London without a map

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
4 October 2006

A national-intelligence estimate in Washington leaked on 24 September 2006 reported the considered opinion of a number of United States security agencies that the Iraq war was proving to be highly advantageous to the al-Qaida movement. Three days later, a similarly leaked report from a British defence think-tank was critical of Pakistan's role in the war on terror.

These two incidents are only surface indications of a much wider critique of US and British security policy within military, intelligence and foreign-policy circles on both sides of the Atlantic: yet such dissent has little or no evident effect on the two countries' political leaderships. Is this simply because of the rigorous control of dissent exercised from the top, or are things more complicated?

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

The echo-chamber

In the case of Britain, it is certainly true that the Labour Party has achieved new heights of control in its public performances. The annual party conference held in Manchester on 24-28 September 2006 was a case in point, with any controversial matters such as Trident replacement or Iraq rigorously excluded from open debate in the conference chamber. Furthermore, the physical nature of the conference centre and the carefully controlled security perimeters meant that fringe activities - even down to the leafleting of delegates - were much reduced.

The real issue, however, goes much deeper, and concerns why serious criticism of official policy is not discussed to any extent within government itself. This is not because there is no disagreement. Many people in the senior military are deeply concerned at Britain's policies in Iraq and Afghanistan; the unease in the foreign and commonwealth office (FCO) is such that the gulf between the prime minister's residence at Number Ten Downing Street and the FCO is as wide as that between Dover and Calais.

At informal seminars and meetings at Ditchley and Wilton Park - the political and administrative elite's "watering holes" - senior officials will quietly express their horror at government policy. Indeed signs of dismay throughout government at the course the Tony Blair government has charted are not hard to find. Why, then, does it not come out into the open, except for occasional leaks that can be denied or denigrated with consummate vigour?

The reasons are many and they have to do with the organisation of government, career protection, analytical overload and a permeating requirement for "short-termism", although at the root of it remains the character and beliefs of Tony Blair himself. The three main ministries - the FCO, the ministry of defence (MoD), and the department for international development (DfID) - all have very different approaches and cultures, in spite of closer collaboration in recent years on matters such as conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction.

The traditional FCO remit is "batting for Britain", with foreign policy being narrowly defined and concerned primarily with how Britain relates to the world rather than how states interrelate in a global environment. This may be true of any foreign ministry, but it also militates against an analytical approach that seeks to understand the global system, especially the significance of the "majority world". It is a situation exacerbated by the hierarchical nature of diplomacy, in which the most esteemed and prestigious missions are in the United States (at the top), with western Europe, China and Japan following, the middle east much further down the list, the rest of the world at the decidedly distant bottom.

In April 2004, a fifty-two strong cohort of British ex-diplomats with huge, accumulated middle-east experience delivered a statement deeply critical of British policy in the region, but they were easily dismissed as a narrow clique that had "gone native" and hardly understood the core (meaning Atlantic community) world. The FCO does contain notable exceptions, but career advancement depends greatly on not rocking the boat.

Moreover, the external environment of British academic studies in international relations does little to support critical analysis. Research grants for really independent fresh (or "blue-skies") thinking are difficult to come by, not least because of the dead hand of peer-review of applications to research councils. Such constraints operate within the wider context of a British security-studies community which - with a few exceptions - has taken ethnocentric Atlanticism to new heights.

The unease in the ministry of defence is palpable, with the defence-academy leak over Pakistan no more than the tip of the iceberg. The function of the military, however, is to defend the country in a manner that is finally decided by the political process; as with FCO diplomats, dissent does not aid career prospects. But there are notable exceptions here too. A striking recent development has been the readiness of a few retired senior military figures to express their grave concerns.

Quite often they do so in code, and appear to confine their criticisms to peripheral aspects of policy. But their voices are likely to grow louder in the coming months, especially as the loss of control of southern Afghanistan as well as much of Iraq becomes so much more obvious.

Meanwhile DfID continues on its path towards poverty reduction, much of it well-meaning and by no means ineffective. As a relatively new cabinet-level ministry which has experienced rapid growth, DfID has sought to carve out its own identity amid persistent feelings of institutional insecurity. There may be a political consensus in Britain that supports international development, but DfID still feels vulnerable, knowing all too well that previous governments have happily submerged it within the FCO. This has created a defensive attitude ("fortress DfID" in Whitehall parlance) and a persistent reluctance to rock the boat. The impressive experience of many DfID staff in the realities of Iraq and Afghanistan makes this especially unfortunate.

The discontent with British foreign, security, defence and development policy is thus seeking outlets for public dissent. At the same time, the pressures to remain silent are still very great. The critics are still few and far between: too many generals and admirals (for example) are interested in acquiring lucrative post-retirement positions in the defence industry, an industry that depends on insecurity for its success. In the same way, senior FCO figures, including ex-ambassadors, look for secure retirement at an Oxbridge college. Only a handful of the ex-"mandarins" prove themselves willing or intellectually able to engage seriously with the issues facing Britain in the world in the 21st century.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here.

A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris
( October 2005)

Democracy and theocracy

Across the three main ministries that relate directly or indirectly to the war on terror, the feeding through of criticism to Downing Street is therefore extremely limited. But what of the other agencies: the intelligence and security services, the police, the cabinet office and even the Downing Street apparatus itself?

The internal security service (MI5) is in the midst of a rapid expansion as it tries to get a grip with perceived extremism within Britain. This provides much improved career prospects for middle-level officers, but MI5 is primarily concerned with domestic threats and does relatively little on the global context. Similarly the specialised police branches, especially in London's Metropolitan Police, are hugely preoccupied with the matter of policing as they too expand, and still have much less concern with the wider environment.

There are notable exceptions here; some of the large regional police forces in the midlands and northern England have brought in outside expertise in a manner which is both innovative and welcome. The problem is that even chief constables, with all their experience, are rarely allowed access routes to Downing Street.

The secret intelligence service and GCHQ are maintaining and expanding their networks but they mainly work on a week-to-week or month-to-month basis, with little evidence of an ability to make the broader and longer-term assessments that are so obviously required. This is also true of the cabinet office, not least the joint intelligence committee (JIC) and its support staff.

The JIC contains some exceptionally sharp and intelligent analysts, but much of their work is concerned with immediate responses to pressing questions. Indeed, one of the most striking features of any contact with policy staff in the foreign office, DfID, ministry of defence, cabinet office or elsewhere in government - right through to Blair's policy unit itself - is the intensity of a workload that involves responding to requests within hours, and certainly not days or weeks.

Where, then is the capacity for more detailed analysis and even "blue-skies" thinking? The cabinet office's strategy unit was expected to provide this, but in the event it has largely been concerned with domestic rather than international issues. An exception was the innovative analysis it did some years ago on energy strategy, but more recent work on weak and failing states was less convincing: it was partly predicated on the role of such states in providing a base for radical movements such as al-Qaida, when such movements had already moved on to communities in states that were far from failing.

In short, there is little current scope in government for truly independent analyses that can, to use the Quaker phrase, "speak truth to power". This is exacerbated by two factors: the routine nature of political power and the particular character of the present incumbent of Downing Street.

The first is best captured by the story of an ambitious if effective parish priest who is about to be made a bishop. On the day before his enthronement, his old friend the village doctor offers a final piece of advice: "As from tomorrow you will never want for a free lunch - and you will never hear the truth again".

The second is best illustrated by Tony Blair's response to a TV interviewer when asked in March 2006 whether he could ever accept that he had got it wrong over Iraq. His response was that, in the final analysis, he was answerable to his conscience and to God. Being answerable to the electorate did not seem to figure. In matters of international affairs Britain, like Iran, is something of a theocracy and that certainly limits the ability to speak truth to power.

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