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    October 02, 2007

     The Churchill card - ace or bust?

    Rudy Giuliani is the latest American politician to try to wrap himself in the mantle of Winston Churchill:

    It was the example of Churchill, rallying his country through the dark days of the Battle of Britain, says Giuliani, that inspired him in the immediate aftermath of the worst terrorist attacks to date on the United States.
    Churchill had many faults, but an inability to distinguish between victories and defeats wasn't one of them. Showing a rare touch of common prudence, Rudy left out Winston from his Foreign Affairs tirade, whose likely audience would know how ludicrous the implied comparison is. When Churchill became Prime Minister and effective war dictator, his résumé already included thirteen years as a Cabinet minister, of which three during WW I, and periods in charge of the Navy, munitions, and the air force; seeing three colonial wars close up as a correspondent, and a year soldiering in the trenches on the Western Front.

    But quite apart from Rudy's hubris, does the model make any sense? Would you take Churchill now as commander against jihadist terror?


    In April 1940, Churchill was generally seen as a colourful maverick, romantic reactionary, and political has-been. His long career in office, well in the past, had included a string of dodgy and imprudent decisions, from Tonypandy to Gallipoli, the Russian intervention and the return to the Gold Standard. As a backbencher he had opposed the growing consensus for Indian Home Rule, and had nothing useful to say about the great domestic social issue of the interwar decades, mass unemployment. The British turned to him because there wasn't anybody else - all the other leading politicians were cut from a peacetime, consensus-seeking, muddling-through cloth. Churchill was the only democratic warrior leader available for a war that had been going on, and very badly, for half a year already.

    Though eccentric, he was a known quantity, both in his virtues and his vices. At 65, he was a mature, rounded, independent man: often wrong, but always decisive; unable to see the coming end of Empire, but extraordinarily perceptive on the Nazis, the enemy at the gates; personally and politically brave, and firm in his convictions, like them or not. His American connections and rhetorical abilities were a useful bonus - though he fancied himself as a parliamentarian, in fact his high literary style worked better on radio. Above all, he could be trusted not to crack or yield under pressure, nor to use his temporary war powers to subvert the constitution and undermine the liberties of the people.

    The common element with April 1940 is the need for intelligence, resolution and trustworthiness. These are ordinary minimum qualifications - though they disqualify the flaky Giuliani as much as the inadequate George Bush. Beyond that, the situation America and its fraying allies face after 9/11 is radically different and calls for different talents. Hitler was an innovator in his goals, but not his military methods; for Britain, it would be a largely conventional war, a rerun of WW I. Bin Laden represents a radically new and very asymmetric challenge, harnessing the terrorist methods pioneered by national liberation movements to messianic religious goals. Rather like those of Communism and Fascism eighty years ago, these goals appeal to a large body of disenfranchised and insecure young men - here Muslims - around the world. Against such an enemy, the conventional military superiority if the American armed forces has little value: if all you have is a hammer, you can't catch a fish. Declaring the GWOT is defining fish as nails.

    The terrorist jihadists must be fought, but in such a way as to separate them from the mass of potential Muslim sympathizers. It is not a question of some miraculous counter-insurgency military technique - there isn't one - but of a subtle and many-sided political strategy. Nobody has one. The challenge does not therefore call for experience but for imagination and insight. It's not realistic to expect politicians to discover the answers by themselves, but they can create an environment of rational, evidence-based policy debate in which jihadism will find its Kennan and its Marshall.

    So what should Americans be looking for? The experience of discrimination, empathy with the underdog and rhetorical skills to convey it, the readiness to learn and ability to seek out wise advisers, flexibility, underlying toughness.

    Looks like Obama from here.

    Historical postscript: William Pitt and the French Revolution

    Jihadism has an analogy in the new doctrines and practice of revolutionary France after 1789. The British government was led by the younger Pitt, 29 then, 33 when France declared war in 1793. He represented the same landed oligarchy that had run Britain for a century, an established order of privilege to which French revolutionary doctrines posed a clear threat. However, the British government did not make the restoration of the French monarchy a war objective. Unlike the Bush Administration it declined its enemy's framing of the quarrel as an ideological crusade. On the British side, the wars were fought for traditional post-Westphalia reasons of national interest, and especially resistance to French conquests, not the internal character of the régime. Even when that mutated into Napoleon's family dictatorship, the upstart could have stayed in power within historical French borders any time up to the treaty of Chaumont in 1814. Chaumont, then within allied lines, is much closer to Paris than the Rhine a third of the way to Paris from the Rhine.

    The British government also promoted two exceptionally young (though battle-hardened) commanders. Horatio Nelson was 39 when he reached flag rank in 1797, which he repaid a year later by the overwhelming victory at the Nile. Wellington was 40 when he was given command of the struggling expeditionary force in Portugal in 1809. Both were innovative and imaginative leaders - Nelson much more so than his French opponents. Update 3/10 My military historian friend Paddy Griffith tells me that Wellington wasn't an innovator. But he was good at his job; and was only 32 when he took command in India against the Mahrattas.

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