Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Britain needs to take a page from American civil-military relations

By James de Waal Best Defense guest columnist Much of the story of America’s Iraq and Afghanistan wars — written by Tom and others — is the story of the relationship between politicians and military officers. Hirings and firings of generals and admirals have marked changes of policy and shifts in the fortune of war. ...

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By James de Waal
Best Defense guest columnist

Much of the story of America's Iraq and Afghanistan wars -- written by Tom and others -- is the story of the relationship between politicians and military officers. Hirings and firings of generals and admirals have marked changes of policy and shifts in the fortune of war.

Britain has been fighting the same wars, but its story is different. In the dominant British narrative, most of its military failures are to be blamed on reckless and naïve politicians, while its generals were reluctant warriors doing their duty in difficult circumstances. And while politicians like Tony Blair have seen their careers blighted by the wars, no senior military officer has paid a similar penalty.

By James de Waal
Best Defense guest columnist

Much of the story of America’s Iraq and Afghanistan wars — written by Tom and others — is the story of the relationship between politicians and military officers. Hirings and firings of generals and admirals have marked changes of policy and shifts in the fortune of war.

Britain has been fighting the same wars, but its story is different. In the dominant British narrative, most of its military failures are to be blamed on reckless and naïve politicians, while its generals were reluctant warriors doing their duty in difficult circumstances. And while politicians like Tony Blair have seen their careers blighted by the wars, no senior military officer has paid a similar penalty.

As I argue in a new report for Chatham House, this is too simple a story. While British politicians must shoulder ultimate responsibility for what happened on their watch, it’s also clear that senior military officers and civilian officials also played their part. Some key decisions seem to have been the result of military lobbying via the media, or the armed forces acting without or contrary to political direction. For example:

  • In 2003, Britain decided to make a ground force contribution to the invasion of Iraq not for military reasons, but in order (according to a government document) to avoid the "negative reaction of many of our military personnel — particularly in the Army" which "could find its way into the media."
  • In 2006, British forces sought no political approval before redeploying to the north of Helmand province, changing their mission from stabilization to "fighting for their lives in a series of Alamos," as one general put it.
  • In 2009, the British government was not convinced of the military need to send reinforcements to Afghanistan, but agreed to do so because it wanted to avoid hostile press briefings by the military.

In these, and other similar cases, those involved may have believed they were acting honorably and in the country’s best interests. But the way some elements of the British military seem to have felt able to challenge and lobby their political masters suggests something wrong with the way the British took their decisions.

In contrast to the United States, Britain has no equivalent of Goldwater-Nichols, and a much weaker public and academic debate on civil-military relations (beyond the ritual mention of the wartime Churchill-Brooke relationship).

Britain needs to learn from the successes and failures of the United States, developing a more balanced and authoritative discussion of the relations between its politicians and generals, and establishing a stronger formal process for controlling its military decision-making.

James de Waal is visiting fellow in the International Security Department at Chatham House. He has worked in the British Ministry of Defence, including on the 2010 Defence and Security Review, and served in HM Diplomatic Service in New York (United Nations), Berlin, Washington, Santiago, and London.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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