Truss top, Wallace second, Sunak down, Gove up – and Johnson sixth from bottom in our post-shuffle Cabinet League Table

4 Oct
  • Our first post-reshuffle Cabinet League Table suggests that the pieces are still settling on the board – at least as far as our members’ panel is concerned.
  • The general pattern seems to be that those who did well out of the shuffle have done well in the ratings, that there’s concern about the uncertain economic future and the growing state…that activists are willing to make Ministers down if necessary, but that they’re mostly suspending judgement.
  • Liz Truss’s rating remains broadly stable, but she opens up a 15 point gap at the top. That’s because Rishi Sunak is down by about ten points from second to fifth.  That’s not a big drop – but we read it as a reflection of that nervousness about living standards and squeezed incomes.
  • Elsewhere, Ben Wallace is up marginally, but enough to put him second in the table for the first time.  David Frost is third.  Nadhim Zahawi bounces straight in at fifth, Nadine Dorries at seventh, and Anne-Marie Trevelyan at ninth.  Elsewhere, there’s not much movement in terms of scores…
  • …Though Michael Gove is up by 15 points and Dominic Raab by 17, perhaps reflecting a post-reshuffle willingness to wipe the slate relatively clean…
  • …But though no-one is in negative ratings, Priti Patel is now very exposed at third from bottom in the table.  Much of that will be boats; some Insulate Britain and public disorder; some, police failings.
  • Grant Shapps brings up the rear, doubtless drawing fire because of frustration about restrictions on travel abroad.
  • The Prime Minister’s pre-conference position really is very poor: the best explanation we have is that he is the lightning conductor for activists’ unease over economic prospects and strategic direction.
  • We’ve now put all Ministers who attend Cabinet in the table, as well as Ben Elliot, the co-party Chairman.  Oliver Dowden is some 30 points ahead of him.

Olivier Guitta: Biden’s decision to snub France will weaken, not embolden, the U.S. in its dealings with China

20 Sep

Olivier Guitta is the Managing Director of GlobalStrat, a security and geopolitical risk consulting company for companies and governments.

On September 16 President Emmanuel Macron announced that French forces had killed Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the emir of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, in Mali.

Coincidentally, al-Sahrawi had been at the top of the U.S. wanted list for murdering American Special forces in Niger in 2017. So, it is quite ironic that on the same day U.S. President Joe Biden back-stabbed France by announcing a defence alliance with Australia and the UK that included taking away from Paris the contract of the century.

France had signed in 2016 a deal worth $66 billion to supply 12 diesel-powered submarines to Australia. As late as August 30 both countries’ leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the submarine programme. This while Australia had been negotiating since at least March with the UK and the U.S. on getting a deal for nuclear-powered submarines.

It was a deal so secret and so controversial that reportedly only 10 people in the British government knew about it. The project was almost finalised at the G7 meeting in England in June under the nose of Macron while he was cosying up to Biden.

The Biden administration blindsided France, which accused top U.S. officials of hiding information about the deal despite repeated attempts by French diplomats to know what was going on. French diplomats said they first learned of the deal when news leaked in Australian media hours before the official announcement on Wednesday.

Expressing his fury for not only the cancellation of the deal but the handling of the announcement and the non-consulting of France, Macron immediately recalled its ambassadors in Washington and Canberra.

It is quite telling that this is the first time ever happened that France recalled its ambassador to the U.S., showing the seriousness of the diplomatic crisis. Interestingly enough, even Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, said he understood Paris’ fury to be cut out from the alliance.

Things could have gone down way differently: If technology was the problem, why did the Australians not talk to the French about it since, incidentally, France also has nuclear-powered submarines?

We are not talking here about $60 million or $600 million or even $6 billion but about $66 billion. There was surely a way to find a consensus between the four allies, even when bringing to the table the U.S. and the UK, like splitting the contract in three.

In fact, the bigger picture is even more important than the huge defence contact since this AUKUS alliance, as it is called, is all about standing up to China. It is quite ironic that Biden has pushed away France from that alliance since in the past few months Paris has been one of the most sanguine to oppose China’s influence in the region.

Indeed, back in March, China complained about the French military’s activities in the disputed South China Sea, after it sent two warships there. In April, these ships took part in a three-day military exercise with the four members of the Quad alliance- Japan, India, Australia and the U.S.

That’s not all: France, that has several territories in the Pacific, has committed to helping Japan on the military and security level, i.e., protecting against China. Indeed, when Macron visited Japan during the Tokyo Olympics, Prime Minister Suga said he welcomed French plans to build on regional cooperation by boosting Paris’ efforts to “reinforce its strategic orientation, presence and actions in the Indo-Pacific in order to contribute to security, stability and sustainable development in the region.”

In light of this, Biden’s decision to snub France is another major faux-pas that is basically undermining his plan for an anti-China front. This hasn’t escaped Beijing that while officially very angry about the deal denouncing it, China might turn out to be the ultimate winner since it has de facto possibly broken the French resolve to side with the US against Beijing. Indeed, Macron said that France might narrow its focus to concentrate on its specific Indo-Pacific interests, rather than working to push back against China more broadly.

Biden, who wanted to break off from his predecessor when it came to trans-Atlantic relations, has missed yet another opportunity to do so with the AUKUS alliance. His potential anti-China front has been definitely undercut and ironically only of his own doing.

Including France in the alliance would have been wise to repair a deteriorating relationship with Europe that has witnessed the huge historical debacle in Afghanistan, the de facto approval of the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2. Biden has in just eight months lost all of his credibility in European capitals, not a small feat indeed.

Terry Barnes: The significance of this new U.S-UK-Australia security pact – and Johnson’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific

17 Sep

Terry Barnes advised Tony Abbott when he was a Cabinet minister in John Howard’s government.

It may have been missed in Britain midst the excitement of Boris Johnson’s reshuffle and the attention-greedy Sussexes making the cover of Time, but this week’s announcement by Boris Johnson, Joe Biden and Scott Morrison of a ‘trilateral security partnership’, to be known as AUKUS, is hugely significant.

It is to be a relationship of defence, technological and security cooperation. While it essentially formalises existing exchanges between three traditional allies, that in itself has historic strategic and geopolitical implications.

Here in Australia, this announcement is huge news. Not only is Australia formalising a security pact with her two greatest and closest traditional allies, but she is also being admitted by the US and UK into a very select club: countries operating nuclear-powered submarines. Morrison’s government is thereby walking away from a costly but irretrievably dysfunctional contract with the French to co-build a dozen conventional next-generation submarines, exposing itself to billions of dollars in termination costs.  But this hasn’t been a deal-breaker.

That AUKUS was announced, within eight months of the next Australian general election, is even more significant. It’s one thing for a conservative government to sign such a security agreement and pursue nuclear submarines. It’s quite another for a traditionally anti-nuclear and US-skeptical Labor party opposition to endorse such a radical reshaping of Australia’s national security framework. Yet it has – today publicly committed itself to the agreement should Labor win next year’s election, a possibility if opinion polls are right.

Furthermore, just weeks after marking its 70th anniversary, the joint announcement confirms that the ANZUS alliance of Australia, New Zealand and the United States is officially dead.

New Zealand suspended ANZUS almost 40 years ago, because it refused to allow US nuclear-powered ships into her ports: this week, Jacinda Ardern insisted that this bar would apply to nuclear-powered Australian submarines as well. Since New Zealand’s inflexible opposition to nuclear-powered ships sits with Ardern’s refusal to join any Five Eyes strategic arrangements that might antagonise China, AUKUS effectively kills off whatever vestiges of ANZUS are left.

Australia, on the other hand, has been increasingly vocal about the Chinese regime’s geostrategic muscle-flexing, as well as its internal behaviour. Morrison was the first world leader to demand that China account for the origin and escape of Covid-19 from Wuhan, and has given his MPs free rein to criticise China’s strategic ambitions and human rights record – despite the regime’s wolf warrior bullying diplomacy and trade retaliations. AUKUS reminds Xi Jinping that ‘little’ Australia has great and powerful friends, and that she does not stand alone in calling out his bullying.

Jinping certainly should sit up and take note of this critical new development. The two great Anglosphere powers are joining a third, Australia, in making it emphatically clear to China and the world that the Pacific and Indian oceans are not Chinese lakes. The UK and US giving Australia nuclear-powered submarine capability – with the speed, endurance and stealth that this capability ensures – means that there will be a local nuclear-powered, if not nuclear-armed deterrent straddling the approaches to busiest blue water sea-lanes in the world running through the South China Sea.

But from Britain’s perspective, this is a truly remarkable strategic development, the significance of which may not be immediately realised outside Whitehall.

AUKUS is not just sending HMS Queen Elizabeth through the Indian and Pacific Oceans to make an important but nevertheless symbolic freedom of navigation gesture to demonstrate Britain’s resistance to China’s increasingly bellicose aggression. For the first time in the half a century since she withdrew a standing presence from east of Suez, the United Kingdom is joining a formal geostrategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific.

That sends not only a starkly clear message to China: it reassures the entire Indo-Pacific region, and especially India, Japan, and South Korea – and Hong Kong and Taiwan – that their security interests are also British interests. Johnson, Ben Wallace and Liz Truss – fresh from negotiating, with Australia, Britain’s first post-Brexit free trade deal – have grasped the importance and necessity of the UK re-engaging in the Indo-Pacific strategically as well as economically.

And the United States benefits, too, in that strengthening the offensive as well as the defensive capability of a key regional ally in Australia will, in time, ease the burden of what Paul Kennedy years ago called ‘imperial overstretch’. Biden may have forgotten Morrison’s name in the leaders’ announcement hook-up, but surely realises how strategically important a politically stable, but strategically-strengthened, Australia will be to the overall peace and stability of the entire Indo-Pacific region.

To be sure, in Britain this announcement was overshadowed by other events. But in the longer term, AUKUS may well be part of any tangible and lasting legacy of Boris Johnson’s premiership.

Ten questions for Johnson’s reshuffle

7 Sep

  • What does the Prime Minister do about economic policy?  His instinct is for government to spend a lot; Rishi Sunak’s is for it to spend less.  Boris Johnson would clearly be reckless to lose his second Chancellor in less than two years, and we don’t believe that he will try to move him. Furthermore, it isn’t at all clear who would play Anthony Barber to the Prime Minister’s Edward Heath.  But Sunak’s public pitch for loyalty over social care yesterday only confirmed the tensions between him and the Prime Minister. Johnson will be brooding over the future of the man who is favourite eventually to replace him.
  • Who runs Downing Street?  The Prime Minister frets about the unresponsiveness of the official machine.  He has lost Dominic Cummings.  He is installing a Delivery Unit.  He is beefing up his own political operation.  Does he take the radical option of creating a Prime Minister’s department?  Or the established one of relying on the Cabinet Office?  Either way, who does he put in charge?  Does he keep Michael Gove?  Move in Dominic Raab.  Or else send for Oliver Dowden – just as David Cameron’s former Deputy Chief of Staff is enjoying his own place in the sun in his own department (and perhaps eyeing Education)?
  • What about the Home Office and the Foreign Office?  Some in Number Ten share our panel’s lack of confidence in Priti Patel; Raab has been in place for almost two years.  Gove has been punted for both posts but, for all his talents, there is only one of him.  And if he moves out of the Cabinet Office, who will take the lead on Scotland?  Our bet for Foreign Secretary were the shuffle to come late would be Alok Sharma, now that he has globetrotting experience wearing his COP26 hat.  Will Johnson really promote the Cabinet League Table-topping Liz Truss, who he is bound to see as a potential rival?
  • Who does Johnson bring back and at what level?  John Whittingdale was brought back to support Dowden.  James Brokenshire was returned to help Patel.  When his illness worsened, another former Cabinet member, Damian Hinds, replaced him.  The message is: keep your nose clean, and there’s a way back.  But is the Prime Minister prepared to do the same at Cabinet level – summoning Liam Fox or Jeremy Hunt or Iain Duncan Smith or Geoffrey Cox or Robert Halfon or other members of the Alternative Cabinet?  For given the scale of the foreign and domestic policy challenges, there’s a lack of experience at the top.
  • Which women…?  The optics will be an inevitable feature of the shuffle, whenever it comes.  Johnson will want to increase the number of women at the top table.  Anne-Marie Trevelyan must be top of the list to return, but she only recently started her job as Energy Minister.  The Prime Minister will be keeping a watchful eye on the ambitious Penny Mordaunt.  Kemi Badenoch must be on any list for promotion, but is she ready to run a department?  Look out for Lucy Frazer, a potential future Justice Secretary; Chloe Smith if her health allows and, if media deployment is any guide, Helen Whateley. Will Tracey Crouch return?
  • …Ethnic minority members?… Nadhim Zahawi is being punted for co-Party Chairman, but he could also slot in at Education, where he has served as a junior Minister, or perhaps at Culture.  James Cleverly has been out of the domestic media eye at the Foreign Office and must be due to go back in it again.  Kwasi Kwarteng has only recently been appointed and will presumably stay where he is.  Lower down the ranks, Claire Courtino will go up sooner rather than later; then there is Ranil Jayawardena and, down in the Whips’ Office, Alan Mak.
  • …And Red Wallers…?  If promoting ethnic minority members is playing identity politics, so would be favouring white working class people.  MPs for the new Conservative northern and midlands seats aren’t necessarily working class – nor Red Wallers, strictly speaking – but they are yet another group that Johnson must consider.  Cabinet promotion from the 2019 intake would be drastic, and Johnson is more likely to turn to the trailblazers of 2017.  That might mean, say, Lee Rowley, the Tory Deputy Chairman, but the name most frequently raised is that of Simon Clarke, the former Business Minister.
  • P.S: what about appointment on merit?… Beware, Prime Minister, of the backlash from your average Conservative MP: male, white, and (in his view) overlooked because of political correctness.  “With one exception, those promoted in our intake have been women, ethnic minority members, or gay,” one 2019er complained to ConHome.  What about the Kit Malthouses and Edward Argars?  (The latter has had much to do as a Health Minister during the pandemic.)  Is there a quota on Old Etonians that keeps out Jesse Norman?  What about able backbenchers, such as Richard Fuller?
  • …And communicators?  The Government is short at the top of people who can get on the front foot on TV, if that’s quite the right way of putting it.  There’s Sunak, Gove, the Prime Minister himself, a more relaxed Grant Shapps, and Kwarteng.  And that’s about it.  Which is why Cleverly is due a return, and perhaps Brandon Lewis too.  He would fit in at Housing were Robert Jenrick to be moved, but on balance this is unlikely.  Jacob Rees-Mogg has been confined to the Commons as Leader of the House, and were he appointed Chief Secretary, he would be restricted to the Treasury.
  • What’s the least bad timing?  The infallible rule of reshuffles is that the anger of those sacked outweighs the gratitude of those promoted.  A shuffle this week would refresh the Cabinet before the conference season.  But one later would ease moving Raab, Ben Wallace or both: besides, it isn’t yet clear that Covid has run its course.  We assume when the shuffle comes Gavin Williamson will be moved, and at least two Cabinet members fired.  More, and Johnson will risk a “night of the long knives”.  Fewer, and what’s the point?  P.S: the promotion of the Johnsons’ old mucker Zac Goldsmith is a possibility.

Our Cabinet League Table. Raab plummets from third from top in July to fourth from bottom last month.

5 Sep
  • Last month, Dominic Raab was third from top in our Cabinet League Table, on 73 per cent.  This month, he drops by 21 places to fourth from bottom, coming in at 6 per cent and narrowly avoiding negative ratings.  It’s one of the biggest falls ever in our table – almost on the scale of Theresa May’s dizzying fall from top of the table into negative territory in the wake of the bungled 2017 election.
  • Meanwhile, Ben Wallace moves up from ninth, on 51 per cent, to fourth, on 64 per cent.
  • The Westminster story of the last week or so has concentrated on Raab v Wallace – and this finding seems to show Conservative activists taking sides.  Our take is that it’s more of a verdict on how British servicemen and the Foreign Office have reacted to events in Afghanistan; and on Wallace’s robust take on Joe Biden and, perhaps, Pen Farthing.  The Defence Secretary seems to be morphing into a politician who, like the Prime Minister himself, is seen by many people outside Westminster as authentic.
  • Boris Johnson drifts up from fourth from bottom on three per cent to seventh from bottom on 13 per cent.
  • Otherwise there’s little change in the table, but it’s worth closing by having a look at Priti Patel.  Last month, she was tenth from bottom on 26 per cent.  This month, she is eight from bottom on 18 per cent.  As recently as May, she was among the top members of the table: sixth from top on 64 per cent.  You will have your own view on the reasons for her fall.  Ours is: channel boats.

Profile: The Foreign Office, damaged by the retreat from Kabul, but free at last of Blairite illusions

3 Sep

The retreat from Afghanistan leaves the Foreign Office and Foreign Secretary much diminished in reputation. Dominic Raab was unable, in his appearance on Wednesday before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, to efface the impression that until Sunday 15th August, the day the Taliban entered Kabul, he and his colleagues fell far below the level of events.

They were unable or unwilling to grasp how quickly the situation was deteriorating. Raab had gone on holiday, and at first refused to come back.

Sir Philip Barton, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State, who should have been directing the urgent redeployment of staff and other resources to meet the emergency, was likewise on holiday, and disinclined to return.

And one regrets to say that Sir Laurie Bristow, the British Ambassador in Kabul, had apparently been given instructions to leave, along with his staff, even though they were the people with the local knowledge needed to process the mass of applications from Afghans who had worked for the British – an order countermanded at the last moment as far as the ambassador was concerned.

It would be unfair to judge this lamentable performance against some imaginary standard of perfection. Evacuations are seldom easy, and this one could have been a hell of a lot more bloody, as Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, points out in this week’s Spectator.

And the wishful thinking which permeated the Foreign Office, the belief (as Raab said on Wednesday) that it was unlikely Kabul would fall this year, was widely shared, not only in Downing Street but in Washington.

Wallace makes an astute point about the impossibility of knowing exactly when a regime will collapse:

“History shows us that it’s not about failure of intelligence, it’s about the limits of intelligence. When the Soviet Union crumbled, when Libya collapsed, when the actual moment came in Afghanistan, intelligence hadn’t failed. It was just limited, as it always is at the very end.”

But in such circumstances, political judgement becomes all the more important. One needs to recognise the point at which changing facts on the ground have rendered the intelligence obsolete.

And long before that point, one has to be careful about relying too heavily on intelligence which says “we are winning”. When the intelligence agencies, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and others agree an assessment at the Joint Intelligence Committee, it is extremely difficult for them to be impartial.

No one has a strong incentive to say “we are losing” or even “my department’s work does not appear to be all that effective”, especially when the actual moment of defeat is probably still a long way off.

Considerable figures – Richard Holbrooke for the Americans and Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles on the British side – who long ago warned that we had adopted a losing strategy in Afghanistan were not heeded.

Raab and his officials are reported to be on poor terms. This is in part a matter of personality. Raab likes to have things under control.

Everything has to pass through the Foreign Secretary’s extremely large private office. Officials and junior ministers are allowed very little discretion. Relations with other departments are likewise kept under strict control, and are not at all good.

But this is not just a matter of temperament, important though that is. It is also a question of what kind of a department the Foreign Office is, and what it is for.

Forget for a moment nation-building in Afghanistan. Within the Foreign Office itself, there has also been a kind of nation-building going on: an attempt to bring the department into strict conformity with the most progressive ideas of how the British nation should be, as set out in the Equality Act 2010.

Ambassadors recently started stating at the end of an email their preferred pronouns, and at the foot of the staircase in the Foreign Office photographs were put on display of the first woman ambassador, the first black ambassador and so forth.

All this was in full accordance with what Tony Blair and his followers were preaching both at home and abroad. Liberal interventionism, set out in his Chicago speech of April 1999, had become the new orthodoxy.

In 2001, after the September 11th attacks, Blair at once declared, in his Labour Conference speech,

“The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.”

And in his memoirs, published in 2010, he writes, with reference to Afghanistan and Iraq:

“I conceived of September 11 as making all previous analyses redundant, or at least duty-bound for re-examination. We could no longer presume that countries in which this virus persisted were none of our business. In the choice between a policy of management and a policy of revolution, I had become a revolutionary.”

So the costly attempt to build a liberal democracy in Afghanistan had begun. Successive Foreign Secretaries followed Blair’s lead and have spoken of our moral duty to uphold women’s rights in Afghanistan.

This policy had the merit, for its advocates, of being impossible for any western politician to oppose. It nevertheless sounded like an inadequate reason for putting British troops in harm’s way, and now stands exposed as the most flagrant Blairite humbug.

All of which is rather confusing for the Foreign Office. To its dismay, it has lost the European Union, the cause to which so many of its best minds have been devoted since the 1960s.

True, it has gained the Department for International Development, but it cannot be said as yet fully to have digested this acquisition.

And yet through the fog of battle, elements of a new doctrine can be discerned. Spending on defence has already been increased, with the Treasury conceding, quite exceptionally, a four-year settlement, while spending on aid has been cut.

There has been a shift from soft to hard power; from liberal idealism to Realpolitik. The Prime Minister’s adviser on foreign affairs, John Bew, is the author not only of biographies of Castlereagh, one of the great Foreign Secretaries, and Attlee, but of Realpolitik: A History, a subtle study in which is found the observation:

“To define oneself as standing for or against something remains a natural human inclination, as does seeking reconciliation between one’s morals and the nasty, brutish world. Yet it is also an activity better suited to moral philosophy or theology than to foreign policy analysis.”

Realpolitik does not offer some simple key to foreign policy dilemmas. To understand reality, and act in accordance with that reality, is a complicated and never-ending endeavour.

But one of the themes running through the present Prime Minister’s career is a delight in exposing liberal humbug, and a keen appreciation of the real balance of forces in any particular situation.

Boris Johnson is not, palpably, a perfectionist. Nor is he a preacher who gets caught up in visions of his own moral greatness. He is a realist, an anti-Blair, inclined to take people as they are, rather than attempt, whether in Britain or Afghanistan, to remake them as they ought to be.

One aspect of realism in foreign policy is to recognise that success may hardly be noticed; may indeed be achieved because no one is boasting about it.

Our policy at the United Nations, carefully concerted with France and apparently working rather well, is a contemporary example of this.

Triumphalism in foreign policy can be a very dangerous sign. One thinks of Neville Chamberlain giving way to it after Munich. Nor is expertise of much value, when unaccompanied by a commonsensical estimate of what is and isn’t possible.

Sir Anthony Eden offers the great modern warning: an expert who lacked the mental robustness to cope at the highest level, and got us into Suez. In the mid-19th-century, we find Lord Aberdeen, the Conservatives’ most trusted authority on foreign affairs, a man with a deep horror of war, who got us into the Crimean War because he failed to impress on Tsar Nicholas I the danger Russia would run by seizing Turkish territory.

It is fruitless to seek for some golden age in British foreign policy. Even at the height of the British Empire, it consisted most often in the management of weakness.

No sane British statesman ever committed the British Army to a continental conflict except in case of dire necessity, and victory could only then be attained by building coalitions.

Britannia ruled the waves for a hundred years after Trafalgar, but the Royal Navy could not avert humiliations which occurred at numerous points on land, including the retreat from Kabul in 1842, from which there was only one survivor.

The expedition in early 1885 to rescue the wretched, rash, intruding General Gordon from Khartoum arrived just too late.

And within living memory we have seen America, as the great imperial power, exposed to similar humiliations, of which the worst was in Vietnam.

But America still emerged victorious from the Cold War. The retreat from Kabul has filled the August press, and prompted a cry of anguish from Blair.

It marks a change of tone in western policy: a move away from the hubristic policy of nation-building. But there is no reason why, in any but the very short term, it should signify a weakening either of the United States, or of the British Government’s development of a more realistic foreign policy, entrusted to a revived Foreign Office and, before long, to a new Foreign Secretary.

Britain and America cannot shrink from the reality of their crushing failure in Afghanistan

14 Aug

To read the Prime Minister’s statement to MPs on the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, delivered to Parliament on July 8, is to be reminded that we originally invaded that country for very narrow reasons:

“It was in the mountain ranges of this sanctuary that al-Qaeda operated a formidable network of terrorist training camps, drilling and indoctrinating thousands of recruits. The terrorists who acquired their murderous skills in Afghanistan or who were organised from its soil dispersed across the world, inflicting bloodshed and tragedy on three continents.”

He then paints a picture of decisive achievement:

“Today, thankfully, the situation is very different. The training camps have been destroyed. What remains of al-Qaeda’s leadership no longer resides in Afghanistan and no terrorist attacks against western targets have been mounted from Afghan soil since 2001. We should never lose sight of those essential facts. On the morning after 11 September, few would have predicted that no more terrorist attacks on that scale would be launched from Afghanistan in the next 20 years.”

All of this is true, as far as it goes. And yet for all that, the conclusion of the West’s great Afghan effort is a tragedy and a failure. Because the United States and its allies did not settle for uprooting al-Qaeda and installing a regime in Kabul capable of keeping them out. Instead the goal was the wholesale transformation of the country along Western lines, most notably by extending education and equal rights to women.

It is easy for people like me, who only really became aware of Afghanistan after 9/11, to over-estimate how hubristic this mission must have seemed to people with longer memories of the country. Within living memory, at least up until the 1973 coup that toppled the monarchy, the country was part of the backpacker trail and, in the Atlantic’s words, “on a path toward a more open, prosperous society”. Photographs of the country from the 1950s and 1960s, like those from neighbouring Iran, remind us that the arc of history can, if it exists, be bent backwards.

But this only makes the failure of the American-led effort to build a new Afghanistan all the more damning. Trillions of dollars have been invested, and the occupiers have had two decades to try and build a new society. Yet the Taliban look set to restore the Islamic Emirate (which had ruled the country a mere five years before the 2001 invasion) in a matter of months.

It is that failure of nation-building, rather than the withdrawal itself, that truly indicts the USA and her allies. Given that the goal was never to occupy Afghanistan forever, withdrawal was always going to have to happen at some point. If we couldn’t build a self-sustaining Afghan society in 20 years, it is not obvious that we could have done it in 30 or 50. The sunk costs fallacy is no grounds for ongoing operations: opponents of withdrawal need to spell out what they expect to achieve by staying, and how, and on what timescale.

Perhaps this failure was an artefact of that brief end-of-history moment when it appeared that the West in general, and America in particular, were without serious challengers, and there was thus time and treasure to spend on utopian projects. Maybe today’s Washington, facing renewed great power competition from Beijing, would have been willing to operate on Cold War logic, and contented itself with installing a pro-Western regime – perhaps the monarchy – that could hold down the Taliban and modernise slowly, rather than trying to transplant our entire system at once.

Maybe next time too Western governments will do more to challenge the tech-fixated doctrines of their military leaders, and instead try to give an occupied nation security forces it can equip and operate on its own resources, rather than one crippled the moment expensive American contractors (who have doubtless made a pretty profit on the contracts) are withdrawn, as Tom Tugendhat pointed out.

That’s if there is a next time, of course. There is scarcely much appetite in NATO these days for the wholesale remaking of other nations.

It may be too that those who keep the faith of liberal interventionism can’t reconcile themselves to supporting regimes which, whilst hopefully better than those they replace, do not live up to the high ideals of the interventionists. If we could have turned Afghanistan into a sort of modern Rhodesia – an non-democratic but broadly Western-style government, which would let the NGOs run the girls’ schools whilst waging an effective but brutal counter-insurgency forever war – who would have settled for that?

Likewise, perhaps the hopelessness of Ben Wallace’s efforts to form a coalition to stick it out without the US will prompt British politicians to rethink a defence posture which is built around the assumption of American support.

Until then, we can only get our people out, do right by the Afghans endangered by helping us, and in Washington’s case plead with the Taliban not to sack their embassy. What a total, abject failure.

Daniel Kawczynski: Libya needs a political solution taken from its recent history

8 Jul

Daniel Kawczynski is MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham.

Libya has not recently featured prominently on the government’s agenda – a perfectly understandable fact, given the priority the government has given to handling the more immediate issues of Brexit and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

But two recent high level ministerial visits to Libya by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Minister for Middle East and North Africa James Cleverly, offer hope for increased British engagement with an area of the world where Britain can, and should, have an impact.

As the only non-French speaking country in the Maghreb, Libya is indeed a place where our post-Brexit Britain is uniquely poised to play a significant role in shaping the country’s future. Yet more importantly, it is in our interest to lend a helping hand to Libyans in shaping their future.

The opportunities range from helping Britain meet its energy consumption needs through oil imports, 10%-15% of which already come from North Africa; to stemming the flow of refugees to the shores of our European neighbours; to keeping Russia out of the Mediterranean, preventing it from placing anti-air and anti-ship missiles on Libya’s Northern coast in a move that would hamper NATO’s ability to defend Europe; to shutting down a human trafficking route that has been the source of untold suffering for thousands, including hundreds of Libyans, every year.

Beyond interests, Britain further has a moral responsibility to do something in Libya, having played such a key role in creating the dangerous vacuum that is swallowing Libya today.

As many will remember, the UK and its French allies played an integral role in spearheading the 2011 humanitarian intervention, undoubtedly stemming the tremendous humanitarian cost of what has been North Africa’s most protracted conflict of the millennium.

To our significant consternation, the same leadership was missing in 2015, when in an open letter to Prime Minster David Cameron I stated that, “We simply cannot stand by and let this humanitarian tragedy escalate day by day without any retaliation against ISIS and the other Islamist terrorist groups”. The decision was made not to not heed this call— despite the 2015 YouGov polling, which indicated that 59% would have supported British involvement in airstrikes on ISIS targets in Libya, more than double the 25% who would have opposed action.

Worse still, after conducting the airstrikes, Britain absconded from following through: 13 times more of our budget was allocated to conducting airstrikes than with the subsequent development of Libya. Despite this squandered opportunity and moral travesty, however, all is not yet lost.

The UK is still able to help Libya secure a democratic future. The government must be certain, however, that any role that it attempts to play in the war-torn country indeed has the potential to improve, rather than exacerbate the situation on the ground.

It is no secret that I have been a long-time supporter of the restoration of Libya’s 1951 constitution and British-style constitutional monarchy along with it. I remain convinced that the 1951 constitution, and the monarchy, can and should play a role in building Libya the future it deserves.

Libya has a presidential election scheduled for December 24, one which, according to Minister Cleverly, could provide Libyans with “a real opportunity to write the next chapter in the history of their country”. Yet Libya is racked by factionalism, like many other countries emerging from civil war.

Despite claims to the contrary, which were addressed in my 2015 New Statesman piece, tribalism is but one of many other fissures between Libya’s cities, regions, ideologies, and ethnic groups. These fissures are all the more evident today, and those divides have the potential to tear Libya apart not just physically, but as an idea.

To mend those divides, Libya needs a legitimate, durable, and widely-accepted constitution, all long before it needs an election. Because the task of drafting a constitution is so fraught, the international community has decided to kick the proverbial can down the road, and is instead rushing to have an election.

The absence of any foundational document means the election has little political or intellectual legitimacy in the eyes of Libyans; this is one reason— among others— that many Libya experts doubt that an election will go ahead at all. Voter turnout will doubtlessly be unprecedentedly low, and will fail to capture Libya’s ethnically, politically and geographically diverse range of interest groups.

Without a historic national vision, such as that of the 1951 constitution guiding us, foreign actors will continue to pursue their own interests at the expense of Libyans, plunging the country further into chaos on the heels of the discord which will surely emerge as we get closer to December.

Yet even if the election is a success, the constitutional questions at the heart of the Libyan conflict will be no closer to a resolution. Instead of starting from scratch then, what Libya needs is a starting point grounded in history and legitimacy. The 1951 constitution offers just that.

Working with a construct based on Libya’s own history, which in the recent past has proved its ability to generate national consensus, it has significantly greater potential to facilitate the emergence of much needed national institutions than any new concoction.

Among the many good ideas contained in the 1951 constitution are a non-politicised police force and army, capable of upholding the integrity of political decisions and representing the will of the people.

While the constitution would no doubt require an update to account for the social, cultural, and demographic changes that have taken place in the last 50 years, Libya would benefit from an idea that in the past worked and provided the country with a significant degree of political freedom until it was overturned by Colonel Gadhaffi’s undemocratic military coup in 1969.

The key lesson is that it is imperative to understand the intricate role that historical experience plays in building sustainable political futures. The tendency of the West, as tragically showcased in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been to resort to a “one size fits all” approach to democracy.

It is high time we learnt from these lessons of the more recent past, and that we in the West cease trying to export our domestic political animals to foreign climes. After all, democracy at its most basic level is, “government of, by and for the people”.

While the UK should embrace whatever democratic solution is chosen and embraced by the Libyan people, we should consider putting on the table the 1951 constitution, a constitutional document formulated by the UN with that same tailored-fit approach in mind.

If the UK seeks genuinely to contribute to a solution that has a chance of addressing the myriad of needs faced by Libyan society today— chief among those being unity— the 1951 option has a historic track record, and stands a solid chance of creating a real source of authority and trust in the future.

Those of us who have been following events in Libya for the past decade know that its current unity government is transient; it is not the first to try its hand at assuaging the country’s domestic tensions. Sadly, it is unlikely to be the last in the medium-term. There is however, no real reason to assume that this time things will end differently. This alone, if nothing else, is a reason to consider a fresh, yet historic take that the 1951 constitution would offer.

I have many times before made the argument for looking to the past as a way to shape the future. I will make it again here: There may be no more solid and sensible basis for a transition to peace available than the 1951 Constitution. While it is for Libyans to decide on the nature and text of the constitution that binds them, the UK can play a truly creative and constructive role by advocating for putting this solution on the table.

If, however, the UK is to play a serious and comprehensive role in shaping the future of Libya, it must look back before it looks forward. Lessons of the past are indeed integral for shaping our vision for the future.

One, two, three – and now Truss tops our Cabinet League Table for the fourth time

4 Apr

The table now seems to be in set pattern established soon after Britian’s vaccination success became apparent.

The same Ministers remain at its top and the same too at its bottom.  Consider the case of Kwasi Kwarteng, up a place this month at fourth: his score, 64.7, is exactly the same as it was then.

There are a mix of small score and table movements up and down, but none of them worth expending many words about – though we pause for the Ministers at the very top and bottom of the table.

At the top, there is Liz Truss, on her fourth table-topping month – and a record high of 89 per cent.

That’s a reflection, in a minor key, of her decisive handling of the Equalities brief and, in a major one, of the rapid succession of trade deals: most of them rollovers, true – but accomplished more speedily than some anticipated.

At the bottom, there is Gavin Williamson – on minus 27 per cent.

That’s a dreadful rating, but less so than the -43 per cent he scored last month, or this – 36 per cent and -48 per cent during the previous ones.

Our reading is that his early and emphatic support for free speech during the Batley Mohammed cartoons row, which we haven’t heard the last of, accounts for his improvement.