Iraq crisis: A spineless lack of leadership, an abject lack of strategy

Our Government's response to events in northern Iraq has been farcical, tragic and ultimately dangerous

Richard Shirreff
Sunday 17 August 2014 00:27 BST
To protect the reaction to the threat of a massacre has been to drop pallets of supplies
To protect the reaction to the threat of a massacre has been to drop pallets of supplies (AFP/Getty)

This has not been David Cameron or Philip Hammond's finest hour. A week which started with Hammond marching his troops (a brace of Hercules C-130 transport aircraft) to the top of the hill, in order to drop "humanitarian" relief to Yazidi refugees on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, has ended with Cameron having to march them down again because, according to Barack Obama, there really isn't a problem after all.

More concerning is the spineless lack of leadership and the abject absence of any credible strategy which this unhappy saga has demonstrated. Look no further than Cameron and Hammond's comedy double act if you need empirical evidence of the truth of the maxim coined around 500BC by Sun Tzu, the Chinese strategist: "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."

Let us start in the comfort zone of this government where defence and security are concerned: micro-managing at the tactical level. If initial reports were right and there was the prospect of a major humanitarian disaster as a result of action by the so-called "Islamic State" in northern Iraq, and the British Government wanted to do something about it, it would not be unreasonable to have initiated a detailed estimate of the problem, driven by an informed understanding of what was actually happening on the ground. The product of an estimate, as any Staff College student will tell you, is a plan that has a reasonable prospect of achieving the desired end-state. A Staff College student who recommended a course of action based on throwing pallets of relief supplies out of the back of a transport plane at altitude in order to protect a civilian population from being massacred would fail. And yet this is what the combined efforts of the Permanent Joint Headquarters, the Ministry of Defence, the Chiefs of staff and the Government has presented to us.

Greeted with incredulity, the knee-jerk reaction was to send Tornado fighters, not to strike (heaven forbid) but to photograph from a great height. More incredulity: let's send four Chinook helicopters. To do what? I can't go into detail on such military matters, says the hapless Justine Greening, the Minister for International Development on Radio 4's Today programme. Meanwhile, going through the minds of many who saw the graphic coverage of the plight of those fleeing jihadist vengeance was: let's just do what needs to be done and if that requires the application of force then so be it. After all, aren't our Armed Forces pretty good at this?

Farcical? Yes – but tragic too because there are real people on the ground who bear the consequence of this pantomime, as the reported massacre of Yazidi villagers for refusing to convert to Islam demonstrates; and no, knocking out a couple of Islamic State vehicles from a drone is not the answer. Also tragic, because this unhappy saga highlights all too graphically the collective loss of nerve in matters of defence and security, increasingly the defining characteristic of this government. The relative resolution shown in 2011 to protect the Libyan population is a distant memory.

The Syrian imbroglio has spawned a growing nest of jihadist vipers, particularly Isis. Notably absent has been any coherent policy, UK or international, to contain a threat which will increasingly have an impact on the vital interests of the West, backed up by a strategy in which ends, ways and means are integrated in the pursuit of that policy. The consequence has been knee-jerk reactions dictated by events, whether last year's abortive attempt to launch Tomahawk missiles at Syria, or last week's response to events in northern Iraq. As the post-First World War Middle East settlement increasingly unravels in blood and chaos, never was clarity of strategy more necessary.

But as well as a lack of strategy there is a lamentable loss of nerve, a terror (perhaps a first for UK governments) of committing legal, lethal state power to protect national interest if there is the slightest possibility of combat. As for "Responsibility to Protect", the doctrine unanimously agreed by world leaders at the 2005 UN World Summit, our leaders would do well to understand that protection of the people means being willing to commit all the levers of power including, if necessary, armed force.

Hammond's hubristic line as Defence Secretary – "the extent to which we punch above our weight defines us" – is a hollow boast, for economy of force on any operational main effort is no more than futility of force. This is a government terrified of being seen to commit, but nevertheless yearning to be seen as bold and resolute. Far from walking softly and carrying a big stick, the leadership shouts loudly but, thanks to defence cuts and increased dependence on reserves, carries a progressively shrinking stick, and is reluctant to use even that.

How can this lamentable state of affairs be reversed? First, to paraphrase Lady Macbeth, by "screwing our courage to the sticking place and we'll not fail". This will require our leaders to show the moral courage that underpins leadership in any field: if the right thing must be done, then have the guts to do it, irrespective of popularity, polls or focus groups. Second, the Government and Nato must seize the opportunity offered by next month's summit in Wales. There must be recognition of the new paradigm of defence and security, not only in Europe as a result of Putin's aggression, but also in the Middle East, across the Sahel and into sub-Saharan Africa because of the explosion of jihadist franchises such as the "Islamic State". Our leaders must be prepared to put strategy before politics and design a strategy to contain both these threats. Finally, not only must the ends and ways be carefully crafted, but the strategy must have the necessary means. Our leaders would do well to remember the old Roman adage: "If you want peace, prepare for war."

General Sir Richard Shirreff was, until recently, the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe

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