Watching the Start of a New American Era from the Edge of the World


On November 8 – the second Tuesday of November – I found myself in Anchorage, Alaska watching the poll counts climb state by state while the minutes passed. As polls closed and states on TV monitors lit up as either blue or red, ebullient celebration or quiet resignation crossed the faces of those around me at the public house. Having been at Shrivenham during the Brexit vote before embarking on a previously planned trip to Edinburgh the following Friday morning, I saw echoes of the same disbelief (both excited and disappointed in nature) that I had experienced during that train trip north as I caught flights home across the 4,900 miles separating me from my home after the presidential election.

I was asked if I’d be interested in writing this piece almost two weeks ago, and since I felt that I was still forming an opinion on how the election had played out, I hesitated to do so. However, just over two weeks later with the news settling in and finding myself back on the U.S.’s east coast for the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve had some time to reflect on events that have transpired since the electoral college awarded the win to a president-elect who, as of earlier this week, had lost the popular vote.by nearly 2 million votes, but succeeded with 290 electoral votes to Secretary Hillary Clinton’s 232.

Throughout his campaign, President-elect Trump challenged the world order’s commitment to international trade, alliances, and collective defense, as well as core tenants of the American experience such as inclusion and diversity. While future policy decisions (and political appointments) will indicate how the incoming administration intends to address these issues, there are more pressing issues that the American electorate must focus on surrounding public discourse and behavior.

For instance, a friend of mine who works with immigrant youth in the Washington, DC area helped to translate a parent-teacher conference two days after the election. The second question asked about their son by the parents was, “Is he kind to all of his classmates?” – a question that, surely, they must hope all of their son’s classmates’ parents are asking as well. His schoolmate, an 8th grade white boy, was crying in the hallway the same week because he has two moms, and has witnessed the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric espoused by some of Trump’s supporters. Children’s behavior is often cued by their parents’, which might give us a bit of insight fears harbored by parents in a highly diverse, inner city school located in the nation’s capital.

One of the things that moved me most to write this piece, though, was seeing the gathering of Neo-Nazis – apparently rebranded as the “alt-right” – giving Nazi salutes in the Ronald Reagan Building of Washington, DC. Having heard that the gathering took place at the Reagan Building complex was quite surprising, given that it is situated neatly between the White House and the Capitol, is home to USAID (the USG Department of State’s Agency for International Development) and the Environmental Protection Agency, houses Customs and Border Patrol screening facilities, and plays hosts to diverse conferences whose topicality (and attendees) would be directly threatened by the views of those giving Nazi salutes to President-elect Trump. (Perhaps the only place that these activities would have had a more alarming host would have been across the street, where Trump properties recently reopened the Old Post Office Building – a longstanding DC landmark). While freedom of expression is an important basis of the American experience, that doesn’t mean that blatant xenophobic and anti-Semitic movements should not be called out for the acts of hate that they are.

Although a vote for Trump doesn’t necessarily mean that the voter is a racist, xenophobic, misogynist, or bigot, it is difficult to think that not holding any of these as a deal-breaker when voting for a President does admit a certain level of acceptance of these values. Diversity and pluralism are what make America strong, and they must have a place within the new administration if that administration is to truly represent Americans. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of each American to make their neighbors and their communities feel inclusive. As one email I recently received commented, “If a swastika is drawn on a sidewalk, there is a big difference between community members cleaning it up in two hours and the city cleaning it up in two days.”

The months ahead will show if Americans intend to use this outcome as an opportunity to draw together and support one another while demanding a government that represents our values, or if we will succumb to the vitriolic rhetoric that colored much of Trump’s campaign to divide the electorate into “us” and “them”. Misogyny, white nationalism, isolationism, and intolerance are not the values that America wants to show the world.

Image: Donald Trump on the campaign trail, via flickr.



It’s about reaching the decision, not victory: strategic theory and the difficulty of taking action


As students of the Defence Studies Department grapple with strategic theory this winter, a useful way to begin is to consider the purpose of strategic theory and the work of ‘that dead Prussian’. One perspective on this issue is that we are engaging with why reaching decisions in war is difficult – not merely why certain decisions in particular wars were the right ones. Answering such questions requires intellect as well as experience. The conduct of war is as much an intellectual activity as it is a physical one. Planning and conducting organised violence for political purposes, from the smallest tactical engagement to the grand strategic level, demand powers of comprehension, multilateral thought, organisation, and decision that can test even the most agile and sharpest of minds. The thoughts and concepts developed by the likes of Carl von Clausewitz, Henry Lloyd, Sun Tzu, Antoine Henri Jomini, and Mao Zedong – to name but a few – combine to constitute what we today call strategic theory. Many classic theorists melded experience and intellect into strategic works that continue to stand the test of time and the political, economic, and technological changes since they committed their ideas to paper. No matter the time and place, reaching good decisions that produce the desired strategic results remains at least as difficult as it was Sun Tzu’s day. The strategic theories we use today are based on the desire to educate us in what to consider when making strategic appraisals and decisions in war, and not in how to win a particular set-piece battle.

My own research involves using the experience and thought which informed ‘classical’ strategic writings for thinking about the use of spacepower and the possibilities of space warfare in the 21st century. The base elements of strategic theory allow us to consider the various manifestations politics, uncertainty, passions, friction, and intelligent competition in any scenario. For my research, it means that space warfare involving satellites, rockets, lasers, and particle beam weapons will also be ultimately political, emotional, and uncertain in its fundamental nature. Strategic theory provides timely and timeless insights into the pervasive nature of war that does not change across time and space.

This sort of theory is not one that can be held accountable to being ‘proven’ like the laws of gravity and thermodynamics that can accurately predict the movements of bodies in the cosmos. Rather, strategic theory is more of a philosophical lens used to study and teach about the practice of war. Such theory can only be more or less useful for the task it has assigned itself, not whether it is objectively true or false. This perspective gains its weight not only through the persuasiveness of its own arguments, but also through its relative consensus among the works of numerous strategic thinkers. Strategic theory, then, is a collection of propositions and concepts that help us think in more constructive terms about war, regardless of our own time and space.

Whilst Clausewitz and Sun Tzu have often been compared regarding their insights on the political nature of war, civil-military relations, and the psychological aspects of conflict, many others have thought along the same lines. The most persuasive of the commonalities between them all is that such theories of conducting war are about educating the mind to consider all the possibilities open to the commander or leadership with a free and critical mind. With such a plethora of possibilities, and how only some concepts can be applied at certain times, we gain an insight into why strategy is so difficult in practice.

Principles and concepts in strategic theory are a point of departure to consider your options for action, which can provide mental structure to the chaos of reality and guard against unhelpful dogmas at the same time. In other words, strategic theory is not a strategy. Strategic theory should be useful in any circumstance to help you develop a strategy for any particular scenario. This approach is used in the seapower theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Julian Corbett, and Raoul Castex. Their seapower theories are the intellectual bases or frameworks for forming applied maritime or naval strategies. Mahan, Corbett, and Castex did not argue that decisive battle would always grant you the strategic success you sought, but grappling with the difficulty of why decisive battle only sometimes succeeds in bringing about a strategic result would help you decide when a decisive battle at sea may be worth pursuing or denying. Engaging with these questions in the classroom develops the strategic intellect. For example, we learn more about the practice of maritime strategy not by asking how Nelson won the Battle of Trafalgar, but by examining how and why Nelson chose to impose battle upon the French at Trafalgar in the first place.

Consistent and long-term reflection is required to develop the mind-set and attitude to learn principles, detach from those principles to clear your mind, and then see the possibilities open to you. Yagu Munenori instructed that it is a sickness to be obsessed only with winning, or only with the offence or the defence. A keen mind is required to understand what is possible and necessary in any given scenario. This intuitive grasping of strategic truth at any moment is what Jon Sumida referred to as the ‘undermind’ in Clausewitzian theory, and is also evident in Alfred Thayer Mahan’s teaching style which draws on the educational styles of Zen Buddhism.

Principles discussed in books and classrooms on strategy include the duel, the centre of gravity, concentration and dispersal, attack and defence, decisive engagements, friction, and the politics, passions, and uncertainty of war. Munenori, Musashi, Sun Tzu, and Clausewitz can help outline the various lessons from the applications of such ideas in the past, but they cannot tell you when or how you should apply them next. Clausewitz urged you to strike the centre of gravity of an opponent when there is one and if you can strike it without undue risk; Sun Tzu tells you to adapt asymmetrically to the enemy’s weaknesses but also to not merely be reactive to the enemy; Munenori cautions you against single-minded offensive actions yet admonishes defensive obsessions; Musashi tells you to understand your foes as well as your own side’s nature, but your own deviancy from norms must be embraced. None of these theorists will tell you how their abstractions will work in your particular situation. A critical and thoughtful intellect is required to do that, and through critically applying such concepts, you sharpen your intuitive grasp of the nuances of conducting warfare.

Michael Handel argued persuasively in Masters of War that the seeming contradictory observations within the works of individual theorists are more instructive for thinking about warfare than the few disagreements between them. They all grappled with the difficulty of applying the strategic theory, of why strategy is so difficult to do. All argue in their own way that understanding this difficulty is the key to strategic education.


Further reading:

Carl von Clausewitz On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, trans., ed. (Princeton UP 1984) Book II in particular.

Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings, Thomas Cleary trans., ed. (Shambala, 2003), also contains The Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War by Yagu Munenori

Raoul Castex, Strategic Theories, Eugenia Kiesling, trans., ed. (Naval Institute Press, 1994)

Jon T. Sumida, Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1997)

Michael I. Handel, Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought (Routledge, 2001)

Image: Miyamoto Musashi, via wikimedia commons


Conference Report: International Society for First World War Studies conference, ‘War Time’

Hanna Smyth (with Adam Luptak & Louis Halewood)

– War Time co-organisers, Globalising and Localising the Great War, University of Oxford.

The 9th conference of the International Society for First World War Studies was held at the University of Oxford on 9-11 November. Each year a different theme is chosen (such as ‘Landscapes’ and ‘Other Fronts, Other Wars’), but each ISFWWS conference aims to uphold the same tone of encouraging collegiality established by ISFWWS co-founders Jenny Macleod and Pierre Purseigle.

‘War Time’ was held at the Maison Française d’Oxford and organised by a team of PhD students and postdocs from Oxford’s Globalising and Localising the Great War research network. 2016, as the midpoint of the First World War formal centenary period, marked a significant opportunity to re-examine and reflect upon the ways that time has been conceptualised both during the war itself and in the hundred years of scholarship that have followed. The conference sought to reveal and contextualise new chronologies, pursued along flexible and multiple timelines, and particularly encouraged transnational and comparative work.

The conference welcomed 85 First World War academics from 11 countries, beginning with a drinks reception on 9th November followed by two days of conference proceedings and then an affiliated public engagement day on the 12th.

One of the most striking features about this conference was its format, which was inherited from the ISFWWS. No conference papers were given during the event: instead the 18 conference papers were circulated more than a month in advance. All 18 were written by PhD students and early-career researchers. 18 more senior academics were handpicked to be matched to these 18 junior paper authors to provide invited commentaries at the conference. During the event, each panel consisted of commentary and discussion on a pair of papers: each ten-minute commentary was followed by an opportunity for the paper author to respond to their commentator’s remarks, and then the floor was opened to discussion.

The encouragement and generosity of the invited commentators towards the beginning researchers they were paired with was a standout feature of the conference, praised by many. Their commentaries were incisive, full of questions and directions to explore further, and it was an interesting role-reversal to have senior academics giving précis of their junior colleagues’ work as part of their comments.

ISFWWS conferences aim to encourage interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity, and War Time was no exception. The nine conference panels were titled:

  • Aerial Time
  • Endgame
  • Medical Time
  • Soundscapes of Time
  • Ideological Timelines
  • Personal Memories and Experiences
  • Materiality on the Home Front
  • Discursive Time
  • Anticipation


The full program can be accessed on the conference website here.

‘War Time’ was opened and closed by three keynote speakers: Professor Sir Hew Strachan (University of St Andrews), Professor John Horne (Trinity College Dublin / University of Oxford), and Professor Margaret MacMillan (University of Oxford), speaking on strategic planning, time-frames of the war, and moving from war to peace, respectively. These keynotes were recorded by the University of Oxford’s recording team and will be available online shortly.

At the end of the first day, the winner and runner-up of the “WWI Research Competition” were announced. This was a competition run by The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH), unaffiliated with the conference and with an entirely separate selection committee. It was open to all students, staff and faculty at the University of Oxford who had original ideas for engaging and accessible research projects relating to the conflict. Coincidentally, the winner of the prize was War Time conference committee member Dr. Alice Kelly (currently Harmsworth Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute), for her podcast ‘Remembering before the end: death and the Great War’ which can be accessed here. Runner-up was JC Niala, a Creative Writing masters student, for her podcast ‘African Soldiers in WWI: Forgotten in a global war’ which can be accessed here.

During the concluding remarks of the conference another prize was announced: the Gail Braybon Prize for Best Postgraduate Paper. This was selected by the conference committee with input from an ISFWWS representative, and was open to those of the 18 conference papers whose authors do not already have their doctorates. The winning paper was “‘It is at night-time that we notice most of the changes in our life caused by the war’: Zeppelins, Time and Space in Great War London”, by Assaf Mond of Tel Aviv University. Assaf’s paper also sparked excellent discussion during the conference, particularly on his innovative analysis of ‘child time’ versus ‘adult time’ during war.

Three of the Defense Studies Department’s researchers attended the conference in invited capacities. Dr. Helen McCartney was asked to serve as commentator for Ashley Garber’s paper ‘Age, Generations and the Life Cycle in Comradeship after the Great War’ on the Personal Memories and Experiences panel; Dr. David Morgan-Owen was asked to serve as chair for the keynote address given by Professor Sir Hew Strachan; and Dr. Aimee Fox-Godden was asked to serve as chair for the keynote address given by Professor John Horne. Dr. Fox-Godden also contributed by joining the conference team and a few other attendees in prolifically live-tweeting the proceedings to make them accessible to a wider audience, in what one academic following from a distance called “the best twitter coverage of a conference ever”. A Storify from the conference is available here.

Following the conference on 12th November was a public engagement day, for which the conference partnered with Oxford’s Academic IT department to run a ‘Community Collection Day’ as part of the Europeana14-18 initiative. Twenty conference delegates and organisers spent the day as part of the volunteer team staffing the event. Members of the public brought in FWW-related documents and artefacts; they were interviewed about their contributions by conference volunteers, before their items were digitised by further conference volunteers under the supervision of Academic IT digitization specialists. The event also featured a series of short talks by conference delegates and community representatives, including Liz Woolley (66 Men of Grandpont project), Sarah Wearne (Epitaphs of the Great War: The Somme author), and Alison Patron (National Trust: Sandham Memorial Chapel). Volunteers from the Museum of Oxford were also on hand providing FWW-related craft activities for children.

The rationale for the public engagement day was that, although it was fantastic to bring an international cohort of 85 FWW specialists together for the conference, it was also quite exclusive and inaccessible to other interested parties; especially since this event was fully booked with a waiting list more than three months beforehand. It would have been unfortunate to have such a concentrated pool of expertise visiting Oxford and not find ways to share that with the conference’s host community, and so the organisers were very grateful for the generosity of those delegates who made time to engage with the public on the 12th.

If you would like to become a member of the ISFWWS, membership information is available at http://www.firstworldwarstudies.org/membership.php. Locations and details for the 2017 and 2018 ISFWWS conferences are still pending. The organisers of ‘War Time’ intend to publish the proceedings in due course.

On behalf of the conference organising committee, many thanks to the paper authors, keynotes, commentators, chairs, and delegates who filled War Time with such an abundance of fruitful and dynamic discussions.

Image courtesy of St Agnes Museum.


The Battle of the Somme: The First Proving Ground for British Air Power?

By Dr David Jordan

100 years after the conclusion of the Battle of the Somme, there is still a tendency – a quite understandable one – within the wider public discourse on the First World War to concentrate upon the first day of the Battle, on 1 July 1916 because of its appalling casualties, and to overlook the fact it was part of a broader campaign which concluded on 18 November 1916, with the ending of the Battle of the Ancre. The long casualty lists dominate our perspective, and when historians look at the wider swathe of the Somme campaign, they tend to focus upon aspects such as strategy and tactics and innovations such as the first use of the tank at Flers in September. Yet there were other innovative uses of weapons seen on a large scale during the Somme campaign, notably in the use of British air power. The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) had demonstrated the utility of aircraft from almost the start of the war, particularly in the realms of reconnaissance and artillery observation. The RNAS’s early attempts to bomb German targets (notably Zeppelin sheds) hinted at the future potential use of aircraft in the long-range attack role, and the RFC took the first steps to what would become an extensive part of aerial activity in 1917 and 1918 through what we would now term interdiction and close air support. All of this was underpinned by a firm recognition that fighting for control of the air was a vital element, since it was impossible to enable the other activities to take place without significant interference from German aircraft if this were not obtained.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the role of fighter aircraft became central to accounts of the use of aircraft during the war, because of the supposed glamour associated with aerial combat, embellished by newspaper accounts and overwrought rhetoric from the likes of Prime Minister Lloyd George, waxing lyrical about the ‘cavalry of the clouds,’ since this has obscured the fact that the critical business of the Flying Corps was that of gaining information and correcting the fire of the artillery pieces which dominated the war of static lines that had evolved after the initial war of manoeuvre in 1914, and which predominated until 1918 when mobility would return to the battlefield. As a growing canon of historiography of air power demonstrates, this awareness of the inter-relationship of air combat and the less-well known aspects of air operations has become more widespread, but is perhaps not as widely appreciated as might be the case.

When planning the Somme campaign, the RFC held an integral part, since the BEF would place heavy reliance upon artillery to prosecute the offensive, and would require information about enemy dispositions behind the front line – something which could only be obtained from the use of aerial reconnaissance. The challenge facing the RFC was that the Somme battle would be on a much grander scale than anything that it had done before, and the rate of expansion of the air service between late 1915 and spring and summer 1916 had been such that many of the new squadrons to be found in France were dominated by pilots and observers who had received relatively little training, and whose experience levels were notably lower than those who had fought in the battles of 1915. The Germans’ qualitative advantage in fighter aircraft during the so-called ‘Fokker Scourge’ had increased RFC losses, and only the appearance of new fighter aircraft such as the DH2, a ‘pusher’ fighter which looks odd to our eyes today, had redressed the balance. While the chances of operating with reduced levels of interference from the German air services had grown, failings in training and thus the observation that resulted were to prove a problem throughout the Somme campaign. To make matters worse, as the battles of Autumn 1916 demonstrated, the German air service had begun to introduce new fighter types which would tilt the balance in their favour, reaching to a nadir in the losses of ‘Bloody April’ in 1917. Nevertheless, the commander of the RFC in France, Brigadier-General Hugh Trenchard, pursued a policy of a constant offensive over German lines, seeking to dominate the airspace in the battle area by the expedient of keeping enemy aircraft as far away from it as possible – preferably over their own lines – allowing the observation aircraft to go about their work relatively unmolested (RAF Museum, Trenchard Papers MFC 73 ‘Future Policy in the Air’, 22 September 1916.). That this policy is open to legitimate criticism because of its blunt, often inflexible, nature and the casualties which resulted is beyond doubt – but so is the fact that it broadly achieved its aim on many occasions. This was particularly true for the Somme offensives, which has been described as a ‘golden period for the RFC’ (See James Pugh’s excellent PhD thesis ‘The conceptual origins of the control of the air: British military and naval aviation, 1911 – 1918’ (University of Birmingham, 2013) for a detailed consideration).

Confidence in the ability of artillery to destroy the German front line positions, and particularly the barbed wire before them, proved to be sadly misplaced on 1 July 1916, but the work of the RFC was not the critical factor – as historians such as Shelford Bidwell, Toby Graham and Sanders Marble have demonstrated, the failings in the artillery scheme for 1 July went far deeper than the quality of aerial observation. And even though the cooperation with the guns did not reach the levels hoped for it, the after-action reports from Fourth Army as it sought to learn the lessons from the Somme offensives demonstrate that senior commanders still placed great importance on the use of the RFC’s army cooperation squadrons. It was noted that in poor weather, when the RFC had been unable to fly, artillery commanders, anxious to prepare the battlefield, had compensated for the lack of aerial observation by the expedient of firing twice as many shells in the general direction of the target (based on knowledge usually derived from air reconnaissance) in the hope that the greater weight of fire would increase the chances of hitting the target (National Archives, WO 95/431, ‘Lessons of the Somme’, Fourth Army War Diary 1916). This had been nothing more than optimism and a waste of ammunition. Generals Rawlinson (Fourth Army) and Horne (First Army), both made clear their view that aerial observation would be a vital component in any future offensive and that the quality of information gained and the skill with which artillery fire was directed needed to be improved. This had, in fact, been appreciated by the senior commanders of the RFC, notably Generals Henderson (Director General of Military Aeronautics and GOC of the RFC) and Trenchard (GOC of the RFC in France), with the latter making strenuous – and sometimes slightly over-optimistic – efforts to demonstrate that the quality of the pilots and observers reaching the front line was improving as better training regimes were applied (National Archives, Air 1/524/16/12/26, ‘Cooperation between aeroplanes and artillery’, notes by Trenchard on observations by Generals Rawlinson and Horne).

What is perhaps significant in considering the Somme as the proving ground for a notable air contribution to a campaign is, therefore, the extent to which air and land elements interacted and then thought about what had worked and what had not was considerable; there was no technophobia at work with aircraft seen as peculiar items that, as the stereotype later had it, simply frightened the horses. The fact that it was necessary to use air power to help win battles was now something which the BEF and its commanders took as read, rather than as something open to doubt and mistrust. The failings and disappointments of 1916 would and could not be overcome immediately – it took time before the training regime was reorganised to the point where it began to deliver aircrew with appropriate skills to the front line; the loss of control of the air in early 1917 cost more lives and aircraft and was not overcome until the early summer of that year, and yet more work was required to ensure that air and land units, particularly the artillery, cooperated in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Yet for all of this, the Somme was the first large-scale battle in which it could be said that Britain began the full application of its air power capabilities. While attempting to mark the Somme offensive as the exact point at which Britain ‘got’ air-land integration and made it work is to stretch the evidence too far, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that it was the first proper proving ground upon which the formidably effective air-land co-operation seen in the final battles of 1918 would be built.

Image: Air mechanics dismantling an Albatros C.III two-seat biplane (J7) brought down during the Battle of the Somme at the 9th Wing RFC HQ at Fienvillers. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

THE SUEZ CRISIS (OPERATION MUSKETEER) 1956 (MH 23509) Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the initial Anglo-French assault on Port Said, 5 November 1956. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205022435

The Significance of Suez 1956: A Reference Point and Turning Point?

This is the third in a series of posts drawn from an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis which the Defence Studies Department Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre hosted on November 7th, 2016. Recordings of the papers will be posted shortly to the Department soundcloud.


From a British perspective 60 years after the crisis, Suez has an almost iconic status, often used as a short hand for everything ‘wrong’ in foreign policy and decision making. It is said to be the moment when Britain’s status and reputation as a global power ended and with it a decline of British moral power and prestige, the ultimate exemplar of Albion’s perfidy. In this way ‘Suez’ evokes a specific response which intends to tap into a shared meaning that is still used today.

For example, in the context of the Brexit debate, Matthew Parris wrote in The Times on 15 0ctober: ‘As in a bad dream, I have the sensation of falling. We British are on our way to making the biggest screw-up since Suez and, somewhere deep down, the new governing class know it. We are heading for national humiliation, nobody’s in charge, and nobody knows what to do. This Brexit thing is out of control’.

In Britain and the Suez Crisis, the historian David Carlton argued that ‘No event in the post-war period has so divided the nation as the Suez crisis; in none has the government so adamantly obscured the truth, and there has been much controversy as to its effect on Britain’s standing in the world. In consequence, many will see 1956 as one of the turning points in Britain’s post-war history’.

In these ways then Suez is both a reference point and a turning point.


Background to the Suez Crisis

So what was the crisis about? What was at stake that produced what Enoch Powell later called ‘a national nervous breakdown’?

First of all, it was not about the Canal Zone or the Suez Canal Company and if it had been it could have been solved peacefully, through the UN. Instead it was a multi-crisis at the international, regional and state levels, and only Nasser’s removal would resolve the crises because he was perceived to be at the centre of them all.

But was it really mainly about prestige? We are used to arguments that suggest Britain’s interests in the Middle East and the maintenance of her informal empire was linked primarily to the control of important resources and the security of essential military facilities. Britain did not seek to retain its military presence in the Middle East to protect oil. In 1956 there were 16 plans for unilateral British action in the region. Fifteen plans were for national evacuation operations and only one was for a conventional war: to support Jordan against Israel. Neither did Britain seek to remain in Egypt because of the importance of her military facilities. This may have been the case in the Second World War and the early post-war period, but by 1956 the Suez base was considered to be of no military importance in peacetime. Yet the British still refused to meet Egyptian demands for evacuation because, significantly, they feared this would be seen as being forced out and, therefore, as damaging to their prestige and influence in the rest of the Middle East.

Traditional accounts of Britain and the causes of Suez highlight British defence of her longstanding interests and influence in the Middle East dating back to the 1870s to protect the vital trade and communications route through the Suez Canal to the remainder of the British Empire in the Far East. In these versions, the main threats to British influence were the lack of resolution to Arab-Israeli dispute, the rise of Arab nationalism and the threat of communism.

When Nasser became President of Egypt he seen as positive and treated as a client of the west and key to a number of British and American policies in the Middle East. For example, Egypt was central to Anglo-American Cold War strategy in the Middle East which aimed to create a Middle East defence organisation along the lines of NATO. For the United States this would act as a bulwark against Soviet penetration in the region. For Britain it would have the added advantage of formalising Britain’s bi-lateral arrangements in the region and become an umbrella collective defence organisation of existing British defence interests with Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. Britain and the United States also sought a resolution to the Arab-Israeli dispute, through plan ALPHA, essentially an early version of a land for peace deal: territorial compromises and an agreement to recognise borders.

But in 1953 American policy was re-evaluated. John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State toured the region and concluded that the British role in Middle East defence and Anglo-Egyptian relations hindered rather than served Western interests. He believed that the lack of settlement on the Suez Canal base undermined potential Arab unity and alignment with the west.

Nasser was increasingly perceived to be a threat to western interests. While the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian agreement gave Britain 20 months to withdraw their troops from the Canal zone and the right to reactivate the base if the freedom of the Canal was threatened by external powers seemed to indicate a resolution to the problem of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty, Nasser undermined the British sponsored Middle East defence organisation the Baghdad Pact, by pressuring Jordan not to join.

Nasser’s opposition to Israel threatened to renew the armed conflict in the Middle East. As a result his requests for military equipment from the west were refused. In July 1955 he turned instead to the Eastern bloc with an agreement with Czechoslovakia. Crucially, however, while there was western agreement that Nasser had to go, it was for very different reasons. For the United States it was because Nasser stood in the way of Middle Eastern unity in opposition to the USSR and Britain because Nasser was undermining Britain’s position in the region and the rest of the British empire. Opposition to Nasser’s policies led to Britain and the US withdrawing their promised finances of the Aswan High Dam in mid-July 1956. Nasser found an alternative source of income in his nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company on 26 July.

That evening when the news came in Eden was having dinner with the King and Prime Minister of Iraq and said Nasser had to go because he could not be allowed to ‘have his hand on our windpipe’ and ‘knock him off his perch’. But this was not going to happen quickly or decisively due to problems with military capabilities and readiness.

In private preparations were made for the use of force, including collusion with Israel and France for a pretext for the use of force which led to the Sevres Protocol on 22 October. In public, however, Britain pursued a diplomatic settlement thorough negotiation: a Maritime Conference of 22 Nations in August and the American sponsored Suez Canal Users’ Association in September.

The military operation ended abruptly when the UN called for a cease-fire on 2 November. The conflict led to a run on the pound and a sudden decline in Britain’s gold reserves. Although loans from the IMF would have eased the pressure, American backing for this was essential and so Britain had to bow to Washington’s demand for a ceasefire. The British had miscalculated, holding faulty perceptions of US policy: believed they would support or at least be indifferent, hoping at least for benign neutrality. Eisenhower summed up when he addressed the National Security Council on 1 November “How could we possibly support Britain and France and in doing so we lose the whole Arab world?”


Results of the Suez Crisis: a Turning Point?

The crisis led to a change to the regional balance of power for while the Egyptian air force destroyed, Nasser emerged as the only Arab leader capable of challenging the west. Israel gained for although did not depose Nasser, the UNEF guaranteed freedom of shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba and this gave Israel a Red Sea port. France applied her lessons when de Gaulle became President 18 months later with a European focus to French foreign policy. Part of de Gaulle’s veto British entry into the EEC can be explained by the Suez experience, not allowing Britain to be a Trojan horse of American interests. France withdrew from the military structure of NATO and refused to support American policy in Lebanon and Vietnam.

Globally it can be argued that the crisis formalised the dominance of the two superpowers and established a balance of power that remained effective until the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Some see Suez as confirmation that Britain was hopelessly overstretched, that if a global role was to be retained it would have to be subordinate to superpower interests. The limits of post-war British power were demonstrated and the further British decline as an imperial power in Middle East, Africa and South East Asia was presaged. Others look at the relationship between Suez and the British decision to join the EEC, as if that decision was a result of Britain acknowledging and adjusting to a new reality – where it had lost an empire and was seeking a new role.

Margaret Thatcher certainly saw Suez as both a turning point and reference point. She believed the impact of Suez on British policy making thereafter, a “Suez syndrome”, was negative: ‘having previously exaggerated our power, we now exaggerated our impotence’. And she drew on Suez to enhance her foreign policy achievements: “The significance of the Falklands War was enormous, both for Britain’s self-confidence and for our standing in the world. Since the Suez fiasco in 1956, British foreign policy had been one long retreat”. (The Downing Street Years).

It is also important to remember that at the time British policy assumptions remained the same. Britain still saw itself as a great power and still aimed to maintain global influence. And while Britain continued to exercise influence globally, on decisive issues it would do so only in close consultation with the US. In this way Britain continued to exercise its influence and remained active in the Middle East. British power may have diminished, but her interests remained the same. Britain remained concerned about Arab nationalism, communism and the Arab-Israeli dispute. Britain used military force in 1958 to intervene in support of Jordan and Kuwait in 1961, counterinsurgency campaigns were fought in Aden and Dhofar and Britain remained active and engaged even after the East Suez decision down to 1991 and beyond.

Whether or not Suez is a turning point or a reference point, it magnified British unpreparedness to undertake a limited war and the incoherency of British ends, ways and means. The fear that a failure to tackle Nasser would be disastrous for British prestige ended in disaster and ignominy. And in this way Antony Nutting was surely right to suggest that enduring significance of the crisis is its No End of a Lesson.

Image: Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the initial Anglo-French assault on Port Said, 5 November 1956, via the Imperial War Museum.

THE SUEZ OPERATION OCTOBER - DECEMBER 1956 (A 33601) British Forces: Three of the five British aircraft carriers involved in the Suez operation. HMS EAGLE leads HMS BULWARK and HMS ALBION. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205187820


This is the second in a series of posts drawn from an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis which the Defence Studies Department Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre hosted on November 7th, 2016. Recordings of the papers will be posted shortly to the Department soundcloud.

By Dr Tim Benbow

The Suez conflict provided many salutary lessons for British strategy and defence policy. The majority of these emerged from political, diplomatic and military failings associated with what was by common consensus the worst debacle in British foreign policy between 1945 and, perhaps, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Essentially, it provided a long list of things not to do, errors to avoid. However, some of the conclusions drawn were more positive, not least for Britain’s naval forces. The Suez crisis occurred at a critical point in an on-going debate over the role and capabilities of the Royal Navy, facilitating the emergence of a viable and important future role. In doing so, it resolved – for a time at least – a bitter and high-stakes dispute over the value of naval power in general and naval aviation in particular.

Since the early 1950s, the role of the Royal Navy and even of sea power more broadly had come under concerted attack in Whitehall. The Air Ministry pushed hard for a narrow focus on the early, nuclear stage of a total war with the USSR – for which, as it happened, the RAF’s cherished medium bomber force was well suited. This approach left little room for naval power; why seek to defend sea communications when the war would be settled quickly, by nuclear weapons? Some senior politicians and civil servants were convinced of the strategic logic of this case, while others went along with an approach that appeared to offer significant savings in defence spending. The Admiralty put up a spirited counter-case arguing that defence policy could not plan only for total war, let alone for only one form that such a war might take. Conventional forces, it insisted, including naval power, were an indispensable part of the deterrent to war; they would be essential to fighting any war if Britain was to survive; and they were vital for waging the cold war, which was bound to continue and even intensify as total war became less likely. The strategic logic of the Admiralty case was compelling but the financial implications were unpalatable; the Navy held on but only just and the assaults kept coming. Suez provided a much needed reality check.

First, it was a reminder that while deterring or fighting total war with the Soviet Union was bound to be the main focus for policy, it was not the only game in town. Britain and the West more broadly had interests around the world that were important in their own right, as well as having a potential connection to the cold war. Indeed, with a deliberate resort to war by the USSR being viewed as unlikely, preventing the outbreak of minor conflicts that could escalate became an important element of avoiding war. The Suez crisis both demonstrated the need for military intervention overseas and also shed a harsh light on existing British capabilities for such operations.

The second question concerned how such intervention should be conducted. Britain had hitherto relied on garrisons stationed overseas and on the use of air bases. These were expensive to maintain and as pillars of a strategy for intervention, they were being increasingly shaken by nationalism and decolonisation, resulting in the loss of bases or tight restrictions on their use. A potential ‘air barrier’ across the Middle East further complicated the British response to any crisis in the Gulf, Indian Ocean or Far East, reducing the utility of any UK-based strategic reserve. In response to these developments, the Admiralty was beginning to propose that the Royal Navy could take the lead ‘east of Suez’ with maritime task forces, based around carrier air power and amphibious capabilities, which would provide a stabilizing influence and a capacity for intervention. This vision appealed to those wanting a cheaper strategy as well as accommodating the reality of reducing access to overseas bases. It suited the Air Ministry which, focused on nuclear-armed bombers, was entirely content to see conventional, expeditionary air power fall primarily to the Fleet Air Arm. It also gave the Royal Navy a clear and viable role which attracted wider political support – at the same time as preserving capabilities that the Admiralty continued to see as essential for total war; hot war was de-emphasised in favour of warm and cold war.

This concept was circulating and gaining some support before the Suez crisis; the lessons of the intervention greatly strengthened the case for it. Previous British planning had rested on the wealth of air bases in the region, yet in the event Libya, Iraq and Jordan had denied the use of these to Britain. The Anglo-French force could only use Malta, from which only medium bombers could reach Suez, and overcrowded and potentially vulnerable bases on Cyprus. From the outset, it was obvious that the operation would have to depend heavily on carrier-based air power. The force deployed included the fleet carrier HMS Eagle and the light fleet carriers HMS Bulwark and Albion (rushed out of refit) plus the French Arromanches and Lafayette. These carriers provided over 60 per cent of the fighter-bombers for the operation (which proved more effective than the medium bombers), and carrier-based aircraft contributed over 65 per cent of the ground attack sorties. Their involvement was vital to gaining air superiority – even the Air Ministry accepted that Fleet Air Arm aircraft destroyed the majority of enemy aircraft – and to supporting the airborne and amphibious landings and the campaign on land that followed.

This striking vindication of the utility of carrier-based air power caused considerable discomfort to those in the Air Ministry who had devoted so much effort over the previous years to dismissing its utility. (While things have improved hugely in this area since the 1950s, there are still some echoes of this sentiment today: the history timeline on the RAF web site (http://www.raf.mod.uk/history/rafhistorytimeline195059.cfm)

says of Suez, ‘RAF Canberra and Valiant bombers flying from Malta and Cyprus, in conjunction with French Air Force aircraft, attack twelve airfields in the Canal Zone. Airfield attacks continued until 4 November, by which time the Egyptian Air Force had been decimated.’ The overlooking of carrier-based aircraft is rather glaring.)

One particularly positive development at Suez was a major innovation in amphibious warfare. In addition to conventional parachute drops and amphibious landings from the sea, the operation saw the first ever helicopter assault, when 45 Commando Royal Marines was landed by a joint helicopter force operating from the converted light carriers HMS Ocean and Theseus. This brilliant improvisation by a rather cobbled together force indicated the way forward for amphibious operations.

The Suez experience vindicated the maritime task force concept, with both carrier strike and amphibious forces demonstrating their utility. As a result, the 1957 defence review made presence and limited intervention east of Suez the core role of the Royal Navy. That this review was overseen by Duncan Sandys, the most bitter ministerial critic of naval aviation in the postwar era, makes the result all the more striking. The existing carriers would be retained and modernised, with a new carrier ordered in 1963. Britain’s amphibious forces were strengthened by the conversion of Albion and Bulwark to commando carriers, and by the order of two new amphibious assault ships, Fearless and Intrepid (which would form the core of the amphibious force in the Falklands War).

This new approach, in which maritime task forces acted as a stabilising presence and, if necessary, the spearhead of a joint intervention force, was repeatedly proved during the late-1950s and early 1960s. As the UK now looks once more to expeditionary operations, having escaped the strategic blind alley of continental garrisoning, these lessons of Suez again have relevance.

Image: Three of the five British aircraft carriers involved in the Suez operation. HMS EAGLE leads HMS BULWARK and HMS ALBION.  Courtesy of IWM (A 33601).



This is the first in a series of posts drawn from an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis which the Defence Studies Department Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre hosted on November 7th, 2016. Recordings of the papers will be posted shortly to the Department soundcloud.


An analysis of land operations for both Operations Kadesh (the Israeli Defence Force’s onslaught into the Sinai from 29th October 1956) and Musketeer (the Anglo-French invasion from 5th November) needs firstly to recognise the significance of joint operations, not least because of the use of airborne and amphibious forces. Secondly, it is worth bearing in mind that only one of the campaigns – Kadesh – actually succeeded, as the Anglo-French assault on Port Said was halted by international diplomatic opposition (and more importantly, American financial pressure on the UK). This blog post will summarise key points about the land war from the perspectives of the four belligerents concerned.

A fair assessment of the Egyptian performance should acknowledge that Egypt was a victim of aggression, and was the subject of an unprovoked attack (certainly as far as Britain and France was concerned). The sense of shock felt by its President and military commanders is reflected in Jamal Abdel Nasser’s telephone conversation to his confidante Mohammed Heikal on 29th October, in which the former exclaimed: ‘Something very strange is happening. The Israelis are in the Sinai and they seem to be fighting the sands’. In combat against the IDF (notably with the battles of Abu Agheila and Rafah) and the British and French in Port Said Egyptian soldiers and volunteers fought with considerable courage and tenacity (as was the case in 1967 and 1973), but they were poorly served by a command structure presided over by Nasser’s crony, Field Marshal Hakim Amer. Amer’s utter unsuitability for high command was exposed by Suez, but he remained as Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian armed forces until the catastrophe of the Six Day War of June 1967.

The assault on the Sinai was a test for the manoeuvrist (to use an anachronistic term) doctrine the Israeli armed forces developed after 1948. The War of Independence (or the Nabka, depending on your perspective) had been an existential struggle for the nascent state. Egypt’s acquisition of Soviet bloc arms, Nasser’s belligerent rhetoric, the blockade of the Straits of Tiran, and Cairo’s support for the Palestinian fedayeen were all necessary and sufficient causes of a pre-emptive attack as far as the Israelis were concerned. As was the case with the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars the mobilisation of the citizen soldiers of the IDF was a headache for the country’s civilian and military leaders. 60% of the vehicles requisitioned for the IDF’s use were found to be unserviceable, and the 1956 conflict was as much of a ‘come as you are’ war as the 1948 war.

Nonetheless, the IDF benefited from a war-fighting concept which emphasised initiative and audacity, as exemplified by the seizure of the Mitla Pass by Ariel Sharon’s force of 395 paratroopers, and indeed the overrunning of the Sinai by its armoured columns over the course of eight days. The IDF took heavy casualties in the process, with 231 soldiers killed and 899 wounded in action, but Kadesh was nonetheless a precursor to the more crushing victory won against Egypt in 1967.

The French had extensive experience of expeditionary operations in Indochina, and were also involved in the struggle against the ALN in Algeria. With Musketeer Guy Mollet’s government and France’s high command accepted subordination to the British, but in a striking parallel with Anglo-American tensions over Normandy in 1944 commanders like Generals Andre Beaufre (the deputy to the Land Force commander General Hugh Stockwell) and Jean Gilles felt that their British counterparts were too cautious and timid in the planning and execution of Musketeer. General Jacques Massu’s proposals for airborne landings on Ismailia and Kantara were vetoed by Stockwell, and Gilles – a salty para of Indochina fame – never concealed his disdain for any of his peers who weren’t (a) French and/or (b) wearing airborne wings. A contrast between British and French air drops on 5th November showed that les Paras had better kit and weaponry, and were also more practiced in the intricacies of command and control, as demonstrated by Gilles’ use of a Nordatlas transport plane as an aerial command post.

The British were hampered by the fact that the Army in particular was positioning itself for a nuclear conflict alongside NATO allies against the Soviet bloc, while also fighting insurgencies in a shrinking overseas empire. The UK’s involvement in the Korean War (1950-1953) was treated by the Chiefs of Staff as an anomaly, and in the aftermath of Normandy and Walcheren the expertise in and capabilities for amphibious operations so painstakingly acquired in WWII was simply forgotten. The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the Royal Marines’ (RM) 3 Commando Brigade (3 Cdo) chasing Communist guerrillas in Malaya, while at the time Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal (26th July 1956) the Parachute Regiment was on anti-EOKA duties in Cyprus. To use the analogy Field-Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery employed a year after Suez, the British armed forces were prepared for a ‘test match’ (WWIII), but were unprepared for ‘village cricket’ (intervention operations against state-based adversaries).

At the time of Suez the UK’s armed forces had a Strategic Reserve set aside from NATO that nominally consisted of 3 Cdo, the 16th Independent Airborne Brigade (16AB) and the 3rd Infantry Division (3 Div). However, as early as the Abadan Crisis of 1951 it became clear that Britain lacked the capability for a combat air assault involving 16AB; the RAF lacked the transport aircraft needed for another Arnhem, and by the autumn of 1956 it only had sufficient capacity to drop a battalion of paratroopers into battle (with 3PARA on Gamil Airfield on the night of the 5th November). It also took time for the British to muster the air and maritime assets needed to position forces for intervention following Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, which meant that a military fait accompli (which the Americans may have tacitly accepted) was impossible to achieve.

The mobilisation of 27,000 reservists and the retention of 6,200 national servicemen also contributed to a morale crisis within the Army, albeit not one as grave as that suffered by the French in Algeria or the Americans over Vietnam. In this respect, the decision to abolish National Service taken with the Sandys Review of 1957 represented a pragmatic recognition by Harold Macmillan’s government that overseas interventions could only be conducted with an all-volunteer force.

With Musketeer the original plan was to seize Alexandria on 15th September 1956 with the Special Boat Service in the vanguard of an air and amphibious assault, conducted by 3 Div, 10th Armoured Division, the 7th Light Armoured Division (French) and the 2nd Infantry Division. The use of the latter formation required its transferral from the British Army of the Rhine, and it was also politically impossible to use the 10th Armoured Division which was stationed in Libya, thanks to basing rights agreed with the regime of King Idris (subsequently overthrown by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s coup in 1969). Musketeer Revise made Port Said the focus of the Anglo-French landing, which would be Phase 3 in an operation preceded by Phases 1 (the destruction of the Egyptian Air Force) and 2 (the ‘aero-psychological campaign’).

The air drop of 600 British and 487 French paratroopers on the night of the 5th was followed by the landing of 40 and 42 RM Cdo at 0615 on the 6th. One important innovation involved the heliborne landing of 500 marines from 45 Cdo from HMS Ocean and Theseus in Port Said, and British marines and paratroopers also relied on improvised close air support with the RAF in the fighting that followed. By the time of the ceasefire at 0000 on 6th November 2PARA and the 6th Royal Tank Regiment were at El Cap, 23 miles from Port Said. The British had lost 20 dead and 65 wounded, while the French had 8 killed and 65 injured. Egypt’s loses are estimated as 1,600-3,000 military fatalities on both fronts, and 1,000 civilians.

Operations ended due to international pressure for a ceasefire, and in order to ensure Anglo-French and Israeli disengagement the UN deployed its first ‘blue helmet’ peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF). For the belligerents, the outcome of the war had varying effects on the evolution of their land forces. The Egyptian armed forces remained under Amer’s command despite the fact that he was a liability, and its rank and file paid a high price for this in June 1967. Kadesh epitomised the Israeli trait of employing military force pre-emptively to offset the lack of strategic depth, regional isolation, and the political and economic impossibility of mobilising the IDF over a prolonged period of time.

The French refined the use of heliborne manoeuvre in Algeria (1954-1962), and also conducted a parachute drop under combat conditions during the Kolwezi crisis in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1978. In this respect, France maintained a two-tier land forces that consisted of crack units capable of expeditionary operations (paratroopers, Troupes de Marine and the Foreign Legion) and a conscript mass confined to France and Germany, although the mixed performance of French units sent to Bosnia in the early 1990s contributed to the adoption of an all-volunteer military after 1997.

In Britain’s case, Suez led the Army and Royal Marines to prepare for ‘village cricket’, most notably with the ‘Commando Carriers’ which would provide the UK with a quick means of intervention ‘East of Suez’, to be backed by sea-borne armoured/mechanised units if necessary. In reality, interventions like Operation Vantage in Kuwait in 1961 and conflicts like the Falklands War of 1982 turned out to be ‘close-run things’. With Kuwait there was a critical week where British troops lacked the anti-tank weapons needed to resist any Iraqi invasion, while with Operation Corporate their counterparts fighting at Goose Green, Longdon and Tumbledown found themselves faced by incompetently-led and demoralised draftees. British land forces avoided a Dien Bien Phu because they were lucky with the enemies they confronted.

With Operation Telic in 2003 – another politically-contentious and internationally unpopular Middle Eastern intervention – 1st UK Armoured Division and 3 Cdo were hampered by equipment shortages and kit failures just as their counterparts were with Musketeer, and the requirement of soldiers and Royal Marines to beg or scavenge to make up deficiencies led their American allies to nickname them ‘the borrowers’. The men of 3PARA cursing stoppages in their Stens and their faulty radios during the firefight for Gamil airfield would perhaps have seen some grim humour in the similarities between their plight, and those of their future counterparts sent into battle in Iraq in March 2003.

Above the tactical level, however, the enforced halt of Musketeer and the deployment of UNEF arguably saved British and French land forces the quagmire that would in all likelihood have ensued had Nasser been overthrown. The war-fighting phase of Telic/Operation Iraqi Freedom was the easy part; it was the replacement of Baathist totalitarianism with a new order that led to the prolonged occupation which cost the USA 4,491 lives, 318 Coalition fatalities (including 179 British lives lost), and over 100,000 estimated Iraqi dead. Breaking the historian’s rules about counter-factual speculation, it is hard to imagine a pro-Western successor to Nasser being able to survive in power in Egypt without British and French bayonets and tanks to back him up, with all the consequences that would have entailed.

Image courtesy of the Department of History, United States Military Academy.


The Better Angels of America’s Nature: Hate, Hope and the 2016 US presidential election


Like many people, I began this year dismissing the possibility that we could end the year with the UK having left the European Union and Donald Trump in the White House. I, like many others, have been blind to the very real fears and anxieties that saw a political earthquake shake the British political and intellectual establishment in June, and which may yet unleash another one on the other side of the Atlantic tomorrow. For those of us for whom the unthinkable – Donald Trump in the White House – has become frighteningly possible, we are faced with trying to understand how so many people not only support his candidacy, but in the process are so venomously hostile to his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The US stands on the verge of electing its first female president yet instead of celebrating the possibility of shattering the greatest glass ceiling of all, the narrative that has dominated Clinton’s path to the White House is of a power-hungry, corrupt woman ruthless in her ambition to occupy the Oval Office. This has been a campaign of hate, violence, smears, lies, and levels of xenophobia and misogyny unseen in the modern era. The prospects for America have never looked bleaker; that is not hyperbole – in the 20 years I have been studying the US never has the country stood so divided over what America stands for, what America is.

So how did it get to this? Trump, it has been argued, represents the latest incarnation of American populism, a political movement that emerged in the late 19th century but whose legacy lives on, through the fears and anxieties of predominantly white working-class Americans who increasingly reject a political establishment that no longer speaks to their needs and concerns. The issues and ideals that inspired the populist movement of the 19th and early 20th century were often genuinely progressive, hailing the cause of the ‘common man’ and seeking to defend the interests of the hard-working farmers and labourers from the greed and corruption of government, industry and big business in America’s ‘Gilded Age.’ But it has always been a more complex political movement, tainted by the shadow of racism and xenophobia, and its advocates – from Theodore Roosevelt to William Jennings Bryan and even Franklin Roosevelt – have themselves often fallen prey to the corruption and scandal they sought to oppose.

One of the most iconic embodiments of progressive populism was not a real-life inhabitant of the White House, but a fictional representation: Jefferson Smith, in Frank Capra’s famous, glorious movie Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). James Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, leader of the Montana Boy Rangers, who unexpectedly finds himself appointed a US Senator and winds up in Washington. There, his youthful idealism encounters the realities of a corrupt US political system that seeks to destroy his plan for a bill that would create a national boys camp. Demoralised, but not defeated, Mr Smith fights on; in the film’s climax, Smith takes to the floor of the US Senate and in one of the most famous filibusters in American history, gives an impassioned defence of liberty and democracy. Jefferson Smith was perhaps director Frank Capra’s most iconic populist hero. Capra was writing at a time of enormous unease and uncertainty, amidst the tumult and turmoil of the Great Depression at home and mounting fears over war in Europe. By his own admission, Capra wanted to make films that gave hope to the American people in an era dominated by fear, hatred and anxiety over the future, to capture the hopes and fears of the ‘hard-pressed Smiths and Joneses.’

Trump is no Jefferson Smith, but does he give voice to the ‘hard-pressed Smiths and Joneses’ for whom the political establishment has become the embodiment of all that is wrong in 21st-century America? Trump certainly appeals to many for whom the government and political classes are seen as the problem, not the solution. He is not afraid to stand up, to ‘think and to speak’ many of the fears and worries that are at the roots of populism’s rage. Trump professes to embody the fears and beliefs that dare not be spoken, to voice what thousands of people in America’s heartlands – that great swathe of rural America beyond the Beltway – think and feel but which have for too long, in their view, been dismissed as politically incorrect by the liberal intelligentsia. Although they appeal to difference audiences, explicitly distancing themselves from the philosopher-king intellectualism of Barack Obama – which has proved such a turn-off for many Americans – has been an important source of legitimacy both for Trump, and left-wing populists like Bernie Sanders.

But Trump’s populism is of the most dangerous kind, far removed from the moral idealism of Jefferson Smith. Trump’s appropriates the language of freedom and democracy to mask an authoritarianism that seeks to take America back to a simpler, ‘purer’ (read: whiter) past, one untainted by multiculturalism, equality and pluralism. His candidacy is not the first to do this. As Michael Kazin notes in his article on Trump and Populism for Foreign Affairs, as populism evolved in the 20th century it became increasingly intertwined with racism and xenophobic nationalism; even in the 1880s, parts of the movement sought to ban imported Chinese and Japanese labourers resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Although the Populist Party led by William Jennings Bryan collapsed and never saw the inside of the White House, populism as a political force lived on. By the 1920s, the Klu Klux Klan had become the most visible and extreme manifestation of the socio-cultural populism that increasingly demonised the ‘other’ – from Japanese-Americans interned during WWII, to African-Americans denied the rights fought for during the Civil War, to annual quotas on immigrants. It found its voice in the campaigns of George Wallace and Barry Goldwater in the 1960s who fought for states’ rights and to overturn the hard-won gains of the Civil Rights movement, and in Pat Buchanan in the 1990s with his isolationist platform for the presidency that sought to build a ‘sea wall’ to stop immigrants from ‘sweeping over our southern borders.’ Sound familiar?

If Bernie Sanders represents a more traditional, economic populism, then Trump is the manifestation of its worst, and most dangerous excesses. Yet never has this strain of American populism come so perilously close to the White House. Lyndon Johnson succeeded in defeating Republican challenger Barry Goldwater largely by branding him as a dangerous extremist; Hillary Clinton’s attempts to do the same appear to be floundering. Why? Clinton, for all her qualities as a champion of women and children’s rights, is the archetypal Washington insider, the very embodiment of a political establishment and personal dynasty that is feared and loathed by so many. Trump has undoubtedly used lies and manipulation to smear and tarnish Hillary, but allegations of corruption have followed the Clintons from Arkansas to Washington. The email scandal that has tainted her campaign was, for many, just the latest scandal in a sordid Clinton-family saga of power and corruption. Many, myself included, will celebrate her victory if she does indeed become America’s first female candidate but, like Barack Obama, her triumph may expose more wounds than it heals.

As a recent study showed, feminism and women’s equality is a seen as a threat to many white, working-class males, living in a post-industrial economy which poses challenges to traditional gender roles and Trump has tapped into this angst with frightening ease. While many Republicans have come out to vociferously oppose the sexism and misogyny at the heart of Trump’s campaign, hostility towards women is, sadly, one of the strongest predictors of support for Trump. A defeat for Trump may send him packing from Washington, but the sentiments he has manipulated and exploited will remain long after he has gone. A Clinton presidency – through policies designed to help close the gender pay gap, provide for affordable childcare and paid leave, and increase the minimum wage – may go some way towards the ‘unfinished business’ of greater equality and opportunities for women Clinton’s former advisor Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote about. But as Slaughter herself recognised, many of the problems facing women in America today are ones shared by their male counterparts who have parental and caring responsibilities and who face many of the same challenges in navigating the personal and the professional in the 21st-century. This helps explain, in part, why Hillary has strong support amongst college-educated white males; non-educated white males, however, have shown overwhelming support for Trump. She may not need their votes to gain the White House, or to stay there, but neither can she dismiss the needs and fears of the ‘angry white men’ who feel left behind by the advances in feminism, multiculturalism and civil rights of the last few decades.

Where then, will America be left on November 9th? Polling suggests that Clinton will likely prevail in the electoral college (this is a process whereby each state has a certain number of electors appointed, reflecting the number of members in that state’s congressional delegation – both House and Senate – so the larger and more populous a state, the more votes are up for grabs. Each state bar Maine and Nebraska adopts a winner-take-all approach, and to win the presidency you must win 270 electoral college votes). But, as Brexit reminded us, polls can be fickle things and there are a number of key ‘swing states’ crucial for any president to win the electoral college – Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia – that remain up for grabs. Early voting is showing strong support for Clinton yet her overall poll-lead over Trump has declined from 14-points prior to the FBI’s recent decision to re-open the investigation into Hillary’s emails, to a mere two points in the last few days.

Whatever happens, America’s wounds will not heal easily. It may seem naive to hope that a modern-day Jefferson Smith can rise from the ashes of this campaign and fight for the ‘Smiths and the Joneses’ without recourse to the demagoguery, racism, sexism and violence that Trump embodies. The problem for America is that, as many have pointed out, this is where America is in 2016. It is a nation where demagoguery, lies, hatred, racism, sexism, xenophobia and even violence have found a home and a voice. And Americans are having to live this election and all that is represents; as one social media user commented: ‘To the bystanders who think this election is a train wreck. We. Are. On. The. Train.’ But this is also an election that is bearing witness to the extraordinary belief that America is better than this, that America remains a country where pluralism, diversity, inclusivity, tolerance and hope can and do thrive; to cite one of Barack Obama’s favourite quotes from Martin Luther King, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.’

Fearing the fall-out from making a film so critical of the US political system at a time when the nation’s political leaders were facing momentous challenges, Frank Capra questioned whether he ought to even make Mr Smith Goes to Washington, but concluded that ‘the more uncertain are the people of the world…the more they need a ringing statement of America’s democratic ideals…It is never untimely to yank the rope of freedom’s bell.’ If ever there was a time to reclaim all that is great and good about America and its democratic ideals, that time is now. As America stands poised on the brink of one of its most vitriolic and consequential elections in modern history, we should be reminded of one of America’s most beloved and revered presidents, Abraham Lincoln who, in his first inaugural address, spoke to a nation divided: ‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’

Image: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during United States presidential election 2016 via wikimedia commons.



NATO’s deterrence moves in the Baltic States: falling into Russia’s trap?

Dr Rod Thornton

NATO has decided to increase the number of troops it has operating (technically, either training or exercising) in the Baltic States. Included  in this contingent will be no less than four British tanks. The stated reason for this deployment is to ‘deter’ Russian aggression against Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All well and good on first inspection, but scratch the surface and such actions might appear outmoded, more reminiscent of the 19th century than appropriate to the conditions of the 21st.

What are these new forces intended to deter? The answer, seemingly, is a full-scale Russian invasion of a Baltic country. Yet it is far from clear whether this danger is a realistic one. Is it likely that the Kremlin will send tanks rumbling over its neighbours’ borders any time soon? Putin and his generals are perhaps not that maladroit. They will have done the maths. Where such an action is concerned, the cost-benefit balance is very much in favour of the former. Major war is not part of Russian plans – but they do want to create the impression that it might be. Hence, we now have the likes of Moscow’s sabre-rattling; its high-profile preparations for nuclear war, and its bellicose actions in Syria. Such Russian aggression has two goals: 1) to make Russia – aka Putin – look more powerful, and 2) to create divisions in opponents over how best to deal with this aggression and to thereby weaken these opponents.

The Baltic States are on the front-line of all this. For several years now, they have been the target of a substantial Russian (thus far non-violent) hybrid warfare campaign. All manner of means are being used – from information warfare (including cyber warfare); through the funding of pro-Kremlin academics and right-wing groups, and all the way up to using agent provocateurs who organise protest movements and strikes. The overall aim is to raise tensions and to thereby create the divisions that destabilise these targeted states: governing structures are weakened; faith in authority is undermined, and individuals made to turn against each other. A state becomes divided against itself. An ‘inner decay’ is created. And the greater the degree of decay then the more easily – so the theory runs in the case of the Baltic States – it is that Russia can leverage events in these states to its own advantage. Indeed, the ultimate goal of this Russian hybrid warfare is undoubtedly to foster the election of national governments who would look more favourably on Moscow and, by extension, less favourably on NATO and the West.

In essence, the Russians would see a truly successful hybrid warfare campaign as being one that does not involve the use of any external military force. But in the case of the Baltic States it is of enormous benefit for Moscow that its troops are regularly exercising just beyond their borders; that new missiles are being placed in the Kaliningrad exclave, and that Russian ships and aircraft regularly test regional defences. Merely the latent character of such force can create a profound psychological pressure that helps raise the level of tension and thus of instability within these three states.

Moscow, moreover – and here is a crucial element – has another and more convenient way of increasing the level of tension in the Baltic States: namely through the use of Russian minorities within those countries. Ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers constitute over a quarter of both Latvia’s and Estonia’s total populations. Riga and Tallinn, cities where the populations are almost 50 per cent Russian, have voted in mayors with links to Putin’s own political party. Thus, there is plenty of support for Putin and for Russia within the capital cities of these two NATO member-states. It is also worth noting that Russian minorities are mostly denied the chance to vote in national elections, but can do so in municipal ones.

These minorities are referred to as ‘compatriot Russians’ by Moscow and they are worked on assiduously as part of the hybrid warfare campaign. Of course, many of these ‘compatriots’ are quite content with their lot and are not minded to agitate in any way. A substantial number are, however, not content and it is not unimaginable that having been subject to the intense propaganda of a Moscow-directed information warfare campaign for a number of years they will eventually turn against their Baltic hosts. Moscow would probably like nothing more than to see these ethnic Russians protesting on the streets and then being subject to attacks by right-wing groups or to a violent clampdown by local security forces. This is how Russian troops will, if they ever do, re-enter the Baltic states – not in an outright invasion, but rather in a ‘humanitarian’ operation to ‘protect’ fellow Russians. The scenario often raised here relates to a possible reaction to trouble in the Estonian city of Narva. The city is 90 per cent Russian and lies just over the border from Russia itself. Would Russian troops stand idly by if ‘compatriot Russians’ were being killed in disturbances within sight of the border?

If the raising of tension in order to drive divisiveness and instability is a prime factor in any hybrid warfare campaign then the best way that the Russians can do this is through the inculcation of fear. Fear will, in particular, create the overreactions that destabilisation programmes thrive on. The fear of war is obviously a crucial variable in this respect. Moscow’s media messaging to both native Balts and to the Russian minorities plays on this fear. Included in this messaging – this signalling – are reports of everything from Moscow schoolchildren conducting their nuclear-protection drills to the bombing of Aleppo. In particular, this bombing, ostensibly designed to kill ‘terrorists’ in situ, also acts as a means to advertise to others who might oppose Russian interests just how ready Russia is to use lethal force. The Balts naturally do not want their own countries to become subject to the same use of force – to become the battlegrounds they have so often been in past wars. It could be argued that they would do anything to avoid this – including developing friendly relations with Russia. Thus, the more that Russia can stoke up a fear of war in the Baltic States the more likely it is – in theory – that Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians will, in national elections and to lessen the likelihood of that war, bring to power governments that are more amenable to Moscow.

Here is the main threat to the Baltic States from Russia. It is in the creation, though non-violent modes of hybrid warfare, of internal processes that lead to outcomes that suit Moscow’s interests. This Russian threat is an internal one, far more than it is an external one; i.e. from a military invasion. Russia does not need to invade to achieve its strategic objectives.

Indeed, Russia has played a very steady hand so far in its hybrid warfare campaign against the Baltics – there has been, for instance, no creation of terrorist incidents (a ‘late stage’ aspect of any hybrid warfare campaign), which clearly the likes of the FSB, SVR or GRU could organise if they were so inclined.

Thus, it could be argued that what matters most in terms of thwarting the Russian threat to the Baltics is to keep tensions down. This is why sending extra NATO troops to the region at this time may be seen as problematic. It is an easy sell now for the Kremlin’s propaganda machine to generate angst among the Balts by providing pictures of long columns of NATO vehicles with the strapline of, ‘here is NATO – all ready to fight a war in your country!’ And to the Russian minorities it is even easier – ‘here are NATO forces – arrived with their tanks to deal with you – the Russians!’

Moreover, there are now four MBTs in the Baltics. These are the only tanks of any description in these three states – and they are all British! So, who is then going to be made out to be the ‘aggressor’ by Moscow in the Baltic States?

Yes, of course, a deterrence posture has always to be maintained by NATO vis-à-vis Russian activities in regard to the Baltic States. But it could be argued that the few NATO ‘composite battalions’ who are already there are sufficient in deterrence terms – low-profile but sending the right signal to Moscow. That is, they were a tripwire – attack the Baltics and you attack NATO itself. Fine. So just what extra deterrent value comes from having a few more troops but who are still so small in number that they still represent nothing more than the same tripwire? Where is the logic given the propaganda coup it is for Moscow?

In essence, NATO has to do its own cost-benefit calculation – to what degree do deterrence measures become part of the problem and not part of the solution? In its new deployment of forces to the region, has NATO merely done exactly what Moscow wants it to do in terms of raising tensions – and thereby fallen into a trap? NATO needs some 21st century thinking.

Image: Russian President Putin Listens as Secretary Kerry Speaks During Their Bilateral Meeting Focused on Syria and Ukraine in Moscow. Courtesy of US DOS Flikr.


Gulf State Foreign Policies and Non-State Actors (part II)

This post is the third of a three-part series based on a panel titled ‘Middle Eastern Pragmatism and the Islamic State’ which took place at the Tenth Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies Centre for Contemporary Middle East Studies 22-24 September 2016 at the University of Southern Denmark, Odense.

Dr David B Roberts

This post carries on from the first part of this piece titled: Gulf State Foreign Policies and Non-State Actors (part I).


After a state decides that it wants to involve itself in a given conflict or it has otherwise resolved to attempt to exert influence, a range of pragmatically-based issues come into play and direct, sometimes quite explicitly, how, why, and with what groups the Gulf States will engage.

In some instances, if a state wants to counter a particular group or government, it has no choice but to engage with certain actors. This rationale arguably best describes Qatar’s apparently curiously close relations with groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, an explicitly al-Qaeda affiliated group in Syria. Evidence for their relations stems partly from Qatar’s unusual ability to extract hostages from the clutches of extreme rebel groups in the Syrian and Iraqi conflict. Also, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Jolaini has been interviewed several times on al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based new channel. Though al-Jazeera is more independent than many give it credit for and the Qatari government does not direct its coverage as is sometimes suggested, it is inconceivable that someone like al-Jolani appeared several times for long, in-depth interviews on the show without some kind of informal acquiescence or understanding from the authorities. Moreover, these interviews were quite clearly attempts by al-Jolani (and Qatar) to present a more amenable, moderate vision for the group to make Qatar’s tacit support and relationship with the group more acceptable.

The underlying rationale for Qatar’s apparent relations with al-Nusra is the group’s importance in the Syrian civil war. Like it or loath it, al-Nusra is indisputably one of the most important fighting forces against the al-Assad government. This is the dynamic that is important to Qatar. It wants, first and foremost, to get rid of the al-Assad government, the entity that it sees as above all else the underlying cause of the entire Syrian conflict. Under this rubric, Qatar engages with al-Nusra.

Otherwise, for all states seeking to assert some kind of influence on the on-going civil wars in the Middle East, there are a range of obvious impediments. Unsurprisingly, public opinion tends to preclude states from simply sending their armed forces into the Syrian civil war grinder. Nor would this necessarily be an idea welcomed by locals. As such, support for locally-based NSAs is a crucial plinth of policies for the Gulf States and western states alike. Necessity, then, in these examples is the handmaiden of Gulf State interaction with NSAs as much as any necessarily overt preference for one group over another.

Similarly, as is evident in the Qatari example, happenstance is a curiously important phenomenon in determining exactly which NSA a state ends up supporting. Specifically, it was haphazard links with Ali al-Sallabi, an influential Libyan Imam exiled in Qatar that proved to be a central link in how Qatar channelled huge amounts of support to NSAs in Libya. The link with al-Sallabi was far from premeditated, while a smorgasbord of al-Jazeera journalists have also provided utility for the government throughout the Arab Spring. Indeed, the very youth of the Qatari state and the immaturity of its Foreign Ministry that was suffused with a top-down culture for decades, left the state reliant upon random, personal links as opposed to systematic, institutionalised political links, as I argue in my book titled Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City State.

In a similar fashion, if a state is lacking in human resources capacities, it will rely on whatever faculties it does have. Kuwait’s dinar diplomacy of the 1970s in particular is evidence of this. Like Qatar more recently without the capacities to engage on a formalised level through its Foreign Ministry, it preferred to simply use its significant cash reserves instead. This often means fiscally supporting NSAs in the MENA region in lieu of being able to interact in a more traditional, formal Ministry-to-Ministry fashion. In short, states play to their strengths. Another example of this is Saudi Arabia, which is rich in religious capital and how it can use this to effect its foreign policy.


The frequent and consistent reliance upon NSAs by the Gulf States (and others) in the various on-going conflicts in the MENA region has a number of related consequences. There is an ever present concern that utilising NSAs in such a proxy manner dilutes the link between action and consequence. It is, essentially, potentially too easy for a government to send money or otherwise support an NSA without doing enough due diligence or exerting enough control over their actions. Certainly, this kind of criticism is levelled at Qatar and its relations with groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, where other Gulf States like Saudi Arabia and the UAE disagree that Qatar’s ultimate goal of removing al-Assad from power is worth the interim cost of supporting a group such as al-Nusra. Similarly, with these proxy relationships with NSAs, there are inherent concerns about oversight and control. Diplomats conducting missions is one thing. But in the flux of civil conflict where groups are frequently mutating, allying with different entities, gaining, and shedding members, a state is always taking a certain leap of faith when supporting a given NSA. Aside from the potential consequences on the ground if a state’s support is used in ways that it does not want, to say nothing of simple, blatant corruption, there is potentially significant reputational damage at play.

Different states supporting different NSAs, something that was readily apparent in the earlier years of the civil war in Syria and in Libya, can also be disastrous for cohesion for opposition groups. Nominally, many of the different groups supported by, for example, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were united in their opposition to the al-Assad Syrian government or the al-Gaddafi Libyan regime. But just as Qatar found with its mediation attempts in Darfur, the more money that it put up to support the opposition groups, the more factions became apparent. Empirical research has shown that civil wars are longer and bloodier the more there are less powerful groups in play, exactly the kind of bi-product produced from disunited Gulf support in places like Syria in the initial few years of its Arab Spring.

To a degree, the most egregious differences have been overcome in recent years, thanks to concerted pressure from the likes of the US as well as intra-Gulf powers like Saudi Arabia and the UAE that have sought to actively coordinate their support channelled to various NSAs. Qatar has felt the brunt of these attempts at cohesion and has often come under pressure to divest itself of supporting certain groups.

Otherwise, the usage and support of NSAs by Gulf States – as with all states – needs to be considered carefully. They should not be seen as an easy or cheap way to conduct a state’s foreign policy or as a short-cut to influence. Rather, supporting these groups needs to be contingent upon elevated levels of in-depth understanding of their modus operandi and strategies. Without a sufficiently nuanced grasp of the context and relevant variables, the blow-back for the state, the NSA, and the arena in which both are attempting to exert influence can be deeply harmful to all concerned.

Image: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stands with his fellow Foreign Ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council – representatives of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and the GCC itself – on April 7, 2016, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manama, Bahrain, amid a series of multilateral meetings focused on regional issues. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.