General Lord Richards, the former head of the British Army, says the Government is leading a 'let’s see how it goes strategy' through a lack of decisiveness.
Grand strategy is the stuff of great power. It is the generation, organisation and application of immense means in pursuit of high strategic aims. There was a time when the conduct of grand strategy was such a second nature for Britain’s elite that it did not even have a name.
As Britain’s relative means have retreated – power is always relative – so has a culture of grand strategy at the heart of government. Worse, the relationship between strategy and tactics has become hopelessly broken, undermining the all-important mechanism for application through ends, ways and means.
Post-Brexit Britain is trying to rekindle such a culture through the mantra of “Global Britain”. From my own command experience, re-establishing grand strategy as a “doctrine” of power at the heart of government will be hard.
Catchy slogans are a useful indicator of intent but devising and then coherently executing the strategy to achieve it is quite a different issue. I saw first hand how short-term goals were prioritised at the expense of long-term strategy: unfortunately, the problems I confronted throughout my career are now clearly visible again in our approach to the conflict in Ukraine.
In 2003, at the time of the Second Gulf War, as the Assistant Chief of the General Staff and an occasional member of the Chiefs of Staff committee, I observed Western political leaders at fairly close quarters.
Both president George W Bush and prime minister Tony Blair had a relatively clear strategy for Iraq in 2003, but their tactics were (not for the first time) hopelessly flawed. There were also marked limits to Britain’s influence. For example, I visited ambassador Paul Bremer, US head of the coalition provisional authority in Baghdad.
My instructions from London were to try to reverse US decisions over the status of the Baath party and the dismantling of the Iraqi army and police. The situation is only now improving but the failure back in 2003 to properly understand sensible ends and the best ways and means to seek them led to a very long and tragically drawn-out process.
It was the slowest possible route to what some might argue now looks like a strategically successful outcome.
As Commander of the International Security Assistance Force, like my US successors, I was forced to repeatedly question both Nato and UK strategy and tactics in Afghanistan, but with little effect.
Despite accepting the logic of my arguments, politicians back in Washington, London and elsewhere never took “ownership” of the campaign with the profound consequence that ends, ways and means were never in sync.
Last summer the campaign reached its strategic denouement and a chaotic withdrawal. Even then political leaders focused on, and at times seemed to revel in, a tactical withdrawal ignoring the hard truth - complete strategic failure. The withdrawal was only possible with the cooperation of an “enemy” who had killed and maimed thousands of Allied soldiers and tens of thousands of innocent civilians.
Good strategy is about hard choices
In 2011, as Chief of the UK Defence Staff, I disagreed with Prime Minister David Cameron on the Libya strategy. It is on the public record that I was implacably opposed to regime change because of the long-term strategic consequences for a country that was inherently unstable.
Like many politicians, both Cameron and French president Nicholas Sarkozy, helped by a strategically detached president Obama, confused politics, strategy and tactics. They were overly focused on the short–term and the tactical, and their respective political needs to be seen as the heroic victors of a war.
Good strategy is about hard choices. As Chief of Defence Staff, my outstanding team devised a coherent Syria strategy which independent experts agreed had a good chance of leading to a successful strategic outcome.
Once again, political leaders were not prepared to align ends, ways and means with Washington going as far as to say that “the General’s plan is more than the market can bear”. What “market”?
Consequently, my advice was to let Assad win and quickly and to stop encouraging and supplying opposition groups with insufficient support to ensure their success. The price in deaths, ruined lives and destroyed cities would be too huge and a massive strategic setback for the West. Russia was already sensing an opportunity and so it proved.
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General Lord Richards says Britain's relationship between strategy and tactics has become 'hopelessly broken' Credit: MC1 Chad J. McNeeley/Digital