Iraq ‘Chilcot’ Inquiry: Dogma, not deception, is the main warning

July 16, 2016 - Comments Off on Iraq ‘Chilcot’ Inquiry: Dogma, not deception, is the main warning

I have recently written and spoken about Britain’s Iraq ‘Chilcot’ Inquiry, to help inform debate and in preparation for a book about the subject.

My article appeared recently in The National Interest, here. I was also lucky enough to speak at the Royal United Services Institute’s half-day conference on the subject, the talk is posted at Academia Edu here.

The Reluctant Case against Brexit

June 18, 2016 - Comments Off on The Reluctant Case against Brexit

The National Interest has kindly published my thoughts on Britain and the EU Referendum. A reluctant case against leaving an imperfect Union – indeed, staying in to check the excesses of its zealots:

Comments to Parliamentary Committee

March 17, 2016 - Comments Off on Comments to Parliamentary Committee

This week I was lucky enough to appear before the UK Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, footage here and transcript here. I also submitted some follow-on written answers to questions a voting division prevented being asked, will post them shortly.

The discussion encompassed issues my own research has focussed on. These include the strengths and weaknesses of public national security strategy, how the government can enhance evaluation and testing of assumptions and wishful thinking, and how to prepare wisely in the face of uncertainty.


The Weight of the Punch: British Power and Ambition

March 7, 2016 - Comments Off on The Weight of the Punch: British Power and Ambition

I’ve just written an article at War on the Rocks, The Weight of the Punch, an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Britain’s National Security Strategy and its Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2015.

Another Intervention in Libya? What’s at Stake

February 11, 2016 - Comments Off on Another Intervention in Libya? What’s at Stake

Should a US-led coalition intervene in Libya, with force, for the second time in five years?

This week, I was lucky enough to appear before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, alongside Professor Malcolm Chalmers from RUSI, and Chris Stephen, Libya correspondent at the Guardian. Here are some brief thoughts, building on our discussion.

The bottom line, up front: there is a case for a limited and focussed campaign to check the Islamic State’s expansion in the country, to fit the broader strategy of containment. The UK and the international community have real (though limited) interests in doing so.

At the same time, our first responsibility in conducting a military campaign is to ‘do no harm’ – or at least do minimal harm – to that country’s effort to establish a constitutional government, and to prevent sliding into anarchy. Libya’s destiny is primarily a matter for Libyans. Our job is to check IS’ expansion without making Libyans’ job harder.

Libya today is almost a shattered state. It is fragmented between rival factions (and factions within factions) and rival parliaments. Oil production – its main source of wealth -has plummeted badly since 2011. In this atomised society, there is even more than one institution that calls itself the Libyan National Army. If that isn’t bad enough, Libya is also an arena for Gulf Arab rivalries. There is currently a painstaking effort to pull together a unity government of ‘National Accord’, but the details are dividing Libyans and the process appears fragile.

Beyond compassion, why should we care? The Islamic State has a foothold there. It is expanding its presence. These Islamist zealots believe in the coming apocalypse and think Al Qaeda is too soft. But they are also opportunistic, exploiting divisions, making practical alliances and absorbing former rivals where they can.  IS has also seized the overthrown dictator Colonel Gaddafi’s coastal home town of Sirte, and a stretch of territory on either side. Somewhere, his ghost is laughing.

This raises two fears. One, that the Islamic State if left unchecked could use the country as a sanctuary, and as a staging post for more terrorism abroad. In the words of Libya’s ambassador to the UAE, might this turn Libya into IS’ ‘gas station, ATM and airport?’

Secondly, there are broader dangers. Further destabilisation could drive yet more people to flee North Africa into Southern Europe, with all the upheaval this brings. The security interests of the Medieterranean world and beyond are at stake.

With IS closing in on the country’s oil terminals and facilities, the very survival of the Libyan economy could be jeopardised. We can’t know exactly what more deterioation could bring in its wake. But we aren’t keen to run the experiment.

Before judging how to address the problem, a tiny note to liberal interventionists and R2P advocates. This was precisely the kind of chaos that the ‘something must be done’ faction confidently forecast would happen if we didn’t join the hostilities in 2011. If this ‘textbook’ ‘model intervention’, this exercise in ‘smart power at its best’ shows one thing, it is the lethality of untempered good intentions, especially when accompanied by swagger. President Obama reportedly was hesitant about the campaign in 2011. Evidently, with good reason.

History, however, happened. Judging on what we can know, now intervention in some form looks likely. Haunted by both the failures of intervention, and the failures of non-intervention, governments are understandably uncertain not whether but when and how to step in.

So what is the nature of the problem? Firstly, we should not interpret the emergence of IS in Libya as the sign of a resurgent, metastasising movement that poses a dire threat to our very existence.

On the contrary, IS raises its flag in Libya because it is suffering from the cumulative pressure that the US and its allies and other adversaries are applying on many fronts. IS is a protostate, as well as a terrorist movement, that seeks to rule territory and extract resources severely to fund its operations. Incrementally, gradually, frustratingly slowly, the current containment strategy is successfully strangling it.

Consider the indicators over the past year. IS’ expansion in its heartland ‘caliphate’ territory has been curbed. Airstrikes and ground operations have starved it of spectacular military victories to follow its most galvanising conquest, of Mosul in 2014. It has been evicted from Ramadi, Tikrit, and Baiji. This matters, because IS relies upon the mystique of world-historical victories to keep attracting recruits and edge ahead within the competitive jihadi marketplace. Slowly, combined pressure traps it within a ‘hammer and anvil’ dilemma. IS fighters cannot easily mass to mount offensive operations, as they will present large targets. But if they disperse for security, their effectiveness as a fighting force is weakened.

For those who fall under its rule, and those who migrate to join the show, IS offers a harsh purital rule and a high-taxing, extractive regime that bleeds dry the land it fights to defend. A flight of people and capital will probably follow. Defections are reportedly rising, though evidence is patchy. There are greater restrictions now from Turkey on the flow of fighters into Syria. Airstrikes and interdiction have badly damaged IS’ oil business and depleted its revenue. Only last month, as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights revealed, IS halved its jihadis’ salaries, its diminishing resources being split between fighting and governing. Even its own public preachments suggest that the tide is turning: IS’ own Media Centre has shifted its theme from triumph to endurance in the face of affliction.

This does not preclude more theatrical terrorist attacks like Paris. But those strikes too are a response to increasing adversity, not a symptom of a jihadi juggernaut. Libya is a concern to address. But for countries like the UK, the sky is not falling.

How, then, to intervene sensibly? The nature of the problem here is the difficult symbiosis between waging an effective military campaign to disrupt IS, while at the same time working hard to prevent the campaign accelerating the country’s unravelling.

Any prudent intervention should steer clear of the twin temptations of doing nothing or ambitously trying to fix the country. We can’t afford, and don’t have the political will, to insert a large stabilisation force into the country. Going by the rough rule of thumb in counterinsurgency, that an occupier needs 20 troops for every 1000 people, that would require 130,000 troops, an order of magnitude that is too costly and would probably generate resistance. We are talking about checking the advance of around 5-6000 IS fighters. Our society cannot continue fighting intensive large-scale COIN campaigns, and neither can our reduced and stretched armed forces. A ‘rollback’ strategy, or an effort to foist one ‘strongman’ on the country, would be a cure worse than the disease.

So a more limited campaign of selective airstrikes and advisory/training missions, married with special forces and working with locals is the most viable route. The trouble lies in the ‘misalignment problem‘, the tendency for  international forces and their hosts to have conflicting interests as well as common ones. Selecting worthy partners for assistance carries the risk of unintentionally fuelling conflict, by empowering some at others’ expense, driving fresh antagonism, undermining the effort at political reconcilation, and implicating the West with bad governance into the bargain.

Libyans like all of us are political, and increasing their capacity to govern and fight technically does not address the political problem, that others sometimes use the resources and capabilities outside powers give them for purposes we don’t like. We can’t control much of Libyan politics, but we can and should work hard to be discriminate. If this means taking more time and maintaining strong restrictions on airstrikes, then this is worth it. There are some practical steps that intervening powers can take, to avoid unwittingly exacerbating problems from economic collapse to the flight of people, creating a fertile ground for IS to recruit.

This means we need to work harder to insure against unintended consequences. An intensive diplomatic effort to get Gulf partners behind the unity government process is one move worth trying. Another is establishing coordinating mechanisms like joint command centres for intelligence collection and battlefield coordination for a better chance of avoiding entanglement in other conflicts, and some conditionality on assistance to armed groups. Furthermore, the focus ought to lie on a specific centre of gravity rather than on general stabilisation, namely the protection of oil production capacity. To give the creation of a new political settlement a chance means preventing IS doing the one thing that could destroy the economy and thereby undermine the legitimacy of any new order. The Islamic State is a real thing that threatens the country. It is also, potentially, a wonderful excuse for opportunists on the ground to abuse.

Distance itself counts. Libya’s geography limits the direct threat IS can pose and presents it with some notable disadvantages. It would be difficult for IS to export high volumes of oil, which would be vulnerable to interception at sea. Hostile factions and militias abound. There aren’t the same sectarian rivalries that IS can expoit in the Middle East. And IS’ setback last year in Derna could be the pattern of things to come, expansion followed by severe misrule, followed by resistance and revolt. In the meantime, European states can work harder to improve intelligence and counter-terrorist co-ordination, putting more barriers in the spaces in between.

The hardest part of this debate lies not in Libya, but domestically. There is a bipolar quality to foreign policy debate on both sides of the Atlantic. In recent times, public debate has lurched from ignoring mounting problems in Libya, to overreacting and branding dangerous situations as first-order ‘existential’ or ‘mortal’ threats. Containment may be the most sound strategy, but another terrorist attack at home could bait a reckless counter-reaction. Precisely at the time where sustained pressure is working, a little proportion is due.

There is a case for intervention, but one more mindful of a possibility than recent Strategic Reviews, that we may wish to act abroad in the name of the ‘golden thread’ of good governance, stability and development. But in acting to bring order, we can unwittingly be agents of chaos.

Intervention in Libya should focus on achievable goals, concentrating on what our troops are actually excellent at doing: helping others in fighting, capturing and holding ground. This is not a grand ‘solution’ – that is not in our gift – but part of a long-term strategy to contain the Islamic State while it slowly destroys itself. This would serve our security interests, while giving Libyans a chance to breathe and negotiate their own political future.





Appearance before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee

February 11, 2016 - Comments Off on Appearance before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee

On Tuesday 9th February, I appeared before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, for their session entitled ‘Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options – oral evidence’.

The video is here, and the transcript of the hearing is in pdf here.

To help inform debate, I drew upon some earlier research and thinking about strategic problems, in my RUSI article on geography and security here and my forthcoming article on uncertainty and classical realism in the European Journal of International Security, the final draft of which I have posted on ‘’ here.

Some further thoughts to follow!

Article in The National Interest on Grand Strategy

December 11, 2015 - Comments Off on Article in The National Interest on Grand Strategy

Hal Brands and I have just published an article in The National Interest, defending the concept and practice of grand strategy against the charges of David Edelstein and Ronald Krebs.

Here it is.

This draws from Hal’s excellent book, What Good is Grand Strategy, and from a current article I am working on, ‘Is Grand Strategy an Illusion?’. Stay tuned!

Appearance before the House of Commons Defence Select Committee

December 11, 2015 - Comments Off on Appearance before the House of Commons Defence Select Committee

On 24 November 2015, I appeared before the House of Commons Defence Select Committee along with a colleague (Dr David Blagden), to comment on the recently issued ‘Strategic Defence and Security Review’ of the UK. Our comments build on our published work, on great power rivalries in David’s case, and my work on the themes of uncertainty and geopolitics:



Twilight Struggle

August 13, 2015 - Comments Off on Twilight Struggle

My latest monthly column is here, ‘Twilight Struggle: The Cold War was neither Simple nor Stable.’ Enjoy!

A Speech, A Post, and Two Articles

August 1, 2015 - Comments Off on A Speech, A Post, and Two Articles

Its been a busy few months, starting work at the Strategy and Security Institute, at the University of Exeter which has proven to be an exciting place.

For Offshore Balancer followers, I’ve written an article in the RUSI Journal on ‘Why Distance Matters: Putting the Geo into Politics.’

I’ve also written a short cautionary piece on the debate over the No Fly Zone proposal and intervention in Syria here.

I’ve also started a monthly column at ‘War on the Rocks’, a great site helmed by Ryan Evans. The first column is here, ‘Was Paul Kennedy Right’, a qualified defence of Kennedy’s arguments about the gradual decline of the American superpower.

And there’s been a talk at the Cato Institute in Washington DC, about my book The Global Village Myth, here is a long clip:


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