Tag Archives: Public opinion

Book review. The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock

Book review. The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2022-January 2023

In 2019 the Washington Post published a treasure trove of documents which proved ‘US officials had repeatedly lied to the public about what was happening in Afghanistan, just as they had in Vietnam.’ This industrial-scale deception was spread across the three presidencies of Bush, Obama and Trump.

The papers included notes from over 1,000 interviews with people who played a direct role in the war – taken from huge Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reports unearthed by Freedom of Information lawsuits, Army oral history interviews, Defense Department memos and testimony from senior members of the Bush Administration.

Now summarised in book form, the vast majority of people quoted are from the US military and government, which means the criticisms are highly circumscribed. The gap between rosy official statements and the reality on the ground in Afghanistan is repeatedly highlighted, as is the level of cultural ignorance and bureaucratic inefficiency exhibited by Western forces. However, the idea the military occupation itself was the fundamental driver of the insurgency is never seriously considered.

A veteran Washington Post journalist, Craig Whitlock himself occasionally reveals his own ideological blinkers. Describing Bush’s publicly stated aim of transforming Afghanistan as ‘noble and high-minded’, he notes the US ‘inadvertently built a corrupt, dysfunctional Afghan government’ and ‘tolerated’ warlords. This massively downplays US culpability – only a few pages earlier he explains the CIA ‘dangling bags of cash as a lure… recruitedwar criminals, drug traffickers, smugglers’, including Abdul Rashid Dotsum, a notoriously brutal warlord, who received $70,000 a month from the CIA, according to a 2014 Washington Post report.

The most eye-opening chapters are those on US-assisted corruption and the strained relations between the US and the increasingly independent Hamid Karzai, leader of Afghanistan from 2002 to 2014. For example, before the 2009 Afghan presidential election, Obama’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke encouraged other candidates to stand to reduce the chances of Karzai winning. Later Karzai impeded the signing of a US-Afghan security pact which would authorise the US to keep troops in the country after 2014, insisting US soldiers be banned from raiding Afghan homes. In response the US threatened to withdraw all of their forces. Karzai prevailed in this dispute, though the US signed the agreement with Karzai’s successor in 2014.

With in-depth references and copious quotes from government documents there is lots of interesting information here. However, there is a frustrating lack of joined-up thinking. If the US repeatedly tried to force Karzai’s hand what does it say about the US’s so-called democracy promotion?

And other than a couple of passing mentions, Whitlock never properly explores why the US government repeatedly lied – because they feared US (and European) publics would turn against the war. It is this insight – that domestic public opinion is always a crucial battleground in Western wars – that is arguably the most important message peace and anti-war activists can take from the book.

Public opinion and coronavirus: the sleeping giant the government is afraid of

Public opinion and coronavirus: the sleeping giant the government is afraid of
by Ian Sinclair
Byline Times
1 May 2020

“All politicians recognize the force of public opinion”, Richard Gregg wrote in his 1934 book The Power of Nonviolence.

There is evidence this truism applies to the coronavirus outbreak in the UK. “Conservative backbenchers voiced concern in private about the government’s failure to roll out testing faster, saying there was anxiety that the public mood could turn against the government if it appeared there was no end to the lockdown as a result”, the Guardian reported on 2 April. “One senior MP said the party would be watching the polls closely and that he was ‘frankly amazed’ that Johnson’s popularity was holding up. A bit like the virus, there might be a two-week lag before the public comes to fully realise that the government is failing to get the testing issue under control, they said.” The source continued: “The death toll will become totemic. If we get thousands of people dying every day for several days, who knows where this will go. It is frightening, and the prime minister looks like he doesn’t know what to do.”

More explicitly, a “cabinet source” was quoted in the Telegraph on 18 April about the government’s so-called “exit plan” from the lockdown: “They [the government] are waiting for the public to change their mind. We didn’t want to go down this route in the first place – public and media pressure pushed the lockdown, we went with the science.”

So there you have it: according to a “cabinet source” the public played a key role in forcing the government’s hand in introducing the national lockdown on 23 March. A new Ipsos MORI poll suggests public opinion is shifting against the government on the timing of the lockdown, with 66 percent of people saying the Government acted too late in taking stricter measures, up from 57 percent two weeks ago.

Beyond the present crisis, recent history is littered with examples of public opinion and public pressure impacting the actions of government and corporations.

For example, last month the Telegraph reported Shell has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, with its Chief Executive noting “Society’s expectations have shifted quickly in the debate around climate change.” The Tory broadsheet provided the crucial context: “Oil companies have been rocked by the pace at which climate activists have demanded action, forcing them to burnish their green credentials.” The early years of the Coalition government provided another inspiring example of people power, with a Guardian headline in February 2011 explaining ‘English Woodlands Sell-Off Postponed After Public Backlash’. Luckily government plans to sell off a huge chunk of the public forest estate had been leaked in October 2010. A huge movement quickly rose up in defence of our woodlands: 38 Degrees organised an online petition that gained 500,000 signatures, popular local campaigns sprang up in the Forest of Dean and other locations and public figures, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and Dame Judi Dench, spoke out. Victory was achieved on 16 February when Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons he was not happy with the government’s sell-off plans.

Going back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, many people continue to believe the anti-war movement was ineffective. However, there is evidence to suggest the unprecedented large-scale opposition, though it didn’t stop the war, was heard in the halls of power and inhibited UK foreign policy.

In the week before the US-UK attack on Iraq the Spanish Ambassador to the United Nations noted Britain was becoming “nervous” and “exclusively obsessed” with domestic public opinion, according to the Guardian. This fits with British historian Mark Curtis’s belief that in 2002-3 the British public were victims of “a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world.” Indeed, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was involved in a media offensive circa September 2003 – “aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq war”, the Guardian reported. Leaked papers from a media seminar held in London reveal “the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of Basra headquarters for British troops in the Iraqi people.”

The campaign was not successful. The British public continued to oppose British intervention, while Iraqi public opinion was strongly opposed to the British military occupation in Southern Iraq. In 2005 the Telegraph reported an internal Ministry of Defence poll had found 45 per cent of Iraqis believed attacks against the US and UK troops were justified (rising to 65 per cent in the British controlled Maysan province). Similarly, a 2007 Opinion Research Business poll for BBC Newsnight found 83 per cent of the adults surveyed in Basra wanted British troops to leave Iraq.

British forces pulled out of Basra in September 2007. Reporting from Washington DC in August 2007, the Telegraph’s Tim Shipman noted “the US military has no doubt, despite what [Prime Minister] Gordon Brown claims, that the pullout is being driven by ‘the political situation at home in the UK’”. The report quoted a “senior US officer familiar with [top US] General Petreaus’s thinking”: “Britain is in a difficult spot because of the lack of political support at home, but for a long time – more than a year – they have not been engaged in Basra and have tried to avoid casualties.”

This concern about domestic public opinion and casualties echoes what was happening in Afghanistan. With a UK general election looming, in November 2009 the Observer reported General Stanley McChrystal, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, “holds 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”.

The opposition of the general public to the UK’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, then, played a crucial role in constraining UK forces, almost certainly preventing them carrying out more aggressive operations in those countries.

We must not “forget our own influence, the innumerable times we’ve swayed outcomes”, US author Rebecca Solnit wrote in 2016. Highlighting successful examples of people power in recent history such as the gaining of civil rights for African Americans and how women got the vote, she notes “in all these cases, the people who we mislabel ‘leaders’ only followed the will of the people.”

Returning to the coronavirus crisis, the Guardian reports rightwingers in the government and wider Tory party are pushing for an early exit from the lockdown – due to concerns about the economy. Other news reports suggest the cabinet is split on the issue, with Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab favouring lifting the lockdown sooner rather than later, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock favouring a more cautious approach.

As former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell recently tweeted: “Without mass testing & tracing & with a government that can’t even manage the supply of PPE” locking the lockdown “would be lethal, irresponsible & putting profit before people’s lives.”

So on the question of when to lift the lockdown, public pressure has the potential to leverage influence on government, strengthening the voices of those in government and on its scientific advisory bodies that are more hesitant about sacrificing lives at the altar of the economy. A new poll from Opinium suggests there is a broad public consensus on this, with 67 percent of respondents opposed to opening schools, 78 percent and 81 percent opposed to opening restaurants and pubs respectively, and 84 percent against allowing mass gatherings at sports events or concerts to resume.

It is no exaggeration to suggest the lives of thousands of Britons are hanging in the balance. After all a Financial Times’s analysis of Office for National Statistics figures estimates 48,100 people (as of 30 April) have died in the UK because of the outbreak, while epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College recently warned lifting the lockdown too early could lead to 100,000 deaths.

The question is will concerned citizens make their voices heard and force the government to take the most effective and humane action possible in these difficult circumstances?

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

How public opinion constrains Britain’s military interventions: Paul Dixon interview

How public opinion constrains Britain’s military interventions: Paul Dixon interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
1 August 2018

The idea that public opinion has little or no impact on British foreign policy is a common view, even held by some on the left.

For example, writing on the New Left Project website in 2012, University of Westminster academic John Brissenden concluded:

“The idea of public opinion … having any influence over” Afghan policy and other British military interventions is “a convenient myth.”

Warrior Nation: War, Militarisation and British Democracy, a new Forces Watch report written by Professor Paul Dixon, suggests a very different reality.

The main focus of the report is the “militarisation offensive” that was launched in 2006 “by a loose and diverse group of politicians, military chiefs, newspapers and pressure groups.”

This offensive included the introduction of Armed Forces Day, a much higher profile for the charity Help For Heroes, boosting the so-called Military Covenant and the expansion of cadet programmes in state schools.

Speaking to me over coffee in central London, Dixon, an honorary research fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London, explains this pro-military public relations campaign was a response to the low level of support the British public had given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Part of this militarisation offensive is to try and generate support for the war in Afghanistan, partly by implying that, if you want to support our boys on the front line, you have to support the war that they are fighting,” Dixon argues.

However, while support for the military increased — polling showed “the military going from a highly popular institution in British society to a spectacularly popular one” — he notes “public opinion is able to distinguish between support for the military as an institution, and support for our boys and girls out there fighting, and support for the war,” which continued to be unpopular with the public.

He notes another aim of the militarisation offensive was “to increase the power of the military within the British state and gain greater control over Afghan policy.”

This is particularly important because, as Dixon sets out in the report, the British military “used its influence to exert pressure on prime minister Tony Blair to adopt the highest level of British military involvement in the Iraq war.”

Similarly, the report highlights how “the military also pushed for an escalation of Britain’s involvement in the ‘good war’ in Afghanistan” in 2006.

“Some people think the extent of Britain’s military deployment [in Iraq] was in order to appease the Americans,” says Dixon.

“But it wasn’t really because the Americans didn’t require the 45,000 British military personnel that were deployed and would have accepted far less.

“It was the army, in particular, looking after its own organisational interests, that wanted to be involved in the invasion and that would give it a stake in defence expenditure. But also give it the high profile that helps to empower it.”

According to Dixon, the British military played a clever game to get the British government to do what it wanted, saying: “They go to the US military and get the US military and the US president to put pressure on the British government — in the case of Iraq to increase the British military contributions to the Iraq invasion and on defence spending increased British defence expenditure.”

The report also sets out several important ways public opinion inhibited the government and military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

First, public opinion probably influenced the level and location of deployments. The report cites a 2016 article in the Royal United Services Institute journal summarising the key findings of the Chilcot inquiry which noted British troop numbers in post-2003 Iraq were “driven by political constraints rather than military necessity.”

This meant “the UK had had insufficient troops to be effective,” which “forced commanders in-theatre to react to events and not to be able to shape them.”

“The nature of Britain’s deployment being sent into southern Iraq to look after Basra. That was, I think, partly the result of a perception by the Americans of the political constraints operating on Blair,” Dixon argues.

“You can’t send British troops into a heavier area where they are more likely to take greater casualties because of the domestic political constraints on Blair.”

As Dixon repeatedly explains during the interview, public opinion is particularly sensitive to British casualties, a reality the government and military are hypersensitive to.

“In the accounts of generals and soldiers on the ground [in Afghanistan] they are saying: ‘Look, if we lose a Chinook [helicopter] full of British soldiers that could undermine the whole operation’,” he says.

“They think a catastrophe like that, and its impact on British public opinion, would be a disaster and that would generate further and perhaps more active support for withdrawal.”

A November 2009 Guardian report confirms the level of risk the military were willing to take with British soldiers was influenced by concerns about public opinion.

General McChrystal, the then Nato commander in Afghanistan, was reported as saying British troops should be moved out of “harm’s way” because the Taliban would probably target them in the lead-up to the 2010 British general election.

According to the Guardian, McChrystal “holds 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’.”

Finally, the opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is likely to have influenced the timing of the withdrawal of British troops from both campaigns. The report references Professor Hew Strachan, one of top military historians in Britain, writing about Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement in 2010 that British troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2014. “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.”

Looking to the future, Dixon believes Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, should he be elected prime minister, “would have to anticipate that he would get considerable criticism and resistance from within the military to any plans that he might have to tackle militarisation or scale back defence expenditure.”

As Corbyn “would come under attack from a lot of different directions,” Dixon suggests “he might want to be tactical about who he takes on and when he takes them on, rather than taking on simultaneously a lot of vested interests.”

And what advice would he give to peace and anti-war activists looking to have the greatest impact on British foreign policy?

“Coming from a realist perspective what I would say is we need to see the world as it is and not as we would like it to be,” Dixon replies.

“Seeing the world in that way allows us to be more tactical and strategic about how we achieve our goals.”

For example, while peace activists often focus on the effects of the British military on the local population where they are operating, Dixon notes: “One of the powerful constraints on military interventions, where you are going to deploy substantial numbers of troops … is going to be that chauvinism within British public opinion that does not want to see its boys and girls lost in those wars.”

He also highlights how the peace movement often shares similar concerns with the political right. People like former Telegraph editor Max Hastings, the Mail on Sunday’s Peter Hitchens and ex-Times Editor Simon Jenkins “understand that it’s important that the military are subordinate to politicians and the government of the day” and “have mounted quite strong critiques” of British foreign military adventures, he notes.

Dixon ends with some hopeful advice for peace activists. “Your activism really matters. If you go out on the streets and you are active, the political elite, even if they don’t admit it, will take notice of that because they are scared and they are worried.”

Don’t just take Dixon’s word for it. Here is General Sir Richard Dannatt, writing as the new head of the British army in 2006. “Losing popular support at home is the single biggest danger to our chances of success in our current operations.”

Warrior Nation: War, Militarisation and British Democracy is available to download from the Forces Watch website www.forceswatch.net.

The Politics of Fantasy? Jeremy Corbyn and public opinion

The politics of fantasy? Jeremy Corbyn and public opinion
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
30 July 2016

A common refrain among the elite and mainstream media commentators is that “Jeremy Corbyn’s politics are fantasy”, as the headline to an Observer op-ed by Tony Blair put it August 2015. Similarly, just after Corbyn began his campaign to be Labour leader in June 2015 the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee argued the Islington North MP was “a 1983 man” and “a relic”. A vote for Corbyn “is ignoring the electorate”, Toynbee argued. Before she stepped aside in the current leadership contest, Angela Eagle went one further, arguing Corbyn “doesn’t connect with Labour voters”.

The latter criticism is easily dismissed – Corbyn was elected with the biggest mandate of any Labour leader in history, and a new YouGov poll finds Corbyn gets the support of 54 percent of the party’s members, with Eagle coming second on 21 percent and Owen Smith trailing on 15 percent.

But what about his politics and policy suggestions? How do they sit with British public opinion?

Like Corbyn, a 2014 YouGov poll for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) found “a majority of the UK public believes the gap between the rich and the poor is bad for society and the economy”, according to Steve Hart, the Chair of CLASS.

To tackle income inequality, in January 2016 the Labour leader suggested maximum pay ratios – a policy backed by 65 percent of people quizzed by YouGov/CLASS. He also pushed for all companies to pay a living wage – supported by 60 percent of people according to a 2013 Survation survey – and stripping private schools of the charitable status, a move the YouGov/CLASS poll found was backed by 55 percent of respondents.

Turning to health, in contrast to Owen Smith’s 2006 Wales Online interview supporting private sector involvement in the NHS, Corbyn believes in a publicly run NHS – a position supported by 84 per cent of the public, according to a 2013 YouGov poll.

In May 2016 Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell confirmed Labour’s plan was to build 100,000 new council houses a year. ‘More social housing’ was the top answer – given by 58 percent of respondents – when an April 2016 Guardian Cities poll asked people about solutions to the housing crisis. McDonnell also said a Labour government would give councils the power to impose rent controls – a policy supported by 60 percent of British people, including 42 percent of Tory voters, according to a 2015 YouGov poll.

Corbyn supports the nationalisation of the railways, a position backed by 66 percent of the public, including a majority of Conservative voters, according 2013 YouGov poll. He also believes the Royal Mail should be publicly owned, a position supported by 67 percent of the public, including 48 percent of Tory voters, according to the same poll.

On foreign policy, Corbyn was a key figure in the anti-war movement that opposed the deeply unpopular Iraq War, speaking to the biggest protest in British history on 15 February 2003. On Afghanistan, Corbyn opposed the war and supported the withdrawal of British troops. Polls from 2008 onwards consistently found the British public supported the withdrawal of British troops. On Trident, Corbyn’s lifelong commitment to scrapping the UK’s nuclear weapons is shared by a significant minority of the population – an impressive level of opposition when you consider the British establishment and three main parties have historically supported the retention of Trident.

On the issues Corbyn’s politics don’t reflect public opinion, arguably these are often surrounded by significant levels of media-generated misinformation. For example, polls note the majority of the public support a benefit cap of £20,000 nationwide – a cut Corbyn and many charities working on poverty strongly opposed. At the same time a 2012 TUC/YouGov poll found widespread ignorance about spending on welfare. Asked what percentage of the welfare budget was spent on unemployment benefits, the average answer given was 41 percent (the correct figure is 3 percent). Asked what percentage of the welfare budget was claimed fraudulently, people estimated 27 percent (the government estimate is 0.7 percent). The survey found that public support for the then Coalition government’s plans to cut benefits was highest amongst the most ignorant.

In conclusion, what all this polling evidence clearly shows is that many of Corbyn’s political positions command the support of large sections of the British public, often a majority. And importantly, the polls highlight that many of his positions receive significant levels of support from Tory voters.

However, a new London School of Economics study highlights the problems Corbyn’s Labour Government faces in reaching the general public. Analysing press coverage of Corbyn in September and October 2015, the survey found “an overall picture of most newspapers systematically vilifying” the leader of the biggest opposition party, assassinating his character, ridiculing his personality and delegitimising his ideas and politics.” Noting other left-wing leaders also received negative press attention, the authors of the study note “in the case of Corbyn the degree of antagonism and hatred… has arguably reached new heights.”

Whether Corbyn will be able to successfully articulate his popular politics and policies in the face of continuous attacks from the overwhelming hostile media, many Labour MPs, the Tory Government and wider British elite, and whether he and his own team is up to the job in getting the message across – these are different and difficult questions which we will find out the answers to soon enough.

A deviation from the mainstream? Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy positions and public opinion

A deviation from the mainstream? Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy positions and public opinion
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
13 October 2015

In a recent blog for the Political Studies Association James Strong, a Fellow in Foreign Policy Analysis and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, argues:

“A quick perusal of [the new Labour Party leader Jeremy] Corbyn’s track record on foreign and defence policy issues highlights three key areas where his views deviate from the mainstream, over NATO, military intervention and the Trident nuclear weapons system.”

Strong goes on to flesh out his thesis, comparing polling data to Corbyn’s positions on a number of foreign policy questions including the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2011 intervention in Libya, the 2013 plan to attack Syria, the bombing of Iraq that started in 2014 and Trident.

As Strong’s argument echoes much of the media coverage of Corbyn, it is worth taking some time to stress test his thesis. Below I highlight a number of serious problems with Strong’s analysis.

Strong chooses to omit any mention of Afghanistan

Shockingly, Strong chooses not to mention the UK’s intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. With Britain’s combat role formally ending in 2014, the war in Afghanistan was one of the longest campaigns in British military history, with over 450 British soldiers dying.

What was the outcome of the UK’s 13-year occupation of Afghanistan? In his 2013 book ‘An Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War’, Frank Ledwidge, a former Naval reserve military intelligence officer who served as a civilian advisor in Helmand, notes 2,600 British troops were wounded in the conflict, and more than 5,000 have been “psychologically injured”. He estimates the cost of the British intervention to be £37 billion, the deployment leading to the destabilisation of most of Helmand province, hundreds of civilian deaths and an increase in the terror threat to the UK. By 2014 the New York Times was quoting Helmandis as saying “the Taliban have never been stronger in the province.”

We can only speculate why Strong chose to omit any reference to Afghanistan, but one wonders if it has anything to do with the fact that Corbyn’s opposition to the war and his belief that British forces should have been withdrawn earlier than 2014 has been broadly in line with public opinion for a number of years.

Strong is selective and disingenuous when it comes to some of the polling evidence

On Trident, Strong argues Corbyn’s position is “not representative of the electorate as a whole” as he “favours nuclear disarmament while his countrymen (including even the Scots) largely do not.” This difference – along with others – is “large, profound and likely to be problematic”, according to Strong.

In support of his assertion Strong cites a January 2015 YouGov poll which shows just 25% of people favour total disarmament, and an Independent article quoting Glasgow University’s Dr Phillips O’Brien as saying there is “no convincing statistical evidence” that the majority of Scots are actually opposed to Trident.

Citing one poll, as Strong does on Trident, is, very obviously, a deeply flawed way to gain an understanding of national public opinion. John Curtice, a Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University who writes about electoral behaviour and researches political and social attitudes, makes the obvious point that the result of a poll “depends a bit on how you word the question”. Indeed, in the same January 2015 BBC article Curtis notes “For the most part, the majority of polls suggest that there is a smallish plurality opposed to the renewal of Trident.”

Surveying 20 opinion polls on Trident in 2013, Nick Ritchie, a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of York, notes the “Polls suggest British opinion may have moved from majority support for replacing Trident to majority support against replacement.” Ritchie further explains that the polling data shows the vast majority of people do not consider Trident to be an important political issue, with “only a small section of the electorate… likely to allow the issue of nuclear weapons to influence their vote in a general election”.

Presuming Curtice and Ritchie are correct, Corbyn reflects the view of most people who give an opinion on Trident, though the issue is not very high on voters priorities in terms of choosing who to vote for. Hardly the “large”, “profound” and “problematic” difference Strong suggests.

Turning to NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011 (which Corbyn opposed inside and outside parliament), Strong notes “the public were divided on the prospect of action against the Gaddafi regime”. To support his argument Strong links to an article summarising the results of two polls taken in the very early stages of the conflict: a YouGov poll which found people supported the military action against Libya by 45% to 36%, and a ComRes poll that “found almost the exact opposite ‒ 35% supported the action but 43% opposed it.”

Strong doesn’t mention them but there were other polls taken during this period, such as two polls by the British Election Survey analysed by six political scientists in a 2014 article published by in British Journal of Political and International Relations. The first poll, taken just after hostilities began, found 30 percent of people approved of British involvement “whereas a plurality 44 percent disapproved”. A month later just 23 percent supported the British involvement with 50 percent opposed. Writing for PSA’s Political Insight blog the six specialists noted “the British population… always opposed Libyan intervention.”

However, let’s assume that Strong’s assertion that the public was broadly divided over the Libyan intervention is correct. The problem with his analysis is that it limits itself to taking the temperature of public opinion at one particularly heightened point of the conflict. A serious analysis would surely expand on this because public support for military intervention tends to be highest at the beginning of a conflict when members of the British armed forces are perceived to be in harm’s way, government and media pro-intervention propaganda is at its height and the outcome of the conflict is uncertain.

The key question, then, is surely this: if the pollster had told those being polled that the NATO intervention would go beyond its initial remit and help to illegally overthrow the Libyan government, be a chief cause of ongoing violent chaos in Libya which would destabilise surrounding nations, empower extremists and play a central role in the refugee crisis – all widely accepted by mainstream scholars as consequences of the intervention – would support for the war have increased or decreased? We don’t need to guess. In October 2011 – just after the Libyan leader was killed and Libyan government forces effectively defeated – 49 percent of the public told YouGov it was right to take military action. By February 2015 – when the disastrous impact of the intervention was better known – YouGov found support for the intervention had plummeted to 30 percent, with 33 percent opposed.

The same broadly applies to Afghanistan. Corbyn opposed the attack on Afghanistan from the start – which set him against the broad support the war had with the British public. However, by the later years of the British intervention and immediately after the official British withdrawal a majority of the British public opposed the intervention.

One can therefore make two important conclusions about Corbyn, public opinion and the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. First it is clear the public mood shifted as the public learned more about the conflicts and the negative effect British forces invariably had in each instance. Second, it is clear Corbyn has been an astute analyst in terms of opposing three wars that have had a disastrous effect on the local population, British troops and the wider region, with large sections of the public eventually coming round to his broad position of opposition in each case.

Strong refuses to engage with the likelihood that Corbyn’s election as Labour leader will itself shift public opinion on foreign policy

Simply comparing current public opinion with Corbyn’s publicly stated views on foreign policy, while of some interest, is a simplistic and limited form of analysis. Public opinion shifts constantly and is influenced by various factors, including changing levels of knowledge. Therefore, a more nuanced and mature analysis would highlight the fact that the narrow spectrum of political and media debate in the UK has largely presented the general public with an equally narrow and limited understanding of foreign policy and possible policy options. To take one example, in contrast to the two polls that found the public divided on Libya, fully 98 percent of MPs who voted in the parliamentary debate on the intervention supported the attack. All three of the main political parties supported the intervention. And with the media mapping their spectrum of acceptable opinion and debate to the divisions in parliament, the vast majority of national newspapers also supported the intervention. Anti-war voices and inconvenient facts (such as the attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully that were ignored by NATO and the indiscriminate bombardment of Sirte in the final stages of the conflict), were thus sidelined and did not comprise a significant part of the public debate. The same is broadly the case with Trident. The three main political parties have traditionally supported the retention of some form of Trident and far as I am aware the only national newspaper to support the outright scrapping of Trident is the tiny circulation Morning Star.

Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader, if he is given a fair hearing, should significantly widen the debate on foreign policy, bringing long excluded voices, arguments and facts into the public debate. Many of the issues Strong claims Corbyn does not have the support of the public on will now have a strong advocate who has a significant voice in the media. This process occurred during the Labour leadership race itself, with many commentators noticing Corbyn’s candidacy opened up space to discuss issues such as rail nationalisation, whether Blair should face a war crimes trial and the nationalisation of energy – topics unlikely to be have been on the agenda if Corbyn hadn’t received the 35 nominations that allowed him on the ballot.

It is likely a wider debate and a more informed argument will shift public opinion towards Corbyn on many issues. Take Trident. It is likely the public would be less supportive of Trident if they were fully aware of the frightening near misses and many accidents that have occurred over the years. The connection between increased knowledge of foreign policy and what could broadly be termed an anti-war politics is surely confirmed by the fact that as of 2012 the British armed forces employed over 600 people in “communication-related activities” (aka propaganda) with a multi-million pound marketing and communication budget. Commenting on media access in Afghanistan, in 2009 the Guardian’s Luke Harding noted the Ministry of Defence (MoD) “manipulate the parcelling-out of embeds to suit their own ends.” The Sun’s Defence editor concurred: “Downing Street and the Foreign Office are incredibly restrictive about what comes out of Afghanistan.” Harding goes on to explain what this means for public opinion: “We have been constantly told that everything is fluffy and good – and we, and the public, have been lied to.” As a senior British officer told the Sunday Telegraph in 2008 “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. 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.”

Strong’s focus on individual opinion polls on individual issues fails to engage with the longer term trends on public opinion and foreign policy

Since parliament voted against the UK taking military action in Syria in August 2013, there have been a number of reports of senior politicians and military figures deeply concerned about the public’s opposition to military interventions abroad. Speaking about the British armed forces in December 2013, Chief of Defence Staff Sir Nicholas Houghton noted “the purposes to which they 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.” General Sir Peter Wall, the Chief of the General Staff from 2010-14, provided a blunter assessment earlier this year: “Our national appetite for military intervention has been diminished by the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a sense of campaign fatigue, which is reflected in low political appetite for the UK to engage to protect our longer term interests.” The former Defence Minister Lord Browne concurs, noting last year “The British public have made it clear that there is very little support for new expeditionary wars of choice”. (As an aside, it’s interesting to compare these quotes from the military’s top brass with Strong’s description of Corbyn as someone “deeply sceptical about the utility of military force as a tool of British foreign policy.”)

Some polling evidence suggests the military and politicians are right to be worried. After reminding respondents of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Mali, a February 2013 ICM poll found 48 percent of people believed “military interventions solve little, create enemies and generally do more harm than good”, while 45 percent believe that “through its armed forces, Britain generally acts as a force for good in the world”. Similarly a June 2013 Opinium poll found 69 percent of people believe that the UK should restrict the military to protecting UK territory and providing humanitarian aid in times of crisis.

Like with Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the British public’s view of British military intervention abroad – increasingly sceptical and unsupportive – seems to be moving closer to Corbyn’s long-held position.

Strong fails to mention international law and global public opinion

Though it is perhaps outside the parameters of Strong’s blog it is surely unwise to discuss British foreign policy and public opinion in a vacuum. For example, on Iraq and Trident and the recent drone strike in Syria Corbyn strongly supports the idea that Britain should adhere to international law and act with the support of the United Nations. Similarly polling evidence suggests there is broad support amongst the British public for the government to abide by international law and to act with the support of the United Nations. During the run up to the war in Iraq in 2003 polling showed the invasion would be far less popular it did not have the support of the United Nations. So, the key questions are these: would there be more or less support for Trident among the public if it was more widely known that the UK is clearly contravening the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons? Would there be more or less support for the proposed UK bombing of Syria if the media persistently raised questions about whether the intervention was in accordance with international law?


Though public opinion is often complex, contradictory and constantly changing, we can see Corbyn’s positions on the big foreign policy questions has the support of significant sections of public opinion, and majorities on Iraq and Afghanistan – arguably the two biggest foreign policy questions since 2001. And the evidence suggests Corbyn should be able to increase his level of support with the public if he is successful in opening up the narrow spectrum of what passes for political debate in this country, reframing the conversation to get previously largely ignored voices, arguments and facts into the national conversation.

This is an exciting and uncertain time in British politics. In their engagement with wider politics academics can, like Strong, selectively quote polls, decontextualize, obfuscate and therefore help to shut down honest and informed discussion. Or they can use their expertise and experience in good faith to enlighten the general public and help to inform and widen the national debate on this hugely important subject.

Defying democracy – Britain’s continued interventionism on Syria

Defying democracy – Britain’s continued interventionism on Syria
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
17 September 2013

The government’s defeat in parliament on 30 August 2013 was an important victory for those opposed to UK military action against Syria. Responding to the vote, the Prime Minister stated,

“it is clear to me the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the Government will act accordingly.”

Polls show that not only does a majority of the British public not support British military action but a majority is opposed to US military action against Syria without British support. In addition, a YouGov poll taken a few days before the parliamentary vote found 58 per cent of respondents opposed “sending small arms such as hand guns to the anti-Assad troops”, with just 16 per cent supporting. This opposition has continued after the vote, with an ICM/Sunday Telegraph poll finding just 3 per cent of respondents thought the UK should be “arming Syrian anti-Government rebels.”

However, if you thought the parliamentary vote and Cameron’s statement meant the UK would not support any military strikes against the Syrian Government or would stop the Government acting in ways that militarised the conflict, then you’d be wrong. In actual fact the defeated Government, using a conveniently narrow definition of “British military action”, has continued to assist the US in its aggressive, warmongering policy towards Syria. This is a policy of regime change according to the US Secretary of State, who told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that “President Obama’s policy is that Assad must go”.

The day after the parliamentary vote, the Daily Telegraph reported, “the UK’s intelligence-gathering assets based in the Mediterranean are to provide the US military with information, as it prepares to carry out cruise missiles strikes against President Bashar al-Assad. Whitehall sources said Britain’s decision not to take part in attacks punishing the regime for using chemical weapons only covered its Armed Forces, and the sharing of intelligence would continue.”

But it was not just the intelligence services who ignored the will of parliament and public opinion. According to the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour, “the British prime minister acted as one of the most consistent advocates of military intervention” at the G20 summit in St Petersburg on 5-6 September. “Cameron was determined to call others to arms” and to “provide the evidence that Assad’s regime must have used chemical weapons”.

Despite the best efforts of Cameron and co., a series of diplomatic manoeuvres has delayed and possibly stopped a US-led attack on Syria. With Syria pledging to sign an international chemical weapons treaty and admit the scale of its chemical weapons stockpile for the first time, on 10 September the Guardian reported that “the US, Britain and France are preparing a hard-edged [United Nations] security council resolution backed by the possible use of force.”

During all the intense diplomacy, the arming of the Syrian rebels has continued, with a 12 September New York Times report noting that “Saudi Arabia, quietly cooperating with American and British intelligence and other Arab governments, has modestly increased deliveries of weapons to rebels fighting in southern Syria, the rebels say.”

All these efforts by the UK Government to militarise the conflict in Syria have been reported in the mainstream media but the question of whether the government has any moral authority to continue these policies is never discussed.

For those who oppose Western military intervention in Syria the lesson is clear: we cannot be complacent. The parliamentary vote, though an important victory, has not been enough to stop our Prime Minister pushing for war and British intelligence supporting any US military strike and continuing to help arm the rebels. More popular pressure is needed. We might also consider what the Government’s continued defiance of popular will on Syria tells us about how British foreign policy is determined.