Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World by Mark Curtis (Vintage: London, 2003, 512 pp.)

September 28, Tony Blair once again lied to the British public on
the BBC’s “Breakfast With Frost” program, saying
of Saddam: “Why on earth was he obstructing the inspectors
all the way through the 1990s? Why did we have to go, as we did
with America, to bomb Baghdad in 1998 when the inspectors were driven

fact, inspectors had not been continuously obstructed and they were
not “driven out”—they were withdrawn for their own
safety ahead of the four-day series of air strikes that were Operation
Desert Fox. 

attacks began the day before Clinton’s impeachment referendum
on the Monica Lewinsky affair was scheduled and were called off
two hours after the vote. Chief UNSCOM weapons inspector, Scott
Ritter, reports that just prior to the strikes, “Inspectors
were sent in to carry out sensitive inspections that had nothing
to do with disarmament, but had everything to do with provoking
the Iraqis.” 

was reported as saying at the time: “What [head of UNSCOM]
Richard Butler did last week with the inspections was a set-up.
This was designed to generate a conflict that would justify a bombing.”
U.S. government sour- ces had told Ritter three weeks earlier, “the
two considerations on the horizon were Ramadan and impeachment.” 

anonymous UN diplomat commented: “There were something like
300 inspections [in recent weeks] and we encountered difficulties
in five.” 

five difficulties came after Iraq had complied in disarming fully
90-95 percent of its weapons of mass destruction, leaving only “bits
and pieces” of programs left, according to Ritter and others. 

his new book, Web of Deceit, Mark Curtis points to an even
darker possibility concerning the abandonment of the UNSCOM arms
inspections. He quotes RAND Corporation analyst Daniel Byman who,
writing in Foreign Affairs, suggested that “an impasse
over inspections is actually the best realistic outcome for the
United States” and its allies. The “most dangerous”
scenario was “the possibility that Saddam will cooperate”
which could “spell…the end of sanctions.” 

a similar vein, the Financial Times wrote in 1998 that the
U.S. dilemma would “grow even sharper if a diplomatic solution
is devised which satisfies the UN and its arms inspectors.”
A U.S. intelligence official said the White House “will not
take yes for an answer.” 

other words, Clinton and Blair may have bombed Baghdad in December
1998 precisely to prevent UN inspectors from completing their work,
which would have given Iraq a clean bill of health and would have
meant the lifting of sanctions without U.S. control of Iraqi oil. 

the foreword to Web Of Deceit, John Pilger writes: “My
own view is that had the great broadcasting institutions and newspapers
on both sides of the Atlantic not merely channeled and echoed the
agendas and lies of government, but instead exposed and challenged
them, the Bush/Blair attack on Iraq would have been made untenable.” 

does seem clear that Blair and his entourage carefully crafted their
lies according to their perception of likely media challenges. When
UK foreign secretary Jack Straw finally got challenged on his claim
that UNSCOM had been “thrown out” in 1998, he changed
tack in subsequent interviews claiming that the inspectors had been
“forced to leave.” When that failed, he resorted to claiming
that they had been “unable to do their work.” Britain’s
leading interviewers—the Dimblebys, Frosts, and Paxmans (all
millionaire TV celebrities)— said nothing while government
spokespeople like Straw blatantly fabricated pretexts for war.

Curtis is one of a tiny number of commentators willing to tell the
uncompromised truth. He swiftly exposes government lies about Iraqi
WMD, links with al-Qaeda, and the idea that the invasion had nothing
to do with oil. As for the 1991-2003 sanctions regime, he writes:
“It is simply amazing that a government policy which, by credible
indicators, has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people
has been widely met with only murmurs of objections.” 

of the more than 3,000 Afghan civilian deaths from U.S. bombing,
Curtis notes, “Their deaths have received the barest of concern
from political leaders and the mainstream media, who have essentially
deemed Afghan lives expendable to avenge the attack on the U.S.” 

with breathtaking complacency, the Guardian describes how
“the west’s commitment to do everything possible to avoid
civilian casualties and the terrorists’ proven wish to cause
as many civilian casualties as possible… is still a key difference.” 

seems reasonable to the Guardian’s editors because the
thousands of civilians we do kill, and the hundreds of thousands,
indeed millions, of lives we turn upside down, do not register as
meaningful tragedies. The fact, as Curtis notes, that a quarter
of a million starving Afghan refugees were forced to flee U.S. revenge
bombing through winter snows to Iran and Pakistan just doesn’t
seem that bad. 

examines the long U.S.-UK tradition of guilt-free crushing of these
“unpeople.” The claimed concern for democracy in Iraq,
for example, is made absurd by “declassified documents [which]
show that British and U.S. policy has always been to support the
authority of favoured repressive ruling regimes in the Gulf and
has helped them counter internal challenges…” 

reviews how, at the October 2001 Labour Party conference, Tony Blair
pledged to help heal a “scar on the conscience of the world”
by addressing poverty and conflict in Africa. A month earlier, representatives
of both sides of the conflict between Uganda and Angola had attended
a major British arms exhibition. The International Institute for
Security Studies in Pretoria reported of the conflict: “Britain
is inflaming the situation by arming both sides.” 

true concern, Curtis notes, is hardly in doubt: “Britain’s
basic priority—virtually its raison d’etre for several
centuries—is to aid British companies in getting their hands
on other countries’ resources. As Lord Mackay, then Lord Chancellor,
revealed in the mid-1990s, the role of MI6 is to protect Britain’s
‘economic well-being’ by keeping ‘a particular eye
on Britain’s access to key commodities, like oil or metals
[and] the profits of Britain’s myriad of international business

kept a particular eye on its interests throughout its “war
in defence of the rubber industry” in Malaya and through its
many interventions to crush independent nationalism in British Guiana,
Kenya, Indonesia, and Iran—cynical exercises in realpolitik
exposed with shocking clarity here. 

this mass of evidence—much of it readily available in declassified
documents ignored by both media and academia—Curtis notes:
“I do not think I have ever seen a media article that mentions
that Britain might in some way systematically contribute to poverty
in the world. Is this not extraordinary? Britain’s partial
responsibility for maintaining and deepening poverty globally is

has worked in the field of international development for ten years
and understands the real role of the World Bank: “Real participation
is generally non-existent, as numerous recent studies show. It is
not people’s involvement in policy-making that is being promoted.
Rather, civil society groups are being consulted to ratify decisions
on policies being made by elites. In most countries there are few
opportunities to shape policy, still fewer to implement alternatives.” 

brilliantly assembles the facts and sources we need to challenge
the web of government lies. But even more importantly, in my view,
he exposes the crucial role of the mass media in making these lies

David Edwards
is co-editor of
Media Lens and a ZNet commentator.