Sunday, November 20, 2005

Maggie's force de frappe

Today's London Sunday Times has an intriguing story about the Falklands war, and one with contemporary relevance. Francois Mitterand's shrink has written a book, and the book says that Mitterand told him in 1982 that Maggie Thatcher threatened a nuclear attack on an Argentinian city, believed to be Cordoba, if the French government did not provide the British with disabling codes for the Exocet missiles that Argentina was using against British ships. Aside from the James Bond feeling about the scenario, any or all of Maggie bluffing, and Mitterand or the shrink not telling the truth should perhaps downgrade the weight attached to it.

But the underlying issue is a real one: when wars are fought between opponents that differ greatly in overall destructive power, there is always the possibility of an "equalising" weapon emerging for use by the weaker power against the stronger one. Britain faced the particular problem of having stressed nuclear weapons as the primary component of its military arsenal (not least because of Maggie's love-in with Ronnie) and so was trying to project force over 8,000 miles using highly vulnerable ships, so the Exocet anti-ship missile was a big problem. In any event, threat or not, the British did get French help in combatting the missiles and more standard military power was then able to assert itself.

Which brings us to Iraq. The Exocet turned up again as one of Saddam's favourite weapons in the Iran-Iraq war; his tactic of attacking Iranian commercial shipping was considered acceptable at the time because of course he was our friend Saddam Hussein. He even retained that status when two Exocets hit the US Navy ship Stark in 1987, killing 37 sailors.

In the current war in Iraq, the equaliser is the improvised explosive device, made possible by the failure to secure Iraqi military munitions during the 2003 invasion, and the failure of the Commander-in-Chief of the US forces to provide sufficient body and vehicle armour for his troops. Part of the bewilderment of the Bush team, trained as they were on Cold War politics, must be that unlike Maggie allegedly did with Francois, there is no state actor that you can call up and threaten with the consequences of your most powerful weapon when the enemy is proving adaptive and tenacious with a particular weapon of their own.

One of the 15 rationales for the invasion of Iraq was that Saddam might give weapons to terrorists, so he had to be gotten rid of. But cutting out the middleman is not always a good idea, especially when you have more leverage over the middleman than the end user.

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