Poised for war over Iraq in a new phase of the supposed “war against terrorism”, the states that profess their commitment to the highest values continue to resort to the basest of policies in practice. Current British policy towards Iraq is a microcosm of foreign policy over the past five years — contempt for international law, support for US aggression, a gung-ho military interventionism, with the public viewed as a threat, whose opinion needs to be managed by concerted propaganda.
Never before has the public of a democratic state been subject to such a tirade of propaganda about a government’s moral motives than Britain under New Labour. And never has the gulf been so vast between that message and the reality.
Britain‘s foreign policy under Blair is composed of five dominating facts.
Britain under Blair is a systematic violator of international law and ethical standards. Sanctions against Iraq, which have killed over half a million children, according to the United Nations, are massive violations of international law and basic human rights. They are “illegal and immoral”, according to former UN co-ordinator Denis Halliday, and are “destroying an entire society”.
The no-fly zones (NFZs) in northern and southern Iraq patrolled by British and US aircraft are also illegal. It is laughable to hear talk of “going to war” with Iraq when Britain has been at war for over a decade. British and US aircraft have conducted over 30,000 sorties and dropped around 2,000 bombs in the NFZs. Terms of engagement for pilots have been quietly changed and bombing stepped up at will, outside any serious parliamentary or media scrutiny. Repeated punitive attacks against Iraq — again, all illegal — have become normal, regular exercises.
The British elite’s contempt for international law was displayed in the illegal bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, undertaken without UN authorisation and complete with the targeting of civilian infrastructure and the use of cluster bombs. “We will carry on pounding day after day after day, until our objectives are secured”, Tony Blair said two weeks into the bombing in April 1999. This comment — that nicely fits the government’s definition of terrorism — revealed the brutal reality of NATO’s supposedly “humanitarian war” over Kosovo.
When the US bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum in 1998, destroying much of Sudan‘s medical supplies, Blair offered reflexive British support while the attorney general, Britain‘s top legal officer, said that its legality “was a matter for the United States” — perhaps like Iraq‘s compliance with current UN resolutions is a matter for Iraq. Britain also rejects calls for UN inquiries into Russian atrocities in Chechnya and Indonesian terror in East Timor.
These positions reflect past British standards. In 1950, for example, British planners referred to the “ignorant or prejudiced outside interference” from the UN which was “not an ideal instrument for shaping international policies on purely British lines”.
During the last 25 years of the “cold war” — 1965-90 — Britain cast twice as many vetoes in the UN Security Council as the Soviet Union. British vetoes were mainly delivered in defence of policies to support the racist Rhodesian and South African regimes. Contrary to the myth that it was the Red Horde that obstructed international cooperation, London and Washington have often been the real rogues in the past, and continue to be so now.
The second dominating fact about New Labour’s foreign policy is it support for key allies’ internal repression. Labour came to power just as Turkey was completing the destruction of 3,500 Kurdish villages, forcing 2-3 million people to flee from their homes and killing untold thousands. The war in southeast Turkey was ostensibly against PKK guerillas but more generally against the Kurdish population. Labour’s reaction was to continue arms supplies, military training, economic links and diplomatic support.
Astonishingly, defence secretary George Robertson told Parliament in 1998 that he hoped Turkey “will be as generous and humanitarian to the Kurds as they have been in the past”.
Such Turkish generosity has involved repeated brutal invasions of northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurds, under the noses of British aircraft patrolling the “no fly zones”. Currently, more than 250,000 Kurds forced from their homes in the 1990s are unable to return home, while Britain continues to train the Turkish police responsible for the worst repression and London bends over backwards to support Ankara’s application to join the EU.
Under New Labour, Britain is training the Saudi Arabian National Guard, the force that protects the Saudi royal family from any threats. This, along with complete silence on Saudi human rights abuses, gives London a direct role in Saudi repression. The same largely goes for Bahrain and Oman. British-supplied Hawk aircraft have been used by the Indonesian military to quell opposition in Aceh, West Papua and East Timor and by Zimbabwe in the murderous conflict in the Congo. Guns supplied to Morocco have been deployed in the illegally occupied Western Sahara to suppress self-determination by the Saharawis. Arms go the Sri Lankan military acknowledging they will be used in the horrific civil war against the Tamil Tigers.
Britain continues to arm Israel and maintains the fiction that “both sides” are equally responsible for the Middle East crisis. This is nonsense when far more Palestinians have been killed by Israel than Israelis killed in horrific suicide bombings.
As well as British arms being used against Palestinians, the government has identified Israel as one of 14 global “target markets” for trade, which reached a record £2.5 billion last year. The British embassy in Tel Aviv refers to a “flourishing relationship” between the two countries and “our two prime ministers are in regular contact and have a good working and personal relationship”. The government has naturally rejected using these trade levers or those available to the EU, to press Israel.
One might also mention de facto British support for Russian barbarities in Chechnya. The government protested against some indiscriminate Russian aggression against civilians. But all through the ferocious bombing of the Chechnyan capital Grozny, in late 1999 and early 2000, Britain was cosying up to the Russian military responsible for these atrocities. With thousands dead and Grozny flattened, Defence minister Geoff Hoon said in January 2000 that “engaging Russia in a constructive bilateral defence relationship is a high priority for the government” as it continued its military assistance programme. Indeed, it was the Russians who severed relations with the British military — in protest against the bombing of Yugoslavia and Iraq. Britain has been quite happy to continue business as usual while Chechens get slaughtered and a democratically-elected presidency is attacked.
The myth was maintained (helped by the media) that Britain could do nothing to press Russia short of going to nuclear war. This ignored a large number of trade, diplomatic, aid and military levers available to the government that it refused to use. As the “dirty war” in Chechnya continues, British leaders continue the apologias for Russian policy while Blair describes Russia under Putin as “a partner and a friend”.
A third dominating fact has been Britain‘s support for big business globally. Clare Short and the Department for International Development (DFID) are viewed in the media as near-saintly champions of development in government and globally. The reality is they are the main instruments for pushing a fundamental reshaping of the global economy, where takeover by transnational corporations (TNCs) is increasing.
At the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial meeting in Qatar last year Britain led the EU in trying to add new issues to the WTO’s negotiating agenda. This was in the face of opposition from almost all developing countries. The intention is to secure new global agreements in areas such as investment and government spending that “liberalise” national economies and give foreign businesses “equal treatment” to domestic firms, with government barely able to regulate corporations. Trade Secretary Patricia Hewitt has said that “we want to open up protected markets in developing countries”. This is the real policy, bluntly stated. Having gone largely unnoticed, the Blair government is a leading champion of the fundamentalist, neo-liberal economic ideology on which the WTO is based. But the media continues to pander to the government’s “fair trade” propaganda.
DFID is bending over backwards to aid this strategy. Clare Short has referred to the “constraints that business faces in the regulatory environment for investment in any country” and told business leaders that “your ideas on overcoming these constraints can be invaluable when we develop our country strategies. We can use this understanding to inform our dialogue with governments and the multilateral institutions on the reform agenda”.
Clare Short is the government’s leading champion of global trade “liberalisation”, promoting numerous initiatives that see big business as a “partner” in development. She argues at every opportunity that “free trade” (ie, global trade controlled by TNCs) is best for development and castigates those who disagree as supporters of North Korea or Iraq.
But the evidence shows that the most successful developers severely restricted “free trade” and nurtured domestic firms. Currently, the lives of poor people in numerous countries are being undermined by cheap imports putting them out of business. This is one aspect of the WTO rules described by the UN’s sub-commission on the promotion and protection of human rights as a “veritable nightmare for developing countries”.
Indeed, the roots of current globalisation lie in Anglo-American economic planning after the second world war. The key aim was an “open door” for Western trade and investment where business would exploit all markets free from government restrictions. A key barrier was national governments who might have the wayward idea of promoting policies to benefit their populations. In 1945, the British Treasury said that “we have to devise techniques for bringing influence to bear upon other countries’ internal decisions”. The WTO rules are in many ways the result of this basic aim — heavily restricting developing countries in promoting policies in their own interest (banning many policies successful in the past) and locking them into economic strategies benefiting Western businesses. Britain‘s “development” policy is more about preventing development.
The fourth dominating fact is the special relationship with the US. The key feature of this has always been British support for US aggression. British leaders conceived their role after the second world war as junior partner in an orbit of power predominantly under American aegis. So it continued as Britain backed all manner of US overt and covert operations throughout the postwar period.
Blair has simply taken up the mantle. But there are some new aspects as London‘s greatest ally openly shows contempt for international agreements. Under Blair, Britain is to the US little more than what Belorussia and Ukraine were to the Soviet Union — retaining seats at the UN and giving the appearance of being independent but in reality being little more than a satellite state. Britain’s military role in US-led wars is often token; its much more useful function is to provide the pretence of an “international” coalition when only the US and Britain are interested in military action.
Most importantly, Blair has become the chief public propagandist for US strategy, in the onslaught against Afghanistan acting as de facto chief White House spokesperson. And in the war over Kosovo, Britain played a key diplomatic role in garnering “NATO” support for what was essentially an Anglo-American operation. British diplomacy is also regularly deployed in favour of essentially US positions in the UN, as with sanctions against Iraq.
But it is a mistake to see Britain simply as the US poodle. British elites support many of the worst US foreign policies independently, not just because they have to in order to maintain the special relationship. When British elites really disagree with the US they are usually not afraid to say so.
When the US imposed tariffs on imported steel, Whitehall publicly reacted with outrage. Patricia Hewitt said the US action was “wholly unjustified”, “quite the wrong response” and a “clear breach” of US obligations towards the WTO. Such US tariffs threaten British commercial interests, so London complains. By contrast, pummelling foreign countries is as British as Sunday cricket.
The fifth dominating fact is the recognition by government that the major threat to its foreign policy is us, the public. The Blair government is the acknowledged international expert on propaganda directed to Western publics. This is why Britain basically took over the “NATO” media operation in the Kosovo war and why the US sees Blair as key to its “war against terrorism”. More than simply “spin”, the government is engaged in a permanent propaganda campaign to convince the public of the morality of its policies, especially military interventions.
The bombing of Yugoslavia was described as a “humanitarian war” even as it precipitated a humanitarian crisis and was launched by Blair and US president Bill Clinton probably knowing that Milosevic would respond by starting a planned ethnic cleansing campaign. A House of Commons defence committee report shows that the government identified four key targets for its media operations — one was Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, whose policies needed to be demonised; another was the British public, who needed to be indoctrinated with the government’s moral motives. Both were enemies.
The defence committee notes that “from the top down, the UK government committed its considerable media operations resources to the campaign and to the task of mobilising international and British public opinion”. It notes approvingly that “the campaign directed against home audiences was fairly successful” but “if anything, the UK‘s efforts to shape perceptions were less efficient than they could have been”. Thus the all-party group supports the government’s propaganda strategy, a nice illustration of how our elected representatives serve the public.
Labour renamed the Ministry of Defence’s “psychological operations” as “information support”, a change Orwell would have understood. The MoD now says that “we need to be aware of the ways in which public attitudes might shape and constrain military activity”. It says that the public wants Britain to “act as a force for good” and to see “operations prompted by humanitarian motives”. Since “public support will be vital to the conduct of military interventions”, in future “more effort will be required to ensure that such public debate is properly informed”.
Therefore, we should expect a lot more propaganda, and this will tell us that the government is acting from the highest humanitarian motives. We are therefore being told we are being lied to. The reality of British foreign policy can rarely be described in the mainstream even when it is really hard to miss. The bombing of Afghanistan is generally seen as a noble war justified by the terrible attacks of September 11 last year, with the outcome vindicating US strategy. But there is one key fact that alone upsets this picture — we killed more people in bombing Afghanistan than the terrorists did in the US. A Guardian investigation concluded that between 10,000 and 20,000 people were killed as an “indirect” result of the US bombing, ie, through hunger, cold and disease that were exacerbated as people were forced to flee the massive aerial assault. Another estimate, by Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire, suggests that between 3,125 and 3,620 Afghan civilians were killed up to July 2002. This doesn’t seem to trouble the Official View of the war in the mainstream.
Similarly, the “war against terrorism” is quite obviously a pretext for a new phase in Western global intervention. Britain¹s military has been quietly reconfigured away from a defensive role to an overtly offensive (“force projection”) one. Even nuclear forces are seen as war-fighting. This was occurring before September 11, but the latter makes it easier. So too does the “anti-terrorism” agenda make it easier for our repressive allies to crack down further on domestic opposition. The “war against terrorism” is being pushed as a new cold war to serve the same global and domestic objectives which the old “Soviet threat” served.
This is a political culture where big stories can be buried when they show the inconvenient truth that our government is contemptuous of the ethical standards it professes. British complicity in the Rwanda genocide of 1994 is still largely buried, only occasionally surfacing in the media. The British role in the slaughter of a million people in Indonesia in 1965 — a story I broke six years ago — remains largely out of sight of the public. Britain‘s depopulation of the Chagos islands in the Indian Ocean, which includes Diego Garcia, received a spattering of media interest two years ago when the islanders won a court case to return home. It has since been largely consigned to oblivion.
It is significant that virtually the only positive foreign policies are those where there is major public pressure — for example on debt relief. Other more positive government policies tend to be both minor and undermined by broader strategy. For example, there will be little benefit from New Labour’s major overseas aid increases if New Labour’s “global liberalisation” project succeeds.
The challenge in changing British foreign policy is clearly enormous. Our first task is to do what the Kenyan writer, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, implored Africans to do following colonialism — “decolonise the mind”. For Britons it means unlearning received wisdom from the mainstream.
The second task is to democratise policy-making. In foreign policy, it is clear that Britain is in effect a one-party state, with no major differences between the biggest parties. Worse still, it is really a totalitarian state where it is impossible to influence foreign policy in a major way through formal political processes. The elective dictatorship has certainly deepened under Blair.
It is a big task to change this but one starting point is for people and groups to put aside single issue campaigns (arms, development, human rights etc) — crucial though these all are. The government will always promote abysmal policies in these areas as long as they are made by elites who are secretive and unaccountable to the public. Instead, we should make a collective push to radically transform policy-making to become genuinely democratic, and overthrow the elitist system that perpetuates terrible policies being conducted in our name.
· Mark Curtis can be contacted at email@example.com. His book, The Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, will be published by Vintage next year (www.randomhouse.co.uk/vintage). His previous books include The Great Deception: Anglo-American Power and World Order (Pluto, £14.99) and Trade for Life: Making Trade Work for Poor People (Christian Aid, £9.99, or download for free from www.christian-aid.org.uk)
· Mark Curtis will discuss matters raised in this article on Red Pepper’s letters page. Please send questions, comments and criticisms to firstname.lastname@example.org, or, 1b Waterlow Road, London N19 5NJ, by 7 October.