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Britain’s Napoleonic Posturing will be Exposed by Battlefield Reality

Photograph Source: AK Rockefeller – CC BY 2.0

“Take a charitable view,” was the advice of Sir Wilmot Lewis, the veteran correspondent of The Times in Washington in the last century, “bearing in mind that every government will do as much harm as it can and as much good as it must”.

His cynical words are particularly pertinent in times of war because it is then that governments have an unrivalled opportunity to do harm. They can wrap themselves in the national flag and denounce their critics as unpatriotic appeasers. Most dangerously, they can purport to be providing good judgement and competent administration despite a dismal track record of bungling and dishonesty in the handling of domestic crises far less complex than the demands of warfare.

A frightening example of this born-again bombast came this week when the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, made a speech at the Mansion House in London expressing enthusiasm for maximum war aims. “We will keep going further and faster to push Russia out of the whole of Ukraine,” she said, which would mean backing a Ukrainian counter-offensive to retake Crimea and the Russian-backed separatist republics in the Donbas. These are objectives that any Russian leader, regardless of whether or not Vladimir Putin remains in the Kremlin, is likely to resist.

A misreading of British foreign policy

“Britain has always stood up to bullies,” said Truss. “We have always been risk takers.” This is a rather serious misreading of British foreign policy, which historically has tended to be cautious and avoid risky leaps in the dark. Overall, Truss’s reduction of foreign policy to a series of triumphalist slogans could be set to music and take its place in an updated version of “Oh! What a Lovely War”.

But if the British Government’s actions in a military conflict – in which it is becoming more engaged by the day – is as inept as its performance in times of peace, then we face a dark and uncertain future. Evidence for this is not hard to find since on the same day that Truss was indulging in undiluted war euphoria, the High Court in London was issuing a judgment saying that the Government’s policy towards care homes in England in 2020 – alleged to have killed 20,000 inmates – was “irrational” and “unlawful”. The judges concluded that the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, had “failed to take into account the risk to elderly and vulnerable residents from non-systematic transmission”.

This is probably a better example of recent British risk taking than anything Truss may have had in mind in lauding this approach as a national tradition. Wild-eyed boosterism followed by practical failure has been the motif of Boris Johnson’s government over the past three years.

Patent though this government’s failings have has been, I took some comfort in the hope that its ability to do harm would be mitigated by its own incompetent grasp of the levers of power. “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation,” Adam Smith famously said in 1777, downplaying the capacity of a poor government with bad policies to bring about national ruin.

Belief in his own propaganda

But an exception to the great economist’s rule occurs in wartime. Political leaders who have seen their schemes founder or prove ineffectual at home are suddenly taking decisions of life and death for thousands of people. They tend to revel in this new authority – however incapable they are of exercising it competently.

I suspect that successful politicians, more than most individuals, have an inner Napoleon who is always struggling to break free and send armies into battle. In so doing, their self-confidence differs markedly from the French emperor, who warned against preconceived ideas about what was happening, or going to happen, on the battlefield because such notions usually turned out to be wrong.

Vladimir Putin is a good example of a leader whose belief in his own propaganda lured him into launching an invasion of Ukraine that could succeed only in the unlikely event of there being no Ukrainian resistance. Propelled by arrogance and misinformation, Putin has never adjusted to this reality which is so different from his expectations. He has instead tried to wage a conventional war in Europe with inadequate Russian forces, still at their peacetime level of mobilisation because they are supposedly engaged only in his “special military operation”.

Yet Putin’s false optimism about his prospects for military victory cannot be attributed solely to his isolation in the Kremlin, or to the blood-soaked traditions of Russian history. This has been a common feature in most military conflicts that I have reported on – from the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to the Nato intervention in Libya in 2011.

Another wild card

Most of these wars ended more or less disastrously for those who started them because they did not understand that military conflicts have so many moving parts, seen and unseen, that their length and outcome cannot be predicted.

President George W Bush was pilloried for standing beneath a banner reading “Mission Accomplished” after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but this sense of premature accomplishment is common to most wars. The same is likely to be true of Ukraine because so many countries with divergent interests are now involved.

But there is another wild card that makes the Ukraine war even more dangerous. The decision-makers in wars really do matter, but the calibre of leadership in the Kremlin, the White House and in Downing Street is at a historic low in all three cases.

An expert on Russian history tells me that the quality of the Kremlin leadership is lower than at any time since the mid-19th century. The British Government has been hopping from scandal to scandal and failure to failure at home and is unlikely to perform better abroad. President Joe Biden appears to believe that this is a chance to win a smashing victory over Russia, but his war aims remain hazy.

Mere sabre rattling?

The ballooning self-confidence of the Nato powers has led to them cavalierly dismissing as phoney the risk of Russia using tactical or strategic nuclear weapons. Well-publicised Russian missile tests are played down as mere sabre rattling, though the last time Putin rattled a sabre – by threatening to invade Ukraine – he did exactly that, idiotic and irrational though the invasion was.

The low quality of the main leaders outside Ukraine is significant because the war may soon enter a third and more violent phase. Because Putin pretended – and probably initially believed – that he was not fighting a real war, he has never carried out a full mobilisation. Shortage of infantry has been the abiding weakness of the Russian war effort during the first phase of the conflict.

The same is still true of the second phase of the war, which is being fought out in the Donbas. But, if that also fails, and Ukraine launches a counter-offensive, then Putin may have little choice but to declare a general mobilisation rather than face a defeat that would probably be the end of his regime.

Further Thoughts

Journalists famous in their day are swiftly forgotten, while politicians who never strayed far from the party line are memorialised in PhDs and biographies. It has always annoyed me to see the patronising cliché about how journalists “write the first draft of history”, and then read some tome by an academic historian largely derived from what was reported by the newspapers of the day.

Politicians who spend much time with journalists tend to curtail or excise these meeting from their published autobiographies and diaries. Journalists themselves often do not get round to writing their memoirs – and, if they do, these may be too like an extended newspaper article.

Even so, it is a pity that few readers will have ever heard of Sir Wilmot Lewis, who was the Times correspondent in Washington from 1920 until 1950, though he had an emeritus status in his final years. A former actor, he had a rather florid style but made many pithy remarks about politics and journalism that are still relevant.

“I think it well,” he said of journalism, “to remember that, when writing for the newspapers, we are writing for an elderly lady in Hastings who has two cats of which she is passionately fond. Unless our stuff can successfully compete for her interest with those cats, it is no good.”

My father, Claud Cockburn, who was Lewis’s assistant in Washington in 1930-32 – and regarded him with great respect as a journalist and political savant – recorded many of his comments about American politicians of his day.

“In fairness to Senator Cole Blease,” Lewis once told him, “it must be said that he has the unique distinction of combing in his sole person all the disadvantages attaching to the democratic form of government.” Of another political player in Washington, he said that “he is one of those American politicians who believe that the women of his country are more virtuous and its diplomats more stupid than those of any other, Since he is wrong on both these counts, it is reasonable to assume that he is wrong on every other.”

The bit about virtuous American women sounds dated, but his other thoughts are as germane today as when he made them almost a century ago. I was watching Boris Johnson’s face as he apologised to parliament for his Partygate misdeeds, when I recalled a comment by Lewis on some long forgotten American politician notorious for his duplicity. “Inspiring, is it not,” said Lewis, “to see eyes so ablaze with insincerity.”

Beneath the Radar

I remain frustrated by the silence of almost all the mainstream on the deportation of Julian Assange to the US for doing what every journalist should do. Because of his wholly unjustified pariah status, few understand what he is accused of doing and what he actually did. For a detailed account of this complex but important saga readers may wish to look at an essay I wrote on the subject a couple of years ago.

Cockburn’s Picks

The best television documentaries are the ones in which a genuine expert talks about a subject about which he is vastly knowledgeable. This would seem to be a fairly obvious approach, but many BBC documentaries are presented by some academic or media celebrity who is talking outside their area of expertise and their commentary consequently tends to be shallow and over-emphatic.

This is fortunately not true of the many excellent FT documentaries available on YouTube which often give a more coherent account of some business scandal or significant economic development than is available in the FT newspaper itself. I recently watched one such documentary on how London became the dirty money capital of the world which struck me as particularly good, but there are many others.