Commentary Magazine


Topic: Liam Fox

The New British Government Is “Wobbly” on Afghanistan

I had low expectations for the Conservative-Liberal Democratic government in the UK, but the coalition is turning out to be even worse than I expected on foreign policy. Witness the comments from new Foreign Secretary William Hague and Defense Minister Liam Fox, according to which Britain is eager to withdraw its 10,000 troops from Afghanistan, where they form the second-largest foreign contingent:

In an interview with The Times newspaper before arriving in Kabul, Fox made clear the visit would focus on speeding up the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, and that no new troops would be deployed.

“We need to accept we are at the limit of numbers now and I would like the forces to come back as soon as possible,” he was quoted as saying.

“We have to reset expectations and timelines.

“National security is the focus now. We are not a global policeman. We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened,” Fox said.

What a terrible message to send at precisely the wrong time, when American forces under the command of a British general in Regional Command-South are gearing up for a major offensive to retake control of Kandahar! President Obama has already blundered badly by suggesting that U.S. troops would start coming home next summer. The message from the incoming British government only reinforces the sense, which many Taliban no doubt already have, that insurgents can simply wait out coalition forces. This development places another obstacle in the way of ordinary Afghans who might be considering siding with the coalition. Why would they want to risk life and limb if their protectors are searching for an exit strategy?

In an ideal world, a Conservative government in London would press the American president not to go “wobbly” — as Margaret Thatcher famously did with George H.W. Bush after Saddam Hussein invaded Iraq. In this case, it seems that the Conservatives are bent on reinforcing Obama’s worst wobbly instincts. That’s not the kind of trans-Atlantic cooperation I would like to see.

I had low expectations for the Conservative-Liberal Democratic government in the UK, but the coalition is turning out to be even worse than I expected on foreign policy. Witness the comments from new Foreign Secretary William Hague and Defense Minister Liam Fox, according to which Britain is eager to withdraw its 10,000 troops from Afghanistan, where they form the second-largest foreign contingent:

In an interview with The Times newspaper before arriving in Kabul, Fox made clear the visit would focus on speeding up the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, and that no new troops would be deployed.

“We need to accept we are at the limit of numbers now and I would like the forces to come back as soon as possible,” he was quoted as saying.

“We have to reset expectations and timelines.

“National security is the focus now. We are not a global policeman. We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened,” Fox said.

What a terrible message to send at precisely the wrong time, when American forces under the command of a British general in Regional Command-South are gearing up for a major offensive to retake control of Kandahar! President Obama has already blundered badly by suggesting that U.S. troops would start coming home next summer. The message from the incoming British government only reinforces the sense, which many Taliban no doubt already have, that insurgents can simply wait out coalition forces. This development places another obstacle in the way of ordinary Afghans who might be considering siding with the coalition. Why would they want to risk life and limb if their protectors are searching for an exit strategy?

In an ideal world, a Conservative government in London would press the American president not to go “wobbly” — as Margaret Thatcher famously did with George H.W. Bush after Saddam Hussein invaded Iraq. In this case, it seems that the Conservatives are bent on reinforcing Obama’s worst wobbly instincts. That’s not the kind of trans-Atlantic cooperation I would like to see.

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Re: Not Your Father’s Tories

Max Boot is worried about the future of Britain’s armed forces under the Conservatives, should they be so lucky as to win the election on Thursday. He’s right to worry, but this isn’t a Conservative problem. It’s a British problem. As a letter in today’s Times from three senior British security officials makes clear, the plans of the Liberal Democrats – who stand a chance of forming a part of a coalition government – are even worse: they encompass, amidst much else, a profound skepticism about the United States, an abandonment of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, and a refusal to even contemplate pre-emptive military action against Iran.

The Conservative emphasis, as Max notes, is on the need to save money in defense through reform. There is something to be said for this. Since 2004, the size of the Ministry of Defense’s civilian ranks has shrunk by 19 percent. Yet expenditures on civilians are up by 13 percent, and rose almost twice as fast over that period as the cost of an actual member of the forces. This is because the cuts on the civilian side have come exclusively out of the lower salary ranks, while the bureaucracy at the top has grown.

In short, the picture here is identifiably the same as it is elsewhere under Labour: more top-down control, more bureaucracy, more spending on senior officials, more waste, more disguised debts, and fewer actual capabilities.  From this point of view, Liam Fox’s promise to scrutinize the top ranks of the forces is encouraging, because it puts the emphasis on one of the areas where Labour has failed to contain costs.

But at the end of the day, reform will not be enough. Indeed, Britain’s last Strategic Defense Review, in 1998, was premised on the idea that savings from procurement reform would fill the acknowledged gap between Britain’s means and its ends. Those savings, predictably, failed to materialize. As I point out in a forthcoming article from the Royal United Services Institute, the gap between Britain’s budget and its procurement programs alone to 2038-2039 is now on the order of 300 billion pounds. And the RUSI report that Max cites estimating an 11 percent real decline in defense spending to 2016-2017 is wildly optimistic: the highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies puts the level of implied cuts at 6 percent per year by 2015.

All of that is really bad news. But here’s the worst of it: Britain is going to justify its cuts by drawing on the arguments the Obama Administration is using to justify cuts on this side of the Atlantic. Both states accept that defense budgets will decline in the coming decade. Both states blame the size of today’s defense budgets, in part, on the competitive extravagance of the armed services. Finally, both argue that defense acquisition reform is vital because the nature of war has changed: failure to reform will therefore result in defeat as well as waste. So, sure, worry about the British forces. But worry about ours as well.

Max Boot is worried about the future of Britain’s armed forces under the Conservatives, should they be so lucky as to win the election on Thursday. He’s right to worry, but this isn’t a Conservative problem. It’s a British problem. As a letter in today’s Times from three senior British security officials makes clear, the plans of the Liberal Democrats – who stand a chance of forming a part of a coalition government – are even worse: they encompass, amidst much else, a profound skepticism about the United States, an abandonment of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, and a refusal to even contemplate pre-emptive military action against Iran.

The Conservative emphasis, as Max notes, is on the need to save money in defense through reform. There is something to be said for this. Since 2004, the size of the Ministry of Defense’s civilian ranks has shrunk by 19 percent. Yet expenditures on civilians are up by 13 percent, and rose almost twice as fast over that period as the cost of an actual member of the forces. This is because the cuts on the civilian side have come exclusively out of the lower salary ranks, while the bureaucracy at the top has grown.

In short, the picture here is identifiably the same as it is elsewhere under Labour: more top-down control, more bureaucracy, more spending on senior officials, more waste, more disguised debts, and fewer actual capabilities.  From this point of view, Liam Fox’s promise to scrutinize the top ranks of the forces is encouraging, because it puts the emphasis on one of the areas where Labour has failed to contain costs.

But at the end of the day, reform will not be enough. Indeed, Britain’s last Strategic Defense Review, in 1998, was premised on the idea that savings from procurement reform would fill the acknowledged gap between Britain’s means and its ends. Those savings, predictably, failed to materialize. As I point out in a forthcoming article from the Royal United Services Institute, the gap between Britain’s budget and its procurement programs alone to 2038-2039 is now on the order of 300 billion pounds. And the RUSI report that Max cites estimating an 11 percent real decline in defense spending to 2016-2017 is wildly optimistic: the highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies puts the level of implied cuts at 6 percent per year by 2015.

All of that is really bad news. But here’s the worst of it: Britain is going to justify its cuts by drawing on the arguments the Obama Administration is using to justify cuts on this side of the Atlantic. Both states accept that defense budgets will decline in the coming decade. Both states blame the size of today’s defense budgets, in part, on the competitive extravagance of the armed services. Finally, both argue that defense acquisition reform is vital because the nature of war has changed: failure to reform will therefore result in defeat as well as waste. So, sure, worry about the British forces. But worry about ours as well.

Read Less




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