Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine 
by Lawrence Freedman.
Allen Lane, 574 pp., £30, September 2022, 978 0 241 45699 6
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Many countries find a special place for civilians who share the interests of the state’s military, intelligence and diplomatic bureaucracy but operate outside its hierarchy. In Britain they are spread among a network of security think tanks and academic departments that include the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House) and the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. From fine old buildings in Whitehall, Temple, St James’s Square and the Strand, they shape much of the foreign and defence policy analysis produced in Britain. Each institution has its own flavour (the Chatham House sensibility is more mandarin than military), but they have a great deal in common. All have close connections with the intelligence services – after John Sawers retired as head of MI6 in 2014, he took up posts at King’s and RUSI – and an equally close relationship with the national security establishment of the United States.

Among the British defence intelligentsia, Atlanticism is a foundational assumption. A former director of policy planning at the US State Department and a former director at the US National Security Council are on the staff of the IISS. Until he stepped down in July, Chatham House was led by Robin Niblett, who spent time at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. RUSI’s director-general, Karin von Hippel, was once chief of staff to the four-star American general John Allen. In 2021, RUSI’s second largest donor was the US State Department. (The largest was the EU Commission; BAE Systems, the British army, the Foreign Office and some other friendly governments account for most of the remaining funding.) IISS’s main funders – aside from the EU Commission, the State Department and, notably, Bahrain – are mostly arms companies. Chatham House gets more money from the British government and oil companies than from arms sellers, but its list of backers is similar. Despite these US links, however, and despite the fervency of their commitment to American national security priorities, British security think tanks have next to no influence across the Atlantic. Staff from UK think tanks sometimes take temporary jobs in more prestigious offices in Washington, but they very rarely become insiders.

During the invasion of Iraq, the most significant Anglo-American project of the past fifty years, the security think tanks didn’t counsel prudence. In the run-up to the war, RUSI’s director of military science, Michael Codner (King’s via the US Naval War College in Rhode Island), described it as ‘an intervention of choice designed to make the world on balance a safer and better place’. Britain was involved, Codner wrote, because ‘one of successive British governments’ highest-level grand strategic objectives is to enhance the security of the UK by influencing the execution of US security strategy.’ (He also noted that ‘this objective is not formally stated in public documents.’) In May 2003, Jonathan Eyal, now associate director at RUSI, complained that ‘persuading international public opinion that a military action against Iraq was necessary should have been easy.’ But for some reason, even within the Anglosphere large numbers of people were opposed to it. Eyal ascribed this to ‘atavistic anti-Americanism’. In a retrospective analysis, the then director of RUSI, Michael Clarke (King’s, plus a brief period at the Brookings Institution in Washington), claimed that Blair had been ‘guilty of confused optimism’.

After Iraq, a number of senior figures in the British military had misgivings about intervening in Libya in 2011 but the defence intelligentsia didn’t share their concerns. RUSI’s major report on Libya, which dealt with the details of the military campaign not its possible consequences, was published under the title ‘Accidental Heroes: Britain, France and the Libya Operation’. Military performance aside, Nato could claim ‘justifiable credit’: ‘whatever happens next in Libya, there can be no doubting that the allied air operation was critical to saving many innocent lives and removing a dictatorial regime.’ The enthusiasm for intervention remains. In January this year, as a Russian invasion of Ukraine seemed increasingly likely, RUSI’s research fellow for European security, Ed Arnold, argued that the crisis in Ukraine would provide an opportunity ‘to demonstrate exactly what Global Britain means’. At RUSI’s annual land warfare conference in June, the current chief of the general staff, Patrick Sanders, praised the British army’s response to the crisis and said he would now have an answer for his grandchildren if they asked what he did in 2022.

These institutions do make some less boosterish contributions. Chatham House publishes International Affairs, a journal once indispensable and still very well regarded. The IISS publications Survival and Strategic Comments are usually of a good standard. The King’s Department of War Studies has produced some novel scholarship. But, with the British defence intellectual in greater demand than ever from newspapers and broadcasters, book-length projects have become rarer and some areas of research are neglected in favour of those that will play well with the media. Here’s a sample of the headlines from recent think tank comment pieces: ‘Terrorism Is Less of an Existential Threat than Russia and China’ (RUSI), ‘The Middle East: Exploring the Limits of Pragmatism’ (IISS), ‘Geopolitical Corporate Responsibility Can Drive Change’ (Chatham House).

The most influential recent piece of work connected to the think tank nexus was Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the government’s ‘Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’, published in March 2021. Its principal author was John Bew, a fixture at the King’s war studies department, where he is professor of history and foreign policy (he used to hold the Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress), and foreign policy adviser to both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss; this month he was commissioned to lead yet another defence policy review. In 2016, Bew published a biography of Clement Attlee, whom he described as looking to the US on foreign affairs and as being a gatekeeper against elements in the British labour movement who were too soft on the Soviet Union. The Attlee government spanned the period when Nato was founded, Britain worked to acquire nuclear weapons, and the general transfer of British imperial positions to the US occurred. Bew praised Attlee’s ‘unobtrusive progressive patriotism’. He described Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership as ‘a distinct break from the political tradition in which Attlee stood’ and the movement around him as ‘faddish radicalism’. Attlee, by contrast, was to be admired as a British socialist who was proud to have a signed photograph of Harry Truman in his study.

The ‘Global Britain’ slogan, the Indo-Pacific tilt, and the commitment to increase the UK’s nuclear weapons stockpile (the ambition to become ‘the European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific’) were all included in the Integrated Review. ‘Global Britain’ is advertising speak, of course, not strategy: states with international influence don’t need to boast about having it. Despite its commitments to ‘British leadership in the world’, the review seemed to follow American priorities. Britain would deploy an aircraft carrier to ‘the Indo-Pacific’ to be at Nato’s service, and would pay special attention to America’s East Asian allies. This led to the UK sending warships through the Taiwan Strait in September 2021 and into the Black Sea in June last year in ‘freedom of navigation’ operations intended to rile China and Russia. The British government also continued to sponsor the catastrophic Saudi-led attack on Yemen with billions of pounds in arms transfers, technical support, training and operational direction, all while cutting humanitarian aid to the victims.

The Johnson government’s decision to raise the defence budget by £16 billion over four years was celebrated by the Department of War Studies and at the chief think tanks. One of the central tasks of the British defence intellectual is to challenge signs of declinism and suggestions that the UK might be demoted from the ‘top table’. The Integrated Review argued for reductions in the number of soldiers, tanks and helicopters, but at the same time promised that British armed forces would be a ‘more present and active force around the world’. Although Britain claims to be committed to countering nuclear proliferation, the review announced a unilateral increase of 40 per cent in its nuclear weapons stockpile. There was no reassessment of relations with the US and the disastrous wars Britain was involved in by blindly adhering to US priorities.

Lawrence Freedman is the most distinguished figure in the British defence intelligentsia. He has written authoritatively on the history of nuclear strategy and was the official historian of the Falklands campaign. As a contributor to various magazines and TV programmes he succeeds in treating vulgar matters without vulgarity. Before moving to King’s, he worked at IISS and Chatham House. The major influence on his work was Michael Howard, who held the Regius Chair of Modern History at Oxford, translated Clausewitz, and founded both the Department of War Studies and the IISS. Howard supervised Freedman’s PhD thesis and remained his mentor until his death in 2019. Howard was an elegant example of the conservatism of military historians: he didn’t accept that the malfeasance of elites played much of a role in starting wars. For him, they were an inescapable product of the division of the world into states.

Freedman’s new book, Command, looks at the problem of leadership in wartime, and in particular the line between political and military authority. He insists that there is a permeable barrier between the two because ‘soldiers unavoidably influence the politics and civilians influence the operations.’ Charismatic generals can erode the distinction between military and political leaders. In some states, this can take the form of a coup, and generals will sometimes start anti-systemic parties. As Gibbon said, men habituated to organised violence are generally unfit guardians of a civil constitution. What about the strategic decisions made by generals? Freedman discusses General MacArthur’s disastrous decision during the Korean War to push to the Yalu river after capturing Pyongyang. He covers French campaigns in Indochina and the Algerian war of independence – at one point described as France’s ‘counterterrorism campaign in Algeria’. His chapter on the Cuban Missile Crisis provides good detail on the naval blockade, and on the American soldiers tasked with searching out Soviet submarines in the Sargasso Sea. One of those was the submarine B-59, about which there are conflicting accounts, some of which claim that the captain was preparing to fire a nuclear-armed torpedo before being talked down at the last minute. What is clear is that B-59 was detected by a US aircraft carrier group, that the US used depth charges and hand grenades against it. It’s also clear that the sub had lost contact with Moscow and didn’t know whether war had begun. As Freedman says, it wasn’t a unique incident: ‘numerous field commanders, on both sides of the US-Soviet confrontation, had the capacity to fire nuclear weapons.’

Freedman’s work is most interesting where it touches on British history, especially its military calamities. He argues that the Falklands War was a close-run thing, but gives a more or less positive assessment of Margaret Thatcher and Admiral Terence Lewin, as well as the British commanders in the field. (He doesn’t mention the fact that the Royal Navy deployed ships with nuclear weapons to the theatre against Foreign Office advice.) He praises the productive relationship between the British government and the army, while also treating the Argentinian side as a study in the effectiveness of military dictatorships in wartime. One of the paradoxes of military dictators, he points out, is that they can end up making their national armies less efficient in an attempt to protect themselves from coups. But he doesn’t offer a more general critique of the way the war was prosecuted.

The analysis provided by intelligence services will only be fully reliable if it’s detached from the exigencies of government. But it never quite can be. The temptation is for judgments to become responsive to policy rather than to inform it. A similar problem afflicts the defence intellectual. Freedman paraphrases Hedley Bull to the effect that ‘good scholarship is likely to be subversive of all causes, good or bad.’ But the institutions Freedman and his colleagues represent are not neutral: they have a structural role within the British establishment. As a public commentator Freedman often supports the consensus policy. He backed the First Gulf War on the basis that it was useful for the US to manage the balance of power in the Middle East. His chapter on Kosovo begins with the standard analysis of the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia, that it was conducted to stop the persecution of Kosovar Albanians. He doesn’t mention the fact that the intervention only increased the level of persecution, or that American and European leaders repeatedly stressed that part of their motivation was to enhance ‘Nato’s credibility’.

At the height of the Kosovo war, Freedman made some edits on Tony Blair’s Chicago speech on the ‘Doctrine of the International Community’. His memo, which was disclosed by the Chilcot Inquiry, shows the difference between Freedman’s published work and his private counsel. The rhetoric – ‘our fighting men and women’, ‘the Western alliance’ – comes easily to him. Blair incorporated some of his suggestions in the speech. ‘Many of our problems,’ Freedman wrote, ‘have been caused by two dangerous and ruthless men, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milošević,’ who underestimated ‘the resolve of democracies’. British military operations were all about ‘delivering humanitarian aid, deterring attacks on defenceless people, backing up UN resolutions and occasionally engaging in major wars’. This sentence defined the Western view of liberal interventionism. In Command, Freedman acknowledges that humanitarian interventions were not seen that way elsewhere in the world. He argues that the Kosovo conflict destroyed any delusions in Moscow that the US would be constrained by international law. The accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, he admits, ‘had a long-term effect on Chinese attitudes towards the West’. But Nato’s part in the war is seen as a humanitarian effort blighted by political and inter-military friction. For Freedman, one of the main problems with the bombing was that there were too many decision-makers, including ‘committees of lawyers at the Nato HQ in Belgium’ checking for violations of international law.

Command also includes Freedman’s analysis of the war in Ukraine, much of which has been very good. He acknowledges the much fretted-over fact that one factor in the invasion was Russia’s fear of Ukraine drifting closer to the West, and potentially joining Western institutions like the EU and Nato. He explains the importance the Russian leadership put on the Donbas republics, Donetsk and Luhansk, as a way of exerting influence on Ukraine. He is strong on the operational and strategic mistakes made by Russia and on the state of the Ukrainian defences. What he fails to discuss is the relevance to the conflict of US-Russia relations – all he says is that the Ukrainian defenders depended on Nato supply lines to stay in the fight. But any full assessment of the invasion has to include some account of the breakdown of those relations in 2021. Freedman argues that Russia has demonstrated the danger of ‘leaders supremely confident in their wisdom and insight, egged on by sympathetic courtiers who share the same baleful worldview, while disregarding any naysayers who warn of the pitfalls’. That observation could apply to others.

His account of the war in Afghanistan opens with the tiffs between Donald Rumsfeld and the military hierarchy. Rumsfeld was an unwavering advocate of the combination of air strikes, special forces teams and local proxies. His preferred approach prevailed. Freedman accepts that there were alternatives to war, such as persuading the Taliban to abandon Osama bin Laden, and that this ‘might have prevented a lot of later grief’. But he’s more interested in the operational failure of American and British special forces to find bin Laden at Tora Bora. At least the military leadership got it together well enough to pursue the global war on terror. Freedman argues that US leaders wanted to invade Iraq because they were ‘reluctant at this time to tolerate any conceivable risk’. This despite the absurdity of the suggestion – and the lack of any evidence – that Iraq posed a risk to the US. He fails to give a general strategic picture of the US position in the greater Middle East region. And there is nothing about overconfident leaders with baleful worldviews incapable of heeding criticism.

His discussion of the Iraq conflict ends up focusing on the divergence between American and British approaches to the war in 2007, when the US opted for the surge and Britain for a humiliating exit from Basra. Here Freedman seems to suggest that one reason for the British decision to withdraw was that the UK realised the presence of its soldiers was the problem before the US did. But by 2007 the British army was incapable of doing anything much. The chapter on Iraq is headed with a wistful quote of Blair’s, voicing regret that Britain did not ‘play a far greater part’. But the anxiety of inferiority is only on the surface. Freedman’s own language is calm: ‘The United Kingdom took on a commitment to Iraq out of solidarity with its closest ally.’ After the occupation, ‘unfortunately, the violence only got worse.’ He finds Britain at fault for failing to commit enough soldiers and equipment, but in general the UK is, as so often in the writings of British analysts, the restraining hand on American savagery.

Freedman’s experience on the Chilcot Inquiry led him to think that the lesson for British policy was ‘don’t do it again,’ which is fair enough – though when have aggressive states learned that lesson? Joining the invasion of Iraq was, he says, ‘the entrance fee into American decision-making’, which Britain would use to ‘moderate the tough line’. But Freedman never rejected the framework of US military operations against ‘terror’. In the Financial Times in 2005, he argued strongly against changing foreign policy ‘in response to terrorism’. After all, ‘if we wanted to be sure that the terrorists left us alone, then the necessary appeasement would go well beyond Iraq and require a series of immediate and probably catastrophic policy reversals, followed by a lifetime of grovelling.’

During the later stages of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, American generals turned their attention to counterinsurgency operations. One of the military groups that thrived as a result was the Joint Special Operations Command, a collection of thugs, kidnappers and battlefield assassins that continues to do a good deal of America’s dirty work. Freedman describes its members as ‘intensely patriotic’. Stanley McChrystal is a former JSOC commander who now runs ‘an elite advisory team that improves the performance of organisations’, drawing from ‘experiences gained while transforming the US counter-terrorism effort from a … hierarchical apparatus into a high-performing team’. McChrystal, Freedman writes, ‘understood the unique needs of this type of war’. But as head of US forces in Afghanistan in 2009, McChrystal pushed for the deployment of tens of thousands more troops to the country. He then publicly criticised those in the White House who had opposed that course, and had to resign as a result. There isn’t much evidence that McChrystal or any of his successors understood what was happening in Afghanistan. In Iraq, Freedman writes, the American air campaign against Islamic State reduced much of Mosul to rubble. The drone operators had no idea who, or what, they were hitting. They still don’t. This was also true in Afghanistan. Targeting decisions are made after looking at a few seconds of aerial video footage. Drone operators make mistakes, like misidentifying farm equipment as explosives factories, and have killed thousands of civilians. The air campaign against Islamic State continued long after it had lost the ability to hold territory. Freedman contrasts American bombing with Russia’s air strikes in Syria, and says that Russia had ‘fewer concerns over collateral damage’. But avoiding collateral damage was hardly the concern when the US continued to bomb a country it had already destroyed in the hope of winning over its population.

A book on command by a British military historian will inevitably be compared with John Keegan’s 1987 classic, The Mask of Command: A Study of Generalship. Keegan taxonomised commanders as heroic, anti-heroic, false heroic or unheroic, all in the romantic sense of heroism. Freedman is more interested in human fallibility. In his best work, Strategy: A History (2013), he challenged the notion of the master strategist: ‘Operating solely in the military sphere, their view could only be partial. Operating in the political sphere they needed an impossible omniscience in grasping the totality of complex and dynamic situations as well as an ability to establish a credible and sustainable path towards distant goals that did not depend on good luck and a foolish enemy.’ But recognising human limitations can easily shade into sympathy, and for all Freedman’s subtlety, his sympathy is often with British and American leaders. David Deptula, the architect of the American bombing campaign in Iraq in 1991, is thanked in his acknowledgments. Freedman claimed that one of the central themes of Michael Howard’s work was ‘urging Americans to keep a sense of proportion and use their power with care’. This, again, is the tired idea of Britain as wise adviser to American power. Freedman is sharper than most of his Atlanticist contemporaries, but he has much in common with them.

The British defence intelligentsia has an endorheic quality. As a whole it forms a permanent constituency in support of excessive military responses. This is inbuilt in the discipline: there isn’t much point in a defence intellectual without an army. The think tanks will welcome Truss’s policy of drastically raising military spending, with the aim of reaching 3 per cent of GDP by 2030. In the US there is detailed public debate about foreign policy, admittedly within a limited ideological range. In the British media there usually isn’t. The influence of RUSI and other similar institutions in the media and on the professional class as a whole is partly responsible: supposed technocratic expertise is too often accepted on its own terms. The British security establishment experienced the Brexit vote as a mild shock but soon fell back into its old patterns. Freedman imagined that leaving the EU might lead to an introspective retirement from international posturing, but there has been no move in that direction. Instead, the reaction of the defence intelligentsia was to double down on Atlanticism regardless of the character of the American government or the ensnarements into which it leads the UK.

The British defence intelligentsia is a monolith. There is no prospect of significant disagreement between, say, IISS and RUSI on any significant question of foreign policy. Dissident work on military history and contemporary security is rare. The policy of the day always happens to coincide with the personal opinions of the grand choeur. Passionate Atlanticism proceeds on the assumption that the interests of American power are necessarily coterminous with those of Britain. The effect has been to preclude any re-examination of the special relationship, even during foreign policy overhauls of the kind required by Iraq and Brexit. The illusion of British ‘leadership in the world’ as counsel to American violence is stubborn as well as vain.

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Vol. 44 No. 22 · 17 November 2022

One of the frustrations of working in the think-tank world is gauging what impact, if any, you may be having on government thinking. The military, intelligence and diplomatic bureaucracies discussed by Tom Stevenson do not always agree with one another, and are at the mercy of ministerial rivalries and parliamentary votes on budgets (LRB, 6 October). And while think tanks certainly share the liberal internationalist outlook that has governed establishment thinking since 1945, it would be a stretch to claim that this results in any uniformity of foreign and defence policy analysis. There may be a certain group-think over Atlanticism, but there are hawks and doves in every debate. Stevenson overlooks the naysayers in area studies and thematic programmes, who form a vocal counterweight to the strategic generalists he quotes. And while the favoured few get to write strategic reviews and advise ministers directly, top-level decision-making depends less on the consensus of an imagined ‘British defence intelligentsia’ than on the whim of the incumbent of Number Ten.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 is a case in point. Contrary to Stevenson’s assertion, a number of think tanks did counsel prudence at the time. The main target of his critique, Lawrence Freedman, was instrumental in securing a private audience in Downing Street for six regional and security experts in late 2002, at which they outlined the likely consequences of removing Saddam Hussein by force. Tony Blair responded to the array of complications presented to him by repeating the mantra that Saddam Hussein was ‘evil’. It was Blair’s Manichean belief system, heavily influenced by his American interlocutors, that would decide the matter, not anything think tanks said about the complexity of Iraq’s internal dynamics or the repercussions for British defence and security interests. Ahead of the invasion, Chatham House published editorials and a multi-authored paper warning of the dangers to regional security, which materialised just as it described over the following years. These were ignored, because they didn’t fit with the analysis required.

In practice, the ‘British defence intelligentsia’ conjured up by Stevenson comprises very few people, who work in the institutions he mentions, but are not entirely representative of their collective output. The wider mission of such bodies as the Royal United Services Institute, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House and the King’s College War Studies group has also been to challenge the received wisdom of official policy and highlight its glaring omissions. Research reports and op-eds are produced as much to stimulate public and parliamentary debate as to comfort fellow travellers or sponsors in the defence and security community. For years now, James Nixey and the Russia-Eurasia Programme at Chatham House have been warning of the dangers of Putin’s Russia, only to be vindicated earlier this year by Russia’s ‘surprise’ invasion of Ukraine. If only the political and security establishment had been listening.

Claire Spencer
London SE23

Vol. 44 No. 24 · 15 December 2022

Claire Spencer protests against the idea that there is ‘any uniformity of foreign and defence policy analysis’ in the British foreign policy establishment, even while admitting that the ‘liberal internationalist outlook’ is gospel and that there is ‘a certain group-think over Atlanticism’ (Letters, 17 November). Such is the uniformity: Tom Stevenson’s argument wasn’t that there is no debate among the foreign policy elite, but that fidelity to Atlanticism is the sine qua non of participation.

It is this non-negotiable commitment to being Washington’s subaltern, hardened this year by Keir Starmer’s ban on any criticism of Nato in the Labour Party, that accounts for the narrowness of the British foreign policy discussion. Arguing merely over what form British subordination to the grand strategy of the United States should take won’t ever make for much of a debate. As if to prove this point, Spencer’s clinching example of diversity of thought among British defence intellectuals – and their capacity to challenge the official ‘received wisdom’ – is that the experts at Chatham House have been arguing ‘for years’ that the West must face down Putin. That such stock hawkishness is supposed to count as dissent speaks for itself.

Ed McNally
New College, Oxford

Vol. 45 No. 3 · 2 February 2023

Ed McNally rejects an Atlanticism that he sees as the ‘sine qua non of participation’ in the foreign policy establishment (Letters, 15 December 2022). The challenge for anti-Atlanticists is to come up with a credible alternative, especially since Nato has rediscovered a role it struggled to maintain under the Trump presidency. Ideas of how to get round the US military monolith are notably absent from British defence and security debates not because of any veto, spoken or unspoken, but because the alternatives don’t reflect the real­­ity of the UK’s global position and have yet to coalesce into anything coherent or operational.

As for the notion that the foreign policy elite uniformly goes along with the worst of US decision-making and what passes for ‘grand strategy’, there was widespread outrage in the UK at Biden’s appallingly timed withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. The most significant contributions to think-tank debates are often made by practitioners who have served on the front lines of badly conceived foreign ventures. They rail furiously at their transatlantic partners when British security interests have been jeopardised.

Dealing with a difficult large ally or trade partner is a fact of international life, whether it be the US, EU or China. Choosing to ditch them, find new allies or go it alone are options the UK lost along with its empire. The narrowness of the British foreign policy debate is limited more by its failure to define and articulate the UK’s role in the wake of Brexit than by its sub­ordination to the US.

Claire Spencer
Washington, West Sussex

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