Tag Archives: Mark Curtis

Foreign policy conducted on the sly: Britain and the repressive Gulf monarchies

Foreign policy conducted on the sly: Britain and the repressive Gulf monarchies
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
29 March 2022

In 1917, after listening to an account of fighting on the Western Front, Prime Minister Lloyd George is reported to have said “If people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”

80 years later and a similar quote from a “senior official” was included in a book published by the establishment think-tank Chatham House: “Much of our foreign policy is conducted on the sly for fear that it would raise hackles at home if people knew what we were pushing for.”

The government camouflages the reality of British foreign policy in a variety of ways, including blunt censorship by the British military in war zones, ‘requests’ to edit reporting by issuing D-notices, the favouring of particular journalists and, likely most important, the normalisation of policy discussion and decision making that excludes the general public – an arrangement largely taken for granted by the media.

As Hew Strachan, Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, and Ruth Harris, a researcher at RAND Europe, noted in a 2020 report prepared for the Ministry of Defence, “The government’s preference is to see both strategy and defence policy as areas to be settled between it and the armed forces, and so far as possible within the corridors of power.” This means “the making of [‘defence’] strategy in today’s Britain is an elite activity, hammered out by ministers, civil servants and chiefs of staff.”

Nowhere is this defacto concealment of British actions abroad more important than the UK’s relations with the repressive monarchies in the Gulf – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Check out, for example, the 1972 Thames Television documentary about the war in the Dhofar region of Oman, available on Youtube. “The war in Oman is an unknown war and Britain’s involvement in it something of a mystery,” presenter Vanya Kewley notes about the British role supporting the dictatorial Sultan Qaboos in the war against leftist rebels. Why? “Both the British government and the government of Oman are anxious to play down the British presence in such a sensitive area of the Arab World where British soldiers are fighting and dying for the Sultan of Oman,” she notes.

Mark Curtis explains the inconvenient truth in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World: “British policy in the Middle East is based on propping up repressive elites that support the West’s business and military interests.”

“Torture, discrimination against women, the complete suppression of dissent, free speech and association and the banning of political alternatives are all the norm” in these nations, he notes.

Little has changed since then. In the UAE, “scores of activists, academics, and lawyers are serving lengthy sentences… in many cases following unfair trials on vague and broad charges,” Human Rights Watch report. Saudi Arabia recently executed 81 men on one single day. And though it seems to have been forgotten, in 2006 the head of the Saudi national security council “threatened to make it easier for terrorists to attack London” unless a UK Serious Fraud Office investigation into a UK-Saudi arms deal was halted, according to the Guardian. (Days later Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote to the Attorney General and the inquiry was, indeed, dropped).

In Kuwait – generally consider the most open society in the Gulf – criticism of the head of state is outlawed, sex between men is criminalised and nearly 5,000 books were banned in the seven years up to 2020, according to the Guardian. “Kuwaiti authorities continue to use provisions in the constitution, the national security law, and the country’s cybercrime law to restrict free speech and prosecute dissidents,” Human Rights Watch note.

How did the UK respond to the challenge the Arab Spring represented to the Gulf’s rulers? “With a major strategic vote of confidence in the conservative regional order,” David Wearing explains in his 2018 book AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain. Speaking about the UK’s support for Bahrain following its violent crackdown against protestors in 2011, Middle East specialist Professor Rosemary Hollis noted “the British do not want to be seen – in front of the British public, Human Rights Watch and all those other NGOs that are monitoring this – to be aiding and abetting oppression of the civilian population.”

As with the quotes from Lloyd George and the unnamed “senior official” above, the underlying assumption is the British public is a threat to the UK’s support for the Gulf’s repressive elites – that people would be distressed by the truth. Indeed, occasionally it becomes clear just how much the public cares given enough information. According to John Pilger, when his 1994 documentary Death of a Nation,  about the 1975 invasion of East Timor and the genocide that followed, was first shown on TV it triggered more than 4,000 calls a minute to a helpline telephone number in the hours that followed. More recently, around one million people marched in London on 15 February 2003 in opposition to the impending invasion of Iraq – the largest demonstration in British history. And earlier this month more than 100,000 British people offered homes to Ukrainian refugees in the first 24 hours of the government scheme that allows families and individuals to bring them to the UK.

However, when it comes to revealing and explaining what the UK and the local elites are up to in the Gulf, institutions that should inform the public have not done their job.

Media coverage of UK foreign policy tends to broadly follow the priorities and interests of policymakers, with minimal space allowed for critical, independent journalism. “Key British foreign policies, particularly in the Middle East, are being routinely under- or un-reported in the UK national press”, Curtis noted in 2020. For example, on 13 March investigative journalist John McEvoy tweeted “The Guardian has published more stories about Ukraine just today than it has published about Yemen in all of 2022.”

Academic research on the Gulf is often compromised by the fact many academics and research centres focussing on the region are themselves funded by Gulf monarchies. As well as steering research away from sensitive topics, in his book After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies academic Christopher Davidson argues this funding means “it is almost inconceivable… to imagine an academic with no alternative source of income researching and writing a serious critique of a regime that has… paid for his or her salary”.

The funders of two premier think-tanks focussed on UK foreign policy, Chatham House and the Royal United Services Institute, include the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, US State Department, BP, Chevron, BAE System and the Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Earlier this month Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard tweeted that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy – a UK government-funded organisation “working to strengthen democracy across the world” – “hasn’t a single ‘pro-democracy’ project in any of the 6 UK-backed Gulf dictatorships.”

Perhaps understandably, the anti-war movement and the broader left tends to focus on active wars, such as Ukraine now, and Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya in the last two decades. However, this means the UK’s relationship with the Gulf states has largely been ignored.

What all this means is that for decades UK governments have been able to continue their support for the despotic governing monarchies in the Gulf with relatively little public scrutiny and opposition.

The job of concerned citizens should be clear: to bring the UK’s dirty dealings in the Gulf into the public sphere. As US Supreme Court judge Louis Brandeis once famously claimed, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

An idea: how about solidarity campaigns and organisations are set up for individual Gulf states, like there is already for Palestine, Venezuela and Western Sahara? These would draw attention to UK’s support for authoritarian rulers in the Gulf, educate the British public, act as a centre of knowledge and expertise and give support to pro-democracy activists and movements in the Gulf – all of which would apply pressure on the British government.

The Saudi Arabia Solidarity Campaign. It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Why is no one talking about how senior Labour Party figures whitewash apartheid?

Why is no one talking about how senior Labour Party figures whitewash apartheid?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 February 2022

Amnesty International’s recent report condemning Israel for “committing the crime of apartheid against Palestinians” is a damning indictment of the current Israeli government (and its predecessors), and its supporters around the world.

After carrying out research for four years, Amnesty concludes “Israel enforces a system of oppression and domination against the Palestinian people wherever it has control over their rights”, including Palestinians living in Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and displaced refugees in other countries.

Defining apartheid as “an institutionalized regime of oppression and domination by one racial group over another,” Amnesty explains Israel’s “massive seizures of Palestinian land and property, unlawful killings, forcible transfer, drastic movement restrictions, and the denial of nationality and citizenship to Palestinians are all components of a system which amounts to apartheid under international law.” This constitutes a “crime against humanity”, the human rights organisation notes.

Amnesty also has a message to those backing Israel: “governments who continue to supply Israel with arms, and shield it from accountability at the UN are supporting a system of apartheid, undermining the international legal order, and exacerbating the suffering of the Palestinian people.”

The UK does exactly this. In 2018 the Campaign Against Arms Trade exposed how British defence contractors were selling record amounts of arms to Israel, with the UK issuing £221m worth of arms licences to defence companies exporting to Israel. This made Israel the UK’s eighth largest market for UK arms companies, the Guardian reported.

The same year, Mark Curtis, the Editor of Declassified UK, highlighted “consistent British support for Israel internationally, helping to shield it from ostracism”. In 2017 the Foreign Office refused to sign a joint declaration issued at a Paris peace conference on Palestine attended by 70 nations, accusing it of “taking place against the wishes of the Israelis”. And in 2019 the then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt confirmed the UK would oppose motions criticising rights abuses carried out by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza that are brought to the UN’s Human Rights Council.

While the world’s leading human rights organisation criticising Israel for perpetrating the crime of apartheid is hugely significant, it is important to remember Amnesty is just the latest group to come to this conclusion.

In April 2021 Human Rights Watch declared Israel was committing the crime of apartheid, enforcing the policy to “maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians.” Drawing on years of documentation, analysis of Israeli laws, government planning documents and public statements by officials, the rights organisation concluded Israeli authorities “systematically discriminate against Palestinians” and have adopted policies to counter what it describes as a demographic “threat” from Palestinians.

Similarly, in January 2021 B’Tselem, the leading domestic rights group in Israel, described Israel as an “apartheid regime”.

“One organising principle lies at the base of a wide array of Israeli policies: advancing and perpetuating the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians.” Hagai El-Ad, the group’s director, noted “Israel is not a democracy that has a temporary occupation attached to it. It is one regime between the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and we must look at the full picture and see it for what it is: apartheid.”

Likewise, Yossi Sarid, a former Israeli cabinet minister and longstanding member of Israel’s parliament, said in 2008: “What acts like apartheid, is run like apartheid and harasses like apartheid, is not a duck – it is apartheid.” Famously, former US President Jimmy Carter published his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid in 2006, and in 2002 Desmond Tutu, who knew a thing or two about apartheid, told a conference in Boston about a recent visit to the Holy Land and how “it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.”

Though the UK media have studiously avoided making the link, the reports from Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem, and the quotes above, have huge ramifications for key figures in the UK Labour Party.

Giving the keynote speech at the November 2021 Labour Friends of Israel’s annual lunch, Keir Starmer noted Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 “committed the new state to freedom, justice and peace; complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

“Israel herself is the first to acknowledge that at times she falls short of these goals”, he continued, “But we will continue to support Israel’s rumbustious democracy, its independent judiciary, and its commitment to the rule of law”.

The Labour leader said Labour Party saw their counterparts in the Israeli Labor party “as comrades in the international struggle for equality, peace and freedom”, before quoting Prime Minister Harold Wilson: “social democrats who made the desert flower.”

The assertion it was Israeli pioneers who made the desert bloom repeats one of the founding – and racist – myths of Israel. Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani tweeted why at the time of Starmer’s speech: “The reason why is because it implies it was ‘terra nullius’, nobody’s land, & therefore fine to be appropriated. The story of colonialism.”

Starmer also explained the UK Labour Party does not support the Boycott, Disinvestment and Solidarity campaign against Israel. Why? “Its principles are wrong – targeting alone the world’s sole Jewish state”.

“We believe that international law should be adhered to”, he stated, and therefore Labour “opposes and condemns” illegal settlements, and annexation and the eviction of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Starmer said nothing, of course, about Israel being an apartheid state.

Speaking at a 2017 Jewish News/Bicom Balfour 100 event, Emily Thornberry MP, then Shadow Foreign Secretary, echoed Starmer’s sentiments: Israel “still stands out as a beacon of freedom, equality and democracy, particular in respect of women and LGBT communities, in a region where oppression, discrimination and inequality is too often the norm.”

And speaking at the 2017 Labour Friends of Israel annual dinner, Thornberry praised former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres as “a hero of the left, of the state of Israel and of the cause of peace.”

In contrast, in 2005 US dissident Noam Chomsky called Peres “an iconic mass murderer,” presumably for his role in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that led to the creation of Israel and for being Prime Minister when Israel shelled a United Nations compound in Lebanon in 1996, killing over 100 civilians. After conducting an investigation, Amnesty International concluded the attack was intentional.

Labour MP Lisa Nandy excels at smearing critics of Israel. Interviewed on the BBC in early 2020 when she was running to be Labour leader, presenter Andrew Neil asked her about online Labour activist Rachael Cousins, “who’s tweeted calling the Board of Deputies of British Jews Conservative [Party] backers, and demanding that they disassociate themselves from that party, and that they condemn all Israeli military atrocities in the West Bank – her words. Is that anti-Semitic?” Nandy is quick to respond: “Yes.”

And when there were nonviolent protests at the London School of Economics in November 2021 against Israeli Ambassador Tzipi Hotovely, Nandy, then Shadow Foreign Secretary, tweeted: “The appalling treatment of Israeli Ambassador @TzipiHotovely is completely unacceptable. There is no excuse for this kind of behaviour. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right and any attempt to silence or intimidate those we disagree with should never be tolerated.”

Reading these quotes in light of all the reports and testimony above is nothing short of shocking. As the American historian Howard Zinn once noted, “The truth is so often the reverse of what has been told us by our culture that we cannot turn our heads far enough around to see it.”

The Labour Party’s code of conduct notes it “will not tolerate racism in any form inside or outside the party” and that “any behaviour or use of language which… undermines Labour’s ability to campaign against any form of racism, is unacceptable conduct within the Labour Party.” Surely, then, the whitewashing of, and apologism for, the racist Israeli apartheid state carried out by Starmer and co. should lead to them being expelled from the Labour Party?

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review. Capitalism’s Conscience: 200 Years of the Guardian

Book review. Capitalism’s Conscience: 200 Years of the Guardian edited by Des Freedman
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News

August-September 2021

‘The Guardian’s mission’, Editor Katharine Viner recently stated, ‘is one that allows – and even encourages – its editor… to challenge the powerful, whatever the consequences.’

This collection, edited by Des Freedman, Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, does a good job of demolishing this self-serving view.

Though it has a reputation for identifying with left-wing positions, Freedman argues “The Guardian is not a left-wing newspaper… it is not affiliated to nor was it borne out of left-wing movements” and “it has never been a consistent ally of socialist or anti-imperialist voices.”

Instead, most of the well-reference contributions from academics and journalists highlight the publication’s establishment liberalism. These politics often means its reporting is better than much of the rest of the mainstream media (important stories such as the Snowden leaks and phone hacking scandal are highlighted) but still has serious limitations, as Ghada Karmi explains about the paper’s coverage of Israel-Palestine. Alan MacLeod’s impressive chapter on Latin America is much more scathing, noting the Guardian often ‘attacked progressive movements… while failing to hold the region’s right-wing rulers to the same standard.’

The Guardian’s broad opposition to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party casts a long shadow over the volume. Former Guardian staffer Gary Younge provides an insider’s insight into the challenge Corbynism posed to the media establishment, while there are two interesting essays looking at how Brexit and Liberal Feminism were deployed by Guardian writers to drive a wedge between Corbyn and the movement behind him.

Because of its relative popularity with Labour supporters and the broad left, Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard and Mark Curtis argue ‘the paper has probably done more to undermine Corbyn than any other’.

For peace activists, it is noticeable there is no mention of the Guardian’s reporting of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria or the UK’s nuclear weapons. And there is nothing on the climate crisis. Indeed, I am aware Media Lens, who have arguably done more than anyone to expose the propagandistic nature of much of the Guardian’s reporting, were not invited to contribute a chapter (they would almost certainly have written about some of these missing topics).

Despite these omissions, Capitalism’s Conscience is a timely and important book, and could make a useful contribution to debates happening on the left since the December 2019 election. As Freedman argues in the introduction, given the paper’s hostility to transformative change, ‘It is essential to build an independent media that tells the story of the left and that more consistently holds power to account’.

Capitalism’s Conscience is published by Pluto Press, priced £16.99.

The importance of knowing our own strength: the anti-war movement and UK foreign policy

The importance of knowing our own strength: the anti-war movement and UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 June 2021

Though considered an abject failure by many, the enormous anti-war movement against the 2003 Iraq War has had a number of long-lasting impacts on British politics and society. One unfortunate effect is, nearly 20 years later, the movement’s inability to stop the invasion continues to breed cynicism and defeatism when it comes to the general public influencing UK foreign policy.

For example, discussing the large-scale UK protests against the recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza, one Middle East scholar quipped on Twitter “If history has taught me anything, when people in the UK march against immoral actions in the Middle East, their government will almost certainly ignore them.”

This pessimistic take is even shared by anti-war figureheads like Tariq Ali, who spoke at the rally in Hyde Park in London at the end of the biggest march in British history on 15 February 2003. “It was a huge show of anger, but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy”, Ali commented on the tenth anniversary of the demonstration.

So should we be disheartened? History suggests there is cause for optimism.

Take the Vietnam War and the US anti-war movement that opposed it. Elected in 1968, “President Richard Nixon claimed in public to be completely unmoved by anti-war protests”, academic Simon Hall notes in Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement.

The reality was rather different. Both Nixon and President Lyndon Johnson before him “took an active interest in the movement’s doings”, Tom Wells explains in his 1994 book The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam. Indeed, Nixon “received multiple reports per day on some demonstrations.”

Admiral Thomas Moorer, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Nixon’s presidency, told Wells “The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time”, with the wider movement having “a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of government.”

With the movement playing “a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war”, it “was perhaps the most successful anti-war movement in history”, Wells concludes.

In short, the US anti-war movement of the late 1960s and 1970s was able to successfully inhibit the most powerful nation and biggest war machine the world had ever seen.

Impressive stuff. But British anti-war activists don’t need to look across the Atlantic for inspiration.

Having trawled the National Archives on post-war UK foreign policy, in his 2004 book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, Mark Curtis notes “the public is feared” by the UK government. “A perennial truth which emerges from the declassified files is the public’s ability to mount protests and demonstrations that divert the government from its course.”

In the late 1950s British forces were involved in crushing an uprising against the UK-backed Sultan of Oman. Curtis notes the senior British official in the region – the Political Resident in Bahrain – had recommended three villages should be bombed unless they surrendered the ringleaders of the revolt. However, the government initially decided not to bomb since, they argued, “world opinion at that time was very flammable.” The British commander’s report at the end of the war noted “great pains were taken throughout the Command to keep all operational actions of the press”.

By the 1960s, the ongoing US aggression in Vietnam had generated considerable anti-war activity in the UK, including some high profile demonstrations. By 1965 the British Ambassador in Saigon noted “mischievous publicity” about the war from the anti-war movement “is having an effect on the policy of Her Majesty’s Government.”

Curtis disagrees, explaining Britain backed the US war in Vietnam “at virtually every stage of military escalation.” What was happening? Noting there was an “organised campaign” against the war, in 1965 Foreign Official James Cable reported: “All this has not yet affected our basic support for American policy in Vietnam, but it has generated a certain preference for discretion in the outward manifestation of this support.”

So the government continued to follow their preferred policy, just out of the public eye – not much to shout about, it could be argued. However, it’s important to remember the bigger picture. Despite significant pressure from President Johnson, Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to send regular British troops to Vietnam (a small number of British special forces did fight in Vietnam). According to History Extra, the official website for BBC History Magazine, one of the main reasons Wilson gave was it “would be extremely unpopular with his party and the wider public.”

The British establishment’s fear of the public is not confined to distant history. Starting in late 2001, the UK government’s huge propaganda campaign to persuade the public to back the Iraq War underscores just how seriously it was concerned about public opinion. According to the Guardian, days before the onslaught started the Spanish UN ambassador noted in a memo to Spain’s foreign minister that the UK had become “exclusively obsessed” with domestic public opinion.

Reporting on leaked documents, in November 2003 the Guardian also revealed “a [MoD-organised] media offensive aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq War”. According to the papers “the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of the Basra headquarters for British troops is the Iraqi people.”

Though it is rarely framed as such, parliament’s momentous vote against British military action in Syria in 2013 – the first time a British prime minister had lost a vote on war since 1782 – can be considered a delayed impact of the anti-Iraq War movement. “The spectre of the 2003 Iraq war hung over the Commons”, the Guardian reported at the time, with Labour leader Ed Miliband apparently telling Prime Minister David Cameron “You have to realise that after Iraq nobody trusts any of us.”

This historic defeat sent shock waves through the British political and military establishment.

Speaking at the international affairs thinktank Chatham House in September 2015, Sir Nick Houghton, the UK’s chief of defence staff, argued “we are experiencing ever greater constraints on our freedom to use force”. Some of these related to technological advances of potential enemies, Houghton said, “but the more worrying constraints on the use of force lay in the areas of societal support, parliamentary consent and ever greater legal challenge”.

The year before, former Labour Party Defence Secretary Lord Browne conceded “the British public have made it clear that there is very little support for new expeditionary wars of choice, even where there is a national security dimension.”

Of course, the British military were not simply bystanders to this shift in public opinion. In September 2013 the Guardian carried an extraordinary front-page story which further highlighted the influence of the UK anti-war movement and the general public.

Titled “MoD study sets out how to sell wars to the public”, the report summarised a November 2012 MoD document, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act: “The armed forces should seek to make British involvement in future wars more palatable to the public by reducing the public profile of repatriation ceremonies for casualties”.

“Other suggestions made by the MoD thinktank in a discussion paper examining how to assuage ‘casualty averse’ public opinion include the greater use of mercenaries and unmanned vehicles, as well as the SAS and other special forces, because it says losses sustained by the elite soldiers do not have the same impact on the public and press.”

“The public have become better informed”, the MoD paper noted, recommending the armed forces run “a clear and constant information campaign in order to influence the major areas of the press and public opinion.”

Back to the anti-Vietnam War movement. Wells has a distressing conclusion: despite its huge impact on the government’s war policy “few activists fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed”, which “spawned defections from the movement… bred lethargy, stagnation, and despair in the movement’s ranks, impeding the organization of protests and the maintenance of anti-war groups.”

All of which will be familiar to peace activists working today.

Of course, we shouldn’t uncritically exaggerate the power of grassroots activism. But a good understanding of the history of UK foreign policy, and how this interacts with social movements and public opinion, provides a valuable grounding for maximising our influence on future government policy.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair. Ian is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press.

It was the Blair and Bush, not Saddam Hussein, who lied about Iraq’s WMDs

It was the Blair and Bush, not Saddam Hussein, who lied about Iraq’s WMDs
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
21 December 2020

As the famous quote – commonly attributed to US writer Mark Twain – goes: “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that while the case for the 2003 Iraq war has been largely discredited, an unnerving amount of propaganda spread by the US and UK governments at the time still has some purchase today.

For example, Gerd Nonneman, Professor of International Relations and Gulf Studies at Georgetown University Qatar, recently tweeted about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD): “Saddam’s aim was to keep everyone at home & abroad guessing.” Similarly a November Financial Times review by Chief Political Correspondent Philip Stephens of two books on UK intelligence matters noted the then Iraqi leader “believed his domestic authority in Iraq rested on a pretence that he still had WMD.”

The thesis that Hussein tricked the rest of the world into thinking Iraq had WMDs is surprisingly common. Appearing on a 2013 BBC Newsnight special Iraq: 10 Years On veteran correspondent John Simpson said “It came as a shock to Blair and Bush to find that Saddam had craftily got rid of his weapons” before the 2003 invasion. And during his testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry in 2009, Sir John Scarlett, Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) in 2003, argued Hussein wanted to create the impression he had WMD to “project power in the region”.

Compare these claims with public statements from Saddam Hussein and other members of the Iraqi government.

In early February 2003 Hussein told Tony Benn in an interview screened on Channel Four “There is only one truth and therefore I tell you as I have said on many occasions before that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction whatsoever”. Later that month he referred to “the big lie that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction such as biological, chemical and nuclear weapons” in an interview with CBS News. In December 2002 the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told ABC News “We don’t have weapons of mass destruction. We don’t have chemical, biological or nuclear weaponry”.

As the US Brookings Institution think-tank noted in December 2002: “Iraq has repeatedly denied that it possesses any weapons of mass destruction.”

On 13 November 2002 Iraq told the United Nations it had neither produced nor was in possession of weapons of mass destruction since the inspectors left in December 1998. And two months earlier on 19 September 2002 CNN reported “Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri delivers a letter to the United Nations from Hussein stating that Iraq has no chemical, nuclear or biological weapons.”

What’s going on? Why are supposedly smart and informed people claiming Hussein tried to trick the world into thinking Iraq had WMDs when the evidence clearly shows the exact opposite – that the Iraqi leadership repeatedly denied having WMDs?

The answer is to be found in the part of Nonneman’s tweet preceding his claim about Hussein’s duplicity: “The problem wasn’t [US and UK] mendacity, it was intel being skewed by group think & failure to contemplate alternative explanations.”

If Hussein was deceiving the world, then it means the US and UK governments mistakenly, but sincerely, believed there were WMD in Iraq. In short, there were no lies about WMD. The 55 per cent of respondents to the July 2004 Guardian/ICM opinion poll who said UK Prime Minister Tony Blair lied were wrong.

Like the belief the Iraqi government was deliberately ambiguous about WMD, this thesis doesn’t stand up to elementary evidence either.

As anyone who had a passing interest in the news circa 2002-3 will remember, the UK government’s lies and deceptions on Iraq were numerous, relentless and increasingly blatant.

For example, Blair repeatedly said he wanted to resolve the issue of Iraq and WMD through the United Nations. The historical evidence suggests something very different. In a March 2002 memo to Blair’s chief foreign policy advisor, the UK Ambassador to the US set out a plan “to wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors and UN SCRs [UN security council resolutions]”. How? A July 2002 Cabinet Office briefing paper explains: “It is just possible that an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject (because he is unwilling to accept unfettered access) and which would not be regarded as unreasonable by the international community.” The goal, then, was to use the weapons inspectors and the UN process to trigger war, not to negotiate a peaceful solution.

In July 2002 – fully eight months before the invasion and before UN weapons inspectors returned to Iraq in November 2002 – Blair also wrote to US President George Bush, telling him: “I will be with you, whatever.”

The minutes of a July 2002 meeting in Downing Street with Blair and senior government officials – recorded in the leaked Downing Street Memo – highlight further deceptions. The Head of MI6 is summarised as saying “Military action was now seen as inevitable” in Washington. “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” The minutes summarise Foreign Secretary Jack Straw as saying the case for war “was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.”

Furthermore, the JIC’s Assessment of 21 August 2002 noted “We have little intelligence on Iraq’s CBW doctrine, and know little about Iraq’s CBW work since late 1998”, while their earlier assessment on 15 March 2002 explained “Intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programme is sporadic and patchy.”

In contrast, Blair’s foreword to the infamous September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s supposed WMDs boldly stated “I am in no doubt that the threat is serious and current”, with the Prime Minister noting “the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons.” 

Largely ignored by the media at the time, and rarely mentioned since, is the testimony of Iraqi general Hussein Kamel, the head of Iraq’s weapons programme in the 1980s and 1990s, which was leaked to Newsweek magazine. Speaking to UN inspectors in Jordan in 1995 Kamel, who was Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, said “I ordered the destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons – biological, chemical, missile, nuclear were destroyed.” However, not only did the Blair government fail to disclose this important information in the run up to the war, Blair shamelessly cited Kamel when he pushed for war in parliament on 18 March 2003: “Hussain Kamel defected to Jordan. He disclosed a far more extensive BW [biological weapons] programme and for the first time said Iraq had weaponsied the programme.”

What does all this show?

First, it highlights the power of what British historian Mark Curtis called “a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world”. For example, a 2006 Harris Interactive poll found half of Americans believed that Iraq had WMD when the US invaded in 2003.

Second, it suggests supposedly highly educated, critically-minded members of the elite, such as Nonneman, Simpson and Stephens, are as susceptible to government propaganda as anyone else. Indeed, US dissident Noam Chomsky suggests intellectuals are likely the most heavily indoctrinated sector of society: “By and large, they’re part of the privileged elite, and share the interests and perceptions of those in power.” Chomsky notes “the respected intellectuals in virtually every society are those who are distinguished by their conformist subservience to those in power.”

And finally, it highlights the upside down moral world we live in.  So while Blair, his spin doctor Alastair Campbell and Chancellor Gordon Brown all played a central role in the illegal and aggressive invasion of Iraq that led to 500,000 dead Iraqi men, women and children, millions of refugees and created the conditions for Islamic State to prosper, all three continue to appear regularly in the mainstream media.

In a sane and just world the only public appearances these men would be making would be at The Hague to answer for their crimes.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. Ian tweets @IanJSinclair.

BBC Document and the reality of UK foreign policy

BBC Document and the reality of UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 October 2020

In the introduction to his first book, The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy Since 1945, historian Mark Curtis notes two broad approaches are available to those attempting to understand British foreign affairs. “In the first, one can rely on the mainstream information system, consisting primarily of media and academia”, he explains. This approach frames British foreign policy as “fundamentally benevolent”, promoting grand principles such as peace, democracy and human rights.

No doubt this narrative informed the results of the recent Ipsos MORI poll, which found 34 per cent of Brits believe the British Empire is something to be proud of, with just 16 per cent saying it is something to be ashamed of (around 40 per cent think it is something neither to be proud nor ashamed of).

For those interested in discovering the reality of British foreign policy Curtis recommends a second method – studying formerly secret government documents and a variety of alternative sources.

A good illustration of this thesis is the BBC Radio 4 programme Document. Broadcasting at least 57 episodes between 2005 and 2017, Document was an historical investigation programme that used previously secret government records to illuminate Britain’s past. Two episodes on forgotten chapters in British history are particularly pertinent to understanding post-war UK foreign policy – the first from 2009 on the 1970 coup in Oman, and the second from a year later looking at the 1963 “constitutional coup” in British Guiana.

Though it has never been a formal colony, the British had an extraordinary level of influence in Oman, with Sultan Said bin Taimur, the country’s authoritarian ruler since 1932, one of the UK’s most reliable clients in the Gulf. The Sultan’s armed forces were headed by British officers, while “his defence secretary and chief of intelligence were British army officers, his chief adviser was a former British diplomat, and all but one of his government ministers were British”, investigative journalist Ian Cobain explained in 2016.

Studying secret UK government documents and interviewing academics and British officials involved in the coup, Document undercovers a fascinating, if shocking, story of deceitful British interference.

With a rebellion gaining ground in the Omani province of Dhofur, in 1970 the British elite in Oman and the British government itself came to the conclusion Taimur had become a liability.

The Sultan’s son, Sandhurst graduate Qaboos bin Said, was supported in his bid to take power. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, then a soldier in the Sultan’s army, tells Document “[UK intelligence officer] Tim Landon, with Harold Wilson’s government and with PDO – Petroleum Development Oman” and others “plotted to get rid of Said bin Taimur”.

In a July 1970 “secret” document, Anthony Acland, the Head of the Arabian Department in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), reports Colonel Hugh Oldman, Taimur’s Secretary for Defence, “has now instructed Brigadier Graham, the Commander of the Sultan’s armed forces… to prepare detailed plans for two contingencies.” If the coup is successful the armed forces were to “align themselves with Qaboos and facilitate his constitutional succession to the Sultancy as fast as possible.” In the event the coup failed, the armed forces “would assist Qaboos in gaining control” and “in deposing his father.”

Acland explained Qaboos “is likely to be a much better bet” than Taimur. And as the newly installed Sultan would rely heavily on British support this would likely better protect Britain’s “specific interests in the Sultanate – i.e. [the RAF base] Masirah and oil”, he notes.

“We would of course maintain the public position that we had no foreknowledge”, Sir Stewart Crawford, the most senior British official in the Gulf, states in a secret 13 July telegram to the FCO, about the plan. “The correct form should be observed so as to enable the coup to be presented as an internal matter with the British hand concealed, or at least deniable.”

Just ten days later, on 23 July, Taimur was deposed and replaced by Qaboos. The operation involved the seizure of the Sultan’s palace and the Sultan himself “by a small body of troops loyal to Qaboos, with the assistance of some British officers”, notes Abdel Razzaq Takriti in his riveting 2013 history Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976. Taimur, injured in the coup, was quickly flown out of the country by the Royal Air Force and eventually installed in the Dorchester hotel in London until his death a couple of years later.

“Despite Britain’s deep involvement in the coup that toppled Oman’s head of state no questions seemed to have been asked about it in parliament”, Mike Thomson, the presenter of Document, notes.

The UK’s actions in British Guiana in the 1950s and 1960s reveal a similarly disturbing story of colonial arrogance and interference. A British colony since 1814, the popular politician Dr Cheddi Jagan became the country’s Chief Minister in 1953, after leading the socialist-leaning People’s Progressive Party to victory in a democratic election. With British commercial interests – sugar and bauxite, in particular – threatened, Winston Churchill’s government dispatched British forces who forcibly removed Jagan from power, briefly jailing him. Interviewed by Document, Dr Spencer Mawby, an historian at the University of Nottingham, notes “The pretext [for the British military action] itself was dramatic because the British said basically there was a plot to burn down [the capital] Georgetown”.

“Was there?”, asks Thomson. “There was no plot”, Mawby confirms.

Ten years later, with new elections and independence fast approaching, the British made a second major intervention.

It was understood that Jagan, the nation’s premier again after winning the 1961 election, was likely to win the next election and lead an independent British Guiana. This fact was intolerable to the US government, which was worried about Jagan’s politics and the possibility he would align the country with Cuba. Accordingly, the US government successfully pressured an initially reluctant Britain to act to stop Jagan winning the next election.

With communal violence intensifying and an 80-day general strike starting in April 1963 paralysing the nation, the UK organised an independence conference in London, inviting the main political actors in British Guiana to resolve the crisis. Point of interest: Thomson confirms the general strike was likely “orchestrated and financed by the CIA”.

A formerly “top secret” document, recording an October 1963 meeting in the Colonial Secretary’s office, sets out the British government’s plan for the conference, held two weeks later. “It was important to ensure both that the conference and in the meantime that Dr Jagan and [British Guianese opposition leader] Mr Burnham failed to agree”, it notes. The document continues: “It was agreed that when the conference ended in deadlock the British government would announce the suspension of the constitution and the resumption of direct rule.”

With elections in British Guiana previously held under the First Past The Post system, the British government proposed a system of Proportional Representation (PR) for the upcoming election. They did this knowing Jagan would find it difficult to win under PR, and that Jagan would refuse to accept this.  

Thomson summarises the incredible deceit: “This document appears to show that the British government was setting out to deliberately scupper its own conference.”

The UK and US governments got what they wanted. After Jagan rejected the change to the voting method, Britain resumed direct rule and switched the voting system to PR. Jagan was then defeated in the 196 election, with Burham forming a coalition government that was in place when the country became independent Guyana in 1966.

These two historical episodes thoroughly undermine claims of UK benevolence in world affairs. In reality, commercial and geopolitical concerns, not self-serving notions of democracy and human rights, drive British foreign policy. And in the pursuit of this naked self-interest anything goes, including illegal coups, the undermining of democracy, covert action, and the most duplicitous, Machiavellian behaviour one could imagine.

“Are we the baddies?”, asks a German soldier, slowly beginning to realise the reality of his country’s role in the Second World War, in That Mitchell and Webb Look’s famous comedy sketch.

No doubt it will be news to the vast majority of mainstream media commentators and much of the British public, but the historical record clearly shows it is the British government which has been the bad guys in the post-war world.

BBC Document episodes are archived at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006sk3k. Ian tweets @IanJSinclair.

The elite versus the public: the struggle over UK foreign policy

The elite versus the public: the struggle over UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair

Peace News
August 2020

After interviewing more than 36 senior officials in the Johnson and Nixon administrations for The War Within, his 1994 book about the movement against the Vietnam War, US historian Tom Wells concluded that ‘the movement played a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war.’

Admiral Thomas Moorer, the chair of the joint chiefs of staff during Nixon’s presidency, told Wells the movement ‘had a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of government.’

However, despite this huge influence, Wells found ‘few activists fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed’. This failure to appreciate the impact of their actions ‘hurt their cause’, he argued, leading to ‘defections from the movement’ and to ‘lethargy, stagnation, and despair in the movement’s ranks.’

‘Moreover, some Americans never protested because they felt it was futile.’

A window

A new report prepared for the UK ministry of defence (MoD) inadvertently highlights how the post-9/11 anti-war movement in the UK has had a similarly important impact on British foreign policy – an influence largely unknown to the general public, and to many activists too.

Published by the RAND Corporation, a US think tank, The Utility of Military Force and Public Understanding in Today’s Britain is co-written by top British military historian Hew Strachan (currently professor of international relations at the University of St Andrews) and Ruth Harris (currently a researcher at RAND Europe, previously an RAF officer).

‘The government’s preference is to see both strategy and defence policy as areas to be settled between it and the armed forces, and so far as possible within the corridors of power’, the authors note.

The outcome of this largely unexamined agreement is that ‘the making of strategy in today’s Britain is an elite activity, hammered out by ministers, civil servants and chiefs of staff.’

This elite stitch-up works well for the government because it believes ‘the public is reluctant to support the cost of defence’ and ‘is unpersuaded of the utility of military force’, Strachan and Harris state. ‘The Whitehall mindset towards the public on matters of defence tends to be one of distrust.’

Why is the public not supportive of UK military action?

‘The prevailing conventional wisdom is that the wars in which Britain has engaged since 9/11 have created a public mood which respects the armed forces but doubts the utility of military force’, the authors explain.

Indeed, while it didn’t stop the UK’s involvement in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, there is evidence the anti-war movement, by informing and mobilising the wider British public, had a significant constraining influence on the actions of UK forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Limiting Iraq

Discussing the UK military deployment to Iraq from 2003 onwards, major general (ret) Christopher Elliott notes there was ‘a cap on numbers, driven by political constraints rather than military necessity.’ The consequence of this was that the UK had ‘insufficient troops to be effective in the post-conflict phase in Iraq’, forcing ‘commanders in-theatre to react to events, and not to be able to shape them’. (RUSI Journal, 29 September 2016)

In addition, it is likely UK public opinion shaped the timing of the UK withdrawal from Iraq.

Contrary to claims from the UK government, a Telegraph report noted the US military ‘has no doubt’ the UK’s pull-out from central Basra ‘is being driven by “the political situation at home in the UK”.’ (Sunday Telegraph, 19 August 2007)

Speaking at the London School of Economics in May 2012, Greg Muttitt, author of Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (Bodley Head, 2011), argued the overall British pull-out from Iraq in April 2009 ‘was largely because their continued presence in Iraq was politically toxic’ in the UK.

Limiting Afghanistan

A similar dynamic was evident in Afghanistan, with US general Stanley McChrystal, then NATO commander in Afghanistan, pushing for British troops to be moved out of ‘harm’s way’ because the Taliban would target them in the lead-up to the 2010 British general election.

McChrystal held ‘the view that Britain’s continued participation in Afghanistan will be more acceptable to an increasingly sceptical British public if troops are switched to less dangerous duties, including “capacity building”.’ (Observer, 8 November 2009).

Writing in 2013, Strachan provides an insight into the impact of public opinion on the British withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014, announced by British prime minister David Cameron in 2010: ‘He [Cameron] explained his timeline not in relation to conditions which he saw as likely to prevail in Afghanistan but in terms of what the British public would demand.’

UK propaganda I

Aware that public opinion can hamper the actions of British forces, the UK military and government spent considerable resources trying to manipulate the public to increase the popularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This fear of the public manifested itself very early after 9/11.

Under the heading ‘Propaganda’, in a declassified October 2001 letter, British prime minister Tony Blair suggested to US president George Bush: ‘we need a dedicated, tightly knit propaganda unit for the war generally [against Afghanistan and later Iraq]’.

What followed in the lead-up to the 2003 US–UK invasion of Iraq was ‘a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world’, according to British historian Mark Curtis. (Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq, Pluto Press, 2004)

More specifically, a November 2003 Guardian report revealed ‘a [MoD-organised] media offensive aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq War’.

According to leaked confidential papers ‘the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of the Basra headquarters for British troops is the Iraqi people.’

In Afghanistan, the military tried to shape the narrative of the war by controlling the media coverage. ‘There is a general policy by the MoD to keep the horror of what’s going on in Afghanistan out of the public domain, and that’s probably for political reasons’, a senior officer told the Telegraph in September 2008.

‘If the real truth were known it would have a huge impact on Army recruiting and the Government would come under severe pressure to withdraw the troops.’

The Syria vote

The huge post-9/11 UK anti-war movement, peaking with the largest demonstration in British history on 15 February 2003, has had a long tail of influence on UK foreign policy going far beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.

For example, in August 2013, the British government was set to support planned US air strikes in Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.

However, unexpectedly, the house of commons refused to support a government motion endorsing the planned attack. This was the first time a British government had lost a vote on military action since 1782. The UK was forced to cease its involvement in the proposed strikes.

Public opinion was strongly opposed to military action, with a YouGov poll just before the vote showing opposition at 51 percent, and support at just 22 percent (Peace News, October 2013).

‘The spectre of the 2003 Iraq War hung over the Commons’ during the Syria debate. (Guardian, 30 August 2013) When Labour leader Ed Miliband met with the prime minister and deputy prime minister in Downing Street just before the parliamentary vote, a source reported: ‘Ed said to the Prime Minister: “You have to realize that after Iraq nobody trusts any of us”.’ (Guardian, 29 August 2013)

Professor Richard English, a historian at the University of St Andrews, confirms the link: ‘The decision in the House of Commons about Syria was really a decision about Iraq, but a few years late.’ (Guardian, 12 February 2014)

More importantly, in addition to stopping UK involvement in the attack, the parliamentary vote played a crucial role in halting the wider US air strikes.

The day after the parliamentary vote, officers on board US warships in the Mediterranean were expecting launch orders. (Wall Street Journal, 17 September 2013)

However, after speaking with advisers, US president Barack Obama decided to seek congressional approval for the air strikes, telling aides that ‘He had several reasons … including a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British Parliament.’ (New York Times, 31 August 2013)

With opposition building in the US congress, the attack was called off in favour of a joint US–Russian plan to force the Syrian government to give up its chemical weapon stockpiles.

John Kerry, US secretary of state at the time, confirmed this narrative at his farewell press conference in January 2017.

‘The president had already decided to use force’, he explained, but ‘the president decided that he needed to go to Congress because of what had happened in Great Britain and because he needed the approval.’ (Guardian, 6 January 2017)

The government defeat – that is, the democratic process – created panic within the British establishment.

Alistair Burt, minister for the Middle East from 2010–2013, argued: ‘the UK finds itself in quite a mess.’ If the government has to convince a majority in parliament, he worried, ‘to what can government commit itself in discussions with allies, or prepare in advance for regional strategic defence?’ Burt continued: ‘Just occasionally politicians need space and time to take unpopular action that they believe in the long run is in their nation’s interest.’ (Guardian, 7 February 2014)

On 18 December 2013, the chief of the defence staff, general sir Nicholas Houghton, noted in a lecture to the Royal United Services Institute: ‘the purposes to which [the armed forces] have most recently been put has seldom been more deeply questioned. As a nation we have become a touch sceptical about the ability to use force in a beneficial way.’

UK propaganda II

Just after the parliamentary vote on Syria, the Guardian carried an extraordinary front-page story which further highlighted the power of the UK anti-war movement.

Under the headline, ‘MoD study sets out how to sell wars to the public’, the report provided a summary of a November 2012 MoD document, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act: ‘The armed forces should seek to make British involvement in future wars more palatable to the public by reducing the public profile of repatriation ceremonies for casualties’.

The article went on: ‘Other suggestions made by the MoD thinktank in a discussion paper examining how to assuage “casualty averse” public opinion include the greater use of mercenaries and unmanned vehicles, as well as the SAS and other special forces, because it says losses sustained by the elite soldiers do not have the same impact on the public and press.’

Noting ‘the public have become better informed’, the report also recommended the armed forces run ‘a clear and constant information campaign in order to influence the major areas of the press and public opinion.’ (Guardian, 27 September 2013)

Since then, UK military interventions have broadly followed these proposals, with Mark Curtis highlighting in 2016 that Britain was involved in at least seven covert wars in the Middle East: ‘Whitehall has in effect gone underground, with neither parliament nor the public being allowed to debate, scrutinise or even know about these wars.’ (Huffington Post, 18 October 2016) (The seven covert wars were in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.)

Chris Cole, director of Drone Wars UK, tells me: ‘The increasing use of air power by the UK rather than the use of ground troops has been remarkable.’

He continues: ‘In Iraq and Syria over the past five years, for example, there have been few troops on the ground but thousands of air strikes. And increasingly, drones are being used to undertake those strikes.

‘In its first five years in service, British Reaper drones fired just over 350 bombs and missiles. In the last five years, however, that has increased by more than two-and-a-half times to almost 1,000 – and that’s an aircraft we are told is primarily used for surveillance.’

Occasional isolated news reports have highlighted that British special forces are operating in Iraq (Independent, 6 November 2016), Yemen (Daily Mail, 23 March 2019) and Syria (Guardian, 7 January 2019), but there has been no sustained media coverage or parliamentary interest.

In September 2013, the New York Times reported how British intelligence had been ‘working covertly’ with Saudi Arabia ‘for months… quietly funnelling arms, including antitank missiles’ to the armed opposition to the Syrian government.

‘Britain’s special forces are more secretive than any of the UK’s Five Eyes allies’, investigative journalist Phil Miller, author of Keenie Meenie: the British Mercenaries Who Got Away with War Crimes (Pluto Press, 2020), tells me. (The Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance links the UK to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US.)

Miller goes on: ‘This secrecy prevents transparency around unsafe equipment and training accidents, to the detriment of the soldiers themselves and their families. There is no need for this level of secrecy in a mature democracy.’

Ongoing struggle

While I’ve highlighted how the UK anti-war movement has played a key role in constraining, and even stopping, UK military action, it is important to understand these clear-cut successes are relatively infrequent – the government usually wins in this high-stakes confrontation.

In 2014, parliament voted in support of air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq, and then a year later against Islamic State in Syria. At the time of the two parliamentary votes, polls showed clear support for the air strikes amongst the public. (YouGov, 26 September 2014 and 25 November 2015)

The UK then took part in punitive missile strikes against the Syrian government in April 2018 without a vote in parliament.

The election of anti-war, anti-imperialist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party represented the best opportunity in a generation to break the elite consensus on foreign policy. In response, large sections of the media waged an unrelenting war against him, with a ‘senior serving general’ even threatening a military coup should he be elected prime minister. (Independent, 20 September 2015)

The Labour Party’s defeat in the December 2019 general election was therefore a huge victory for the elite and their preference for excluding the public from foreign policy decision-making. Despite these setbacks British foreign policy continues to be highly contested, with an ongoing struggle over public opinion and military interventions.

As Curtis argues in his book, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (Vintage, 2003): ‘It is no exaggeration to say that Britain has visited widespread destruction on many parts of the world, overthrowing popular governments, trampling over human rights, undermining democratic forces in favour of repressive elites’.

The UK ‘gets away with this largely because of the domestic structures of power’, he concludes.

The extent to which anti-war and peace activists are able to effectively organise, shift public opinion and intervene in the elite decision-making process described by Strachan and Harris therefore has enormous ramifications.

Praising Alistair Burt and forgetting the bloodbath in Yemen

Praising Alistair Burt and forgetting the bloodbath in Yemen
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
8 April 2019

“I’ve never encountered any group more driven by group-think and rank-closing cohesion than British journalists”, US writer Glenn Greenwald tweeted in September 2015.

In addition to the media, the recent response to Alistair Burt MP resigning from his position as Minister of State for the Middle East over the government’s handling of Brexit shows this herd-like behaviour also infects sections of civil society and apparently progressive politicians.

“Many disagree with UK policy in the Middle East but he has a reputation for even handedness”, tweeted the Guardian’s Diplomatic Editor Patrick Wintour. “Big blow to FCO [Foreign & Commonwealth Office].” Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s Political Editor echoed these thoughts, noting Burt was a “well respected foreign office minister.” Minutes later Scottish National Party MP Alison Thewliss tweeted her own tribute: “Alistair Burt attended pretty well every debate on Yemen and helped as much as he could.” Tom Copley, Labour Party London Assembly member chipped in: “I’ve heard nothing but good things about Alistair Burt.” A Communications staffer in the Labour Party, Tom Hinchcliffe, tweeted that though he disagreed with their politics “ministers like Alistair Burt are genuinely decent people. They believe what they say and they’re in it for the right reasons.”

“Sad to hear that @AlistairBurtUK has resigned… a loss to Middle East diplomacy”, tweeted James Denselow, the Head of Conflict Team at Save The Children UK.

As Morning Star readers will know, Burt, as the Middle East Minister from 2017-2019, has played a central and very public role in British policy on Yemen, a nation engulfed in war after the Saudi-led coalition started bombing the country in March 2015 in support of deposed President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Two years later, in March 2017, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs announced Yemen was “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”.

Out of a population of 29.3 million, nearly 17.8 million people were food insecure and 8.4 million were on the brink of famine, according to a September 2018 report by the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR): “Since April 2017, a cholera epidemic has swept through Yemen at an unprecedented scale.”

The crisis is fundamentally man-made, with the Saudi-led coalition implementing a brutal blockade of Yemen, stopping vital goods entering the country. “These delays are killing children”, Grant Pritchard, interim country director for Save the Children in Yemen, said in March 2017. “Our teams are dealing with outbreaks of cholera, and children suffering from diarrhoea, measles, malaria and malnutrition. With the right medicines these are all completely treatable – but the Saudi-led coalition is stopping them getting in. They are turning aid and commercial supplies into weapons of war.”

Indeed, in November 2018 Save the Children estimated approximately 85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger or disease in Yemen since March 2015.

According to the OHCHR report the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes “have been and continue to be the leading direct cause of civilian deaths and destruction of civilian infrastructure in the conflict.” This fits with the 2016 findings of the Yemen Data Project – that one third of Saudi-led air raids had hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. By October 2018 the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project was estimating 56,000 people had been killed between January 2016 and October 2018.

What has been the UK’s role in this mass slaughter?

“We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat”, then UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in April 2015. “Political support, of course, logistical and technical support.”

Unusually in foreign affairs, the UK government has kept its word. Asked “What do you think the UK can do more in the realm of helping the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen?”, Burt told Majella magazine in 2018 “At the moment it’s difficult to see what more we can do.”

In terms of armaments, in February the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations noted the UK has licensed £4.7 billion of arms exports to Saudi Arabia since March 2015. Britain’s seemingly bottomless support for the absolute monarchy even went as far as the UK Foreign Secretary recently lobbying Germany to resume their arms sales to the Kingdom following a ban after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Speaking to the House of Lords Select Committee Burt said he wanted to make it “very clear” that the UK was “not a party to the military conflict as part of the coalition.” However, last month The Mail on Sunday revealed British Special Forces had been wounded in combat fighting against Houthi rebels. The report notes “The SBS [Special Boat Service] mentoring teams inside Yemen include… Forward Air Controllers (FACs), whose job is to request air support from the Saudis.”

Britain’s rapacious role in Yemen is quite simply “the worst thing that the British government is doing today”, Dr David Wearing, a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, argued in a 2017 Novara Media video. “Make no mistake: the British role here is not trivial. If the considerable assistance that our government is providing to the Saudis was to be removed it would seriously impede the Saudi war effort.”

Burt, then, as the UK’s Minister of State for the Middle East, was up to his neck in the blood of tens of thousands of Yemeni men, women and children. Not according to Laura Kuenssberg though, who called him a “well respected foreign office minister”, or Save The Children’s James Denselow, who shockingly called Burt’s resignation “a loss to Middle East diplomacy.” Never has Mark Curtis’s concept of “Unpeople” been so apt: “the modern equivalent of the ‘savages’ of colonial days, who could be mown down by British guns in virtual secrecy, or else in circumstances where the perpetrators were hailed as the upholders of civilisation.”

As the American historian Howard Zinn once noted “The truth is so often the reverse of what has been told us by our culture that we cannot turn our heads far enough around to see it.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

What’s British imperialism up to in Oman?

What’s British imperialism up to in Oman?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 January 2019

In his new book AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain, Dr David Wearing observes: “British power has been an important factor (among others) in the promotion and preservation of monarchical rule” in the Arabian Gulf.

With the Morning Star’s Phil Miller recently writing a couple of exposes of the UK’s military involvement in Oman it is worth taking time to explore the British government’s wider relationship with the so-called “sleepy sultanate” in more detail.

Since signing an “assistance” treaty with Oman in 1798 — its first in the region — Britain has played the role of imperial overseer to the country. British historian Mark Curtis notes the “extremely repressive” regime of Sultan Said bin Taimur from 1932-70 “was in effect run by the British.”

Britons served as commanders of the armed forces, ministers for financial affairs, foreign affairs and petroleum affairs, as well as the director of intelligence, Curtis notes in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World.

However, with the country in the midst of civil war, by 1970 the Sultan had come to be seen as an unreliable and weak leader by the British, who helped to overthrow him in a palace coup.

For his troubles he was settled in the Dorchester Hotel back in London, where he died two years later. His own son, the modernising Qaboos, was installed in his place, and 49 years later he still rules Oman, making him the longest-serving ruler in the Arab world.

As this longevity suggests, Oman is an absolute monarchy, in which “nearly all power remains with the monarch,” according to University of Exeter’s Dr Marc Valeri, an expert on Oman.

Qaboos “concurrently holds the positions of prime minister, commander in chief of the armed forces, chairman of the central bank, and minister of defence, foreign affairs, and finance,” Valeri notes in a 2015 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report.

Political parties are banned and press freedom is severely curtailed.

With Qaboos presenting Oman as an oasis of stability in a volatile region, one intellectual provided important context when interviewed by Valeri in 2012: “Omanis were not silent by choice … rather they were silenced by the regime. The Omani population was very quiet because of repression and fear: ‘Don’t talk about politics: you will be taken behind the sun’!”

As this quote intimates, the relationship between ruler and ruled has started to shift in recent years, with more Omanis publicly criticising their government.

In 2010 an online petition was submitted to Qaboos pushing for “widespread reforms, such as a new constitution that would lead to a parliamentary monarchy,” Valeri writes.

Inspired by the Arab Spring protests rocking the rest of the Arab world, in early 2011 (largely peaceful) demonstrations occurred in several cities in Oman.

Though the protesters’ key demands centred on improved job opportunities, increased wages and an end to rampant corruption, there were also calls for political reform, including giving more power to the elected Consultative Council, increased independence for the judiciary and a free and open media.

Smaller in size than in many other Arab nations, the demonstrations in Oman nevertheless forced significant, though limited, concessions from the regime, such as an increase in the minimum wage, the creation of 50,000 jobs, the firing of several ministers and a small increase in the powers of the Consultative Council.

However, along with the carrot, Qaboos also made good use of the stick, with Valeri noting: “Several hundred protesters, journalists, and human rights activists were arrested all over the country.”

After 2011 the repression increased, Valeri noted in 2015. “Oman’s overly broad laws restrict the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association,” Human Rights Watch summarises on its website today.

“The authorities target peaceful activists, pro-reform bloggers, and government critics using short-term arrests and detentions and other forms of harassment.”

The British government, so keen to highlight human rights abuses carried out by governments in “enemy” states such as Libya and Syria, has, as far as I can tell, been completely silent about the protests and government crackdown in Oman.

How do I know? After a fruitless search of its website, I asked the Foreign Office and Commonwealth (FCO) press office to confirm whether the British government has made any public statements since 2010 about human rights in Oman.

It has been unable to point to any such statement, claiming there are too many statements to search through to know.

This silence is unsurprising, when one considers Britain’s deep geostrategic and economic interests in maintaining the status quo in Oman: along with Iran, Oman is situated beside “the world’s most important chokepoint for oil, the Strait of Hormuz, which is the conduit for about 40 per cent of the crude [oil] traded internationally,” Bloomberg recently reported.

Britain has recently announced the opening of two new military bases in Oman — the Duqm Port complex and a “joint training base,” the latter announced by Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson in November.

With the latter able to accommodate submarines and Britain’s new aircraft carriers, the bases are part of a broader military engagement with the Gulf, allowing Britain to more effectively project military power in the resource-rich region.

For example, during the 2001 US and British-led invasion of Afghanistan, Oman “provided crucial logistics and base facilities for British forces,” Curtis explains.

We have the US whistleblower Edward Snowden to thank for revealing another reason for Britain’s enduring interest in Oman — files he leaked in 2013 show Britain has a secret network of three spy bases in Oman which tap into the undersea fibreoptic cables passing through the Strait of Hormuz.

These intelligence facilities “intercept and process vast quantities of emails, telephone calls and web traffic,” information which is “then shared with the National Security Agency in the United States,” Curtis explained in a 2016 article for the Huffington Post.

There is concern amongst the Omani population about their government’s close relationship to Britain and the US.

Valeri refers to “online writers and protesters who openly criticised the ruler’s practices” such as “his proximity to British and US interests” being “quickly arrested and condemned to jail” after the 2011 protests.

Indeed, Britain is directly involved in the repression of domestic opposition in Oman.

“British police officers have trained members of Oman’s Special Forces, police and military in ‘public order’ tactics since 2014 as part of a controversial $1.2m security and justice project,” the Middle East Eye reported in 2017.

It turns out the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been instructing the Omani authorities in “how to deal with strikes and stifle protests under a Foreign Office-funded project.”

Having fled Oman in 2013 after being repeatedly arrested, Omani human rights campaigner Khalfan al-Badwawi told the Middle East Eye “Britain’s military relationship with Oman” is “a major obstacle to human rights campaigners in Oman because of the military and intelligence support from London that props up the Sultan’s dictatorship.”

Nabhan Alhanshi, who fled Oman in 2012 and is now the director of an organisation looking at human rights in his home country, concurs.

“We in the Omani Centre for Human Rights believe that the British negligence of the human rights situations in Oman encourages the Omani government to commit more violations,” he told me.

With the mainstream media unwilling to report on this issue, the left in Britain has a key role to play in highlighting Britain’s forgotten friendship with the autocracy in Oman.

Like the anti-war movement did in Iraq and Afghanistan, progressives need to make concrete links of with pro-democracy activists and organisations in Oman and the rest of the Gulf monarchies.

With the British government’s support for Qaboos’s dictatorial rule as strong as ever, this population-to-population solidarity is one way Britons can help to build the more democratic, free and equal Oman that many Omanis have been working towards for so long.

Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter at @IanJSinclair.

The original Fake News? The BBC and the Information Research Department

The original Fake News? The BBC and the Information Research Department
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
9 January 2019

Last month Ritula Shah presented a BBC World Service discussion programme titled Is ‘Fake News’ A Threat To Democracy? Predictably the debate focused on Russian attempts to influence Western populations and political systems.

Asked whether the US has been involved in similar activities, Dr Kathleen Bailey, a senior figure in the US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the 1980s, was dismissive: “We [the US] certainly do not have a budget, bureaucracy or intellectual commitment to doing that kind of thing.”

Carl Miller, the Research Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, also played down the West’s activities: “I think Western countries do do less of this as a kind of tool of foreign policy than autocracies”.

“Read real journalism” – presumably BBC journalism – was one of the guest’s suggestions for countering Fake News.

Putting this self-serving and self-congratulatory narrative to one side, it is worth considering the BBC’s, and particularly the BBC World Service’s, own relationship to the British government’s own propaganda.

“Directly funded by government [the Foreign Office], rather than the licence fee” the World Service is “deeply embedded in the foreign policy, security and intelligence apparatus of the British state”, Dr Tom Mills notes in his must-read 2016 book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service.

In particular, the BBC had a very close relationship to the Information Research Department [IRD] – “a Foreign Office propaganda outfit which sought especially to foster anti-communist sentiments on the left”, explains Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University.

Set up in 1948, the IRD “was one of the largest and best-funded sections of the Foreign Office until it was discreetly shut down in 1977 on the orders of [then Foreign Secretary] David Owen”, investigative journalist Ian Cobain reported in the Guardian in July 2018. A 1963 Foreign Office review of IRD sets out the work of the covert unit: “The primary aim is unattributable propaganda through IRD outlets – eg in the press, the political parties… and a number of societies”.

Focusing on the Soviet Union and its supposed influence around the world, “IRD material poured into the BBC and was directed to news desks, talks writers and different specialist correspondents”, according to Paul Lashmar and James Oliver in Britain’s Secret Propaganda War, their 1998 history of the clandestine organisation. The programming of the BBC’s Overseas Service [which would change its name to the World Service in 1965] “was developed in close consultation with the Foreign Office and its information departments”, they highlight.

The BBC “were seemingly quite content to be directed by the FO [Foreign Office] as to how to deal with Middle Eastern personalities, and enquired whether it was desirable for them ‘to deal in a more or less bare-fisted manner with any of the leading statesmen (or their principle spokesmen)’”, notes Simon Collier in his 2013 PhD thesis on IRD and UK foreign policy. Infamously, the BBC played a key role in the US-UK assisted overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister in 1953, with the signal for the coup to begin arranged with the BBC. That day the corporation begun its Persian language news broadcast not with the usual “it is now midnight in London”, but instead with “it is now exactly midnight”, reveals historian Mark Curtis in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World.

When it came to nuclear war, the BBC was similarly careful about what was broadcast, effectively banning the dramatised documentary film War Game in 1965 (even though they had originally commissioned it). Discussing the film’s depiction of a nuclear attack on the UK, the Chairman of the BBC wrote to the Cabinet Secretary arguing that the “showing of the film on television might well have a significant effect on public attitudes towards the policy of the nuclear deterrent.”

Though formally concerned with foreign influence, IRD also took a close interest in UK domestic politics, including in the Northern Ireland conflict, aswell as carrying out campaigns against people they suspected were Communists and trade unionists. For example, writing in the Guardian last year Cobain reported “senior figures in Harold Wilson’s Labour government plotted to use a secret Foreign Office propaganda unit [IRD] to smear a number of leftwing trade union leaders”, including Jack Jones, the General-Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. In the same report Cobain highlights a letter the BBC Director General wrote to IRD in 1974 asking for a briefing on “subversives” working in broadcasting. This, it seems likely, was a complement to the wider political vetting the BBC undertook, with the help of MI5, between the 1930s and 1985. Communists and members of the Socialist Worker’s Party and Militant Tendency were barred from key positions at the BBC, or denied promotion if they were already working for the corporation, according to a memo from 1984, with an image reassembling a Christmas tree added to the personnel files of individuals under suspicion.

It is important to understand the relationship between the BBC and IRD and the wider British state was kept deliberately vague, a quintessential British fudge of formal and informal connections and influence. “Many of the executives of the BBC had gone to the same public schools, and inevitably Oxbridge, with their Foreign Office colleagues”, note Lashmar and Oliver. “Both were part of the establishment, attending the same gentleman’s clubs and having an implicit understanding of what constituted the national interest.”

Cutting through this fog, Mills provides a concise summary: “During the Cold War period the BBC was… distributing propaganda material in close cooperation with the British state”. However, he is keen to highlight that though “there is a temptation to view all this as merely a feature of the Cold War… there is no good reason to think that there is not still significant collusion”.

He quotes Dr Emma Briant, who notes in her 2015 book Propaganda and Counter-Terrorism the BBC Director General receives direct briefings from the UK intelligence services “on the right line to take on whether something is in the national and operational interest to broadcast.”

Indeed, out of all the UK broadcasters’ coverage of the Iraq War, the BBC was revealed to by the most sympathetic to the government, according to a 2003 study led by Professor Justin Lewis from Cardiff University’s School of Journalism. Defending the BBC’s reporting in a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2003, then BBC Director General Greg Dyke noted he had “set up a committee… which insisted that we had to find a balanced audience for programmes like Question Time at a time when it was very hard to find supporters of the war willing to come on.” The same committee “when faced with a massive bias against the war among phone-in callers, decided to increase the number of phone lines so that pro-war listeners had a better chance of getting through and getting onto the programmes”, Dyke explained. This “was done in an attempt to ensure our coverage was balanced”, Dyke wrote, apparently with a straight face.

Moreover, academic studies on issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict and the financial crisis shows the BBC has tended to reflect “the ideas and interests of elite groups, and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives”, to quote Mills on the BBC’s overall journalistic output.

Turning to contemporary politics, in 2016 Sir Michael Lyons, the former Chair of the BBC Trust, raised concerns about the corporation’s coverage of new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn “I can understand why people are worried about whether some of the most senior editorial voices in the BBC have lost their impartiality on this”, he noted.

As is often the case, a careful reading of establishment sources can provide illumination about what is really going on. Concerned about the government proposed cuts to the World Service, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee highlighted the propaganda role of the BBC in 2014: “We believe that it would not be in the interests of the UK for the BBC to lose sight of the priorities of the FCO, which relies upon the World Service as an instrument of ‘soft power’.”

Fake News indeed.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.