BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban

Archives for October 2010

Is the government soft on soft power?

Mark Urban | 17:35 UK time, Thursday, 21 October 2010

The National Security Strategy, published on Monday, placed great emphasis on conflict prevention, intervening less often militarily, and greater intelligence gathering to spot emerging crises earlier.

It all fits with a fashionable approach that is sometimes called "smart" or "soft" power.

Yet how should one interpret these on-trend messages in the light of Wednesday's Comprehensive Spending Review? The Foreign Office faces a 24% cut, the British Council one of 25%, and there will be a 7.3% real fall in the intelligence services' account.

The Foreign Office intends to offload much of the pain on the BBC - by getting the corporation to fund the government's £240m share of the World Service budget from the licence fee.

Once the World Service is taken out of the picture, the cut to the diplomatic service looks more like 10%.

Even so, people at the FCO concede that some diplomatic posts overseas are likely to close as a result of the cuts. Typically, they say, consular offices in some countries may be consolidated. In one or two minor states, the embassy itself will face closure.

So what about the World Service, regarded by many as one of Britain's most powerful "soft power" assets, and hence largely funded up to now by a Foreign Office Grant In Aid to the BBC?

In the past, decisions about increasing the hours of one foreign language broadcast or cutting those of another have been regarded as an important instrument of foreign policy. Ministers have hinted that they still expect call the tune, even though they will no longer be paying the BBC piper.

For the BBC though, trying to maintain these overseas broadcasts (and the BBC Monitoring Service, which will also no longer receive Foreign Office money) in addition to its other services, with a frozen licence fee, will be challenging to say the least.

Cuts are inevitable, and the Foreign Office, I hear, is relieved that it will be pressing the responsibility for wielding the axe on the BBC.

As for forecasting problems through better intelligence collection and analysis, both the agencies (mainly MI6 and GCHQ in this case) and the machinery used to process that information (the Joint Intelligence Committee and Defence Intelligence Staff) are expecting cuts.

The mandarins who deal with these services are sanguine about the reductions, both because they have just had a few years of real growth, and because there will be £600m of new money to be spent on the latest priority - cyber security.

We can expect a good old-fashioned Whitehall knife fight about where this cash will flow.

Although GCHQ can expect a central role, officials caution that the money is expected to be used across the whole of government to increase the security of computer systems.

The MoD announced the formation of its Cyber Operations Group this week, and other agencies, such as MI6, are sure to stake their claim too.

Much of it will no doubt go on equipment, as the government attempts to erect more effective firewalls around its departments, and only a small amount of it on offensive efforts that might help this country's decision makers be better informed.

Some might argue that there is one bright star on the soft power horizon in the increase in funding to the Department for International Development. It is planning to double to around £3.8bn a year the amount it spends in crisis areas or failing states.

Although welcome, the question about how this money might make the world safer or Britain more popular will be very hard to answer. Indeed the department is not meant to pursue British foreign policy objectives by the distribution of aid, and today the prime minister, David Cameron, defended the increase in DfID's funding in terms of a "moral duty" to help the poor rather than advance the UK national interest.

In summary then, the agencies most concerned with wielding soft power emerge unevenly from the events of this week.

It is true they have not been cut as heavily as some departments, but also that it is difficult to reconcile the government's avowed interest in soft power with the cuts to the British Council, withdrawal of its direct support to the World Service, and reduction of its diplomatic presence overseas.

Cuts in the best traditions of the Conservative party

Mark Urban | 20:46 UK time, Tuesday, 19 October 2010

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The Conservatives have a great history of cutting the armed forces - from Duncan Sandys' review in 1957, to John Nott in 1981, Tom King in 1990, and Malcolm Rifkind in 1994.

It's true of course that in the intervening years, the Tories were often cheerleaders for defence, and that Labour made its own cuts - most famously Dennis Healey's review in 1967. But the point remains that the Conservatives have never hesitated to wield the knife, and that it generally has not caused them any great political difficulty.

A notable exception to this was Mr Nott's White Paper of 29 years ago which caused fury in the Royal Navy, and led to the resignation of his Navy Minister. The plan in 1981 involved scrapping a carrier programme, selling the first off the production line, HMS Invincible, and stopping construction of the other two. Less than one year later, the Falklands were invaded, and the carriers reprieved.

Today the government announced the pensioning off of HMS Ark Royal (sister ship of the Invincible) and the last of the three, Illustrious, faces an uncertain future. From now until the expected the anticipated commissioning of the Prince of Wales and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter - at least 10 years - the UK will lose the ability to launch jets at sea.

The decision resulted from a tangle of legal and financial considerations whereby the ships must be built because of punitive cancellation charges, the forces must retire the Harrier as soon as possible and the F-35 will not appear for at least a decade. It's a mess that even those close to the decision agree could never be justified on pure policy or strategic grounds.

If the country thinks it is important to be able to launch attacks from its own floating airbases then why lose the capability for the next decade? And if we are able to make do with shore-based aviation in the meantime won't that sink HMS Prince of Wales sooner or later? What chance is today's assessment that such a capability won't be needed for 10 years, likely to survive, when John Nott's didn't even hold good for one?

The carrier issue is just one of the myriad problems facing the MoD in carrying out the Strategic Defence and Security Review. So many other issues have had to be tackled, not least dealing with a £38bn gap between what the ministry had committed itself to, what it can actually afford, and the transformation of the armed forces to meet future threats.

When viewed through the conventional prism - of avoiding cuts - the services have not done as badly as some feared they would. The Army will lose around 7,000 soldiers over and one brigade the next 10 years, coming down to a strength of 94,000. The Royal Navy and RAF will take a proportionately greater cut of 5,000 each and the MoD civil service 25,000.

Hopes though that the review might bring some bold re-deployment of resources towards developing areas of warfare have barely been met. True, there will be an MoD element (as well as a GCHQ one) to the government's new commitment to cyber warfare, and true also that Special Forces will get more money for communications and surveillance.

However the type of bold blueprint called for, for example by Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb and Lt Col Richard Williams (two recently departed officers with enormous operational experience) has not been met. They wanted a wholesale change to the structure of the forces, creation of a new communications architecture, and transformation of the role of the reserve forces.

The future of the reserves, like several other important issues, has not been resolved by today's paper. There is more work to be done - the government's aim of producing a multi-departmental review so soon after its election has in that sense proven too ambitious.

Prime Minister David Cameron signalled today that he had both a greater reluctance to deploy forces operationally than has been the case in recent years, and a desire to restore real increases to the defence budget, assuming an economic upturn from 2015.

What the government needs now is good luck - an absence of events that might expose their judgements to the same scorn as those of John Nott's team in 1981.


Jaunty - your point about the difficulties of ensuring cyber security given the ownership of various telecomms companies and ISPs is very interesting. As we cover this field we will be sure to ask questions about this.

Clusterbombunit - like you, I find the plan to retire the Sentinel surveillance aircraft - bought recently at such great cost - hard to understand. These aircraft fit well with all the current thinking about increasing Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconaissance capabilities. At the Whitehall briefing yesterday many questions were asked (about many important and valid issues) but nobody had the chance to ask about the Sentinel decision. Perhaps they don't work as well as was hoped...

The difficulties of predicting future threats

Mark Urban | 19:40 UK time, Monday, 18 October 2010

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So the government has revealed what it thinks are the most serious threats to UK security and what it might do about them.

One colleague, leaving the Whitehall briefing where officials explained their layered approach, joked it was "tiers for fears".

Tier One, the gravest, included terrorism, cyber attack, a major natural disaster, or a foreign war drawing in this country.

Officials explained that "judgements had been made", in weighting the relative impact and likelihood of a whole variety of possible challenges, and this explained why others had been relegated to Tier Two or Three.

In nailing its assessments to the mast in this way, the National Security Council - itself a product of the new government, wanted to avoid accusations of producing the kind of "all shall have prizes" Whitehall paper in which every single priority within every departments is accorded a few words underlining how terribly important it is.

The downside to this approach was that the ranking of these individual threats and why, for example, the UK being nuked by a foreign power was classified as Tier Two, would become the subject of intense argument.

How far Cabinet Office judgements have been swayed by the desire to save money is open to question.

Clearly the authors would bridle at the idea that they designed their conclusions to allow budget cuts, but given the Downing Street foreword notes, "our ability to meet current and future threats depends crucially on tackling the budget deficit", they did not presumably have the option of saying that the increasingly broad range of threats they have identified require more to be spent on defence and intelligence.

The resulting judgements will be argued with by many. Terrorism or cyber attack might be very serious issues but would they really threaten UK national survival or the functioning of this society?

Even a 9/11 scale event or the shutting down of the City by cyber attack, enormous as such traumas might be, would be trivial in importance compared to a nuclear attack by a foreign state.

Obviously a nuclear attack by a foreign state is far less likely, and the government will argue that by replacing Trident they are already taking preventive measures, but such an event would threaten the survival of this country.

It is almost an axiom of defence planning that the more devastating a possible event, the less likely it is to happen, and the more expensive it is to prepare for.

It is in the area of a general insurance against unforeseen contingencies that the armed forces have functioned since the Cold War. In setting aside this idea, the National Security Council is taking deliberate, calculated, risks.

The idea of a state like Iran acquiring missiles in the future with ranges capable of hitting the UK with chemical or even nuclear warheads is quite plausible.

But the UK has no ballistic missile defences (they are horrendously expensive...) and little capability to respond short of nuclear retaliation. Deterrence, like some of the judgements in today's paper, assumes rationality on the part of opponents.

It is the very difficulty of predicting future threats that has caused history to be littered with examples of cutbacks that seemed like a good idea at the time - Britain's decision to run down tank and fighter production to almost nothing in the 1920s or a previous Conservative government's pledge to scrap the Royal Navy's carriers in 1981, less than one year before Argentina invaded the Falklands are just two that spring to mind.

For everyone's sake, we must just hope that the embrace of risk in today's paper and tomorrow's Strategic Defence and Security Review proves a little more fortunate.

Ahmadinejad's defiance could increase chances of war

Mark Urban | 18:01 UK time, Thursday, 14 October 2010

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Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Lebanon has given his many admirers there a chance to cheer him, and hear at first hand his defiant oratory.

Of course the great majority of those who turned out to see him are Lebanese who share his Shia beliefs, and also support Hezbollah.

Mr Ahmadinejad stressed though that he was speaking to all Lebanese, trying to shrug off the image of someone with sectarian appeal in that divided country.

While the Iranian president is naturally the darling of the Shia community, it is only fair to say that his determination to defy the United States and the international community more widely has won him widespread support - at least at the rhetorical level - across the Arab world.

His stance on the nuclear issue is of course central to his appeal to that wider constituency.

Iran's position - that it's nuclear programme is entirely civilian in character, but that Iran is entitled to resist people who wish to make sure of that - is nonsensical to many Westerners.

Double speak

If that country is simply intent on generating nuclear energy, why cause such difficulties to UN inspectors or reject international offers to enrich uranium overseas on Iran's behalf? Why put up with the hassle of UN sanctions or the threat of air strikes if all you're after is electric power?

To many in the Middle East though the answer is obvious - since Iran insists upon its "right" to run all aspects of its nuclear programme without foreign interference, challenging the inspection regime or the wishes of the White House is precisely what gives Mr Ahmadinejad his status as a bulwark against the Americans or Zionists.

And indeed there must be many of his supporters who earnestly hope that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, but would understand why Mr Ahmadinejad cannot state that openly.

This type of double speak not only has precedents but, it might be argued, is actually a defining characteristic of those who capture the imagination of the "Arab street" and seek to lead it.

Osama bin Laden did not try, personally and directly, to claim responsibility for 9/11. Millions of his supporters insisted both that he had not done it - blaming various forms of conspiracy for the attacks - and that he was a great man. Why was he great if he hadn't done anything?

To many a Western mind, bin Laden or his supporters' double-think on this issue was incomprehensible and infuriating. Tony Blair's first "dossier" - a Joint Intelligence Committee paper declassified at his insistence for public use - was not the one on Iraq, it was an analysis of why bin Laden was responsible for 9/11.

However, the Cairo cabbie or the Hezbollah militiaman apparently accept that evasion and deception are intrinsic parts of the struggle against the US or Israel because there are times when those powers might wreak terrible vengeance on their enemies.

Standing against the West

Best to wrong foot them with some clever rhetoric, avoidance of specifics, or downright lies. The problem of course with this type of double speak is that it increases the scope for misperception and even accidental war.

Saddam Hussein qualified as another of those who sought leadership of the wider Arab or Muslim community by standing as a bulwark against the West.

Some of his darkly vague phrases about what might happen to Israel if it attacked Iraq were almost identical to Mr Ahmadinejad's recent promises of "war without limits".

Saddam though talked up his powers to such a degree that he could not in the end admit even to his own generals that he did not have any weapons of mass destruction any more. Even when the survival of his regime was at stake, the Iraqi president could not give full co-operation to Hans Blix and his UN inspectors.

So, today, Iran's desire to enjoy the support of what Iranian ideologues term "the oppressed" by thumbing its nose at the UN or US President Barack Obama, may be a crowd pleaser in southern Lebanon, but it could be increasing the chances of war.

While the White House still pins its hopes on the new sanctions package voted through the UN Security Council in June, there are voices murmuring warnings with increasing urgency about the progress of Iran's continuing uranium enrichment programme.

Those whisperers include some of the "usual suspects" one might expect such as Mossad or MI6. However, those who argue that a military option has to be prepared also include such influential figures as Robert Gates, Mr Obama's defence secretary.

Today, in a speech at Beirut University the Iranian president pledged to press on with the nuclear programme accusing the West of trying to, "keep us in the dark".

It was typical Ahmadinejad defiance - but it was also the type of language that is strengthening the hand of those in the Pentagon or Israel who believe that a military option could be required to stop Iran's nuclear programme.

Watch my film on Newsnight tonight - Thursday 14 October 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two.

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