Feb 17, 2008

Risk, Threat and Security: The case of the whinging militarists

This is my analysis of the RUSI paper on Risk, Threat and Security in the United Kingdom, released on the 15th of February 2008. All opinions expressed within are personal and have been undertaken in a private capacity, with no gains for the writing provided.

The essay seeks to deal with the problem of the “security crisis” the UK faces, apparently made far worse by attitudes at home and disparities between military commitments and spending.

This paper would have us believe we are unsure of overseas military adventures and afraid of the security situation at home and that these two together have created a “paradox” of undeclared yet publically fought wars. Yet is this really anything new to a British public? The Cold War, with its paradoxes of spies, terrorism, the threat of superpower nuclear war, shifting alliances and ideological battle lines was fought for much longer, and with much higher stakes. Equally, British action in the years following the Napoleonic Wars, with internal issues of dissension that came from the Industrial Revolution and process of urbanization, along with external commitments both to the Empire and maintaining the balance of power within an increasingly uncertain and fragmenting Europe could also be seen as a similar time. As we can see, examined critically, the paper's first claim falls flat.

This is all supposedly in no small part a consequence of the UK having a “loss of confidence in our own identity, values, constitution and institutions”, which has presented a perfect target for terrorists. Apparently our uncertainty about our own identity and the surety of our enemies is our problem, and not theirs. Yet, as Baudrillard has noted with some irony, it seems to be that the least democratic in society seem to believe that everyone must share their values, that not sharing values becomes a threat in a country where the basic values are determined by institutions and voting. A natural consequence of democracy is divisions “about interpretations of ...history...and political identity.” Is this any more different than the mind numbingly boring divisions between Marxists, Liberals and Christians that have been staple fare of British debate for the last 2 centuries? Again, we have an old condition that has existed for a long time, dressed up as new, with barely any thought given as to the origins of their existence.

Furthermore, if we continue with Baudrillard's thought for a moment, perhaps this strength of identity is in part the problem of the fundamentalists? Aside from breeding a lack of irony, fundamentalism also breeds an absolute and concrete identity, one which easily makes the leap into paranoid delusions about enemies and solutions for problems. Some would consider it perhaps not a good idea to take our cues from Jihadists when it comes to identity politics.

Furthermore, this lack of historical knowledge of Islamic terrorism within the UK is further highlighted by a trendy attack against 'multiculturalism', an ill-defined term at the best of times. According to the paper, the government should be “laying down the line” to immigrant communities, instead of “deferring” to them. The fact that Britain helped to encourage, arm and train Islamic militants, made alliances with nations that materially supported such militants and then went on to let them establish themselves in the UK should be entirely overlooked. I refer in part to the 'Afghan Arabs' who fought the Soviet Union, but equally other, lesser known groups who were considered valuable allies because of their hatred of the 'godless Communists'. Equally, we cemented alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, giving them a shred of respect and legitimacy they never should have been allowed in the first place. By maintaining this relationship, we have allowed them to spread the virulent Wahhabist conceptions of Islam into the country virtually unchecked. The same goes for Pakistan, where we refused to make a stand against military support of Deobandi schools, which produced fighters for the disputed Kashmir region.

Apparently we should consider 7/7 as a failure of multiculturalism. Yet, why are the London pub bombings or IRA attacks not? These are seemingly raised into the arena of “political terrorism” (one presumes, given they are not mentioned at all) and thus far less dangerous. But as work from professionals in the field, such as Marc Sageman and Robert Pape show, Islamist terrorists are no less influenced by politics than the IRA. Religion, like nationalism, is just one ideological source for political dissension, no different than any other. If we insist on looking at failed “cultural” reasons for terrorism, then the public discourse will overlook political reasons, such as continued support for the US led war on terror, Israeli actions in the occupied territories, a continued policy of aiding repressive leaders within the Middle East and other policy positions, real or imagined.

Moving onto external threats, these seem to be equally misplaced. First there is the usual old worry, about Britain's reliance on sea trade and the diminishing power of the Royal Navy to police the world's waterways. Never mind that this role is more than adequately fulfilled by the USA, Britain's closest military ally, an international power capable of policing most of the world's oceans even while fighting a war (as during the first Gulf War). The reason we should be worried, of course, is that this is a military think tank and more pork for the military would not be a bad thing. Especially given most ex-military personnel move onto jobs either consulting for or providing logistics, IT services and arms to those branches of the military.

There is no naval threat to the UK. Areas where there have been naval issues are either so far removed from affecting UK trade as to be laughable (such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard snatching Royal Navy sailors in the Straits of Hormuz) or not traded with anyway and so pose no threat, such as the coastline of Somalia. Russia's navy remains the single weakest and most underfunded aspect of its military, and equally China is lagging far behind the USA, and is concentrating on regional ambitions, not picking fights with UK freight vessels.

Technology, equally, has always been an issue and is so blatantly obvious one wonders why it was included in this report at all, given how little of substance (other than: “Internet = possibly BAD”) is actually said on the subject.

The question of Chinese leadership and resource issues, while important, is approached in an equally banal way. The Chinese had their free market revolt in 1989, and it was ruthlessly crushed by the CCP. China, like Chile, like Yeltsin's Russia, can easily combine free markets with authoritarian rule and only an addled brain from reading too much Friedman or Fukuyama could make one think otherwise. China has also taken steps to break apart possible dissident groups through controlling access to information and a hugely powerful intelligence force directed against its own citizenry. The real question is that, when violence does break out, will the world's media stand by the Chinese leadership, like they did in 1989, or will they and the elected leaders of countries like the USA and EU heavyweights, come out and rightly criticize China as they should? That is what will inform China's response and thus any future security issue.

The question of global warming is actually dealt with fairly well, considering how botched this essay is so far. Of course, it is so general and such an unknown area, it is hard to make mistakes anyway, but it all seems plausible and done without a lack of hyperbole or distortion.

Equally, their position on Russia is far more tempered than many current commentators, such as the Wall Street Journal. They note that trends in Russia do also have external inputs and that collusion with the Russian robber barons of the 90s was a terrible mistake. However, it also overlooks that President Putin has often been very accommodating towards the European Union and working with it towards common goals – often against more Eurosceptic Russian politicians. His continued presence in Russian politics, though lessened, suggest this trend will continue, though the choice of the new President's foreign minister should equally be taken into account.

Alas, when the issue moves to that of collective security and multinational institutions, the fundamental dishonesty of the report's writers comes to the fore again. They would have us believe involvement in NATO, the EU and UN is because of “essentially ideological reasons.” Obviously trying to woo the foreign policy Realists, they fail miserably because they do not take into account that all three groups promote UK interests more than it costs to be a member of them. NATO, for example, includes the greatest military power in the world, the United States, in a position where it can be counted on supporting the UK (and indeed, much of the rest of Europe), militarily, not only shouldering the burden of military spending that allows the US to actively take part in the defence of Europe, but also in the event of foreign security issues in places like the Middle East and South West Asia. Naturally, the EU benefits the UK economically and in its political relations with nearby countries, and the permanent veto and seat that the UK has on the UNSC makes it a diplomatic power to be courted and wooed, as well as listened to.

Instead, the essay promotes a return to interests before 'ideology', claiming that “foul-weather friends are preferable to fair-weather ones”, not realizing the irony of much of our modern political situation is shaped by such foul-weather friends as Saddam Hussein, the Pakistani ISI, Russian crime lords etc

And of course, such a flexible policy requires a flexible military...which means of course, more military spending. The writers are aware enough to understand that the public wont support that, that it sees no need to go to such expense to defend against the problems the essay has outlined. And so apparently, we must “re-discover” ourselves, leading back to the sorry dance being done around identity and culture, replete with the failures and criticisms I noted above. Apparently uncertainty, instead of being an acceptance of the unstable condition of the world and open-mindedness to solutions, is a weakness. This is of course why the uncertain and divided Allies lost World War Two against the Fascist Axis, with its powerful shared identity. Or something.

The report then goes on to make an attack against ideological think tanks, stating that instead of grand projects, one should put experience in history and expertise (in other word, the think tank which produced this report). Overlooking for the moment this attempt to obliquely reference themselves as the last hope of a fatally politicized Britain, we should consider that what they are saying, is in fact in and of itself an ideological position. Its one that can be found easily within the writings of Edmund Burke, if one cares to look. That they try not to portray themselves as ideological conservatives, but instead as skilled persons with expertise and experience in the current political climate should rightly sound alarm bells, because it is no different to New Labour, the American Neo-Conservatives or any other Grand Theory political groups who have come to prominence recently. Also, if the world is changing as fast as they have us believe, then why should we trust in groups rooted in historicism, ideologically? This is just one of the many areas the thesis of the paper shoots itself in the foot.

Their solution is as banal as much of their analysis. Scare-mongering throughout the paper, relyinh on shoddy scholarships, distortions and arguments taken from hack tabloid commentators, they hype the problem of cultural identity, then propose...a committee to solve the problem. Two committees, actually, since two useless institutions are better than one. Such useless measures, if one accepts the premise of the essay, and one which would have little noticeable effect, except in enlarging the voice of the UK military establishment both within Parliament and within the Cabinet itself.

This is nothing more than a shameless power grab done under the guise of modern security thinking, and, to be honest, I feel dirty after reading it. Despite its use of language, it has all the intellectual credibility of a Sun editorial, and about as much coherency. It relies on trying to paint a doom and gloom situation, then propose a response which actually doesn't match up to their terrorizing statements, hoping that the former will provoke enough fear for that problem to be overlooked. In the media especially this has been the case, with the various daily papers falling over themselves to congratulate or condemn the essay, while overlooking the real meat of what is being proposed, in favour of shock headlines.

One of the problems cited in the paper is that of no coherent analysis of the security risk to the UK. This paper, with its inclusion of “latent threats” that have not emerged and may not emerge for many years yet, should be considered part of that problem, and not the solution.

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