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March 31, 2011

To Libya via Paris - Jeremy Black reflects on tyrants, no-fly zones, British vivas and French defences

Posted by Jeremy Black

Ironic possibly, but I found myself in Paris discussing Mediterranean geopolitics on the same day as David Cameron was planning war. Indeed we took the same train back. The circumstances of course were totally different. I was on the jury of five academics considering a doctorate at Science-Po.

For those who have not been to a French "defence", it is very different to a British doctoral viva. The latter are almost secretive occasions, with three people (candidate, internal examiner, external examiner) in a cramped office; forget television presentations of academic studies. In France, in contrast, the occasion is public. Anyone can attend, and family and friends are both expected to and must remain silent, which they do. The process is lengthy, with the questioning lasting several hours. Indeed, I once did one at the Sorbonne which took over five hours.

At the end, the candidate and audience have to leave, the jury reaches its verdict, the candidate and audience are recalled, the verdict is announced, and then the candidate is expected to host a reception for judges and audience. No fee for the judges (like much academic work, it is expected to be an honour), but they can expect a meal. Since you asked, this one was particularly good - the best boudon noir (black pudding) I have ever had, followed by duck cooked in pear juice and served with cooked pear, and then a délice of clementine ice cream, chestnut ice cream, candied orange peel, chantilly cream etc, and a good claret.

A contrast to our own country. I was once an external examiner and was telephoned by the Dean's secretary to say that the Dean would like to sit in at the viva, and would be happy to take me to lunch at the university refectory afterwards. I replied that I would pay good money not to eat there.

Anyway, the doctorate at Paris passed with the highest grade, the judges stood to clap the candidate, a middle-aged lawyer, and we could contemplate the interplay between the recent French Mediterranean geopolitics discussed by the candidate and the situation today, a process eased by one of the jury being an adviser for the French government. For me, this was sharpened on the return journey by having to listen to three "special advisors" using their mobiles to spin stories for journalists and the BBC. You know the type: "David thinks Hillary …, David feels that Nicolas …". I finally told two of them that anyone could hear them, record them, and play it back, which shut them up.

And so home to find war launched. For a military historian, this evokes of course interest but also a measure of foreboding, as so many conflicts do not work out as envisaged. That is no reason not to go to war, but it does encourage a measure of concern alongside the obvious wish that your own side succeeds and with minimum casualties. To write about a conflict as it occurs is problematic, as the writer lacks the intelligence material and analysis open to government; while it is difficult to integrate the perspective of both sides.

Nevertheless, at this early stage, several points emerge. First, there is the lasting impact of geography. Libya is close to Europe and has a long Mediterranean coastline. Missiles and planes based in Libya are readily able to compromise the security and safety both of the Mediterranean and of much of Europe. As a result, it would be unwise to leave a hostile regime in power in even part of Libya, notably once its hostility has been further ensured by conflict. Such an outcome, however, may result from this war, which would have obvious consequences for NATO tasking. If, conversely, a friendly government is established then there be fewer strategic implications, but it will still be necessary to ensure the continued stability of the government.

Both during the conflict, and subsequently, there is the question of how far military action by outside forces can sway the result of the situation on land. This is an issue not simply of war, as we saw with the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 but also with the subsequent situation. It would be interesting to see the political and military analysis, specifically costings, of the situation made prior to the decision to intervene. Of course, the understandable wish to prevent the overthrow of the rebels helped determine action, but the long-term costs strategically are unclear. On balance, it seems reasonable to argue that as a Gaddafi victory is not desirable so it was appropriate to use the opportunity to overthrow him, but the trade-off between unpredictable and hostile, secular despot and, on the other hand, potential chaos is a difficult one.

In particular, as with any commitment, there is the question of the costs in terms of the ability to sustain commitments elsewhere. Military resources are relatively inelastic due to the long lead-time in building up the deploying assets appropriate to a particular conflict. This would be an issue irrespective of the fiscal bind in which the West now finds itself, a bind exacerbated by the new crises of 2011. Of course, governments concerned to cut entitlements could move defence resources from the rampant welfarism seen with military pay, conditions and pensions, but there is no political will to that end.

Limited capability helps ensure the choice in commitments that is always present in military planning. Indeed, that choice is central to the very process of strategy, much of which focuses on prioritisation. In the moralised culture of Western public politics, however, it is difficult to discuss prioritisation, as indeed any realist aspect of international relations.

David Cameron has injected a welcome note by referring to the danger posed by a successful Gaddafi, an approach that reflects a sense of national interest separate to universal human values or partisan political concerns. This approach is important because the idea that strategic priorities can be set in terms of opposing violence to civilians is unhelpful. It has a global scope, says little about practicality, and presupposes a virtue in public action that can be doubted: what about a moderate government using force to suppress violent action by religious fundamentalists, or Israel coping with another intifida?

Prioritisation is of more direct importance at present due to the linked issues of other conflicts, particularly Afghanistan, and defence procurement. Certainly, geographical factors (as well as oil) make Libya more central and help make the Afghan commitment appear inappropriate. Hopefully, success in Libya may make it possible to wind down the Afghan imbriglio, providing a political cover for the consequences of a lack of strategic judgment which has led to such a lasting commitment there. Linked to this comes the value that Libyan operations show rests with firepower: "lethality". At a distance, this is best delivered by air and naval power, which raises serious questions about the emphasis on the army seen in the latest British strategic review.

These issues will be contested by the special interests linked to particular services. There will also be demands for more expenditure on the military. That can help, but the most promising elements are sound strategic analysis, good intelligence, and a flexible armed posture that combines lethality, mobility and a light footprint. This posture is best provided by naval and amphibious capability, including naval air/missile power. Hopefully, strategic factors will guide the next strategic review. They certainly need to.

Jeremy Black's recent works include Debating Foreign Policy in Eighteenth-Century Britain, The Great War and the Making of the Modern World, and The Cold War.

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