Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Churchill and his war cabinet

  I've just finished a fascinating and valuable book, Jonathan Schneer's Ministers at Wara study of Winston Churchill and his war cabinet. While most history that I have read tends to depict Churchill as the dominant leader of an amazingly unified group of people from across the political spectrum, Schneer shows how fragile Churchill's hold on power was, and gives a persuasive case why he was bound to be thrown out of office once the war was won.

The Prime Minister showed political acumen in his choice of both his small War Cabinet and the broader coalition cabinet, balancing Labour and Conservative factions and shifting the mix to deal with particular crises. In the winter and summer of 1942, however, he faced no confidence votes in the House of Commons that he brilliantly maneuvered to defeat. In 1940 and 1943, however, he faced revolts within his cabinet from ministers who gossiped and plotted behind his back.

Schneer cites numerous examples where Churchill accepted cabinet positions that he strongly opposed, as well as times when he embraced stupid ideas with the same enthusiasm he had for wise policies.

Americans like me who believe they understand presidential government have a hard time understanding how cabinet governments work. [The original British "House of Cards" gives good insights.] It's shocking to learn of secret meetings discussing how to dump Churchill in order to get a better leader, often one of the conspirators like Lord Beaverbrook or Stafford Cripps. But that's what happened.

The plotting reminded me of what a long serving Labour MP, Emanual Shinwell, wrote in his memoir. He describes watching a debate in Commons early in his career while sitting next to one of his oldest colleagues. Shinwell commented that one of his party leaders had just given a "sharp blow to the enemy."  His elder friend corrected him: "You will learn in time that the gentlemen across the way are the opposition; your enemies you are more likely to find on this side of the House."

This kind of history can never be written again, because most of the participants kept revealing diaries or exchanged letters now available to scholars. On numerous occasions, Schneer disputes the conventional wisdom, such as what Churchill wrote in his multivolume history, by citing perspectives from others at the same meeting.

None of this diminishes Churchill's extraordinary leadership of parliament and Britain during World War II. Indeed, it shows how many challenges he had to overcome, and how he did it.

surviving a nuclear war, revisited

Once again proving my belief that "some people die only in the New York Times," that venerable newspaper has an obituary on an official in the Reagan administration who minimized the consequences of nuclear war just as the American public was growing increasingly concerned about such a conflict. While making the case for civil defense measures in a newspaper interview, T.K. Jones went overboard and earned his Times obituary by famously observing, “If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.”
 He went on: “You can make very good sheltering by taking the doors off your house, digging a trench, stacking the doors about two deep over that, covering it with plastic so that rainwater or something doesn’t screw up the glue in the door, then pile dirt over it.”

Digging, he figured, would take about 10 hours, followed by installation of a ventilation pump and dealing with sanitation and supplies. Apartment dwellers were no problem, he said; they could be moved to rural areas.
Many officials had at least a brief enthusiasm for massive civil defense programs, President John F. Kennedy among them. But when the costs were weighed against the other impacts of a major nuclear exchange, civil defense seemed to have minimal benefits. Nor did the Reagan administration propose a major civil defense program. But its nuclear strategists faced a strong challenge from public opinion which wanted a "nuclear freeze" instead of its proposed massive buildup of offensive nuclear firepower.

So people like Jones and his mentor Richard Perle pointed to Russian civil defense efforts to prove that Moscow wanted to fight and win a nuclear war.  I had my own encounter with Perle on this topic when he made the point that some Russian cities even practiced evacuation of the population. "Richard," I responded, "so do we --every Friday afternoon in the summer."

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"We don't really have a strategy at all"

Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said that on Monday. Some retired military officers and many Republicans say the same thing with regard to ISIL and Iraq. I think those complaints miss the mark.

I believe that the underlying problem is that the Iraqi government doesn't have a strategy, or at least not an evident and feasible one. And the United States can advise and cajole and warn Iraq, but it can't control events. Nor could it control the fighting with 10,000 or 20,000 residual forces instead of the 2011 pullout or a similar number of ground troops today.

Fred Kaplan of Slate says  Obama has to decide on his least worst option. None are good. I think that's true for the U.S. Government -- and also for the Iraqi government. Both governments want a stable and inclusive Iraq, with Iran's unavoidable influence still limited. But the Iraqi armed forces aren't fighting well, despite U.S. training and equipment. The Sunnis in Anbar fear both ISIL and the Shiite militias. Prime Minister Abadi is besieged by political opponents and thus has little maneuver room.

So what to do? Tony Cordesman  of CSIS wants a "strong advisory effort." A Defense One poll  of Pentagon officials found quite limited support for U.S. ground troops [31.4%] and bare majority support only for U.S. airstrikes and trying to enlist regional allies. Lots of luck.

David Ignatius wants Abadi to "empower the Sunnis" and notes that "This is still Iraq’s war, not America’s." That point is well worth keeping in mind.