RUSI JournalVolume 150Issue 4

Imperial Overstretch, from Dr Arnold to Mr Blair


The Duke of Wellington once said that the real test of a general was 'to know when to retreat and to dare to do it'. All post-war British Governments, including Tony Blair's, have failed this test.

This is a particularly apposite moment to talk about imperial overstretch. We have soldiers still stuck in Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Sierra Leone, East Timor, etc. In the case of Kosovo, it is six years since the war ended, and there is still no prospect of a political solution to Serb and Albanian rivalry. In the case of Bosnia, it is eleven years since the Dayton Accords, and no prospect of a political settlement there either. No doubt these are now only minor British commitments. But in Iraq we have 8,500 soldiers, plus air and naval contingents, stuck fast in the disastrous aftermath of Bush's and Blair's neoimperialist war of 2003. And all these commitments still are not the whole of the potential overstretch. Tony Blair once promised a Labour Party Conference that we would intervene in Africa to stop any future Rwanda-style massacres. So we could yet see British forces in Darfur as well. What we have in all this is the folly of a grand strategy inspired by the teachings of Christ instead of Clausewitz.

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