The ghost of Iraq past and Syria present

I don’t think David Cameron is a bad egg. His family policies (or those of his Chancellor) have caused me to agree with the Daily Mail on numerous occasions, which is not very usual to be honest… but by the by. I believed him yesterday when he said he wanted to be open and transparent and not to repeat the foul-ups of 2003. And so his surprise defeat was, I think, more about Iraq and domestic politics than it was about Syria.

So, why did he lose the vote?


According to opinion polls, and Lord Ashcroft’s tweets and website are actually becoming a good barometer (in the same way eurobarometer is for the EU) have strongly shown ‘the public’ to be opposed. MPs seemed genuinely reticent themselves, but had a clearer eye on a public who wouldn’t stand for 2003 again. So, no matter that a strong and clear document is published from the JIC, based on very strong JIO analysis, it didn’t have 100% tags on it (and it couldn’t have.. it was intelligence assessment), and so it wasn’t good enough for the post-Iraq public. Cameron isn’t Blair, but he got treated as if he was.

Bringing back Parliament to anoint action: 

Under prerogative powers Cameron didn’t need to ask Parliament, but he wanted approval. It’s difficult to gauge whether the ‘I’m seeking a rubber stamp’ urked Members or not. Either way, it was a self-inflicted wound, but it is inconceivable for Parliament not to have been involved in some form, even though the action contemplated seems to have been very small. There was also unease about the language used by the Foreign Secretary and luminaries like Malcolm Rifkind that we didn’t need a UN mandate – technically, not, but difficult to manage the political fall-out.

Pottery Barn rules: 

You break it, you own it. After Iraq and Afghanistan I don’t think there’s a huge appetite to be involved in longer conflicts or reconstruction. I don’t think the PM’s position that we wouldn’t be involved into the medium to long term was particularly tenable. I think MPs agreed.


The problem of blowback was addressed in the JIC report. They assessed it very differently to me (and I’m always happy to concede), but there are lingering concerns about radicalising new sections of the community here, and abroad.


The public have a higher regard for Cameron than his own back-benchers, who seem to variously see him as too Hawkish, too Dovish and/or just not quite right. A Thatcher in full cry wouldn’t have lost this vote. It’s a terrible slight on his political authority. Michael Gove might have been cursing rebels, but it provides him with a chance to topple Cameron before the election.

As many colleagues have pointed out though, this was not a reason to vote the measures down…


It’s difficult to see the UK as being isolationist when it gives so much money away in aid… but that’s how people like Lord Ashdown painted it. I think it’s the East of Suez debate, without the debate. Sensible spheres of influence, engagement where it makes sense. Ultimately, action will occur because President Obama set down a red line, and Syria crossed it. There has to be a response  or the authority of the US is questioned. Luckily for the Prime Minister the American administration don’t seem to have taken the news too badly, which means that their military response is likely to be limited and speedy.

None of this does anything to help the people of Syria, of course – not intervening, nor not intervening. It’s time – for once – for the UN to actually step up.

Whilst I didn’t agree with military action in this case, as per my previous posting, I don’t think Mr Cameron lost his vote for the ‘right reasons’, and it sets the decision to go to war now firmly with Parliament, where it –  perhaps-  should always have been.


Syria and the Parliamentary recall

The UK shouldn’t be involved in military action against Syria, no matter how horrific the original use of chemicals was. And here’s for why:

  • The responsibility to protect is not the responsibility to punish. Leave that to the ICC. The war crimes commission can act in due course. That’s of course unless the government wish to give the Russian and Chinese government the press release that says ‘the west doesn’t give a monkeys about international process’.  The same should be the case for the need to secure UN resolutions.
  • The unintended consequence of action is to alienate those within the regime who might have been sought out to negotiate. Or who might have been alienated by the use of the chemicals in the first place. All action solidifies the resolve of the regime.
  • You might hit Russian advisors. That would be ill-advised.
  • You might get dragged into something expensive and difficult (and let’s not forget that the Syrians have decent kit). There’s no will of the people to engage. The Iraq legacy persists. Scepticism about evidence and nice rhetoric also persists.
  • You shouldn’t want anything other than a stalemate here. The analysis done on the ‘rebels’ doesn’t make them look particularly friendly/acceptable to the west. So, don’t do anything to radically tip the balance, and remember Egypt just went bad. Syria will be way worse and less containable.
  • Our military is no longer geared for this. The SDSR did not provide for us to Libya (not really) and it certainly does not provide for this. Put the battle charts down, warm the diplomats up and leave it to someone else.
  • Attacking Assad is likely to have consequences for the UK. Let’s not invite on consequences. Instead, let’s read Baroness Manningham-Bullers’ evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry and conclude that she was a wise sage, with transferable advice.

On the less edifying end of the scale:

  • We’re just coming out of recession. Don’t rock the international oil boat. Don’t spend money we don’t have. It’s bad enough giving huge quantities of international aid money away, when the food bank in my local church is over-subscribed. When people cannot get the treatment for health problems that is a clinical need because there’s no money and when the schools have to beg for contributions from parents.. Our national security is currently not found in Syria. Don’t invent connections when there aren’t any.
  • We are no longer a global policeman. We are no longer a medium sized power. We are a key component of a European security community. Let it be for others to lead.

So, on Thursday, when Parliament is recalled, I hope they put the battle maps and the war drums away. Patience, influence and other tools are required here.

Of course, they will do the complete opposite.. and then there will be a cottage industry in writing and broadcasting about why it was such a complete cluster….. plus ca change?


Prism and the making of our idiocracy.

This is not the time for cliché or sound bite, but to paraphrase Tony Blair, I feel the hand of history (or the all-seeing electronic eye) just to the right of this keyboard. And your keyboard actually. And your webcam. Oh, and your telephone. Indeed, if your toaster has acquired the ability to engage in two-way communications, the all-seeing electronic eye probably knows how you like your toast. And your crumpets.  It has probably told its all-seeing master (or mistress). And they have made a micro-judgment about the fact that your toast is underdone (an unsound choice unless matched with slightly underdone bacon) and that your crumpets are ever so slightly rubbery.

If outed by a former contractor with an overdeveloped sense of global citizenry and a keenness to stop enjoying the liberties of a free man, the all-seeing electronic eye’s master (or mistress) would tell you that you had nothing to worry about if you are merely going about your business in a law abiding way. Afterall, a small detail about your toast (and crumpets) going to the all-seeing electronic eye is a small price to pay for all this security you are enjoying. And you are enjoying it, right? And you might hopefully respond to the representative of the all-seeing electronic eye that they were talking total rot. Because this is only in small part about being law-abiding, it’s mostly about creating and enforcing obedience and compliance.

It is the beigest political paint that dries the quickest, and Prism is set for maximum beige.

Its effect on politics is so beiging it might have been painted on the panels of a British made car of the 70s

Being a useful idiot…

Of all the things to be miffed about with Prism one of the most random (and least important) is that nearly all of the IR scholars who write through the ‘inspiration’ and, er, prism of Foucault are probably right. And this is not good. Because I’ve only ever met several ‘Foucauldians’ who haven’t been eminently irritating, and painfully certain that they have seen the one-true light of a bald French bloke who was good at re-historicisation. In their world the rest of us are pre-Foucault. If only we had seen that one true light too. (I exaggerate slightly for effect: I know a few Foucauldians who I strongly admire, and who live far enough away now to make it a really large effort to beat me about the head). Anyhow, necessary caveats in place… these buggers are right. The dead-hand of the state is not dead at all. It’s alive and desperate to create passive political bodies. The frightening tone of Richard Aldrich’s brilliant book on GCHG has been transformed in my mind from a frightening dystopia into underplay of the agenda at hand. But people like me are useful idiots because we tend to see the strengths in bureaucratic, political and judicial oversight mechanisms (and lecture about these strengths in glowing tones), and in assuming that just as the ordinary soldier sees themself as a reflection in their enemy, then security officials see themselves in those they serve. And if they do, it’s a poor reflection of the Biblical maxim do unto others what you’d have done to yourself. (I can feel the tautology of ‘if you’re law abiding’ coming on again… tell that to the select many who ran into certain British police forces during the 70s and 80s.. but by the by).   There’s also an endless amount to be said about the quantity of data we voluntarily contribute to that mystical place ‘the internet’, which has evidently contributed to our own surveillance…. But that’s also by the by.

 The myth of absolute security:

So, how did we get here?

External stimulus (but not one more dramatic than the Cold War, cue post-colonial thinkers to explain this missing gap) + defence of budgetary territory + technical capacity + functional creep – politicians without the wit to say no = the myth of absolute security and all that goes with it.

So, 9/11 and 7/7 in the UK were seen as ‘wake-up’ calls, and were immediately labelled as intelligence failures. But this was unfair. Intelligence agencies had never said that they offered blanket protection, and why should they: they can’t. But it was quite clear that the press (and however you read the reflect><lead function of the media) and a large part of the public assumed that they indirectly paid into this national security slot machine, the security wheels whizz round, and as regular as clock-work security comes flying out in a clattering din of happy contentedness. But in the real world of real people, intelligence and security is a clever system of processes and people that gets lucky more often than it gets unlucky: ‘we only have to be lucky once, you have to be lucky every time’ as one of the Brighton bombers was quoted as saying.

So, the myth of security began with a massive public misunderstanding of what intelligence is and does. It was then compounded by weak politicians who either misunderstood it themselves or decided it would be mighty funny and/or convenient to confirm this myth and avoid some issues that are firmly parked in the ‘too difficult’ box. Political science point: how, narratively, do we now row back from this misunderstanding? No-one who wants to get elected again is going to point out that the security-slot-machine is a game of chance, and you might lose your money. Time and time again.

The agency response appears to have been many-fold, but we can tell a two-fold story: 1) a desire to avoid being tarred as having failed to meet up to (unreasonable) expectations, 2) a desire to expand budgets and political turf at a permissive moment. These have dovetailed with the ease and speed with which ELINT/SIGINT/SOCMINT can be collected and stored.

So, whilst we can all see why such a response is rational, or at least explicable, it maintains a critical bind, which can be illustrated via part of the response to the disgraceful attack on the soldier Lee Rigby. Investigative journalism then suggested that the accused had been known to intelligence, some even suggested that one of them had been recently approached to spy on Jihadists.  The security slot machine appeared to have stopped spitting out security coins, instead it looked like in some circumstances like it didn’t know when it had three of a kind showing. Again, this is unfair, but the narrative exists, and does so because it is useful and helpful in some respects.

The European rescue of the all-seeing-electronic eye

No, I don’t actually think there’s a European rescue, but there will almost certainly be a lot of European resistance and friction to what we have learned about Prism. When I wrote a paper and gave evidence to the European Parliament in 2010 about the Passenger Name Record issue, there was a great deal of anxiety about how this information would treated, stored and used. And more widely and philosophically about the merits of a foreign power having such a wide array of EU citizen’s data. But let’s be clear: PNR is the smallest sprat in the sea compared to the revelations about Prism. In the light of Prism, the debate we had about PNR was so pointless it almost wasn’t worth the trip to Madrid to discuss it (cough). And it will have no doubt amused the Russian government to see that the response to their request for PNR data (which mirrors the arrangement the EU has with the US) was laughed out of the room (and I am sure the Russian government were not disappointed nor surprised by this) whilst the news of Prism loomed large on the horizon. Whilst such views are not popular in these parts, the EU underplays the strength it has in big-data, and the ability it would have to act as its own security bloc, if only it could line up in something of the same direction.

Where do we go from here?

Well, nothing will change. So forget any notion that this seismic event will generate change. It will generate a lot of political hot air, and a lot of protests. But no-one will dare challenge the myth of absolute security, and it is on that premise that the whole system sits.

Security is created by economic growth, and the access to the benefits of and means by which economies grow. There will always be those who want a fight. No matter how good life is. We should pay these people negative attention. But we won’t need to worry about the mass of population if we know that there is an absence of grievance. And economic growth cures most grievances. Just as in COIN, the aim should be to reduce the fighting core to the smallest number, not to label the largest number of people as combatants. The best thing the politicians of the US, UK and the rest of Europe could do in response to this crisis is get their economies motoring again.

Leave the toasters to do their business in peace….


The mediation of unmet need

We tell young children to be tolerant of their classmates. Fights are unacceptable. As is unreasonableness. It is part of the ‘early years foundation’ material that all schools adhere to in the UK, and so it should set people up for life. All children leave school with a plastic folder ‘evidencing’ their achievement of these simple goals. Dignity at work messages are designed to do the same with us grown-up children. You may disagree, but only in certain prescribed ways. To paraphrase a scene from the French crime drama ‘Engrenages’ ‘we have laws, to prevent vengeance’. And yet conflict abounds. Be it dust ups over who is sitting with who, or the minutiae of workplace governance, resource allocation or committee membership, right up to whose religion is the one true voice, or who should run a country… human kind seems desperate to perpetuate the sort of bickering that would drive any parent wild with despair.

And part of the brief reflection that went into thinking about this post came from a conversation I had with my new colleague David Roberts. He works on post-conflict zones, and peace-building, and he’s a fantastically enthusiastic, committed (in the right way) and interesting chap. But we were talking about a particular friction we had observed and he urged that we thought about the ‘unmet needs’ of those displaying the behaviour we were discussing.

It is such a simple, and therefore elegant thought. If the unmet needs of those seeking friction can be accommodated, acknowledged or met, then positions of tension might be unwound. It is not rocket science, nor is it a million miles away from standard COIN thinking around bringing the largest lump of insurgents you can to the negotiating table, to unlock the intractability of conflict.

But the original elegant thought then tied into several security studies seminars I have recently been to, in which defining a unitary account or object of study of ‘security’ proved very difficult. Much like it is impossible to define sanity, and only to define sanity in partial opposition to insanity (which is easy to locate, define and describe), security is best defined as the partial resolving of conditions of insecurity.

And what a word insecurity is. Because it nicely resonates with the vast majority of what we discuss as security problems: insecurities and assumptions around the intentions of the ‘other’. And many of these assumptions are based precisely in the black-hole wilderness of ‘otherness’: Huw Gusterson’s excellent book ‘People of the Bomb’ highlights this point far better than I could ever do. So, the fight over school seating is really the insecurity of loneliness, the bust up in everyday work settings over resources and paperclips around conveyed prestige, resilience of employment or such like. Threatening nuclear conflagration is partly an expression of the unmet need of domestic security, for those who are currently doing it. These three diffuse thought-examples have obvious routes to satisfaction. Not capitulation, but satisfaction. The two are different.

I was interested in the piece on Radio 4 this week or last that said that schizophrenia was still awaiting physiological markers. An observable condition that – scientifically -is not yet known to be physiologically based, but literally ‘all in the mind’. An acute disjuncture from societal norms, expectations, relations and yes, unmet need. So acute, in fact, that a single and whole personality can appear to break in two, and the public presentation of this is ‘unacceptable’, ‘alarming’ or ‘dangerous’ behaviour.

We arm ourselves – as nations – to provide a seriousness behind our efforts to mediate and to provide a fail-safe position if that mediation fails. By that rationale the use of armed force should be a rarity – it should be big stick carried quietly and deliberately. By a slightly extended rationale, we should also figure that the greatest threat to our security, is failing to understand the unmet needs of others and in failing to recognise, locate or address the emergent seriousness of their anxiety.

Our own insecurity is, therefore, the realised aggregation of many insecurities. A Rumsfeldian construction if ever I read one!


The red-line of chemical weapons and Syria.

Softly confirmed reports are of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in a small town in the Allepo region. As the western powers sought to confirm the contested accounts of these developments talk of ‘red-lines’ and ‘responsibility to intervene’ emerged.

Some brief thoughts, in no particular order:

How we know what we know: given the debates around the intelligence on Iraq (see the Panorama programme on Monday night) as well as the reports that will and have come out of Butler and Chilcot, the burden of proof that ‘the west’ will need to have will need to be strong. Another campaign under false-flags will play very badly, and exactly where is the money and capability to prosecute a difficult war?

Real threats: one of the real threats from chemical weapons in this operational environment is the unsecured use. Secured use at least has a clearer set of influence metrices that could be used to mitigate or prevent its use – in an unsecured use, these influences are diffuse, obscured, and fluid – it makes them more unpredictable. It also makes them more portable – and therefore uncontained. That puts them into the global threat orbit.

Killing norms: an estimated 60,000 people have already lost their lives in Syria in the contest over who can rule the space. Very few of these deaths are likely to have been ‘nice’ and it might just be me, but I struggle to see the radical difference or escalatory effect of deaths by unconventional ordnance as opposed to conventional ordnance. If we are going to intervene because of the use of chemical weapons, we should have been intervening before: people were still dying unpleasantly over a political struggle. No-one is going to the pearly gates more pissed off that they died one way or another. It also sets a precedent – given that in the 80s and early 90s the international community were unkeen to intervene in Middle Eastern chemical attacks in Iran/Iraq/Kurdistan.

The means to an end: is to secure Russian influence in the Middle East. Without this, the removal of Assad is all but impossible. If the Russian government sees that it is no worse off, or even better off with a replacement, we could reasonably assume that their position would move. To try and write Russia out of the Middle East will be to create a Syrian conflict that cannot be contained.

The safety of friends first / fracture lines: looking at a conflict map of the Middle East makes it quite clear that the Israeli Prime Minister is quite correct when he talks of their being massive threats in the region. Increasingly he has them stacking up on his borders. The old mantra of ‘solve the Israeli-Palestinian question and you’ve solved peace in the Middle East’ is now a historical relic. There are far bigger problems in the Middle East, they’re all across religious/ethnic identity lines and they are not contained by the Westphalian niceties of boundary lines. Therefore, a plan for the security of the Middle East has to include our own allied bulwark of democracy – Israel – as the protected red-line. And for the rest of the region (which now in terms of joined up insurgencies – be they dormant, a little active or fully-fledged spreads all the way across to west Africa) greater attention needs to fall upon demilitarisation and trade-aid. The disconnect of insurgent from his base of support lies in satisfaction and economic growth – no-one goes to war on a full stomach as the adapted phrase goes. Poverty, strong and historically mal-formed rhetorics, and an abundance of conventional weaponry is making a very significant part of the globe ungovernable. No wonder some folk argue for a wider Atlantic community, a pivot towards Latin America.

If you break it, you own it: The new first rule of interventions is that if you break the country, you own it. And walking away (a’la Iraq and Afghanistan) is possible, but doesn’t really help anyone. An intervention in Syria (which is predominantly broken in governance terms) would still trigger the maxim, I think. Whilst the historical resonance is poor or problematic, a Syria-under-mandate might be the smartest way to proceed – think Bosnia under Paddy Ashdown, but with more people involved. Perhaps the role the UN should be playing is in being able to step in as a collective civil service/government with a core remit to ensure that the four governance strands are improved and that the outcome should always be a return to local rule when stability is in place: it would be the best way of dispersing financial and operational risk and responsibility.

Be wary of those who want immediate interventions, be wary of those who say trust the intelligence, and have no sustainable and viable plans for stability – these are 30year plans, not 5years twitchy and out.  In this war, the competition is potentially our best friend….


Defence Acquisition: the wisdom of elders

Fresh some several years of hyper-active reforms, and a lot of intensely reflective thinking, the MoD would have been disappointed to read the Defence Select Committee’s mauling of its industrial strategy, or to be more accurate, lack of strategy.

This is a little unfair. The MoD has a strategy and it’s a clear response to several factors that come from Whitehall (internal debates around institutional design, the place of the UK in the world, stance etc) and external sources (mainly the economy), but the problem is in its radicalism. In a recent article for World Defence Systems, that I think is imminent, I said the government’s defence reforms had been typified with a radicalism born of conservatism – they’re spinning ever more rapidly to achieve a very stable set of end-goals that can be tracked over time. SDSR (and its foundational NSS document) could be seen as a radical reining in of the UK’s overseas role, but then Libya happens and it looks like salami-slicing and strategic disjuncture etc etc. And the evidence that Mark Phythian and I provided to the Select Committee began its intellectual origin at this point: that SDSR reoriented the UK into less interventionist activity, and – more importantly – a sticking plaster pathway to get through to 2015. So, in our Defence Studies piece (behind the publisher’s wall until April) we noted that Libya effectively buried the SDSR because of this critical disjuncture in aims, whilst in our Political Quarterly (which is free to access) piece we noted that the follow-on activities after SDSR might change the nature of bureaucratic governance in the UK. The Defence Select Committee’s report also raised questions about how effectively the government would keep control of procurement under a GoCo arrangement (where the company is owned by the government but run by a contractor, or a consortium of contractors).

The classic arguments used to justify a GoCo arrangement locate themselves around private industry being able to drive down costs, and drive up efficiencies. Fine. But there’s very little evidence of this happening across the full spectrum of government activities. The comprehensive work of the NAO to look into the financial models the government uses highlights the problems of needing incredibly precise contracts to nail down a financial arrangement and the punitive costs of deviating an inch from it, which seems to happen with monotonous regularity. After all, it’s a complex world with complex needs. So, the wisdom of going down an internally outsourced route, which is what the GoCo amounts too, relies on a truth to the maxims that private is cheaper and industry knows better. Smart procurement felt a more comfortable concept, in all honesty. Why are our public institutions immune from more efficient rationales? There are no inherent reasons… but strangely it persists.

The second major criticism levelled by the committee was about a lack of strategic direction – that equipment savings, job protection, and protecting the British research base could be better secured if the MoD knew what equipment was critical to national security. If the MoD knew this, they would have a better idea about what they were going to ring-fence and protect. The committee went on:

“We believe the absence of a strategy which supports appropriate national sovereignty puts the UK at a disadvantage against competitor countries. Furthermore we do not understand how we can have confidence in a national security strategy which does not show a clear grasp of what is needed for the defence of the United Kingdom and how this can be ensured.”

So, the idea of buying-off-the-shelf was effectively scotched as a panacea option. Which is a bit of a blow to the National Security Through Technology white paper released in February 2012, which broke the historic link between the UK defence industrial base and UK security.

So, where to go now? The SDSR was unusual as a defence review in as much as its review point was established from the outset (2015) and thus one could reasonably assume that it would be reviewed in, er, 2015. But two years on, it is still receiving a monthly drubbing in the press, and by Parliamentarians and by humble academic scribblers. It seems unconscionable that it won’t be revisited before 2015.. but how can it be? For instance, the sort of inter-service row that was had in the run up to the SDSR will look like Aunt Sally’s quiet picnic on Ditchling Beacon compared to a middle-of-the-cuts version now. And Tory MPs who are feeling cross about bleating middle Englanders like me moaning on about reforms to universal benefits and married tax allowances etc,  disappointed with the angst in Parliament over gay marriage, Europe, triple-dips etc are unlikely to want to see their government robbed of the ‘friend of the military tag’ so soon after nabbing it back from Labour.  The Prime Minister is one of the government’s biggest assets, but he’s collecting problems for fun at the moment.

We normally talk of salami-slicing vs radical surgery in defence reform. The problem is that the radical surgery keeps coming in slices. And the sensible retreat from overseas commitments was rapidly replaced with renewed interventionism (which intellectually I’m not opposed to). Whether the current suite of policies are underpinned by good sense or not, defence policy looks like a badly thought out mess. Most of the stakeholders involved in it seem as pleased as Porsche owner being given a moulding Mini-Metro as a courtesy car.

Intellectual and practical incoherence, stakeholder disaffection and continual bad-press from all quarters need to be thought about clearly and perhaps in the following blank-paper terms:


  • Who owns strategy?
  • Are these people in the best institutional or workload place to be doing it (all sorts of factors mitigate for and against strategic thinking. From my own perspective it requires time to reflect and play with ideas, and it requires the right sort of information at the right quality to be put in front of people. Is this happening?)
  • Who is responsible for managing and including stakeholders?
  • Is there a clear 5, 10, and 30 year vision?
  • Do we know how to get to each of these markers?
  • What kind of head-room is defence operating with, and what issues does that pose? (and let’s be clear, we know that the budget is under serious pressure despite the promise of increases in equipment monies. So, can we guarantee if we cut something that we can keep the saving to make something else better? If not, then the government needs to think about how it is incentivising reformists.


There are plenty of answers to these questions already out there in various literatures. But many of them (most of them) sit within the ‘yes, but’ mould of thinking. Defence policy doesn’t need ‘yes, but’, it needs ‘here are the expected, anticipated or known-unknown threats and now here are the capabilities that we think best match these threats exist, with the money we’ve got or can reasonably ring out of the Treasury’.

Select Committees are getting good at holding government to account. It’s time for government to match them with good answers.


Ps- the wisdom of elders title is a little random. It refers to an expert witness cited next to Phythian and I, who is both very wise and of distinguished service and years.


Syria, Mali, Algerian gas-works and ‘Open Source Everything’

Read any government security document, any of the national security strategies produced by a now large number of states and you will get a feel for the proliferation in the number of threats they feel they face. The preamble will normally contain a paragraph explaining that after the Cold War or after 9/11 everything got a little more complex, a little less explicable.

Heightened complexity in the international system appears to have coincided (and is only partially causally linked) to the increased levels of activity/ improvements in technology, social media etc. The rate at which information can be collected has increased, even if the sort of information being collected is broadly the same.

The problem of accounting for events like the Algerian gas-plant siege a few weeks ago (or the development of the insurgency in Syria, or in the hijacking of the state in Mali) for state-based security organisations is that their resources allocated in such a way that it logical for them to be looking the wrong way when this happens. It would be unlikely – although we can’t be sure, obviously – that there’s a bod in every security community across Europe pondering the safety of gas-plants in the ME and Maghreb. So, when this happens the information required to rapidly come down the pipe needs to be hastily scoped and drawn in. And this got me thinking about Robert Steele’s ‘open source everything’ manifesto (I declare the interest that Robert has written a chapter for the Routledge Handbook on Intelligence that I, Mike Goodman and Claudia Hillebrand have compiled and which will be in a good bookshops from August, and that he and I have corresponded at length about these issues), and how it could be used or applied in these circumstances. I have my own take on this, and I’ve provided the link above to the source: Robert also has a good search on his name I think so I’d guess he’ll correct me in comments too! But my wonder is more in the aggregation of huge quantities of information.

If we assumed that insurgents or terrorists leave an electronic detritus of chatter (be it closed loop phone or some other form), movement data, financial data, and the chatter of their associates, family etc and local media reports etc etc, then the actual ‘intelligence’ required to identify, contain and roll-back a threat or ‘black-swan’ event should be there, right? No-one – it seems – can totally avoid leaving the sort of trail that could be used in anticipating an event, so the issue is in collecting the data in a way that makes sense, and making predictions on it (lenses through which we understand the world). And that made me wonder about how one could translate this kind of regional or localised intelligence into a western European perspective: does it need expert ciphers to do so? Or can it be done with generalists? This fits into one of my side projects, which is thinking through how to make better use of scholarship in the ‘real world’. Would a more open source arrangement provide the sort of information to be better resilient to these black-swan events? This is not to say that the current arrangements are ‘bad’ or ‘failed’, but just like in defence it seems that there’s a constant circle to be squared of ‘more’, ‘more diverse’ and with relatively static methods or money.

Relatedly, some years ago Milja Kurki (who might be the smartest person I’ve ever met) and I wrote a paper about the intersection between intelligence studies and IR theory. We never published this paper and for their pains my final year students get to read it as a tiny part of the reading list for my final year option. Whilst we felt that the field was under-theorised, the paper we wrote never really connected up to the reality of intelligence work adequately enough. The two communities or endeavours seemed immune from each other – indeed to try and overlay one on the other seemed to produce an immune system response. But with the benefit of some years to cogitate on it, and having thought about the work of people like Steele, Fuller, Cairney (as above), I think the missing element from this paper was the realities of complexity:

  • Things in the international system tend away from equilibrium and not towards it as most IR theory suggests
  • The international system tends to chaos and not order (and the level of chaos might be reduced to the level of individuals, making generalizable lessons problematic)
  • Man-made uncertainty shocks, or ‘black-swans’ to use other language, are mostly resistant to accurate advanced prediction. Thus one main function of theory – to predict – is always likely to fail. Using a different approach we could learn lessons quickly enough to be able to deal with a problem or series of problems close enough to the source that in effect it looked like prediction and pre-emption.

The issues all fall-down to how to best use (in terms of creating the right institutional frameworks and having the right cultures) the information available, and in that we need more thinking work into whether alternatives genuinely stack-up.


Our enemy’s enemy, is never better…

I’d like to go further than the Faceless Bureaucrat did an hour or so ago.. I should also know that amongst my students he has become ‘the freelance bureaucrat’ for no good reason at all (my first years just read the FB-Betz exchange on freedom of speech as alternative reading on the reading list).

Anyhow, my proposition and provocation is simple:

The enemies of our enemies have universally proved to be more problematic than the original enemy. Certainly in the last fifteen years.

* Saddam was decidedly horrid, but after Gulf War I was also decidedly stable. The situation that followed him, the influence of Iran in the country, and the new leadership are no improvement (if you can see past some flawed elections).

* The Taliban were not to our taste, and a threat via the harbouring of training camps, but the situation that has followed is a dysfunctional money-pit and a rapid return to the 1980s…

* In Zimbabwe, the international clamour to replace Mugabe went quiet when it was assessed that the military and security hierarchy that sits to his left and right were even more dangerous than he is/was.

* Egypt looked promising, then Morsi got excited and decided he was Mubarak-redux, and from a international politics perspective, Mubarak was a force for stability and constructive engagement with Israel (contested, for sure).

* Libya.. we got excited about the opposition, but we didn’t know who they were or what they were intending and that’s gone badly too.

* And now Syria, where the opposition groups we’re all officially quite excited about have allegedly massacred Alawite’s (who have broadly supported Assad).

So, like an emergent isolationist from my previous muscular liberal past… I say again, all of the enemies of our enemies, are worse devils than the ones we know… We should have moved for strategies of containment.


Moral vacuums and chemical weapons

Chemical weapons are rotten.

Really horrible. Like the most disgusting things you can think of. They even belong to that most rancid of clubs – the WMD club. Urgh. And no-one wants to belong to that club… Well, apart from quite a large number of developed nations.

(don’t ruin the urgh… there were feel-good points to be had from the urgh).. apologies. Urgh.

To think clearly about the possible use of Syrian chemical weapons (and surely policy people should be thinking chem-bio, right?) we need to stop the editorialising about just how urgh they are. Saying chemical weapons are horrid is no more compelling a statement than to say that teenagers are stroppy, academics are not natural socialisers and that large French people carrying cars are not terribly reliable. We need to think in a moral vacuum, rather than to get caught up in the sort of statements that constitute motherhood and apple pie. We did, afterall, make this mistake with another leader in the middle east called Saddam, based on the notion that we rightly considered that he went hunting in Berkshire.


So, allow me to very temporarily occupy a moral vacuum (don’t panic, I’ll square it with the vicar next Sunday).

If I was a middle eastern tyrant with a civil war that wasn’t going my way, and a chemical arsenal at the end of a series of phonecalls, I’d probably be thinking this:

* The use of any socially unacceptable weapon is to cause a shift in the pattern of the fighting. Gas in WW1 was used to try and revive some mobility to the frontline (to make the cavalry useful again), to ruin the morale of the enemy (afterall, if they’re scared of gas they might decide to run away) and if used properly to kill more of them without having to leave the comfy concrete confines / muddy, rat infested confines (delete as applicable) of the trench to do so. The same is true now. Will it transform the battle space? Will it scare them (ie convince some to defect, dissuade others from joining, persuade supportive communities to change their minds)? Will it kill lots of them in a way not achievable at the moment? I don’t think it’s for me to fill in those blanks, even sat in my temporary moral vacuum.

* Furthermore, the use of socially unacceptable weapons is also dependent on the tricky judgement call of whether the person firing them is going to win. And that’s not really known before the command is given: it’s why the command might be given. So, you might – in the role of tyrannical leader – decide that you’ve seen Gaddafi sodomised with a rifle and then killed in a not terribly pleasant manner, and that even if you fire your nastiness upon the enemy it might a) not alter that outcome or b) you won’t get hanged for war crimes because the international criminal court is all a bit against capital punishment. The penalties for firing don’t appear to be much different to the penalties for not firing, bar some bad press in the history books.

* But but but, the international condemnation will be un-be-lie-va-ble. There will be strongly worded statements in the UN. IN THE UN, no less. I don’t mean to be rude about the UN or any other international organisation, but if you have a government who have been put in the pariah box for, what, 30-odd years at least (probably the whole of the 40 years), I’m not sure that a very notional telling off from the UN is really going to cut any mustard (gas or otherwise). Yes, there are two major state actors commonly seen to be propping up the Syrian government, and yes, the use of chemical weapons might well cause those countries to consider that this is nuisance has moved too high up the nuisance meter to be ignored. But a canny actor in that part of the world, with cross-cutting ethnic tensions that run regionally (rather than nationally) might decide that in all the, er, create tension that could be caused from a few well judged mischiefs that survivability was still possible.


My point is this: within the moral vacuum some truly unpalatable acts might look palatable. From within and outside the vacuum we could observe that the comparison with Iraq holds very little water: in terms of military capabilities, connectivity with the west and friends elsewhere, established patterns of regimes being overturned, of the number of imprisonments and deaths of previous regime leaders etc etc.

Outside, however, we can use the lesson of the vacuum to say one very clear thing: western policy makers are going to need to think radically beyond the hackneyed lines of ‘persuading the Russian and Chinese governments to do more’, or the thinking around Iraq, or sanctions, or strongly worded letters to The Times to prevent this kind of escalation. If I wasn’t so in love with the whole democracy thing, I’d ask why we didn’t just focus more on regional stability and leave considerations of western style human rights and democracy as awkward details for someone else to think about. Afterall, when I wrote that the Egyptians were about to drink a cup of sick in 2010, it was a different cup I was thinking of, but this one doesn’t contain orange juice either. The ‘democratic’ revolutions in the Middle East (broadly defined) are going to generate precisely no better a situation for western policy makers than those regimes that went before. Bastards-we-understood, have been replaced by bastards-we-don’t-have-a-clue-about and that doesn’t strike me as particularly sensible (and no, I can’t work out which side of the vacuum jar that comment comes from). Current Syria has never really been on our side, a new Syria is almost guaranteed not to be. We need to think in old-school terms about containment and stability, and less about the schadenfreude of giving someone a kick who we have thought of as a pain.

The instant retorts – if they come – will be about atrocities and human rights. These retorts are entirely correct. As a human being, I entirely agree and all the human stories are horrendous and tragedies in their own rights. They cannot be underplayed. It doesn’t appear that statesmen always have this human view.. and thus we should try and understand this as a means by which to dealing with it.


All in it together? The utility of universities to military, security and resilient activities

As you will already know, this is a minor hobby horse of mine, and I return to it here, partly as an act of public thinking (as in thinking in public, not a higher form of public intellectualism.. that would be a stretch for this time on a Monday morning and in general, really). For context, I write this whilst thinking about putting pen to paper for a more serious report on it, and I would welcome input from anyone here, or offline to my email address – click the link on the right. What I am particularly after is some blunt advice about how universities (not limited to war studies and related fields, but engineering, materials, maths, IT, design schools etc) can better engage with the defence community (widely defined)? Are there things we don’t do, that we could do, or things we should do that would drive a benefit? This ditty largely muses on university education and these wider concerns: it’s a starter for ten. My refined thoughts – which will be done and dusted by May 2013 I will make available here.

Intellectual drivers: 

As people of this parish know I was lucky enough to work at the Defence Studies Department for a while and indeed to convene the MA in Defence Studies for a time. At the time I felt this put me rather more in touch with the working lives of a transnational collective of mid-to-high ranking military folk than the contracted hours of my diary really allowed. I now look back with some fondness about that proximity, and particularly of the small group work we did on the MA course as a very high level exchange of views. I remember some of those people vividly, and given our discussions I’d warrant they might even remember me too. Crucially, for the purposes of this short scribble, it felt like that sort of work that would translate into an impact on someone’s working life (minor, perhaps, but an impact). In the civilian sector, we prepare young minds for the world of work, we provide a grounding of knowledge and the transferable skills to operate both academically and vocationally. The balance between that intellectual grounding and the vocational after is the subject of some increasingly noisy debates in the UK: for those interested in some of them, they should head to the newly formed Council for the Defence of British Universities.

So, one core of the business of universities is preparing minds that will engage internationally for the UK.

But is the balance in preparing them for the sake of the individual or for higher purposes such as competitiveness or national interest? The so-called ‘post-Browne era’ would provide one with the idea that the balance is for the individual, but the needs of the country (where are our innovators, are economic growth champions, our ‘want to do betters’?) would lead me to believe we need to think more seriously about providing a platform for individuals to succeed in a way that benefits core objectives of the nation. Put another way: we’re being thrashed off the park by our competitors and we seem to have sleep-walked or been duped into a situation where we cannot compete. For me, this is more a problem that sits with schools, than it does with universities. As any fool knows, the earlier in life you try to learn something the easier, the better, the higher the curve that can be experienced. Gove’s reforms of what – in Britain – we call state schools, but Americans call public schools, have been dismissed as an ideological dogma let loose. But, stuck on my soap box, and as a parent and a school governor, he is absolutely correct. I sit as a minority of one on my governing body in favour of academy status – not because I particularly enjoy radically changing stuff, but because it’s the only way to ensure improved performance and delivery of academic skills. By a circuitous route it is one way to improve literacy contact time from non-existent to reasonable (and still nowhere near at foundation stage the norm of 3 to 4 hours a week within fee paying schools): world beating innovators are not created by providing people with just enough reading skills to function basically at a shop. If given a free-hand, I would turn the local schools into a large ‘free school’, as a way of freeing up the school to focus on creating the sort of wealth creators that my part of the UK badly needs. But there is also a balance for universities to strike between individual enrichment (and the individual is paying more and more, the state in the first moment, but then the individual) and the interests of a competitive state with global interests and threats. Connection to security – a future pool of talent able to compete, a future pool of talent able to create and use competitive technologies, and to better understand the mix of cultures that will blend opportunity and threat.

I am grateful to the suggestion of my e-friend and colleague Robert David Steele, for his wisdom on education, and his firm belief that once we’ve taught youngsters the basics we should give them internet technologies for free and let them find their own routes to knowledge: this free-marketeering approach to open-source everything is as fascinating as it is paradigm breaking and uncomfortable as a result.


Read any copy of the Times Higher in any week and you’ll see that university finances are under stress. This is stress from a general economic contraction, and the knock-on this has with potential-student sentiment (and ability to pay?) and business investment in R&D. The THES produced some indicative data of where individual universities sit financially, and it’s clear that some of the non-research intensive universities are in for a very bad time indeed. There may be closures. Even with the well endowed research intensive universities there is extra pressure on money, and where this pressure exists a greater requirement to ‘get out there’ and make some connections. So, universities are offering a huge amount of supply as a part consequence of, and just at the time of a contraction in demand (well, budgets… I’m sure the desire for the right sort of engagement exists). They are also offering this supply as a contingent element of the  research assessment procedure – so double supply, dwindling demand. So, part of my first paragraph request for blunt views concerns a recalibration of this supply and demand relationship. The supply side knows that it needs to supply and is (mostly, save for a hardcore of those who’d rather be pure than employed) keen to supply it. It guesses at what it needs to supply, and hopes to God to find someone to demand.. The demand side doesn’t currently have much money and needs good value and strong results. Both need to be ‘smart customers’ and ‘smart consumers’, because otherwise we’re just wasting time and effort and not strengthening our core national interests.

So, finance is a key problem in higher education because without it we cannot do high end research, advance knowledge, nor teach future minds. But we also cannot carve out the areas of highly competitive activity that puts us at an advantage as UK Plc against our rivals. Should universities retain their position as a state-sponsored skunkworks, and what level of control is required for that to work?

There is a Keynesian argument for retaining universities as engines of local economic growth, and there are some very interesting statistics that I’ve seen on how that works (a relatively small university supports 3 non-university jobs in the local community for every one university job supported, for example). But instead of relying on a narrow economic Keynes, I would like us to find a scale of activity – in this case in securitized research – that we could put forward an adaptive Keynesian argument: ‘we are vital to the national interest’.

Network Centricity

Universities sit as knowledge hubs in a wider network of knowledge providers and creators. If there weren’t already universities they’d have to be invented for this purpose. It’s the fine nuance of the relationship – of how they perform these roles and tasks – that needs working out.

University staff also sit in these networks, with each other, with alumni in academic or non-academic jobs, and with practitioners. The same can be said of our alumni. The challenge is, therefore, how to make the best of the network. And by this I don’t mean some grand Facebook or Linkedin conundrum, although that might be part of the picture, but of how to make the best of these networks of learning and engagement to do something that fulfils the needs of organisations that do need to be conscious of a bottom-line, but which also serve a national function.

Universities are not the most important aspect – by a long stretch – of national security and resilience, but they are an important component in the machine. They partly supply the human and scientific resource for our military endeavours, and provide some of the global reach the country enjoys. But this cog in the machine undoubtedly needs some better definition, and some lubricating dialogue and form to actually serve the country properly. As I say, any thoughts more than welcome and any used will be acknowledged, if appropriate.