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Welcome to theAnalysis, I’m Greg Wilpert. A little over two weeks ago, the U.S. launched missile strikes against military bases in Syria. The Biden administration claimed that the targeted militia forces were backed by Iran and were responsible for an attack on U.S. personnel in Iraq a few weeks before that. The Pentagon spokesperson, John Kirby, said at the time that “This military response was conducted together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with the coalition partners,” however, there is evidence emerging now that the attack was conducted without consultation. This revelation comes from Norway, which is a staunch ally of the United States in its so-called war on terrorism.
Joining me now to explore the role of Norway in the U.S. military policy is Erik Vold. Erik is a Norwegian political analyst and author and is working as a foreign policy adviser to the parliamentary group of the leftist Red Party of Norway. Thanks, Erik, for joining me today.
It’s a pleasure, Greg. Thanks for inviting me.
So let’s start with what your party, the Red Party, discovered with regard to Norway’s involvement or noninvolvement in this attack on Syria. What did you find out and how?
Well, as you mentioned, the U.S. government seemed to claim some sort of tacit approval from its coalition partners, its allies, when it said that this attack was carried out after consultations with these coalition partners. So my party sent a written question to the minister of defense of the Norwegian government asking whether or not the Norwegian government was actually consulted. Now, the answer was surprisingly no, surprisingly clear from the Norwegian minister of foreign defense, we were not consulted.
Not only were we not consulted, the Norwegian government was merely informed when the attack was already being carried out. Now, why should the U.S. government inform the Norwegian government?
Well, Norway is not only a NATO coalition partner of the U.S., we also formed part of the Operation Inherent Resolve, which is the military operation under which the U.S. is present in Iraq and Syria, and we also formed part of the military advisory group, which is a small core of 13, you could say the 13 staunchest allies of the U.S. participants in the operation, Inherent Resolve. Apart from that, what’s more, Norwegian soldiers are also present at the Ayn al Asad base in western Iraq, the Anbar province, and this was the base from which the drone attack that killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani last year was carried out and to which the retaliatory strike from Iranian backed group hit days afterwards, when several dozens of U.S. forces suffered brain trauma, brain injuries, more or less severe brain injuries, and according to Norwegian sources, it was only a miracle that no Norwegian troops were killed in that attack.
It seems when the 3rd of March attack hit the Ayn al Asad base, again, it indicates that this might have been the same the very same base, with Norwegian troops present, that was used to strike in the south in the February U.S. strike against Syria. So what this means is that when the Norwegian government was not informed, was not consulted in advance, Norwegian soldiers were not given the possibility to take preventive measures to protect themselves against the retaliatory attacks.
That would very likely happen afterwards. There’s very little reason, there’s no good reason to assume that the Americans would consult with other governments, giving their soldiers an advantage and the possibility to take these kinds of preventive measures that the Norwegian soldiers were not permitted to take, because we were, according to the Norwegian minister of defense, kept in the dark. So that leaves the question open. Was really any consultation carried out by the U.S. government or is it flat-out untrue?
Is the U.S. government bragging about some sort of approval from coalition partners that it never had in advance of the attack?
Now, I mean, you raised the issue of what these coalition partners basically could do to protect themselves, but I’m wondering what other kind of ramifications does this non-consultation have? I mean, considering especially also the legal status of such an attack? I mean, what do you think about that?
Well, the official policy of the Norwegian government is to defend international law, and this is not just because we are sort of a good country. We have a very great self-interest. Any small nation has a self-interest in maintaining international law and the protection that it gives to small states from bullying or attacks of militarily superior states. I mean, the long-term survival of nations like ours with five million inhabitants is very much dependent on the respect for international law, on the provisions that prohibits the use and threat of use of force.
So that is one issue. Of course, the Norwegian government would have been obliged to speak out against any military attack against a sovereign state, a U.N. member state that does not have the approval of the Security Council and at least if it means anything by the official policy of supporting international law and the UN.
Secondly, the Norwegian forces are present in Iraq as a part of Operation Inherent Resolve, as I mentioned, which is an operation strictly meant to participate in the fight against ISIS. So when the U.S. uses facilities in which the Norwegian troops are present to lash out against east left, right and center, east and west, against Iraqi Shiite militias, against Syrian militias and even against the Iranian government, almost starting a war against Iran, risking to drag Norway into a war against Iran.
Obviously this is a great violation of any confidence that the Norwegian military and the Norwegian government must have had or at least should have had and the truthfulness of the U.S. when they invited Norway to form part of a coalition that was supposed to strictly fight against ISIS. It also violates the decision of the Iraqi governments that asked foreign troops to leave, mostly on the basis of the fact that the U.S. was not respecting the deal, which was to send its fight against ISIS and not against Shia militias, not against Syrians, not against Iranians.
So on many fronts, it goes to show that the U.S. government neither respects the life of Norwegian soldiers nor the political will of the Norwegian government and the confidence of the Norwegian government and parliament, which had to trust that the U.S. would stick to the mandate of Operation Inherent Resolve.
I find that very interesting that the U.S. would actually go so far as to undermine its alliance with Norway in this issue, because, after all, Norway has been, as you mentioned, a very staunch ally, and I want to turn to that question actually as to what has been Norway’s involvement in U.S. foreign policy more generally. I mean, to the extent that people know anything about Norway, there’s generally a perception of Norway as being quite peaceful, and as you know, the capital, Oslo, is the home of the Nobel Peace Prize and also a well-known place for peace negotiation efforts.
And as you mentioned, it’s one of the smaller countries of the world with a population of just over five million people. So no one would expect Norway to be so active in supporting offensive capabilities of NATO and of the United States military. So in what ways has Norway been enmeshed in U.S. foreign policy? Tell us some more about that.
Well, it used to be the case that Norway was a peaceful country. That’s not so much the case anymore. I mean, since 1999, Norway has been involved in several foreign wars with, to say the least, unclear legal justification and moral justification. So we can start with the Yugoslavia intervention in 1990, the Afghanistan war, Iraq recently, even Syria and Libya, which is probably the only military operation in which Norway has a militarily significant role.
We dropped around five hundred and eighty-eight bombs. During the initial phase of that war, and even according to Norwegian sources, our pilots took on targets that were so sensitive that other much more seasoned war nations were reluctant to take. So, Norway actually played an important role in the initial phase of the illegal Libya war. Now, a parallel to that. At the same time, Norway is now opening up its territory for an increasingly aggressive U.S. military presence closer and closer to the Russian border.
Norway shares a border with Russia in the northeast in the far north, which is very close to some of Russia’s most sensitive, most important military capabilities, their so-called second-strike nuclear capabilities, and lately, the Norwegian government has really opened up for drastically increased U.N. presence in our country, more and more close to that Russian border. Now, Norway has been a member of NATO since 1949. So that’s not a new thing, but during at least the first 50 years of our membership, we always kept the U.S. military at a prudent distance in the sense that, A, we would not allow U.S. military capabilities to go so close to the border, up to the Russian border, so as to create tensions in our neighborhood, in our country, and increase the risk that Norway would be dragged into a military conflict or some sort of increased tensions in our neighborhood that would be very much against our own security interests.
So we kept that distance as a sort of a buffer state, and also during those first 50 years, it would never occur to Norway to participate in aggressive warfare in foreign lands. It was simply out of the question, no matter if our government would be governed by the left, by the right, the Social Democrats, the Conservatives, no matter who would be governing, this was out of the question. Now, the last 20 years, particularly both these pillars of Norwegian foreign policy, one, the respect for international law and particularly the provisions that prohibits the use of force, which is really important for the long-term survival of smaller states like Norway, and secondly, the distance, the need to keep a low tension and to decrease the risk of military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia on our doorsteps.
Both these policies have been undermined or violated or outright scrapped by participation in these wars, for example. So this is what’s happened within Norway. Now, the other side of the coin is what does the U.S. achieve by this? I mentioned that probably the only military conflict in which the Norwegian military forces have had a great significant military impact in the sense that our forces could not have been replaced by, let’s say, U.S. or U.K. forces, which is not to say that, for example, the special forces of Norway in Afghanistan did not play an important role.
It did. Those soldiers are famed within NATO for their abilities, but, you know, let’s be honest, they could have been replaced by Americans or Brits. The Libya conflict was the only one in which we really played a significant military role.
Now, why is Norway participating in all these other wars? What does the U.S. earn from that? It’s not so much that they would save money from it or save their own soldiers. I think it has a lot more to do with the fact that the U.S. knows that its image in the world has been greatly damaged by, you know, over 100 years of constant warfare and lack of respect for international law and human rights of the populations of other countries, no matter the justification of U.S. wars.
So what they’re doing, having these Nordic countries participate in these wars is that you give a sort of a dovish face, a progressive face to a hawkish policy, and I think it’s no coincidence that the two last secretary generals of NATO have been Scandinavian. It was a Dane, Anders Fogh Rasmussen and now it’s Jens Stoltenberg, the former Norwegian prime minister who got the job accidentally just after taking Norway into the Libya war.
Yeah. I was wondering, though, what is the Norwegian interest behind this? I mean, why this shift? And like you’re saying, obviously Jens Stoltenberg has something to do with this, especially since he was prime minister when this turn-around seemed to have occurred, but what is the larger interest? What interest is he pursuing in taking Norway in this new direction in terms of foreign policy?
Well, to be honest, I struggled to find exactly what Norwegian interests are actually served by these policies because, one, our security is heavily undermined when tensions increase on our doorsteps, when nuclear American forces get closer and closer to Russian nuclear forces on the outside of our doorstep. It’s very obvious that we have everything to lose from those increased tensions.
Secondly, what do we have to earn? What is our interest in participating in far away, unwinnable, everlasting U.S. wars in the Middle East? I mean, we just see Norwegian taxpayer money disappearing in the sands of the Middle Eastern deserts.
And also, according to the former Chief of the Norwegian Defense Forces Haakon Bruun-Hanssen, a very respected military leader, Norwegian military resources have actually been depleted by participating in these wars. So, you know, at the same time, our policies of letting the U.S. use Norwegian territory to increase tensions with the Russians, which is undermining our security, and at the same time, we are depleting our limited military resources in wars far away from Norway, which has nothing to do with our security, it seems it’s a lose-lose kind of policy that absolutely serves no Norwegian security interests at all.
However, what we do see is that it absolutely serves, would seem to serve, the personal interests of any Norwegian politician who wants to make an international career in, for example, organizations under U.S. influence after leaving office in Norway. I could give you the example of the current Secretary General of NATO, whether there’s a direct connection or not, I don’t have a final conclusion on that, but it’s definitely worth asking whether this is a very career-enhancing kind of policy and that for the lack of real opposition from media, the political opposition, and generally grassroots kind of opposition, then this is a very good option for those politicians who wants to make a career.
However, I do see signs that this is changing, lately. You see a lot more critical views in the Norwegian public debate lately, and I think a thing like Norwegian participation in a war like Libya dropping five hundred and eighty-eight bombs on a Middle Eastern country, that would be a tough sell for any Norwegian government these days. So this might be slightly changing.
Hmm. Well, actually, that was going to be kind of my next question, especially considering that, you know, Stoltenberg himself comes from the Labor Party and was the leader of the Labor Party. And now since 2013, there’s been a new government that is a new coalition under Erna Solberg, who’s the leader of the Conservative Party. In theory, there might be some kind of difference, a shift in direction under a new leadership, but there seems to be largely continuity, at least in terms of foreign policy.
First of all, is that correct? And secondly, can you say a little bit more about what the Norwegian public’s reaction has been? I mean, it sounds like there’s been mostly quiet until recently, but is this going to influence future elections? That is the foreign policy attitude of the government.
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. As of late, the change of government has not really affected foreign policy or defense policy issues that we are talking about that much, and you have to give it to the former Secretary General of NATO, Stoltenberg, that he not only governed on behalf of the Social Democratic Party, he governed in a coalition with a party called the Socialist Leftist Party that was actually founded on the basis not only of opposing foreign wars, but their main issue was to take Norway out of NATO, and Stoltenberg managed to have this party not only accept going to war against Libya, but to actually advocate saying that is the war of the Left.
So that is a quite amazing achievement. It seems pretty incredible. Now, today’s government has dragged Norway further into the Syria war. They sent Norwegian troops to Syria in 2016, but that was obviously a huge failure. We trained some ragtag militias that later turned their weapons, seem to have turned, according to American sources, seem to have turned their weapons over to the Assad government. One of them, one of their leaders, was a drug smuggler.
So, you know, a complete failure, but also a complete failure of little significance for the Syrian war as opposed to the Libya war. Our participation in the Libya war, but in terms of the future and what is the political space for Norwegian politicians to continue along this path? I think it is true that there is a risk that we will continue along this same path and that opposition will be ignored. I mentioned that there were more voices voicing concern about this, in opposition against this.
I can mention, for example, the former operating chief of the Norwegian Defense Forces, who said openly in one of Norway’s main outlets that Norway does not want U.S. Navy ships or airplanes to fly too close to the Russian border, too far east around the Norwegian territory in order to not provoke a response from the Russians that would, as mentioned, hurt Norwegian security interests.
He was ignored, but the fact that a current, at that time, operating chief of the Norwegian Defense Forces would say something like this publicly is quite interesting. It goes to show that even within the Norwegian armed forces, there’s a lot of reasonable people who really worry about these issues and see that it doesn’t serve our long-term interests, and so my hope is that when you combine those reasonable people and their doubts and their concerns that exist within the Norwegian armed forces, also against these foreign war adventures that lead nowhere, I mean, and it’s to everyone.
When you combine that with a stronger opposition in the parliament, which we’ve seen the last couple of years, then it might actually be easier for a Norwegian government of any color to tell the Americans that, listen, we would very much like to join you on this quest for freedom in the Middle East, but it’s unfortunately a tough sell in our internal political debate. So we’re going to have to decline this time. I mean, this would be the hope.
Hmm. Now, before we conclude, I just want to ask you a quick question about the conservative government’s domestic policies. That is because Norway for so long has been perceived as being kind of the bastion of social democracy and of creating one of the world’s best-known welfare states, and it’s often held up by especially progressives in the United States as being the example for the U.S. to emulate. Now, of course, that was under the Labor government that this was set up, which governed for decades, but since 2013, there’s been this, as I mentioned, the conservative government.
How has that changed? Have they been dismantling the welfare state in Norway? And more generally, how would you characterize their domestic policies?
Well, particularly since the 1990s, the beginning of the 1990s, the wave of neoliberalism has hit the Norwegian welfare state and we’ve seen privatizations. I would particularly mention the privatization of our state-owned oil company, which was a huge success that ensured actually against U.S. oil companies to their great frustration.
It ensured that Norway took control of the technology and it enabled us to take control of the income from the oil industry and distribute it quite equally and use it to finance the welfare state. This company was privatized, telecom was privatized. These might be the most emblematic privatizations in Norway, and they were both carried out by Labor governments.
So there has been a tendency of undermining the welfare state and social democracy, the mixed economy model of social democracy that has been going on for a couple of decades now, a little bit independently of who’s in government, to be honest, be it the conservatives or the Labor government, but still, the Norwegian welfare state is not just based on a government, it’s based to a large extent on the labor movement, not just the Labor Party, but the labor movement and trade union movement.
They have also shown an incredible resilience in these times of neoliberalism, and I would say one of their major victories was not just the creation of the welfare state, it is also the labor movement that has enabled us to preserve a lot of the welfare state intact, even when this wave of neoliberalism has hit us politically. So there’s still a lot to be proud of in terms of welfare and equal distribution of wealth, but that has been it has been moving in the wrong direction. Social inequality has increased quite drastically in Norway during the last decades.
It’s still a society that for the U.S., of course, the Norwegian model is an interesting model and it’s something to study, but right now, we are in the phase where we have to defend the welfare state against the government. So it’s not the government that should be an example for other countries. It is everyone else who is resisting the government’s onslaught against the welfare state. I would go as far as to say that.
I think the point you make about the importance or significance of the labor movement is incredibly important, which is, of course, one of the big things that is lacking in the United States with such a low unionization or organization level. That’s absolutely nothing compared to Norway’s, but one last question, though, in terms of if labor movement in Norway has such an influence in terms of preserving and defending the welfare state couldn’t that mean that in terms of foreign policy, they would have to get more involved in order to steer Norway away from this kind of militarism that Stoltenberg and Solberg have been taking Norway?
Well, unfortunately, the labor movement has not been able to play its traditional role, at least. And it’s best, proudest moments when it has been a force for peace and against war.
OK, well, we’re going to leave it there. I was speaking to Erik Vold, foreign policy adviser for the parliamentary group of the leftist Red Party of Norway. Thanks again, Erik, for having joined me today.
It’s a pleasure.