually committed the atrocities of 9/11, ‘constitute Muslim civilisation.’ And neither does anyone – except opponents of this thesis, perhaps – restrict the concept of civilisation to something hovering loftily in the clouds far above the messy ground-truth of cultural identity, which is porous, multifarious and understood in an infinite number of ways according to personal perspective.

However, if it is unhelpful to reduce Huntington’s argument to the point where all nuance is excluded, then it is also unhelpful to do the same to Maria Misra’s argument. But it is strange. While she then concedes that ‘culture is very important,’ she simultaneously dismisses the way Huntington has chosen to articulate culture through the notion of civilisation. It is as if she agrees with the nuance of Huntington’s thesis, that culture is a crucial factor in understanding conflict, while at the same time arguing that this is not in fact Huntington’s thesis at all. His thesis, rather, is that ‘civilisations clash’ like pre-programmed automatons with a single purpose to their senseless existence – namely, the creation and maintenance of conflict. This, need it be said, is not the argument. Douglas Murray quotes him again: ‘A major war involving the West and the core states of other civilisations is not inevitable.’

The discussion continued in the recognised manner of debate: a point was made, a point was refuted, a point was accepted. It is worth listening to the whole episode. Conflict, after all, is an important subject. But the debate was characterised by something dispiriting. Vociferous voices have rejected Huntington’s thesis for years now, and it would seem one of Philip Dodd’s guests is among their number. Yet one cannot help wondering why they do this when it seems so clear that Huntington is articulating an indisputable truth – that civilisation, culture and collective identity is at times a cause and at times a feature of conflict in so many instances.

One can debate Huntington’s thesis. Indeed, that is what academic study is all about. But it is worrying when that debate becomes absolutist in nature. It is also worrying that a thesis can be reduced to little more than its title, with the effect of obliterating its nuance. Indeed, Clash of Civilizations implies something nearing apocalyptic proportions, which, if this is the point Huntington was trying to make, deserves a strong challenge. But it’s just a title, similar to a news headline crafted to encapsulate an argument and attract attention. The value of Huntington’s thesis lies in the words underneath that title. And it’s not as one-dimensional as some would have us believe.

The rule of law and military service

The rule of law is what separates the civilised from the uncivilised – that and morality, of course. Not only does it define the things a society considers wrong, which are then called crimes, but it also deters people from committing those crimes – if, that is, they are accompanied by suitable punishments. Without this mechanism, society ends up being regulated not by reason, consideration and legitimacy, but by what is arbitrary and illegitimate. Violence and oppression ensue, followed by revenge and disorder – in other words, society becomes uncivilised.

I suppose we should, therefore, be happy that the rule of law has been allowed to take its course in relation to the conviction of a Royal Marine for murder while serving in Afghanistan. Murder is wrong, it is uncivilised, therefore people committing murder should be charged and, if found guilty through due process, punished. This, seemingly, is what has just happened at the Military Court at Bulford. Apparently it is the first conviction of its kind since the Second World War.

Senior officers have said the right things – and, no doubt, meant them. Brigadier Dunham, Deputy Commandant General Royal Marines, said: ‘It is a matter of profound regret that, in this isolated incident, one marine failed to apply his training and discharge his responsibilities.’ True, I’m sure. And: ‘It was a truly shocking and appalling aberration. It should not have happened and it should never happen again.’

It also goes without saying that whenever we fall short of our own exemplary standards, the critics and enemies of the very marines on trial seize on the opportunity for its propaganda uses. And there is, of course, the requirement to do the right thing (or not to do the wrong thing), no matter the circumstances. As General Sir Mike Jackson said: circumstances do not change the law.

Why, therefore, do I feel uneasy? It’s not just me. Major General Julian Thompson, Commander 3 Commando Brigade during the Falklands War, has reportedly refused to condemn the convicted sergeant, saying, ‘I’m not going to stand around bad-mouthing him.’ He has, of course, said that what happened was wrong, and that the law had been broken, but he clearly feels a certain conflict within.

After this verdict, which we are told carries a mandatory life sentence, there will be much discussion, especially in various barrack rooms across the Marines and the Army. Some will argue that he has been ‘hung out to dry,’ and they will do so in the fruity barrack-room language we might squeamishly prefer to think aberrant. Others, the other side of the fence, will say that this case should be followed by many more just like it. Individual prejudices, which we all possess, will determine which view people are most likely to take.

But the thing that sits uneasily is the simple fact that none of this would have happened if the marine in question had not been sent to Afghanistan to fight a war on behalf of his government and his country. He chose to serve, of course, but he was only in that specific situation because his country put him there. And neither am I aware of any evidence – though I may have missed it – to suggest he is the sort of person who breezily shoots people on the way to the shops at home. No. The circumstances were unique. He was in Helmand.

This is not an argument, of course, that excuses law-breaking. People commit crimes while at ‘work’ all the time. It’s no excuse. But, being sent to fight a war – and this deployment subjected these servicemen to experiences of a particularly vile nature – puts the person in question under unique stresses and strains. It is like no other. No other job involves going to a place of work where your competitor is not just trying to do better at this particular ‘business,’ but actively trying to kill you. Indeed, we are told that twenty-three of his colleagues were killed on the same tour. This changes the work dynamic, doesn’t it? How do we know how we would react in a similar situation?

Marine A is, incidentally, called Marine A because the authorities fear reprisals. We might say this could apply to the families of all those convicted of murder. But it doesn’t. This is a different situation. The problem in this case is the way the ‘friends’ of the victim operate. They are unremittingly uncivilised. We saw their modus operandi in Woolwich. They have no rule of law; they only have arbitrary, medieval barbarity – and that’s doing the word medieval a disservice. That’s what Marine A was fighting against. Again, how do we know the effect of this type of environment on otherwise law-abiding people?

But we have the rule of law, as I said earlier. This is what makes us different. The court will have heard the charge and the evidence and made what it thought was the right decision. I suppose, despite any reservation we might have – especially from ex-soldiers and ex-marines – this is the sort of thing our Armed Forces are there to fight for. And if we do not live by our own rules, how can we expect others to recognise the superiority of our system?

It’s just rather saddening, as General Sir Mike Jackson said, that’s all. Casualties of war are more numerous than we might think. It’s not just the killed and the wounded. Almost everyone who has served is affected in some way by that service. And this, it seems to me, is just one more example. Marine A did the wrong thing. He has paid for his mistake. But if some of us are going to condemn him, we should probably thank him too – for being prepared to serve and risk his life for his country in the first place. His life, like so many other lives, is never going to be the same again, all because he volunteered to serve.

Thoughts on democracy in the Middle East and North Africa

MENA is suffering right now. We can see that plain enough through the media. Everywhere it’s war, coup, rage, murder, lying, oppression, mendacity, frustrated democracy, destruction, refugees and all the rest of it. But what’s really depressing, if that little lot wasn’t enough, is thinking things were perhaps better in the bad old days when everyone knew they lived in oppressive countries and just kept their heads down.

It’s undeniable that there was a sort of stability under the dictatorships of Iraq, Libya, Egypt and pretty much every other country in the region; apart from Israel, that is, notwithstanding the evident problems of settlement, Hamas and the obfuscated Iranian wish for Israel’s destruction. But the old status quo is coming apart, quite violently.

It was hoped the people of the region – hitherto oppressed by the old regimes who were themselves, we are sometimes informed, mostly put in place and kept there by Western duplicity – would establish democracies similar to the ones in, say, Belgium or Switzerland, and everything would be as it should and would have been years ago had the autocrats not got in the way of progress.

But things aren’t working out quite like that. MENA countries and their people seem intent on proving the doomsayers right – that they just can’t do democracy there. With each passing day and with each new photo wall of violence it seems establishing a liberal democracy is not as easy as some thought it would be.

MENA is the acronym for the region of the world comprising the Middle East and North Africa, which is used by an assortment of politicians, diplomats and academics, and anyone else for that matter who wants to aggregate the peoples and countries of the region into a single, easier-to-understand entity. Stretching from Mauritania and Morocco in the west, to Iran, Yemen and Oman in the east, to Somalia in the south and to the Mediteranean coast in the north, sometimes referred to as the Maghreb, it comprises quite a chunk of the world.

Sometimes it includes Turkey, but this is problematic as Turkey also has a foot in Europe; and debate continues as to which direction the country is heading: to Europe and increasing liberalism, or to the Middle East and what appears to be a violent cocktail of theocratic populism, military dictatorship and democratic division.

In Egypt, for instance, the army has deposed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood Islamists (or democrats, if that’s the term you prefer), and are now busily slaughtering them on the streets. The military coup, for that is surely what it was, supposedly occurred with the general population’s consent and to secure the Arab Spring taken off course by the Islamists. But instead the new government seems to be re-establishing something much closer to the dictatorship of Mubarak. Who really knows if this is a precursor to a second round of proper, fair and free elections or sham elections as a cover for continued dictatorship?

And in Syria, the Assad government continues to fight opposition forces in a bloody and destructive civil war. At the outset, the Free Syrian Army was supposed to be the key to establishing the liberal democracy of Western imagination. Not that democracy in any form is impossible, it’s just difficult, especially when putative democrats and jihadis are wearing the same metaphorical uniform. When the opposition is busily murdering its own, it is difficult to see how they can succeed: unity of effort being quite important to military campaigns.

It doesn’t stop there. We associate democracy in the West with liberalism and tolerance. Indeed, we think them synonymous. But if MENA countries are ready for democracy then why are minorities being persecuted? Christian churches, some of the oldest in the world, are being attacked in Egypt. Moreover, when the culprits are reported to be active Morsi supporters, that is to say, the type of people given power when democratic votes take place, one wonders if democracy is the panacea.

What is certain, however, is that each day poses a new question and demands a more nuanced understanding of the cultural and political dynamics found in each of those countries we aggregate under the term MENA. We think, for instance, that the Arab Spring began in December 2010 with the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street trader. It is from this moment, according to numerous media timelines, that the people of MENA stood up to autocratic government and, seeing that the post-Imperial autocrats were not in fact infallible, began the region’s irresistible progress to liberal democracy.

Important though this event was, it is arguable that another event, seven years earlier, did more to expose the weakness of the region’s dictators: namely the defeat of Saddam Hussein at American hands. It was hoped at the time that if one dictator fell then others would follow, each one toppling like dominoes until the formerly-oppressed people of the region substituted the autocrats and theocrats for democrats.

This could still be playing out, and, if the region ends up more free and liberal than before 2003, then perhaps the world will have more to thank George W. Bush for than is presently fashionable to express. Yet the domino theory suffers from the same simplicity as the one that says liberal democracy, Western style, is the destiny of the region.

I hope it is, because I think democracy is still the best way to make decisions impinging on the lives of others, but there is something more important than arbitrary theories of government: namely peace and stability. Democrats argue that peace and stability are more likely to thrive under democratic rather than autocratic government, but recent MENA events suggest it is not quite as simple as this, especially in the short term.

It was the democratically-elected Morsi who subverted the spirit of the revolution, if indeed any revolution can have ‘spirit’. It is the Islamist population aligned to the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood that is targeting Christian churches (assuming it isn’t the military regime as the MB says it is). It is also the populist-inspired military government that is now shooting scores of protesters. And it is the people of Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and further afield who seem more likely to use democracy to institute illiberalism instead of the liberalism we in the West seem to assume comes naturally with democracy.

Democracy is not impossible in this part of the world. In fact, the evidence suggests that it is quite probable. But it is worth noting that there is no universal form of democracy. There are, I’m pretty sure, no two democracies that are exactly alike. And it is quite probable that in some countries, especially in those that suffer considerable cultural division, democracy will be either more limited than would be acceptable in the West, or more likely to produce regimes we find as abhorrent as the ones under dictatorship – perhaps more so.