Tag Archives: UK foreign policy

Keeping the spotlight on the West’s ongoing devastation of Afghanistan and Syria

Keeping the spotlight on the West’s ongoing devastation of Afghanistan and Syria
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
21-22 January 2023

Amnesty International’s 1991 Annual Report should be required reading for all media studies and journalism students.

“The Iraqi Government headed by President Saddam Hussein had been committing gross and widespread human rights abuses” in the 1980s, including using chemical weapons, the human rights organisation explained.

The report goes onto note Amnesty International publicised gruesome evidence of the atrocities and appealed directly to the United Nations Security Council in 1988 to take urgent action. “However, the world’s governments and media took only token interest, and none of the UN bodies took action.”

Then something happened. “The response to Amnesty International’s information on Iraq changed dramatically on 2 August 1990, the day Iraq invaded Kuwait.”

“Suddenly, the telephones at the organization’s International Secretariat in London were busy with inquiries about Iraq’s human rights record. Pictures of the victims of chemical weapons appeared widely on television. Exiled Kurds, who had battled for so long to have their stories heard, were invited to speak to the media. Amnesty International’s own reporting of the abuses perpetrated in Kuwait following the Iraqi invasion made front pages across the world”.

What Amnesty International doesn’t mention is the shameful support given to Hussein in the 1980s by the US and UK, meaning it was in their interest not to draw attention to the Iraqi leader’s atrocities. However, in August 1990 Iraq’s human rights record suddenly became useful to the UK and US governments.

This is a textbook example of the propaganda role played by the UK media – how their laser-like focus on human rights abuses is switched on (and off) depending on the UK government’s interests, and not because of anything to do with the human rights abuses themselves.

This sudden shift also occurs after Western military intervention ends. Take, for example, what happened following the saturation news coverage of the Gulf War when deadly US-UK-led UN sanctions were levelled on Iraq in the 1990s.

“During the worst years of the sanctions, the Western media largely ignored the horrifying impact in terms of hunger, disease and physical and mental stunting of Iraqi children – and hundreds of thousands of child deaths,” Milan Rai, the founder of Voices in the Wilderness UK, which campaigned against the sanctions, tells me. “On our sanctions-breaking visits to Iraq as part of the Voices in the Wilderness campaign, we would often be accompanied to children’s wards by journalists from other parts of the world, such as TV Globo from Brazil, but rarely by media from our own countries, the US and the UK.”

Similarly, once Muammar Gaddafi had been lynched in October 2011, and Libya supposedly liberated, the UK media’s attention quickly shifted away from the collapse of the North African country, despite – or because of? – the US-UK-NATO playing a key role in destroying Libya as a viable state.

Today, Afghanistan and Syria have the unfortunate distinction of being nations the Western media, after a period of intense coverage, has largely forgotten about, even though the US, supported by its faithful lapdog the UK, continues to ravage these nations.

In Afghanistan “nearly 19 million people are estimated to remain acutely food insecure in the second half of 2022, with nearly 6 million people still considered to be on the brink of famine,” the Disasters Emergency Committee warned in November.

In August 2022 United Nations special representative Dr Ramiz Alakbarov said “the situation can be best described as a pure catastrophe… you’ve seen people selling organs, you’ve seen people selling children.” (Hat tip: these two quotes were published in Peace News newspaper).

The same month, Vicki Aken, the Afghanistan country director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), explained the causes of the humanitarian emergency: “At the root of this crisis is the country’s economic collapse. Decisions taken last year to isolate the Taliban – including the freezing of foreign reserves, the grounding of the banking system, and the halting of development assistance which financed most government services – have had a devastating impact.”

To be clear, it the US, UK and other Western countries who have undertaken these actions, following the Taliban taking back control of Afghanistan in August 2021. After speaking to several international experts, in December 2021 the Guardian reported “large parts of Afghanistan’s health system are on the brink of collapse because of western sanctions against the Taliban”. Even David Miliband, the warmongering ex-UK Foreign Secretary and now CEO of the IRC, understands the West’s culpability. “We are not punishing the Taliban. It is ordinary Afghans that are paying the price of peace,” he told the Guardian in February 2022. “It is not just a catastrophe of choice, but a catastrophe of reputation. This is a starvation policy.”

Shockingly, in February 2022 US President Joe Biden signed an executive order releasing some of the $7bn in frozen Afghan reserves held in the US to be given to American victims of terrorism, including relatives of 9/11 victims.

In Syria successive waves of Western sanctions have broadened in number and scope over time, a 2022 UNICEF discussion paper explained. “Initially targeting individuals at the beginning of the conflict in 2011” the sanctions implemented under the 2019 US Caesar Act targeted “Syrian government’s financial resources, economic foundations and external actors dealing with the Syrian government.” In addition to these direct targets, the sanctions “create a ‘chilling effect’ that discourages technically legal transactions that business judge to be too risky,” researcher Sam Heller explained in a 2021 report for The Century Foundation US think-tank. This “raises the cost” of “even humanitarian transactions”, he noted.

The same year the World Food Programme estimated 12.4 million Syrians – nearly 60 percent of the population – were food insecure.

After interviewing more than 24 humanitarian aid workers, diplomats and aid workers, in his report Heller noted “The deterioration of Syrian food security is the product of many factors. It is, foremost, the result of an economic crisis that has overtaken Syria since 2019, and the dramatic depreciation of the national currency. Many Syrians can simply no longer afford to feed their families… key imports have also been disrupted, including wheat needed for bread; and fuel, whose scarcity has affected food supply and prices.”

“All this has been exacerbated by Western sanctions on Syria,” he stated.

Similarly, a 2021 report written by Zaki Mehchy and Dr Rim Turkmani for the Conflict Research Programme at the London School of Economics noted sanctions “have directly contributed to… a massive deterioration in the formal economy associated with a weakening of legitimate business and civil society, and increased suffering of ordinary people.”  (Incidentally, the report also argues sanctions have contributed to “greater reliance of the Syrian regime on Russia and Iran, and less political leverage for Western countries” and “the establishment and strengthening of a network of warlords and ‘cronies’ with a vested interest in regime survival and a criminalised economy”).

The role of western sanctions in creating extreme hardship for ordinary Syrians has been understood for years. In 2016 The Intercept obtained an internal email written by “a key UN official” that cited the sanctions as a “principal factor” in the erosion of the country’s health care system. And a 2017 Reuters report was titled Syria Sanctions Indirectly Hit Children’s Cancer Treatment.

More recently, after a fact-finding mission to Syria in November, Alena Douhan, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Unilateral Coercive Measures, concluded “Primary unilateral sanctions, secondary sanctions, threats of sanctions, de-risking policies and over-compliance with sanctions have been exacerbating Syria’s humanitarian crisis, which is already affected by 12 years of conflict and terrorist activity, destruction of infrastructure, COVID-19, a growing economic crisis in the region, and millions of IDPs and refugees.”

She went on to note “the imposed sanctions have shattered the State’s capability to respond to the needs of the population, particularly the most vulnerable, and 90% of the people now live below the poverty line.”

I’m not aware of any polling done on the US and UK public’s awareness of the West’s role in intensifying these two humanitarian crises but given the paucity of media coverage it seems likely it’s very low.

So UK anti-war and peace activists have an important job to do: push past the media’s indifference and concentrate the public’s gaze on the continuing deadly impacts of Western foreign policy in Afghanistan and Syria.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Yemen’s Forgotten Children

Yemen’s Forgotten Children
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
31 December 2022

With Christmas and New Year very much centred around children, how many of us have given a thought over the holiday season to the children of Yemen?

I recently gained an insight into the horrific conditions in the troubled Middle East nation when I watched Hunger Ward. Released in 2020, the MTV documentary is filmed inside two therapeutic feeding centres in Yemen, following two women healthcare workers treating starving children in the midst of the war.

Just 40 minutes long, it’s a harrowing, heart-breaking watch: we see resuscitation being carried out on a baby, and the family wailing in grief after the child dies.

“These children are dying as a result of malnutrition,” Mekkia Mahdi, a nurse who manages the largest network of rural malnutrition clinics in North Yemen, explains. She scrolls through photos of children on her phone: “Amal died, Ibrahim died, Fatima died.”

While Yemen has long been impoverished, the military intervention by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in March 2015 against the Houthi rebels, who had recently ousted President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, massively intensified the death and destruction. The fighting continues, with Saudi Arabia undertaking a huge bombing campaign, along with an air, sea and land blockade. “Conflict remains the primary underlying driver of hunger in Yemen,” 30 NGOs operating in Yemen, including the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam and the Norwegian Refugee Council, noted in September.

In October the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned the situation in Yemen remained the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. According to a November briefing from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), 17 million Yemenis, over half of the population, are estimated to be food insecure, with 3.5 million acutely malnourished.

“Malnutrition rates among women and children in Yemen remain among the highest in the world,” the WFP reports. “1.3 million pregnant or breastfeeding women and 2.2 million children under 5 requiring treatment for acute malnutrition.”

Sadly, there is no shortage of horrifying statistics highlighting the plight of Yemen’s children. An estimated 77 per cent of the 4.3 million people displaced in Yemen are women and children, according to ReliefWeb, the information service provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In 2018 Save the Children reported that “an estimated 85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger” since April 2015.

By the end of 2021 the United Nations Development Programme estimated the number of direct and indirect deaths due to the war was 377,000. “Of the total deaths, 259,000 – nearly 70 per cent of total conflict-attributable deaths – are children younger than five years old,” the report noted.

Shamefully, the UK (and US) has played, and continues to play, a crucial role in fuelling the conflict, and therefore bears significant responsibility for the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.

Asked by Majella magazine in 2018 “What do you think the UK can do more in the realm of helping the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen?” Alistair Burt MP, then UK Minister of State for the Middle East, replied “At the moment it’s difficult to see what more we can do.”

For once, a Tory politician was telling the truth. In September the Campaign Against Arms Trade estimated that since March 2015 the UK government has licensed at least £23 billion of arms to the Saudi-led coalition. However, as Burt intimates, UK support goes far beyond just selling weapons. “Every day Yemen is hit by British bombs – dropped by British planes that are flown by British-trained pilots and maintained and prepared inside Saudi Arabia by thousands of British contractors,” Arron Merat noted in the Guardian in 2019. Appearing in the Channel 4 documentary Britain’s Hidden War the same year, a former Saudi Air Force officer noted Saudi Arabia “can’t keep the [British-made] Typhoon [aircraft] in the air without the British. The pilots they can’t fly it without maintenance and without the logistics.”

We also know British military personnel are based in the command and control centre for Saudi airstrikes, and have access to target lists. And according to a 2019 Daily Mail report British Special Boat Service soldiers are on the ground in Yemen, operating as Forward Air Controllers, requesting air support from the Royal Saud Air Force. On the world stage, the UK provides diplomatic cover for Saudi Arabia’s ongoing slaughter. “The UK is the penholder at the UN over Yemen [the lead country on the security council, with the power to draft resolutions and statements], and some former Conservative cabinet ministers, notably Andrew Mitchell, say Britain has been protecting Saudi Arabia from criticism there,” the Guardian reported in 2018.

All of this extensive support is the reason Dr David Wearing, Lecturer in Lecturer in International Relation at the University of Sussex and author of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain, argued in 2018 “The reality is that Washington and London could have stopped the Saudis’ war any time they liked.”

As well as footage from medical centres, Hunger Ward also highlights an aerial bombing of a funeral, showing distressing camera phone footage taken by a survivor in the immediate aftermath of the attack. It was a ‘double tap’ airstrike, the second strike commonly understood to target those coming to the aid of the initial victims.

“The world needs to know the depth of the Yemeni people’s suffering,” the man pleads.

The problem is polling conducted by YouGov in 2017 found just 49 per cent of Britons were aware of the war in Yemen – something that should mortify everybody who works in the mainstream media.

Frustratingly, the rare times the war is reported on, the UK role is often omitted. For example, a 2022 episode of the BBC World Service Inquiry programme, titled What Will End The War In Yemen?  and presented by journalist Tanya Beckett, made no mention of the massive UK (and US) involvement. One can only imagine the depth of ideological training and education necessary for a BBC journalist to ignore the UK’s enabling role.

Of course, some wars –and victims – are more newsworthy than others. Indeed, an analysis of the scale and quality of media coverage given to the Russian attack on Ukraine compared to the Saudi-led attack on Yemen would make an illuminating PhD research project. In terms of solidarity from Britons, Ukraine has been very lucky, with supportive street demonstrations, people flying Ukrainian flags from their homes and on their Twitter profiles, record-breaking donations to humanitarian organisations working to help Ukrainians, and warmly welcoming Ukrainian refugees to the UK.

Far from being apathetic, this shows the British public’s humanity and concern can be lifted to unexpected heights by extensive media coverage of injustice and suffering. With last year’s temporary ceasefire in Yemen having now lapsed, what we now need to do is expand our sympathy and outrage to include those in Yemen, especially Yemeni children, whose lives are being destroyed by the UK’s abhorrent foreign policy.

Hunger Ward can be watched for free on Pluto TV: https://pluto.tv/en/search. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

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.

Did the UK torpedo peace talks on Ukraine?

Did the UK torpedo peace talks on Ukraine?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 November 2022

Since 1976 the award-winning US media watchdog Project Censored has printed an annual list of the most under-reported news stories in the US media – the “news that didn’t make the news”.

Should someone start publishing a similar book about the UK media, the top under-reported story of 2022 will almost certainly be the news the UK government worked to prevent a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine war in March-April 2022.

Here’s what we know.

Following Russia’s aggressive and illegal invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, in March Ukrainian and Russian negotiators met in Istanbul for talks. On 17 March a Sky News headline summarised: “‘15-point’ peace deal being ‘seriously discussed’ as Putin says he’s ‘ready to talk’”.

The deal included “a ceasefire and a Russian withdrawal, with Kyiv having to accept neutrality and curbs on its armed forces,” the report noted. “Citing three sources involved in the negotiations, the FT [Financial Times] said Ukraine would have to give up its bid to join NATO – something Mr Zelenskyy has already hinted at.”

“It would also have to promise not to allow foreign military bases or weaponry into the country in exchange for protection from allies such as the US, UK and Turkey.”

Quoted in a 20 March Al-Jazeera report, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated “We see that the parties are close to an agreement”.

This is also the conclusion of Fiona Hill, a Russia specialist in the Bush and Obama Administrations, and Angela Stent, an ex-Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia at the US National Intelligence Council. Writing in the September/October issue of the establishment Foreign Affairs magazine after having spoken to “multiple former senior US officials”, they note “Russian and Ukrainian negotiators appeared to have tentatively agreed on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement” in April 2022. “Russia would withdraw to its position on February 23, where it controlled part of the Donbas region and all of Crimea, and in exchange, Ukraine would promise not to seek NATO membership and instead receive security guarantees from a number of countries.”

However, in May the Ukrainian online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, citing “sources close to [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy,” reported UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson “appeared in the capital [Kyiv] almost without warning” on 9 April, bringing “two simple messages.”

“The first is that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a war criminal, he should be pressured, not negotiated with. And the second is that even if Ukraine is ready to sign some agreements on guarantees with Putin, they are not.”

According to the Ukrainska Pravda – described by Encyclopædia Britannica as “one of Ukraine’s most-respected news sites” – “Johnson’s position was that the collective West, which back in February had suggested Zelenskyy should surrender and flee, now felt that Putin was not really as powerful as they had previously imagined, and that here was a chance to ‘press him.’”

Three days after Johnson returned to the UK Putin said the talks “had turned into a dead end”. In September Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asserted that “the Americans and the British… forbade Ukraine to conduct further dialogue with Russia” and “since then, the Ukrainian authorities have been shying away from negotiation process.”

Of course, hopefully it goes without saying we should be highly sceptical of public statement from Putin and Lavrov, especially about their willingness to seriously pursue a negotiated settlement. And it should also be noted that the Ukrainska Pravda also reported that Russian atrocities in Bucha and other locations in Ukraine affected the course of the peace talks.

But as the Morning Star is a British newspaper, and as I am a British citizen, let’s get back to the actions of the UK and the US. Johnson publicly confirmed his opposition to talks during a trip to India later in April, telling reporters that negotiating with Putin was like dealing with “a crocodile when it’s got your leg in its jaws,” according to Reuters.

Why did the UK government try to torpedo the peace talks? The answer likely lies in the references above to the “collective West” and the opportunity to “press” Putin. As Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA under President Barack Obama, explained in March: the conflict is “a proxy war with Russia whether we say so or not.”

This fits with comments made by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin at a press conference in Poland in late April. Asked whether the US aims had shifted since February, he replied the US supported Ukraine in retaining its sovereignty and defending its territory, before adding a second, previously unstated, goal: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”

Hal Brands, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, concurs with this “proxy war” framing, writing in May that “For NATO, the payoff has been damaging some of the most important parts of the Russian military – its ground and mechanized forces, its airborne units, its special operations forces – so badly that it may take them years to recover.”

However, while the West has continued to ramp up their military support for Ukraine, there are increasing calls for the US – and UK – to change their position and make a serious diplomatic push for peace negotiations.

Commenting on Russia’s repeated threats to use nuclear weapons, in October Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told ABC News “We’re about at the top of the language scale, if you will. And I think we need to back off that a little bit and do everything we possibly can to try to get to the table to resolve this thing… the sooner the better, as far as I’m concerned.”

Speaking to Newsweek magazine about President Biden’s comment that he was “trying to figure out what is Putin’s offramp”, a “senior intelligence officer” said “We have the power to influence how that offramp might work. I’m not comfortable criticizing a president, as if I’m some partisan animal, but we are just not doing enough.”

A “senior military source” quoted by Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman last month made the same point: “Military action is ineffective on its own. It’s only truly effective when it’s combined with economic and diplomatic efforts. And we’re not seeing enough diplomacy.”

Tellingly, I didn’t find out about Johnson attempting to block peace negotiations from the UK’s famously stroppy and disputatious Fourth Estate but from small, progressive publications and writers – namely Milan Rai at Peace News and Branko Marcetic from Jacobin magazine.

With the war dangerously escalating and President Biden warning the world is the closest it’s been to nuclear “Armageddon” since the Cuban missile crisis, concerned citizens simply cannot afford to rely on the mainstream media to gain an accurate understanding of the world.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review. The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan

Book review. The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2022

Presumably hastily put together after the disorderly US-UK-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, The Ledger is written by two advisors to the Western militaries and Afghan government: David Kilcullen and Greg Mills. Their roles gave the pair an enviable level of access to top level US-UK government and military sources, whom they cite regularly, but is also likely a key reason why their analysis is so restricted, generally limited to what Noam Chomsky calls the ‘fight it better’ school of criticism.

Kilcullen and Mills provide a number of reasons for the West’s failure including: an absence of strategy and political leadership, shifting war aims, a refusal to stay in Afghanistan for the long-term, insufficient troop numbers, underestimating the Taliban, and failing to address a key source of support for the insurgency – Pakistan.

As the endorsements from the UK chief of defence staff and former US chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff make clear, this isn’t a book written for peace activists. Nevertheless, it does contain some useful information.

For example, in December 2001, after the US-led invasion and defeat of the Taliban, anti-Taliban Afghan leader Hamid Karzai pushed for peace negotiations with the Taliban. This move was blocked by US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

This was a huge missed opportunity – the war’s ‘original sin’, according to United Nations special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi – opening the door to 20 years of death and destruction.

How Rumsfeld overriding Karzai’s wishes fits with the authors’ claim elsewhere that a central objective of the US-led occupation was ‘promoting democracy’ is never explained.

Elsewhere, Killcullen and Mills mention in passing that the reduction of Western advisors and contractors in the last two years of the Obama administration ‘was driven by American domestic politics.’

This is a significant and hopeful acknowledgement for peace activists, and fits with evidence public opinion had a constraining influence on British forces in Afghanistan (see PN 2644 – 2645).

Frustratingly, the authors ignore a lot of important arguments and information. The high levels of violence meted out by US-UK forces is barely mentioned, while the idea that a police operation should have been conducted to capture the perpetrators of 9/11 is never considered, nor the argument that it was the military occupation itself that was the root problem.

Those interested in reading more critical analyses of the war in Afghanistan should seek out Fred Ledwidge’s Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War (Yale University Press, 2013) or Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence by Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls (Seven Stories, 2006).

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.

The Russian attack on Ukraine and the Western propaganda system

The Russian attack on Ukraine and the Western propaganda system
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
14 March 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has confirmed the criminal barbarity of the Russian government and the leadership of its armed forces.

On 8 March Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said two million people had fled Ukraine since the Russian attack on 24 February. The same day the World Health Organisation reported attacks on hospitals, ambulances and other healthcare facilities had surged, and the International Committee of the Red Cross described the conditions in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol as “apocalyptic”. On 10 March the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights verified a total of 564 civilian deaths, with close to 1,000 injured.

In addition to this horror, the crisis has also highlighted the extraordinary power and influence of the mainstream media. In particular, it has proven the continuing relevance of Edward Herman’s and Noam Chomsky’s analysis in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: A Political Economy of the Mass Media. “A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy”, the argue. “The evidence of worth may be read from the extent and character of attention and indignation.”

Following this framing, the Ukrainians under Russian attack are, rightly, considered worthy victims. For example, as of 11 March, the Guardian has devoted no less than 13 pages in the news section of each day’s newspaper to the crisis since Russia’s invasion (not counting the extensive coverage in the Finance, Sports and G2 sections of the paper, and the many op-ed columns and editorials devoted to the topic). Media watchdog Media Lens has highlighted a similar level of coverage on the BBC News website, noting the first 26 stories on the BBC News’s home page on 27 February were devoted to the Russian attack on Ukraine.

As well as focussing on the military situation, the Guardian has provided extensive coverage of the refugee crisis and civilians living under Russian bombardment, focussing on personal, often heart-breaking stories. It has published powerful front page images of people injured in Russian airstrikes and covered debates in parliament about how many Ukrainian refugees the UK should take in. The ongoing protests in Russia against the invasion have also been reported, while columnists and reporters have shown understandable outrage and indignation about Russia’s attack. There have also been reports on moves to get the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court to address Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

All this coverage has led to an extraordinary – and very welcome – show of solidarity and support for Ukrainians in the face of Russian aggression. The UK and other nations have delivered significant amounts of arms to the Ukrainian forces, aid has been sent to assist refugees, protests have been held across the country, and many corporations, under public pressure, have stopped doing business with or in Russia.

However, as Herman and Chomsky intimate, we should not forget the people considered unworthy victims by the media propaganda system. These tend to be non-white people in the Global South who are on the business end of Western military and corporate power, either directly or indirectly through the West’s clients.

For example, since 2016 the United Nations has repeatedly described Yemen as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”. 377,000 people have been killed, either directly through violence or indirectly through hunger and disease, since Saudi Arabia’s military intervention began in March 2015, according to the United Nations. In March 2021 Save The Children estimated that over the past three years almost one in four civilian casualties in Yemen were children. In 2019 the World Health Organisation reported an estimated 24.4 million Yemenis –roughly 80 percent of Yemen’s total population – needed humanitarian assistance to survive.

By supporting the Saudi intervention, both diplomatically and militarily, the UK and US bear significant responsibility for the continuation of the carnage in Yemen. However, as per Herman and Chomsky’s analysis, apart from a few honourable exceptions, the UK media has largely ignored the slaughter in Yemen.

Take the Guardian, which is generally viewed as the most anti-establishment mainstream newspaper. It has published some in-depth, on the ground reporting from Iona Craig and Bethan McKernan. However, all too often the Guardian’s news reports on Yemen are buried deep inside the paper. On 20 February 2021 a report with the frightening headline Yemen At Risk Of World’s Worst Famine In Decades was published on page 28, while a tiny report titled Cholera: Yemen On Course For Catastrophe appeared on page 27 of the 29 July 2020 edition of the paper.

Sometimes this media’s laser-like focus on worthy victims becomes too much to take. For example, on 10 March the first two headlines during the BBC Today Programme 8 am news were the Ukrainian president saying a Russian attack on maternity hospital was a war crime, and that Russia had been accused of deploying powerful vacuum bombs in Ukraine. All of which is important news, of course.

However, in 2019 The Yemeni Archive, a Danish-based database project tracking human rights violations in the war, stated the Saudi-led coalition was allegedly responsible for 72 attacks on medical facilities in Yemen, while Action on Armed Violence confirms the US has previously dropped vacuum bombs – AKA thermobaric weapons, which take oxygen from the air around them to create an explosion with a more deadly blast wave – in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t have a time machine but I’m willing to bet none of the Saudi and US actions made it into a BBC News headline at the time.

One conclusion seems inescapable: if the war in Yemen received the level and quality of media coverage Ukraine has had for just a couple of days the UK would be forced to end its support for Saudi Arabia. This would mean the end of the Saudi bombardment of Yemen as they wouldn’t have the crucial UK logistical support they need to continue their air war, as one BAE employee explained to Channel 4’s Dispatches in 2019.

In case it is not already clear, I am not arguing the media shouldn’t focus on the atrocities Russia is committing in Ukraine. I am arguing the media should also be focusing on the atrocities the UK is helping Saudi Arabia commit in Yemen.

Indeed, a case can be made that the media have a responsibility to focus more on Yemen than Ukraine. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has been fuelled by the UK, the home country of the UK media, and the vast majority of its journalists and audience. It is where we pay our taxes and have the greatest opportunity to impact government policy. And while stopping the Russian government’s attack on Ukraine will be a very difficult task, ending the Saudi attack on Yemen is comparatively simple: the UK just needs to stop providing support to Saudi Arabia.

So, yes, of course we should all show solidarity and support for Ukrainians under Russian attack. But at the same time we would do well to understand, as Herman and Chomsky argue, that the media coverage of the conflict “is evidence of an extremely effective propaganda system.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.


The Curious Incident of the Missing Article of the Russian Treaty

The Curious Incident of the Missing Article of the Russian Treaty
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22-23 January 2022

Last month Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the closure of Memorial International, the nation’s oldest human rights group, which was devoted to researching and recording crimes committed in the Soviet Union.

“It is not hard to see how Putin, mired in historical conflicts over Crimea, Nato expansion and the fall of the Soviet Union, the second world war and more, sees investigation of Soviet history as a threat to national security”, the Guardian noted.

Back in the UK, such overt, authoritarian censorship is rarely deployed by the government. As George Orwell argued in his unpublished preface to his 1945 novella Animal Farm, “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.” How? “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary,” he explains, the dominant orthodoxy and wealthy press owners creating an environment in which there is “a general tacit agreement that ʻit wouldn’t doʼ to mention” particular facts.

Over 75 years later and Orwell’s pithy analysis is as relevant as ever. “The wildest thing about Western establishment media is its journalists aren’t even working under threat of prison or violence,” Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard tweeted about the fawning media coverage of ex-US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who died in October. “They do state propaganda – and sanitise our worst war criminals – totally off their own back. Incredible discipline and dedication to serving power.”

A good example of the propagandistic nature of the UK media is its coverage of the draft agreement Russia presented to the United States on 17 December – titled Treaty Between The United States Of America And The Russian Federation On Security Guarantees (Russia also presented a draft security agreement to NATO).

With tensions rising over Ukraine, amongst other things the draft text calls for an end to further eastward expansion of NATO, no US bases established in former USSR states and that “The Parties shall not use the territories of other States with a view to preparing or carrying out an armed attack against the other Party or other actions affecting core security interests of the other Party.”

Article 7 of the treaty is particularly interesting: “The Parties shall refrain from deploying nuclear weapons outside their national territories and return such weapons already deployed outside their national territories at the time of the entry into force of the Treaty to their national territories”.

For anyone interested in reducing the threat of nuclear war, this sounds like an extremely sane, fair proposal. As the Morning Star recently reported, US nuclear weapons are currently based in Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. Russia does not currently station any nuclear weapons outside of Russia. Interestingly, a January 2021 YouGov poll found 74% of Italian respondents, 58% of Dutch and 57% of Belgians wanted US nuclear weapons removed from their countries. A July 2020 Kantar poll found 83% of Germans also supported the removal of US nuclear weapons from their country.

However, after conducting searches of Google and the Lexis-Nexus newspaper database, as far as I can tell the existence of Article 7 has only been acknowledged by two national newspapers in the UK – the Morning Star and the Financial Times, in one report on 17 December. Despite devoting a huge amount of column inches to the ongoing tensions between the West and Russia, the Guardian, Independent, Times, Telegraph, Daily Mirror, Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express do not seem to have mentioned Article 7. (A caveat: on 10 January the Guardian did briefly mention Russia’s demand for ”the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe”, which nods to the content of Article 7, though ignores US nuclear weapons in Turkey and, more importantly, erroneously presents the demand as one-sided).

This press blackout is important because productive and fair public debate requires an informed citizenry and politicians. What happens when the media do not report key facts? How are citizens and politicians supposed to make informed decisions about current affairs?

The memory holing of Article 7 echoes the British public’s broader ignorance surrounding the country’s nuclear weapons. This dearth of knowledge is no accident – the UK’s nuclear arsenal has been mired in secrecy from the start, with Labour Party hero Clement Attlee authorising the creation of the UK’s first atomic bomb in 1947, keeping it secret from parliament, the public and even some members of his own cabinet.

While the official government narrative – happily repeated by mainstream media commentators and academics – is one of defensive deterrence and use as a last resort, activist and author Milan Rai provides an alternative, very persuasive understanding of the UK’s nuclear weapons.

Rai, editor of Peace News newspaper, highlights the analysis of famed US whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Best known for leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Ellsberg worked at the RAND Corporation in the early 60s on nuclear strategy, later challenging the popular belief the US hasn’t used its nuclear arsenal since 1945. “It is not the case that US nuclear weapons have simply piled up over the years… unused and unusuable, save for the single function of deterring their use against us by the Soviets”, Ellsberg argued in 1981. “Again and again, generally in secret from the American public, US nuclear weapons have been used, for quite difference purposes: in the precise way that a gun is used when you point it at someone’s head in a direct confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled.”

This revelatory framing indicates the UK uses its nuclear weapons every day. In every diplomatic meeting, both cordial and confrontational, the UK’s status as a nuclear power, and all this means, is there in the background, impacting the decision-making of participants. Every time a rival nation considers confronting the UK government or the UK military they are there in the background.

More precisely, Rai points out the UK has conducted nuclear terrorism – issuing nuclear threats against non-nuclear weapons states in the Global South, with the aim of intimidating their opponent and giving the UK the freedom to act on the world stage. Writing in Peace News in 2020, he explained that during the ‘confrontation’ with Indonesia between 1963-66 over the future of Brunei and North Borneo, British Victor strategic nuclear bombers were deployed to RAF Tengah in Singapore, carrying out low-level bombing practice. In his official history of the RAF in South-East Asia, Air Chief Marshall David Lee noted “Their potential was well known to Indonesia and their presence did not go unnoticed.” He continues: “the knowledge of RAF strength and competence created a wholesome respect among Indonesia’s leaders, and the deterrent effect of RAF air defence fighters, light bombers and V-bombers… was absolute.”

Rai has also highlighted the UK’s threats to use nuclear weapons against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. “If we were prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons against the Russians, I can’t see why we shouldn’t be prepared to use them against Iraq”, a senior British minister was quoted saying by the Daily Mail in October 1990. 12 years later during the lead up to the US-UK invasion of Iraq UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon told the House of Commons Defence Select Committee states like Iraq “can be absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons.” Speaking to ITV’s Jonathan Dimbleby a few days later, he explained what the “right conditions” might be – if British troops were threatened by chemical or biological weapons.

The secrecy and ignorance surrounding the reality of the UK’s nuclear weapons has very real consequences for public opinion, which broadly favours the retention of the Trident nuclear weapons programme. Who can forget, for example, the seven-minute primetime TV grilling Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn received from the audience and presenter David Dimbleby about his position on Trident during BBC Question Time’s general election special in 2017?

A key job of anti-war and peace campaigners should be clear – to draw the public’s attention to the UK’s history of aggressively using its nuclear weapons to intimidate and coerce other nations. This can only undermine the government’s benign ‘deterrence’ narrative and shift the debate towards disarmament.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review. Veteranhood: Rage and Hope in British Ex-Military Life by Joe Glenton

Book review. Veteranhood: Rage and Hope in British Ex-Military Life by Joe Glenton
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
31 December 2021

A wide-ranging memoir-polemic, Joe Glenton sees his new book is an attempt “to address the commonly held idea that we vets are all irredeemably right-wing.”

Glenton, who served in Afghanistan with the British Army’s Royal Logistical Corps before going AWOL in 2007 and refusing to fight in the war, proves to be an excellent guide to this complex and often controversial topic, deploying lashings of black humour and military lingo (explained for the uninitiated).

Rather than “a reactionary blob”, he argues the military has always been a contested space, with a rich, though largely unknown, history of progressive dissent and resistance in the ranks. This applies to veterans too, with Glenton and others working in grassroots organisations such as Veterans For Peace UK and Forces Watch. 

His brief historical overview of political and social struggles within the military is exceptional, with inspiring pen portraits of the New Model Army in the English Civil War, the radicalising Cairo Parliaments at the end of World War Two, Ahmed al-Batati’s 2020 Whitehall protest against the Yemen War, and other rebellions. Another impressive chapter focusses on the post-9/11 Militarisation Offensive in the UK – the extensive campaign by the government, military, MPs and the media “to stymie criticism of British foreign policy on the home front by popularising the military.” This, he notes, was not planned and run by the Tories, as you might expect, “but by the most violent force in British politics in my lifetime: New Labour.” 

Glenton is similarly sharp in his criticism of high-profile military veterans (“either openly reactionary or political mediocre”) and those ex-military figures who end up in parliament, such as former Minister for Veterans Johnny Mercer MP (“the sullen personification of a failed officer corps”) and “NATO-backing” Clive Lewis.

He quotes testimony from other veterans throughout the book, with one comparing large parts of military training and culture to domestic abuse, noting the commonality of “controlling, coercive and threatening behaviour”. As another veteran argues, “It is not just battlefield trauma that causes mental health issues but the conditioning associated with training have a massive part to play.”

Glenton isn’t a pacifist though: he describes his politics as mostly anarchist and libertarian socialist, and explains he would seriously consider supporting UK military action in defence of Palestinians or Kurdish Rojava. And while the book is a radical critique of the institution of the military and how the armed forces are used by the ruling class as an “instrument for imperial violence”, “the Mob” continues to exhibit a pull on him. He clearly has affection for some aspects of military culture, and respect for the men and women who have worn the uniform. “These are not simple lives, and they defy simple interpretations”, he notes.

While some non-fiction books can be a chore to read, Veteranhood, like his award-winning 2013 biography Soldier Box, is full of brilliant writing, with a certain swagger and righteous anger to the prose. 

Quite simply, Glenton is one of the most important voices writing about UK military matters today.

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.