Mon, Jun 20, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Inventing enemies to buy the bombs

Britain faces no serious external threat, yet keeps waging war. While big defense exists, glory-hungry politicians will use it

By Simon Jenkins  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: June Hsu

Why do the British still go to war? They seem unable to stop. They find any excuse for this post-imperial fidget and yet keep getting trapped. Germans do not do it, or Spanish or Swedes. Britain’s borders and British people have not been under serious threat for a generation. Yet time and again their leaders crave battle. Why?

Last week we got a glimpse of an answer and it was not nice. Outgoing US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates berated Europe’s “failure of political will” in not maintaining defense spending.

He said NATO had declined into a “two-tier alliance” between those willing to wage war and those “who specialize in ‘soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping and talking tasks.”

Peace, he implied, is for wimps. Real men buy bombs, and drop them.

This call was echoed by NATO Secretary--General Anders Fogh -Rasmussen, who said it was unfair that US defense investment represented 75 percent of the NATO defense expenditure, where once it was only half. Having been forced to extend his war on Libya by another three months, -Rasmussen wanted to see Europe’s governments come up with more money, and no nonsense about recession. Defense to him is measured not in security, but in spending.

The call was repeated in the UK by Chief of Naval Staff Mark Stanhope. He had to be “dressed down” by British Prime Minister David Cameron for warning that an extended war in Libya would mean “challenging decisions about priorities.” Sailors never talk straight: he meant more ships. The navy has used so many of its £500,000 (US$808,850) Tomahawk missiles trying to hit Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi (and missing) over the past month that it needs money for more.

In a clearly coordinated lobby, the head of the Royal Air Force also demanded “a significant uplift in spending after 2015, if the service is to meet its commitments.”

It, of course, defines its commitments itself.

Libya has cost Britain £100 million so far, and rising, but Iraq and the Afghan war are costing the US US$3 billion a week, and there is scarcely an industry, or a state, in the country that does not see some of this money. These wars show no signs of being ended, let alone won, but to the defense lobby what matters is the money. It sustains combat by constantly promising success and inducing politicians and journalists to see “more enemy dead,” “a glimmer of hope” and “a corner about to be turned.”

Victory will come, but only if politicians spend more money on “a surge.” Soldiers are like firefighters, demanding extra to fight fires. They will fight all right, but if you want victory, that is overtime.

On Wednesday, the Russian ambassador to NATO warned that Britain and France were “being dragged more and more into the eventuality of a land-based operation in Libya.”

This is what the defense lobby wants institutionally, even if it may appall the generals. In the 1980s, Russia watched the same process in Afghanistan, where it took a dictator, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, to face down the Red Army and demand withdrawal. The West has no Gorbachev in Afghanistan at the moment.

Rasmussen says he “could not envisage” a land war in Libya, since the UN would take over if Qaddafi were toppled. He must know this is nonsense, but then he said NATO would only enforce a no-fly zone in Libya. He achieved that weeks ago, but is still bombing.

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