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How public opinion constrains Britain’s military interventions

Author of a new Forces Watch report PAUL DIXON talks to the Star about how campaigners can shape the narrative about the impact of British foreign policy

THE idea that public opinion has little or no impact on British foreign policy is a common view, even held by some on the left. 

For example, writing on the New Left Project website in 2012, University of Westminster academic John Brissenden concluded:

“The idea of public opinion … having any influence over” Afghan policy and other British military interventions is “a convenient myth.”

Warrior Nation: War, Militarisation and British Democracy, a new Forces Watch report written by Professor Paul Dixon, suggests a very different reality.

The main focus of the report is the “militarisation offensive” that was launched in 2006 “by a loose and diverse group of politicians, military chiefs, newspapers and pressure groups.” 

This offensive included the introduction of Armed Forces Day, a much higher profile for the charity Help For Heroes, boosting the so-called Military Covenant and the expansion of cadet programmes in state schools. 

Speaking to me over coffee in central London, Dixon, an honorary research fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London, explains this pro-military public relations campaign was a response to the low level of support the British public had given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“Part of this militarisation offensive is to try and generate support for the war in Afghanistan, partly by implying that, if you want to support our boys on the front line, you have to support the war that they are fighting,” Dixon argues. 

However, while support for the military increased — polling showed “the military going from a highly popular institution in British society to a spectacularly popular one” — he notes “public opinion is able to distinguish between support for the military as an institution, and support for our boys and girls out there fighting, and support for the war,” which continued to be unpopular with the public.

He notes another aim of the militarisation offensive was “to increase the power of the military within the British state and gain greater control over Afghan policy.” 

This is particularly important because, as Dixon sets out in the report, the British military “used its influence to exert pressure on prime minister Tony Blair to adopt the highest level of British military involvement in the Iraq war.” 

Similarly, the report highlights how “the military also pushed for an escalation of Britain’s involvement in the ‘good war’ in Afghanistan” in 2006.

“Some people think the extent of Britain’s military deployment [in Iraq] was in order to appease the Americans,” says Dixon. 

“But it wasn’t really because the Americans didn’t require the 45,000 British military personnel that were deployed and would have accepted far less. 

“It was the army, in particular, looking after its own organisational interests, that wanted to be involved in the invasion and that would give it a stake in defence expenditure. But also give it the high profile that helps to empower it.”

According to Dixon, the British military played a clever game to get the British government to do what it wanted, saying: “They go to the US military and get the US military and the US president to put pressure on the British government — in the case of Iraq to increase the British military contributions to the Iraq invasion and on defence spending increased British defence expenditure.”

The report also sets out several important ways public opinion inhibited the government and military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

First, public opinion probably influenced the level and location of deployments. The report cites a 2016 article in the Royal United Services Institute journal summarising the key findings of the Chilcot inquiry which noted British troop numbers in post-2003 Iraq were “driven by political constraints rather than military necessity.” 

This meant “the UK had had insufficient troops to be effective,” which “forced commanders in-theatre to react to events and not to be able to shape them.”

“The nature of Britain’s deployment being sent into southern Iraq to look after Basra. That was, I think, partly the result of a perception by the Americans of the political constraints operating on Blair,” Dixon argues. 

“You can’t send British troops into a heavier area where they are more likely to take greater casualties because of the domestic political constraints on Blair.” 

As Dixon repeatedly explains during the interview, public opinion is particularly sensitive to British casualties, a reality the government and military are hypersensitive to. 

“In the accounts of generals and soldiers on the ground [in Afghanistan] they are saying: ‘Look, if we lose a Chinook [helicopter] full of British soldiers that could undermine the whole operation’,” he says. 

“They think a catastrophe like that, and its impact on British public opinion, would be a disaster and that would generate further and perhaps more active support for withdrawal.” 

A November 2009 Guardian report confirms the level of risk the military were willing to take with British soldiers was influenced by concerns about public opinion. 

General McChrystal, the then Nato commander in Afghanistan, was reported as saying British troops should be moved out of “harm’s way” because the Taliban would probably target them in the lead-up to the 2010 British general election. 

According to the Guardian, McChrystal “holds the view that Britain’s continued participation in Afghanistan will be more acceptable to an increasingly sceptical British public if troops are switched to less dangerous duties, including ‘capacity building’.”

Finally, the opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is likely to have influenced the timing of the withdrawal of British troops from both campaigns. The report references Professor Hew Strachan, one of top military historians in Britain, writing about Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement in 2010 that British troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2014. “He [Cameron] explained his timeline not in relation to conditions which he saw as likely to prevail in Afghanistan but in terms of what the British public would demand.” 

Looking to the future, Dixon believes Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, should he be elected prime minister, “would have to anticipate that he would get considerable criticism and resistance from within the military to any plans that he might have to tackle militarisation or scale back defence expenditure.” 

As Corbyn “would come under attack from a lot of different directions,” Dixon suggests “he might want to be tactical about who he takes on and when he takes them on, rather than taking on simultaneously a lot of vested interests.”

And what advice would he give to peace and anti-war activists looking to have the greatest impact on British foreign policy? 

“Coming from a realist perspective what I would say is we need to see the world as it is and not as we would like it to be,” Dixon replies. 

“Seeing the world in that way allows us to be more tactical and strategic about how we achieve our goals.” 

For example, while peace activists often focus on the effects of the British military on the local population where they are operating, Dixon notes: “One of the powerful constraints on military interventions, where you are going to deploy substantial numbers of troops … is going to be that chauvinism within British public opinion that does not want to see its boys and girls lost in those wars.” 

He also highlights how the peace movement often shares similar concerns with the political right. People like former Telegraph editor Max Hastings, the Mail on Sunday’s Peter Hitchens and ex-Times Editor Simon Jenkins “understand that it’s important that the military are subordinate to politicians and the government of the day” and “have mounted quite strong critiques” of British foreign military adventures, he notes.

Dixon ends with some hopeful advice for peace activists. “Your activism really matters. If you go out on the streets and you are active, the political elite, even if they don’t admit it, will take notice of that because they are scared and they are worried.”

Don’t just take Dixon’s word for it. Here is General Sir Richard Dannatt, writing as the new head of the British army in 2006. “Losing popular support at home is the single biggest danger to our chances of success in our current operations.”

Warrior Nation: War, Militarisation and British Democracy is available to download from the Forces Watch website www.forceswatch.net.

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