Winter 2006

Strategy, Risk and the Decisions That Count

Douglas Hurd

The word strategy is grossly abused. It is now wheeled out to dignify almost any human activity such as cleaning a street or preventing people getting fat. In its true meaning strategy (as opposed to tactics) describes the bringing together of different circumstances and objectives in order to devise a settled policy which reconciles them all.

I would argue gloomily that Britain today has no strategy in the field of foreign affairs and defence. I would qualify this at once by restricting this statement to the area most in dispute, namely the Middle East stretching east to Afghanistan and Pakistan and south into the Sudan. This area is and will remain of critical importance to us, partly because of oil but mainly because within that area the bitter division within the Muslim world about its relationships with the West has hatched a particularly destructive brand of terrorism.

The United States Administration has, or had until recently, a strategy for this area and in particular for winning the war on terror”. This strategy has always been questioned and has recently begun to come apart. Its regional emphasis on the use of military power and the forceful projection of freedom and democracy into the area are no longer regarded as convincing. Out of the debate in the United States will doubtless emerge a new and more realistic strategy. The fact that there is such debate involving a free press, free elections and a free judiciary is one reason why we are fortunate in our super power, whatever our criticisms of current American policies.

One would have thought that Britain too, given its interests and its experience in this area, would have devised a strategy. One could have hoped that those in charge of decision making would have tried to bring together the different points of crisis, establish realistic objectives and work out how they could be reconciled. Instead of this the British Government seems to be handling the five different current crises as if they were unrelated, thus considerably increasing the chances of failure in one or more of them.

This is not the place to argue the case for or against the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. I have always thought it wrong and foolish.What is hardly in doubt is that the world in general (and the United Kingdom in particular) is more at risk from terrorism because of that invasion. As I write Iraqis continue to kill each other in large numbers day by day, to such an extent that the British media no longer cover the tragedy. Ministers continue to proclaim that our troops must stay until they have finished the job”. The nature of this job is rarely defined. It obviously no longer consists of reconstructing a shattered country and creating a beacon of successful democracy for the Middle East.

In Afghanistan the objective is clearer and the prestige and authority of NATO have been committed to achieve it. Whether present troop numbers and the present division between hard and soft power are adequate techniques for our purpose is debateable. We stand for the moment on a knife-edge between success and failure.

Meanwhile we have entered into a mounting quarrel with the country in between Iraq and Afghanistan over its nuclear programme. The arguments for seeking to prevent Iran from turning its nuclear energy to military purposes are clearly strong.Whether the techniques at present being employed to dissuade them will work is not clear. Nor is there any sign that in handling this third situation we are taking into account its relationship to the first two, particularly in view of the presence of relatively small numbers of British troops in areas of Iraq and Afghanistan particularly open to Iranian influence. The fourth crisis, involving Palestine and Lebanon, helps to spread a poison of anti-Western, including anti’ British feeling, throughout the area. Britain is active diplomatically but at the moment deprived of any real influence.We are unable to join other Europeans in supplying troops for Lebanon and our policies seem so closely aligned to those of the United States as to be indistinguishable and therefore ineffective.

The fifth crisis, in Darfur, finds us equally ineffective. The Prime Minister, having apologised for the failure of an earlier Government to help stop the genocide in Rwanda twelve years ago, watches a similar tragedy evolve in the Sudan.

Where in the British system are these matters considered together?Where are the facts and the objectives compared and put in some order of practicality?We seem to have wandered down different paths for different reasons and are in danger of getting seriously lost. The Prime Minister holds a particular responsibility for strategy. Alongside him the Cabinet should be active, and in particular the Foreign and Defence Secretaries. The Chiefs of Staff should be weighty and sometimes articulate figures, known and respected by the public. Above all Parliament and in particular the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees of the House of Commons should be ceaselessly vigilant. These are not on the whole matters for arguments on Party lines, but for probing by interested and experienced politicians of all Parties.

All these mechanisms exist but they are clearly not functioning satisfactorily. I wonder whether it might not be sensible to add a fresh institution outside Government. It might be possible to constitute a Council of Strategic Risk with people of authority and experience in assessing the sort of problems I have described. It could include some former Chiefs of Staff of the three Services, and former heads of intelligence agencies. It would bring together representatives of the main think tanks, for example Chatham House and the Institute of Strategic Studies. It would include representatives of the academic world and of NGO’s. It would have room for distinguished individual commentators. It might be established and financed by the Parliamentary Select Committees I have mentioned. It could choose its own tasks or accept tasks referred to it by the Select Committees or indeed by Ministers.

Of course such a body would not usurp the executive role of Government, or the deliberative role of Parliament. It would not deal with the week-by-week handling of a particular crisis. Rather, it would look ahead at the future course of existing disputes, and identify future points of crisis. Its discussion would normally be held in public, and its reports always published.

What for example would be the problems and options open to the British Government if there were a change of régime or policy in Pakistan?What is the relationship between the complex political situation inside Iran and the pressures available to the West in deterring Iran from the military nuclear option?

The focus of every enquiry and report would be the balance of risk, probably of advantage and disadvantage, in any situation which might involve Britain in military action.

There would be no magic in such a Council. It would offer no guarantee of wise decisions. It might however bring together in a timely way democratic discussion of a crisis before British forces are sent into action. It might thus make it easier for Ministers to rally support for such decisions when the fact and probabilities support them – and less easy to launch disconnected military enterprises which have not been properly fully thought through.

Lord Hurd of Westwell, British Foreign Secretary, 1989–1995, and is President of Montrose Associates.