Strong Defense

Kemp: I would say that the first and most important thing is not to have any idea of turning these countries into western democracies. That was a laudable aim by the people around President Bush, but it clearly hasn't worked and isn't likely to work.

I would also say don't in the future attempt to conduct a protracted military campaign. It's very easy to sit here and say this. I appreciate that the decision itself is much more difficult. The most important thing is to use military force, I think, short and sharp and overwhelmingly.

OR: There seems to be a much more vocal debate today about the underlying legitimacy of military intervention as such. Where do you place it in the toolkits of hegemonic powers?

Kemp: I think that there's a few issues. One of which is obviously the protection of one's own country. I think that it's not necessarily as clear-cut as it looks. I think, for example, President Trump's strike against Syria was protecting the United States by enforcing the treaty barring the use of chemical weapons: the more people that use chemical weapons, the more threat there is going to be to the United States and its allies.

I think it is a duty of a President to use military force to protect his country even in circumstances like that. I don't think anyone could really argue against that in principle. They can argue against whether a specific strike is in fact necessary to protect the country.

The second thing is the duty to protect other people. I think that's a very difficult one. The media in Britain, on the one hand, make it incredibly difficult for a government not to intervene when there's a humanitarian crisis because they constantly pull at the heartstrings. They're flashing images around the country all the time of evil things happening. People demand to know when the government will do something.

Then when the government does something, of course, they're condemned if things don't go exactly to plan. I do think it's something that is different in each case and I don't think any country has an absolute right to protect foreign populations if it's going to cause undue harm to their own people. I don't mean just the civilian population, but the military forces as well. People tend to disregard the importance of a soldier's life compared to a civilian's life, but the two are exactly the same. That has to be taken into account.

I don't think that the “world policeman” is the right model for this. I think it's about protecting national interests. The U.S. isn't just defending the homeland. It's defending its interests abroad as well. I think use of force is very, very justifiable in those circumstance.

OR: How do you assess the national security legacies of George W. Bush? Barack Obama? Tony Blair? David Cameron?

Kemp: I was working in the cabinet office, which is effectively the Prime Minister's office, in London during the period of the Afghanistan and the Iraq campaigns. My role was intelligence predominantly. I was one of the very few military officers actually there, so I got involved in slightly more than just intelligence.

I had almost a ringside seat in relation to both Blair and Bush. My view is that they both did the right thing in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan in initiating military operations in response to the threat that they faced. I think that the start of each of the two campaigns was absolutely right, but the development of the two campaigns was seriously flawed. Particularly I would say in Iraq. If the government had been decapitated, and the next-but-one level down had been kept in place and everything below that would have been kept in place and controlled by the Americans -- which it would have been and could have been -- I think we'd have seen a different story in Iraq and I think that was a fundamental error of both Bush and Blair in prosecuting that particular campaign.

I think both of them took their eye off the ball in Afghanistan because they focused on Iraq and that accounted for the resurgence of the Taliban. Again, it was a pretty fundamental error in judgment. I was in Afghanistan at the time when that was sort of beginning to go fairly badly wrong. It was quite obvious.

I was actually there with General Mark Milley, now Chief of Staff of the Army. We were both in Kabul. Both the same rank. We were both well aware that we were in a backwater. We had, compared to what was going on in Iraq, very limited resources and very limited interest in what we were doing from our respective governments. I think that was a pretty fundamental error.

I suppose in summary I think that both Blair and Bush had the right instincts and made the right initial decisions, but didn't carry them through as they should have done.

I think Cameron wanted to be Blair. I don't say he pushed for operations in Libya. I don't say that he thought that because he wanted to have his own war, but I think that sort of entered into it. I think what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq and then Libya scared him and I think accounts for the way that he then was personally involved in decimating the British armed forces.

The British armed forces today have been hollowed out by constant budget cuts. Cameron decided not to give them enough money. I think that wasn't just about saving money. I think it was also about putting yourself in a position where you can't use them. If America decides to embark on some military operation again and they ask Britain to help, Britain can now say, "Well, we'd love to, but look, we haven't got anything to do it with."

President Obama fundamentally is not a man who wanted to use military force. He did use it very effectively, I think, in Pakistan via the drone strikes that he ordered. That was in many ways probably the most effective military action he took. I would say his military thinking was too dominated by the desire to win the election rather than prosecute the military campaigns as he should have done. Consider his decision-making when he agreed to have a surge in Afghanistan. I think he took -- and I'm not sure if this is exactly right -- longer to decide whether to do it than it took for the Allies to land in Normandy and get into Germany. Politicians have obviously got to be focused on their domestic constituents, but they also need an instinct to lead and to decide.