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The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

The West Needs an Indirect Approach to the Middle East

15th August 2014

T.E. Lawrence wrote, “In fifty words: granted mobility, security in the form of denying targets to the enemy, time and doctrine (the idea to convert every subject to friendliness), victory will rest with the insurgents, for the algebraic factors in the end are decisive, and against then perfection of means and spirit struggle quite in vain”. Western leaders should heed Lawrence’s words but not in the way they may think. Seared by failure in Afghanistan and Iraq, paralysed by the situation in both Syria and Ukraine the West has retreated into politics at the expense of considered strategy. Indeed, having understood that the threats they face from across the great belt of insecurity require a big, long-term strategy it is as though having batted badly in the first inning they have decided to leave the field to the opponent.

And yet what is happening to Europe’s east and in the Middle East is forced change by opponents with potentially catastrophic consequences for the West. Indeed, far from being the exception to the twenty-first century rule such conflict is fast becoming one of its defining features. British strategist Basil Liddell Hart wrote in the 1930s that, “In Strategy the longest way around is often the shortest way there. A direct approach to the object exhausts the attacker and hardens the resistance by compression, where as an indirect approach loosens the defender’s hold by upsetting his balance”.

The problem with Western leaders is that because they routinely put ‘no significant military action too close to an election’ politics before strategy they have lost the will, the patience and the statecraft to deal with complexity. And yet if the West is to re-generate twenty-first century grand strategy – the pursuit of large ends via large means – it is precisely statecraft and a new approach to dealing with complexity that they need. Indeed, complexity is the very stuff of international relations.

The indirect approach works because as a strategy it implies not just that the ends are political but also the ways and means. At times such a strategy will mean uncomfortable bed-fellows such as Iran; at times it will mean offending this group or that at home. Above all, ‘strategy’ will mean a truly joined-up, whole of government approach to strategy that is so lamentably lacking from the celebrity politics of the age led by political vision and reinforced by political back-bone and staying power be it Eastern Europe or the Middle East.

In the Middle East unless the West together helps the people of the region generate a better future no-one else will and given the ensuing vacuum spill-over to Europe and beyond could be catastrophic. In that light the dropping of aid to ease the plight of the Yazidi people (important though it is) is not a function of a Middle Eastern strategy but rather a mask for the retreat from it.

The strategy-vacuum at the top of Western governments was put best in an email yesterday from a very senior American friend of mine. “Obama has no-one to do any serious thinking and doesn’t seem to know he doesn’t have it. It is the great “unknown unknown.” And the Europeans are not in the game, not even the Brits, whose government is all talk and no walk”.

Sadly, need I say more?


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