"Mission accomplished" in Afghanistan? For the Tory Party, yes.

image

Aaron Ellis

On Monday, the Prime Minister declared that Britain had accomplished its mission in Afghanistan. A “basic level of security” had been achieved there meaning our troops could come home with their “heads held high”. Mr. Cameron has a weakness for hyperbolae (e.g. GCHQ searching for online paedophiles is comparable to the Enigma code-breakers…) and he was criticised for making such a sanguine statement. The conflict is far from “mission accomplished” – though as far as the Tories are concerned, it has served its purpose.

Afghanistan is more important to David Cameron than most people, he included, probably realise. It is the source of his contradictory foreign policy and it was crucial to the rehabilitation of our Party as a responsible alternative government to Labour.

In his handling of foreign policy, Mr. Cameron is torn between idealism and realism – and Afghanistan is the source of these conflicting impulses. He believes that al-Qa’ida used the country as a base because it was a failed state and it was a failed state because the West abandoned it after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. For him, it “is a great example of a country that if we walk away from and if we ignore and if we forget about, the problems will come visited back on our doorstep.” Had the West somehow ended the civil war and helped it with development assistance, then ‘just think what might have been avoided.’ This conviction lay behind the interventions in Libya and Mali. When justifying Mali, the Prime Minister argued that if Britain did not “make the world safe all over the place”, then the threat from militant Islamists would only grow and “we will face it” eventually. Yet this limitless interventionism jars with his efforts to portray himself as a prudent realist.

We are running a global race for power and influence, according to Mr. Cameron, necessitating a strategic foreign policy which focuses on our national interests. “If our influence is under challenge,” as William Hague believes it is, then we must “make the most, systematically and strategically, of our great national assets.” This is especially true when it comes to the military. Whereas Labour “made too many commitments without the resources to back them up”, the Conservatives would be more discriminating. Afghanistan is the perfect example. In 2006, Tony Blair authorised troops to go into Helmand in insufficient numbers for the goals he had set them. Just a few years later when Gordon Brown wanted to send in more, Tory support was conditional on a “tightly defined” strategy “backed up by extra equipment”. In Mr. Cameron’s view, we simply can’t afford anymore these wars to build perfect societies in inhospitable places. “Every battle we fight” must help Britain “rise” amidst the decline and fall of other Great Powers.

Underpinning this contradictory foreign policy is the way he thinks about globalisation; it justifies both his idealism and realism. For almost two decades now, many in the West have been in thrall to an idea which I call ‘the internationalisation of the national interest’. It is the belief that the world has become so interconnected that crises in developing countries threaten our own security and therefore we must resolve them pre-emptively. Mr. Blair once argued that if governments are ultimately concerned about protecting their own people, as realists argue, then “the new frontiers for our security are global”. The Tory leadership buys into this idealistic worldview, but it also believes that globalisation has created the global race, which demands a realist response. Mr. Hague once tried to square the circle: “We should never be ashamed of saying we will promote our own national interest,” for it “is no narrow agenda”.

Even though the Prime Minister thinks about international crises like Libya and Mali in Blairite terms, as Leader of the Opposition he often attacked Labour for its allegedly idealistic and astrategic foreign policy. These criticisms, especially those about Afghanistan, helped rehabilitate the Conservatives as a party of government.

By supporting the war in principle but attacking Labour’s handling of it, David Cameron could portray himself as a responsible and “hard-headed” statesman, dispelling fears that he was not up to the job of running the country. Since the mid-1990s, the Tories had been dogged by a widespread belief that they were too irresponsible to hold office. Britain is in an era of ‘valence’ politics, it is argued: voters value ‘competence and credibility over commitment to a cause or class’ according to Tim Bale. It was essential, therefore, for Mr. Cameron to portray the Party as ‘a proficient alternative administration’. When it came to Labour and Afghanistan, he used a tactic that has always worked well for us in the past: claiming our opponents were too weak or incompetent to be trusted with the serious business of war. This tactic was an important part of the long campaign to force out Gordon Brown.

It is strange to think now just how tough an adversary Mr. Brown was, especially when you examine the popular image of him as ‘substantial’ in the context of the Tories’ perception problem. Labour capitalised on this with the ‘Not flash, just Gordon’ advertisement campaign. His popularity proved short-lived, as we all know, but the financial crash could have been for him ‘what 9/11 was to Blair.’ These crises engaged their respective skills, ‘fitted into [their] worldview, and saw [them] acting in a bold and confident fashion’, writes the politics scholar Stephen Dyson. And just as the War on Terror strengthened the image of Mr. Blair as a responsible guardian of Britain’s safety, Mr. Brown’s handling of the crash had the same potential. If he was to be forced out of office, the Tory leadership would have to play on an alternative perception of him – an incompetent leader whose actions were motivated by concerns that had nothing to do with the national interest.

The Conservative critique of Afghanistan reinforced this perception. Labour had insufficiently ‘realist’ aims (“creat[ing] Switzerland in the Hindu Kush”) and they lacked the commitment needed to fight, denying the military the resources it needed to win. In July 2009, Mr. Brown was thrown off guard when the then Chief of the Defence Staff claimed that more helicopters in the country would save lives. Mr. Cameron took advantage of the subsequent uproar, arguing Labour “have got to realise we are fighting a war”. It was not simply about money, but “about commitment. About rolling up your sleeves and realising we need more of what we’ve got actually on the frontline.” By focusing on these arguments the Tory leadership maintained their overall support for the campaign, while also playing on both popular mistrust of Blairite interventionism and a belief that the worsening military situation was entirely Mr. Brown’s fault. “We always support our troops, but we have not shied from criticising the Government’s conduct of the war,” William Hague once explained, “when we have felt we must speak out.”

Of course, the critique was only partially true; some of it downright misleading. Mr. Brown framed the campaign in the same ‘realist’ terms used by Mr. Cameron: “We are in Afghanistan as a result of a hard-headed assessment of the terrorist threat facing Britain”, he once stated. Success would be achieved by “enabling the Afghans to take over from international forces; and to continue the essential work of denying [their] territory as a base for terrorists.” Yet he had lost perhaps the most important asset of any politician, the right to be heard, as the Conservatives had already managed to portray themselves as the party of the national interest.

The historian Hew Strachan has argued that the Tory leadership were ‘reluctant to join the dots’ between the public’s support for the military and ‘the lack of [it] for the missions’, but withdrawing from Afghanistan may not have led to a landslide. They had to not only win votes, but also appear to be responsible. Michael Howard revoked the Party’s support for Iraq, one of the most unpopular wars in Britain’s history, but it was seen as opportunistic and irresponsible. However, the problem that David Cameron and William Hague created for themselves when they inherited Afghanistan was maintaining their “hard-headed” rhetoric at the same time as pulling out the troops.

Mr. Cameron’s announcement, just a month after becoming Prime Minister, that we would be out by 2015 caused a disparity between his words and his actions. Those fighting were “defending our freedom and our way of life as surely and as bravely as any soldiers” in our history. Britain could not abandon the Afghans as we had to save them “from a return to the brutality of the Taliban, who handed the entire country to Al Qaeda [sic] as a base for logistics and training”. If they came back, then “the terrorist training camps [would] come back”, which would mean “more terrorists, more bombs and more slaughter on our streets.” The rhetoric suggests Afghanistan is a war of necessity, but the deadline implies it is a war of choice. As Tory backbencher John Baron once pointed out to the Foreign Secretary: If we want to “deny al-Qaeda a base from which to operate and pose a threat to [our] streets”, then “surely we should stay there until we have achieved that objective”?

When he was pressed on whether or not British combat troops would be out by 2015 regardless of the conditions on the ground, Mr. Hague emphasised: “I do not want anyone to be in any doubt about this: we will be fulfilling the Prime Minister’s commitment.” Given that ‘the war will be lost’, according to one study, if the development of the Afghan National Security Forces is rushed ‘beyond what is possible’, the deadline contradicts Mr. Cameron’s claim that we would only leave once the job was done. The situation today is far from “mission accomplished”.

As far as the Tory leadership is concerned, Afghanistan has served its purpose: the Conservatives can now demonstrate their fitness for office by actually governing. Yet its continuing influence on David Cameron’s foreign policy has the potential to undermine his hard-won image as a prudent, responsible, strategically-minded statesman.

If the clamour for intervention in Syria continues, as well as for action in any other country that descends into civil war, the Prime Minister will be increasingly torn between his limitless doctrine of preventative action and his ‘realist’ ambitions for British foreign policy. One of these will have to be sacrificed eventually or the Party will make the choice for him – as happened when MPs rejected his call for airstrikes against Syria. Like his old Labour adversaries, he may come to be seen as a weak leader frittering away Britain’s scare military resources in idealistic wars-of-choice. 

Follow Aaron on Twitter.

CCHQ must find a new online home for the deleted speeches; they’re invaluable

Aaron Ellis

Several years ago I started working on an article about Afghanistan and the Conservatives, only the research ballooned to such an extent that what was supposed to be a relatively short piece turned into a fifteen-thousand-word Masters dissertation. A sizeable chunk of this research is made up of quotes from speeches by senior Tory figures over the past eight years. This material has proven invaluable when writing about the Prime Minister’s interventions in Libya and Syria, as I have been able to use his own words to illustrate the contradictions in his foreign policy. So when I learnt that the Party had deleted ten years’ worth of speeches and press statements from its website, my immediate reaction was: “Is this my fault…?”

Journalists made sarcastic remarks about Mr. Cameron’s commitment to transparent government – in speeches that were no longer publicly available. A Labour MP took the prize for perhaps the most sanctimonious response: “[I]t will take more than David Cameron pressing delete to make people forget about his broken promises”. What these “broken promises” are, I don’t know; I can’t think of anything on the scale of Nick Clegg and tuition fees. Perhaps it is one of those clichés that politicians use regardless of whether or not they are wide of the mark; I would’ve thought that from Labour’s perspective, the Prime Minister has been consistently heartless…

The reason why all this material was deleted is probably mundane: the site may only have so much space and whoever runs it probably thought that few people would want to read the conference speeches of Iain Duncan Smith. A Party spokesman said as much: “These changes allow people to quickly and easily access the most important information we provide – how we are clearing up Labour’s economic mess, taking the difficult decisions and standing up for hardworking people”. As vital as it is to furnish people with the information proving these clichés, I think the decision was an unfortunate one.

Whenever someone asks to contribute to this blog, I emphasise to them that they must engage with whatever the Leadership has said about the issue they are writing about, as I do with foreign policy. That way, their articles are relevant to the Tory debate. But now that ten years’ worth of speeches and press statements have essentially disappeared from the public space, it will be much harder for them to do so. More seriously, it will be harder not only for me to check if this or that senior figure really did say whatever an author claims, but also harder for the Party to rebut their opponents if they lie about us. If Labour simply made up quotes by senior Conservatives, then the Party wouldn’t be able to furnish journalists with a link to show they’re lying.

If there truly isn’t room for all this material, then I think CCHQ ought to find a new online home for it. Perhaps the Conservative Research Department should get its own website and it can be accessed there, as well as a wealth of other material. After all, it would be an odd Tory Party that didn’t conserve its own history.

Follow Aaron on Twitter.

Hague is right to restore relations with Iran

Aaron Ellis

It was reported yesterday that in a telephone conversation with the Iranian foreign minister, William Hague said that he is open to improving ties between his country and the United Kingdom. Relations were severed nearly two years ago when mobs attacked the British Embassy in Tehran. Frankly, it’s about time.

Both David Cameron and the Foreign Secretary imagine themselves to be ‘grand strategists’, yet they have shown little strategic nous as far as Tehran is concerned. We want to withdraw peacefully from Afghanistan, end the conflict in Syria, and stop the Iranians from developing a nuclear capability. Achieving all of these goals depends on having a better relationship with Iran.

If we want the Tehran regime to stop its nuclear programme, then we need to convince them that the West is not a threat to them. Toppling Bashar al-Assad in Syria would isolate them in the region, as some predict, but isolation is likely to make them more committed to possessing a nuclear capability. We need to negotiate a settlement between the Syrian rebels and the Assad regime, and we need Iran to help us.

We also need its help to withdraw peacefully from Afghanistan. As I wrote in these pages last year, there is no rational reason why the Iranians would want either continuing instability in the country or a Taliban victory, yet they view things through the prism of Western-Iranian enmity. If the West is tied down in Afghanistan, then it cannot attack them. By persuading them to ‘help, not hinder the allies in ending the war [there], it may be easier to negotiate a solution to their nuclear programme, as there will be an element of trust between the parties.’

In politics, working relationships are always fluid; if Britain wants to achieve its numerous goals in the Middle East and Central Asia, then Mr. Cameron and Mr. Hague must strike up a working relationship with Iran. 

Follow Aaron on Twitter.

Defence cuts must lead to a limited world role for Britain

image

Louis Reynolds

George Osborne has opted to reduce the MOD’s civilian headcount as part of the latest £11.5 billion savings drive implemented across Whitehall departments. While this cutback will certainly be noticed even within the supposedly wasteful MOD, it is an excellent alternative to further cutting H.M. Armed Forces proper.

Cutting the Forces to some degree is also seemingly the only option the Chancellor can decide upon in his mission to further slim down the British state. With Education and the NHS – which will by 2014-2015 account for 43% of spending – totally ‘ring-fenced’, the other departments must inevitably undergo more substantial butchery than would otherwise be the case, especially given Liberal Democrat misgivings about further cuts to Welfare.

The Armed Forces is also an easy target. Despite occasional and brief protests from the Chief of the General Staff Peter Wall or retired senior officers, the military is often the subject of significant cuts because it is in the culture of Britain’s services to make do. Furthermore, since the end of the Cold War the continuing theme underlining British defence policy has been near constant downsizing. Finally defence cuts, while unpopular and often unwise, are felt less directly by the general public than other spending reductions.

The unequivocal necessity of government spending reductions combined with the political inability of the coalition to meaningfully confront the departments with the most substantial budgets has resulted in a 20,000 soldier reduction of British Army strength, around a fifth of its personnel, over the Coalition’s period in government.

Despite this significant reduction, the Strategic Defence and Security Review failed to properly engage with the changes the government has made to the British Armed forces, merely offering a miniaturised version of Britain’s Cold War capability and a more cautious application of force than that used in the Blair government’s unpopular operations.

The British Army was chronically undermanned and under resourced in its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan during the early part of the Global War on Terror. The British Army’s failure in Basra and its severely limited utility in Helmand was the direct result (to a considerable extent) of a chronic lack of resources and manpower as well as a commitment which overreached its capability. Britain’s struggle to amply fulfil her supporting role in both of the major conflicts of the early twenty-first century damaged her reputation and risked significant military embarrassment.

Since the withdrawal from Iraq and the declaration of imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan, the British Army has undergone quickly implemented and very deep cuts. The increase to defence spending that would be required to enable the British Army to successfully enter into two such medium scale military commitments today is, in the intermediate term, unforeseeable. Minor mercies such as today’s announcement make little realistic difference to that uncomfortable and poorly addressed fact.

Where does this leave Britain? Despite Ed Miliband’s recent and uncharacteristic outbreak of pragmatism, the Conservative party is respected as a realistic and frank broker. Sensibly reviewing British defence policy in a manner that the public could understand would lay much needed foundations for British strategy, as well as helping to prevent our ‘can do’ military being overcommitted in future operations. It is in the country’s interest, and the Coalition could do so without alienating core voters; moreover, once a realistic vision of Britain’s hard power capabilities has been established, a less nebulous and myopic foreign and security policy could be shaped.

The Coalition cannot take the easy route and conform to the pattern set by the Blair and Brown governments; continual minimisation of an outmoded and unappreciated fighting force. If we cannot afford to substantially augment H.M. Armed Forces, we must think much harder about what role it must play.

Follow Louis on Twitter.

Drones are lethal on the battlefield and gentle on the wallet

image

Crispin Burke

In March of this year, Wired Magazine revealed that an armed drone from the Royal Air Force - controlled from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire - fired ordnance at enemy forces in Helmand, Afghanistan, in support of British troops. It was the first drone strike controlled from British territory, and represents the latest success in the Britain’s ever-emerging Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program.

The successful use of armed drones by British forces is a positive development for the UK for three reasons. First, armed drones are an emerging technology which will play a vital role on the 21st Century battlefield. Second, Britain’s ability to employ armed drones reduces its dependency on the United States to provide the same capability. Third, and most importantly, in an era of dwindling defense spending, drones are an inexpensive - and proven - alternative to manned aircraft and aircraft carriers.   

The United States has long been the global leader in armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. UAVs quickly proved their worth in Iraq and Afghanistan, where their sensors, endurance, and laser-guided missiles gave American forces an edge previously unimaginable. America’s drone capabilities have only continued to improve, both in terms of the quantity and quality of the machines themselves, as well as the people who operate them. 

Today, nearly one-third of all US military aircraft are unmanned, with aircraft ranging from the hand-held Raven, to the Global Hawk, whose wingspan rivals that of a C-130 Hercules. The United States even has a handful of drones with stealth capabilities, such as the RQ-170 Sentinel, one of which crashed in Iran. Still, according to recent reports, the accident rates for drones such as the Predator are roughly compatible with those of general aviation aircraft. Perhaps most striking is the US Air Force’s investment in the people who operate these vehicles: in 2011, the US Air Force trained more UAV operators than fighter pilots and bomber pilots combined. 

America’s superiority in unmanned flight—especially with armed, Medium-Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) platforms—has greatly benefitted NATO. So much so, unfortunately, that NATO has become overly reliant on American drones for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. 

In the aftermath of the bombing campaign in Libya, US officials - including NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Admiral James Stavridis and former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates - chided NATO for their inability to collect intelligence, and process it into targeting data - a capability provided almost wholly by US forces. This sense of frustration over Europe’s inability to field sufficient UAVs has been echoed throughout the ranks within the US military. In a memorandum sent to the Secretary of the US Army, one brigade commander in Afghanistan expressed frustration when British forces were given priority of support from American-owned and -operated UAVs. Britain could indeed rectify this imbalance by acquiring armed drones and training sufficient operators.

Additionally, though America’s commitment to Britain is strong - both through NATO and the so-called “special relationship” - it has, regrettably, not been the most reliable partner.  In such instances, British forces may have to call upon the unique capabilities provided by drones, operated by their own forces.

In order to do so, the UK must invest not only in the machines themselves, but also the facilities to operate them, as well as the personnel to maintain them, fly them, and process information into targetable intelligence. Like the US military, Britain must continue to assess its policies regarding training, manning, promotion policies, and even organizational culture for those who work with UAVs.

Most importantly, however, is that armed drones perform many of the same functions as fixed-wing fighter-bombers at a fraction of the cost. For instance, though Britain’s planned F-35 fighter is a stealthy, capable dogfighter, most of the combat British forces have seen in the past decade has taken place in uncontested airspace, rendering these features superfluous—calling into question the F-35’s £124 million price tag. Not to mention, the F-35B has been plagued with design problems, and will not enter service until at least 2019, according to some estimates.

General Atomics’ combat-proven MQ-9 Reaper drone, on the other hand, is a proven design, which can carry over 1700 kg of munitions and loiter for up to 14 hours while fully loaded. For less than £35 million, Britain can acquire four Reapers, plus the ground control stations and satellite links to operate them. Furthermore, forward-deployed drones require a much smaller logistical footprint than their manned counterparts. Indeed, fiscal realities make armed drones an attractive military option, considering the cost of manned aircraft and aircraft carriers.

Drones are not a silver-bullet weapon. The Ministry of Defence has noted that UAVs have critical weaknesses. Drones are vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles and are easy targets for enemy fighter aircraft; the data links which control them are susceptible to jamming, hacking, and viruses. Yet, despite these weaknesses, drones have been a game-changing weapon for NATO. A continued investment in armed UAVs and operators will help keep Britain’s Armed Forces relevant on the 21st Century battlefield, allow them to contribute to multinational operations more effectively, and provide many of the same capabilities as manned aircraft at a fraction of the cost.

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator and Iraq War veteran, who has served in the 82nd Airborne Division and the 10th Mountain Division.  His views are his own, and do not reflect those of the US Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter.

Intervention is a powerful tool, it must be used wisely

image

Aaron Ellis

I opposed intervening in Libya, criticised the Mali campaign, and have repeatedly warned against too deep an involvement in Syria. Considering this track record, it would be easy to conclude that I am against interventions anywhere and everywhere – but you would be wrong.

Like diplomacy, intervention is a tool of foreign policy, and it would be absurd to be against either of them on principle. The problem has been that in Libya, Mali, and Syria, intervention has been used to further bad foreign policy. And I am certainly against bad foreign policy on principle.

Intervention can come in many different forms. As Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus point out, its Latin root roughly translates into ‘to come between’, admitting ‘to nothing more than coming into a new relationship.’ There is much ambiguity about the nature of the relationship and who it is with, how it manifests itself, and how we came into it in the first place. Attempting to offer some clarity, I argued in these pages that we should intervene where it is in our interests to do so and our involvement should be proportionate to those interests. I called this, somewhat pompously, ‘the Ellis Doctrine’.

Yet British involvement in Libya, Mali, and Syria has been disproportionate in my view. Justifying the campaign against Colonel Gaddafi, David Cameron argued that “[j]ust because you can’t do the right thing everywhere doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the right thing somewhere.” But was it necessary for us to participate in the military intervention in order to “do the right thing”? Could we not have focused on the diplomatic side and left the fighting to others? If the Prime Minister had limited our ownership of the war, he might not have been cheered by the crowds in Benghazi, but he would have decreased Britain’s liability to the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you buy it.

Almost two years ago, I warned that Libya bears an eerie resemblance to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.

In 2001/02, we helped a loose coalition topple a brutal regime that we disliked without knowing too much about them or about what we wanted the postwar environment to look like. As a result of our uncoordinated actions, we created the problems that gradually undermined the illusory peace that followed. The postwar environment was shaped on the ground by the many factions and militias that we had empowered long before Western policymakers met to decide the future of the country. Over a decade and billions of pounds later, we are still trying to catch-up.

The same thing has happened in Libya. We helped a loose coalition of militias overthrow the Gaddafi regime without knowing too much about them or about what we wanted to happen afterwards. Postwar planning was deliberately scant because, like with Afghanistan in 2001/02, we were terrified of the prospect of being drawn into nation-building. The postwar environment was thus shaped by those many militias fighting on the ground and they now dominate the country.

Last month, one militia besieged government buildings, demanding that any old regime officials step down. Parliamentarians were pressured to pass a law banning them from ever holding office again. In September last year, a militia attacked the American consulate in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens. Three months before that, the British ambassador was almost killed in an RPG attack on his convoy.

Two years ago, Mr. Cameron warned that unless Gaddafi was toppled then a “rogue state” would develop on Europe’s doorstep, but Libya now risks becoming a so-called ‘failed state’. In January, a militant Islamist group used the country as a base from which to attack the In Amenas gas complex in Algeria. “The south of Libya is what the north of Mali was like” before France intervened, says one Malian official.

Last month, NATO began looking into whether or not it should train Libya’s nascent security forces in order to rein in the militias and improve the security situation in the country. Of course, this should have been planned during the initial campaign. Thus like in Afghanistan, we are trying to catch-up, and it is in these circumstances that I can see Britain being drawn into another long and costly nation-building mission in a country of only marginal interest to us. And after a decade of fruitless endeavour there, whoever is Prime Minister at the time may boast that he will pursue a more “hard-headed” approach unlike his predecessors – as Mr. Cameron boasted about Afghanistan four months before the Libyan intervention.

In his first Guildhall speech, he told the guests at the prestigious annual dinner that his foreign policy would “focus like a laser on defending and advancing Britain’s national interest.” This “hardheaded” approach was now being applied to Afghanistan. “We are not there to build a perfect democracy,” implying that that was what Tony Blair and Gordon Brown tried to do. Yet it is easy for politicians to be dispassionately realist about a quagmire they’ve inherited from their opponents; it’s much harder for them to work out if they are creating one themselves.

Why should Britain be drawn back into Libya, some may ask. Remember, we went in to get rid of Mad Dog and we got the job done. End of story. This is where we return to the importance of the form and extent of an intervention.

The more involved we are in an intervention, the more implicit responsibility we incur. Colin Powell warned George W. Bush that if he invaded Iraq, then he would “own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You’ll own it all.” Apart from the moral obligations this ownership imposes on us, trying to shirk the responsibilities can undermine whatever gains we made initially.

For example, some pundits argue that by arming the Syrian rebels, the West would gain their eternal gratitude after the fall of Bashar al-Assad. Would this gratitude continue, however, if they felt we had abandoned them in the much harder postwar phase? Given how quickly the Libyan rebels accused us of abandoning them even before the intervention started, why would they continue to feel gratitude for our help if we ignored their current problems? The job was only half-done two years ago and we have tried to shirk the responsibilities we incurred ever since.

In a couple of weeks, The Spectator will be hosting a debate about whether or not Britain should intervene in Syria. The question is misleading – we already have intervened in the civil war there. A more relevant debate for us to have is to what extent should we intervene, in what form, and does it actually further our foreign policy? Unfortunately, as my friend and blogeague Adam Elkus has pointed out, ‘tools’ are sexy to talk about, but ‘how they actually advance’ our interests ‘most surely isn’t.’

Follow Aaron on Twitter.

Think twice Mr Cameron before arming Syria’s rebels

Aaron Ellis 11.03am

During a statement to the House of Commons yesterday about last week’s European Council, the Prime Minister warned that the Syrian crisis was “attracting and empowering a new cohort of Al Qaeda-linked extremists.” The only way to check their malign influence is if the West arms those “parts of the Syrian opposition that want a proper transition to a free and democratic Syria.”

“My concern is that if the UK with others is not helping the opposition, and helping to shape and work with it, it is much more difficult to get the transition we all want”, said Mr Cameron.

To paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, practical men are usually the slaves of some bad pundit. In this case, the Prime Minister is the slave of pro-interventionist commentators like Anne-Marie Slaughter, who have been arguing this for months.

"Sooner or later some combination of the opposition groups will indeed control Syria," she wrote in July.

"The eventual winners…will matter a great deal to the health, wealth and stability of what is still the most geo-strategically important region in the world. Syrians will remember those who remember them, those who cared enough to help save their lives." Neither history nor recent events substantiate her argument.

As Micah Zenko wrote in response to Slaughter, it assumes a number of things:

First, that the post-Assad political leaders of Syria will be the same individuals who received U.S. weapons…Second, any country not arming the Syrian rebels will be remembered for their lack of enthusiasm, and suffer the wrath of Damascus for some period of time. Third, Syria’s political leaders will closely align their policy preferences with the United States, because the Obama administration armed them – rather than say the preferences of the Qataris or Saudis, who are providing weapons to Syrian rebel groups.

Western support for the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s shows these assumptions to be dubious. Some of its commanders later formed the Taliban, who, when they controlled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, ignored both American and Saudi demands that they kick out Osama bin Laden and al-Qa’ida because they thought it was in their interests to keep them there.

Internal politics will also determine whether or not opposition groups align with the West.

The newly-created ‘National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’ (NCSROF) recently recognised the al-Nusra Front because of its popularity within Syria, even though the United States has listed it as a terrorist group due to its links to al-Qa’ida. Yet the NCSROF is recognised by the British government as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Syrian people and enjoys the full support of the Foreign Secretary.

“[Syrians] need to feel the solid ground of a unified political alternative to the Assad regime”, William Hague declared last week. “The National Coalition has now begun to offer that hope, and it is only right that we give them the recognition they deserve, and the support they need to survive and to prevail.”

Speaking about Afghanistan, Rory Stewart warned: “we should recognise the limits of our knowledge, power and legitimacy.” The same could be said about our deepening involvement in Syria.

Neither the Prime Minister nor the Foreign Secretary possess the knowledge, power, or legitimacy to shape the internal make-up of the Syrian uprising. Post-war Libya ought to have taught them this. When the Syrians formed a political union with Egypt in 1958, the president warned the Egyptian dictator Colonel Nasser that his people were difficult to govern.

"Fifty per cent…consider themselves national leaders, twenty-five per cent think they are prophets, and ten per cent imagine they are gods." This accurately describes the opposition to the Assad regime.

British involvement in Syria should reflect its interests, which are limited.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis

From our own correspondent… with William Hague at the Foreign Office

Aaron Ellis 10.30am

I felt a bit ashamed when I joined Twitter a couple of years ago. It felt like I was Winston Smith at the end of George Orwell’s 1984, finally giving in to oppressive forces. Yet the social networking site has furnished me with opportunities I would not otherwise have had - such as meeting William Hague.

Last month, the Foreign Secretary asked his Twitter followers to say what they think should be the United Kingdom’s top foreign policy priority. The best five would then meet him to discuss their suggestions.

Last week, the winners of this competition – Katie Jamieson (@kejamieson), Antonia King (@antoniaking), Jack McCann (@Jack_Mc_Cann), James Willby (@JamesWillby), and I – met Mr Hague and enjoyed a long, interesting talk on a wide range of issues, including trade promotion and the war in Afghanistan.

A chunk of the discussion was about British foreign policy and the ‘Pacific Century’, which had been the topic of my winning suggestion. I argued that the United Kingdom had to define its role (or non-role) in a world where power was concentrated in Asia-Pacific, as it would impact on all our other defence and foreign policies. The Foreign Secretary emphasised to me that we had to be in the region, but he didn’t show that he appreciated how big an effort would be needed by the British to become real players there. ‘It would represent the most judicious, and audacious, use of the hard/soft power combination yet seen in contemporary politics,’ one expert has warned.

Mr Hague agreed with me that a potential role for the United Kingdom would be to “fill in” for the Americans as they retrench to the Pacific, which was what I argued in these pages in the summer. He used the Libyan intervention as an example of this “filling in”, ironic perhaps given my opposition to the campaign. I was too polite (as well as awed) to point out that the United States enabled 90 per cent of the military operations there, which implies we don’t yet have the capacity to take up Washington’s mantle in many areas of the world.

The other issue that I raised was British policy in Central and South Asia; as I argued in May, the United Kingdom is pursuing policies in the region that are incompatible with one another. We want a stable Afghanistan, a special relationship with India, and a strategic partnership with Pakistan – the problem is that the latter two countries believe stability in Afghanistan comes at the expense of either one or the other.

Mr Hague recognises the dilemma – in contrast to the Defence Secretary, Phillip Hammond, who denied it exists when I put it to him in December – but he thinks that the British are best placed to mediate a solution. As an example, he pointed to the recent meeting in New York between David Cameron and the Afghan and Pakistani leaders.

Though I am often critical of this Government’s foreign policies, I have always believed that Britain needs William Hague as its Foreign Secretary – a belief reinforced after meeting him. His policies are good for the country, even if I think some of them are strategically discontinuous. Mr Hague is also likeable, charismatic, and he has built up good connections with leaders around the world, which aren’t bad things when it comes to diplomacy.

The meeting also showed his enthusiasm for engaging younger people via new technologies, on the issue of the many challenges facing this country in the early twenty-first century.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis