Tag Archives: UK foreign policy

The dangers of short-term foreign policy thinking

The dangers of short-term foreign policy thinking
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
29 January 2018

From Iraq circa 2002-3, to Libya in 2011 and Syria today, influential liberal commentators including David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Paul Mason, Jonathan Freedland and many politicians have repeatedly pushed for Western military intervention. “Something must be done!” they shout from their newspaper columns. “We must act now before it is too late”, they warn in the House of Commons. One of the things that characterises these emotive and often simplistic calls for action are their narrow, laser-like focus on human rights abuses Western governments are publicly concerned about. Those who advise caution, critical thinking and a wider lens of analysis are often labelled naïve, or worse – apologists for the authoritarian leader in the West’s sights.

However, recent history shows this unwillingness to consider possible wider, long-term impacts of Western wars of choice has had grave consequences for the UK and the rest of the world.

Take NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999, sold by Tony Blair’s government to the British public as a humanitarian intervention urgently needed to stop ethnic cleansing carried out by Serbian government forces.

“The liberal press – notably the Guardian and the Independent – backed the war to the hilt (while questioning the tactics used to wage it) and lent critical weight to the government’s arguments”, British historian Mark Curtis notes in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role In The World. In addition, “the anti-war movement failed to mobilise beyond the political margins”, explained international relations specialist Dr Aidan Hehir in a 2009 Irish Times op-ed. David Aaronovitch, then at the Independent, proclaimed he would fight if asked by the government, while Andrew Marr writing in the Observer put forward “the Macbeth option: which is that we’re so steeped in blood we should go further” and “put in ground troops.”

With Tony Blair basking in the liberal media’s adoration after playing a leading role in the military campaign that pushed Serb forces out of Kosovo in June 1999, it is worth considering some of the longer term ramifications of NATO’s intervention.

It is clear the war’s perceived success (rejected by Curtis and US dissident Noam Chomsky) emboldened Blair, likely increasing his messianic tendencies, which many believed played a crucial role in the invasion of Iraq four years later. “It may well be he was actually drunk on his self-importance having had successes in Kosovo and Sierra Leone”, Colonel Tim Collins, a senior figure in the army in 2003, commented when the Chilcot Inquiry published its findings. “He genuinely believed he could do no wrong.” Iain Duncan Smith came to a similar conclusion when he recounted a September 2002 meeting he had with Blair to Andrew Rawnsley for his 2010 book The End Of The Party. “He’d decided this was a successful formula. He’d done Kosovo. He’d done Afghanistan. It was what he believed in”, said the Tory Party leader at the time of the Iraq invasion.

Writing in the Financial Times in 2007, Quentin Peel makes the obvious connection: “Kosovo was… a crucial moment in the development of the international vision… that eventually led to [Blair’s] backing for the US-led invasion of Iraq.” An invasion, let’s not forget, that was not authorised by the United Nations – just as the Kosovo intervention was also not backed by the UN. As the title of Dr Hehir’s Irish Times piece argued: NATO’s ‘Good War’ In Kosovo Degraded International Law.

There are other important links to the race to war in 2003. “It was during the [Kosovo] war… that Blair and Campbell hones their PR machine and Blair’s image as a humanitarian leader”, asserted former International Development Secretary Clare Short in her 2004 book An Honourable Deception? Noting how the Foreign Office had been sidelined in 1999, writing in International Affairs journal Dr Oliver Daddow argued Kosovo was the point when Blair confirmed “that he did not need to rely on Whitehall’s decision-making machinery for ideas or strategy”.

The 2011 NATO war in Libya has also had a number of influential effects on subsequent conflicts.

Backed by around 97 percent of British MPs and much of the liberal commentariat, the UK intervention was given legal cover by the passing of UN Security Council resolution 1973, which authorised “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya.

Though the resolution did not refer to regime change – illegal under international law – the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s examination of the intervention in 2016 concluded the “limited intervention to protect civilians drifted into a policy of regime change by military means”.

Soon after Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was forced out of Tripoli, David Cameron and French President Nicholas Sarkozy made a triumphalist, political capital-boosting visit to the country in September 2011 (or so they thought). Russia, on the other hand, took an entirely different lesson from the war.

Quoting a senior Obama Administration official as saying President Putin is “obsessed” by the NATO-enabled overthrow and death of Gaddafi, Julia Ioffe recently argued in The Atlantic magazine that “regime change in Libya and Ukraine led to Russia propping up Bashar al-Assad in Syria.” Ioffe goes on to quote former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief of staff as characterising Putin’s approach to Syria as “Not one more.”

A 2011 BBC article titled Why China And Russia Rebuffed The West On Syria confirms this thesis. “Libya is perhaps the prime reason” behind Russia’s vetoes at the UN on Syria, Jonathan Marcus notes. “Both the Chinese and Russian governments seem to think that the West took advantage of [UN] resolution [1973] to intervene militarily in a Libyan civil war” and carry out regime change, he notes. “They are determined not to allow any similar resolution to go forward [on Syria]”.

NATO’s intervention in Libya also had an important influence on the Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow the Assad government. Writing about the UN’s mediation efforts in the Syrian crisis, the academics Raymond Hinnebusch and William Zartman refer to “the opposition’s unrealistic expectations” of the peace process in 2012: “During a visit to a Free Syrian Army unit, one UN official found that the Libyan precedent and anti-Assad Western rhetoric had convinced opposition fighters that NATO was going to intervene on their behalf”. According to the UN official, this was “not conducive to… serious engagement.” In his 2017 book The Battle For Syria: International Rivalry In The New Middle East, Chatham House’s Dr Christopher Phillips highlights a similar dynamic with the opposition’s regional supporters in 2012: “Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were convinced both that Assad was close to falling and that eventually the US would intervene as it had in Libya, and so saw no need to compromise.”

The Libyan intervention, then, was one of the reasons behind Russia’s large, obstructive role in Syria, and the decision by some opposition groups to shun negotiations aiming to end the war – two of the many reasons why the horrific conflict continues today.

So it goes. The ongoing North Korean crisis is inexorably linked with these events in the Middle East. “North Korea learned from Iraq that Saddam Hussein’s mistake was he did not possess the weapons of mass destruction he was falsely accused of having. Libya taught a similar lesson”, Professor John Delury, a North Korean expert at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies, told the BBC in 2016. According to a 2017 Guardian report, North Korean “state media frequently refers to their [Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein] demise as proof that the US wolves are now at North Korea’s door.”

What these three examples show is that beyond the immediate crisis, Western military interventions have – often predictable – serious and widespread knock-on impacts that have been disastrous for the British public and the wider world. Not to say anything about how the interventions often undermine the UK government’s own interests and policy goals – Russia’s response to the Libyan intervention worked against UK policy goals in Syria, for example.

We desperately need more critical and long-term thinking when the government tries, as it inevitably will, to gain public support for its next foreign war. Rebuilding and maintaining a popular and powerful anti-war movement is an essential first step to achieving this.

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The West’s use and abuse of human rights in foreign affairs

The West’s use and abuse of human rights in foreign affairs
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
16 January 2018

Last month news website Politico published an extraordinary leaked US government document concerning US foreign policy.

Written for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by his senior policy adviser Brian Hook, the confidential May 2017 memo advises that “the US should use human rights as a club against its adversaries, like Iran, China and North Korea, while giving a pass to repressive allies like the Philippines, Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” Politico summarised.

“Allies should be treated differently — and better — than adversaries. Otherwise, we end up with more adversaries, and fewer allies,” argues Hook.

He continues: “We should consider human rights as an important issue in regard to US relations with China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. And this is not only because of moral concern for practices inside those countries. It is also because pressing those regimes on human rights is one way to impose costs, apply counter-pressure and regain the initiative from them strategically.”

In addition to being a useful weapon to deploy against enemy states, the concept of human rights is also used to manipulate domestic public opinion.

Speaking to US academic Dr James Davidson about the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, a senior British intelligence official noted: “It is always helpful for governments who want to get the Guardian readers of the world on board to have a humanitarian logic.”

The US and British governments’ selective concern for human rights is broadly mirrored by the mainstream media.

Analysing the US media in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky look at “paired examples.”

For instance, they consider the different quantity and quality of coverage given to priests killed in Soviet Union-era Poland compared with religious figures murdered by US-backed dictatorships in Latin America, and the mass killing in Cambodia compared with the mass killing carried out by US client Indonesia in East Timor.

“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,” they conclude.

Dr David Wearing, a teaching fellow in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, recently highlighted a similar relationship between British commentators and the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen.

Speaking on the Media Democracy podcast, he notes that although the conflicts are not identical, there is a high level of similarity: both are brutal, complex civil wars with large amounts of indiscriminate killing, lots of internal and external actors, which has led to the creation of huge humanitarian crises.

In Syria, the evidence suggests the Assad government and its allies are responsible for the majority of non-combatant deaths.

However, in Yemen — where “the cholera outbreak is probably the worst the world has ever seen,” according to the UN’s undersecretary-general and emergency relief co-ordinator — the main danger to civilians is from British ally Saudi Arabia, dropping British-made bombs from British-made warplanes.

Wearing goes on to observe: “We know all about Syria because Syria is on the front page of every newspaper, Syria is at the top of news bulletins, Syria is the subject of one op-ed after another saying: ‘Why don’t we do something about this, we should intervene’.”

Turning to the conflict in the Gulf, he asks: “Where is the coverage of Yemen? It’s not on the front pages, it’s not at the top of the news bulletins. You’ll struggle to find an opinion article about it in any of the major newspapers.” Indeed, he notes: “The very opinion writers who will be urging us to intervene in Syria … the liberal interventionist-types … [there is] not a word from people like that about Yemen.”

Searching David Aaronovitch’s Twitter timeline, I found that since Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen commenced in March 2015, The Times columnist has mentioned the word “Syria” in 75 tweets (this figure, and all the subsequent figures I quote, excludes retweets).

In contrast, I counted Aaronovitch had mentioned “Yemen” in a total of three tweets over the same period.

To put this government-friendly focus in context, since March 2015 Aaronovitch has tweeted about The Archers BBC Radio 4 soap opera at least 26 times.

In fact he seems to have tweeted about just one character, Ruth Archer, as much as he has tweeted about Yemen.

Looking at the tweets of other commentators produces similar findings. When, in December 2017, I searched the Twitter feed of @bobfrombrockley, a relatively influential blogger and tweeter among liberal interventionist types, I found 22 tweets mentioning “Yemen” since March 2015, over two-and-a-half years before.

However, @bobfrombrockley had mentioned “Syria” 22 times on Twitter since 11 December 2017 — only 11 days before I conducted my search.

On the left of the political spectrum, the editor of the Interventions Watch website conducted a search of Guardian columnist George Monbiot’s Twitter timeline in December 2017.

The results? He found Monbiot had mentioned “Syria” in 91 tweets and “Yemen” in just three tweets.

In one sense this uniformity of emphasis is an awe-inspiring phenomenon to behold. More seriously, the British commentariat’s relative silence has grave consequences for the population of Yemen — the British government’s support for the Saudi war machine can only continue with the British public’s acquiescence.

Therefore it is the job of activists and concerned citizens is to draw the public’s attention to Britain’s deadly role in Yemen.

Quaker peace activist Sam Walton raised the profile of the conflict when he made headlines with his attempted citizen’s arrest of Saudi Arabian general Ahmed al-Asiri in London in April 2017.

Similarly the Campaign Against Arms Trade applied pressure on the government with its — unfortunately unsuccessful — legal bid to force an end to British arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

And the Labour Party has also tried to call the government account, with leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry — along with the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas and the Scottish National Party — raising Britain’s involvement in Yemen in Parliament.

These protests seem to have rattled the British Establishment. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to personally apologise for Walton’s action, Middle East Eye reported.

In October, then defence secretary Michael Fallon told the House of Commons defence committee that “criticism of Saudi Arabia in … Parliament is not helpful” in securing future arms deals with the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia itself seems particularly sensitive to criticism, with the New York Times reporting in June 2016 that the then UN secretary-general “had essentially been coerced into removing [the] Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen from an ignoble list of armies that kill and maim children.”

According to the article, Ban Ki Moon “told reporters that he had been threatened with the loss of financing for humanitarian operations in the Palestinian territories, South Sudan and Syria if he did not temporarily delete the Saudi-led coalition from the list.”

To combat criticism about Yemen and the kingdom more generally, the Financial Times reported in September that Saudi Arabia plans “to set up public relations hubs in Europe and Asia as part of a new offensive to counter negative media coverage of the kingdom.”

The hubs in London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, Mumbai and Tokyo will “produce press releases, publish content on social media and invite ‘social influencers’ to visit Saudi Arabia.”

So the protests and pressure are having an effect — on both the British and Saudi Arabian governments.

These activities now need to be seriously ramped up to force the government to stop backing Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

As Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a 30-year veteran of the CIA, noted in 2016: “If the United States and the United Kingdom, tonight, told King Salman [of Saudi Arabia]: ‘This war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow. The Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support.”

Escalating the war: the West’s responsibility for the slaughter in Syria

Escalating the war: the West’s responsibility for the slaughter in Syria
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
3 January 2018

Despite the carnage and intense anger created by the US-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, many prominent commentators and politicians have repeatedly pushed for the West to step up its intervention in Syria.

In 2012 Emile Hokayem, a Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote an article titled Arm Syrian Rebels To Enable Political Solution. Three years later human rights activist Peter Tatchell was campaigning for what he calls “Syrian democratic forces” to be given anti-aircraft missiles, and Kurdish forces to be supplied with “heavy artillery, anti-tank & anti-aircraft missiles against ISIS.” More recently, Charles Lister and Dominic Nelson from the Middle East Institute thinktank in Washington, DC argued the US needs to continue to support its proxies in Syria “as a durable source of pressure on the regime in Damascus.”

The problem with this argument is that the academic literature shows “in general, external support for rebels almost always makes wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve”, as Professor Marc Lynch, Director of the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University, explained in 2014. Max Abrahms, Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, concurs, recently co-authoring an article in the Los Angeles Times which also noted “the conflict literature makes clear that external support for the opposition tends to exacerbate and extend civil wars”.

For example, Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham and William Reed from the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland examined the data from 218 cases of civil war extending from 1990 to 2011. Their conclusion? “We find that conflicts in which the rebel group received external support from a third party lasted significantly longer than civil wars that did not involve external support.”

And it’s not just academics in their ivory towers. In 2013, there was a flurry of warnings about arming the rebels in Syria. “More arms would only mean more deaths and destruction”, noted then United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Two former NATO Secretary-Generals wrote an article in the New York Times arguing “Western military engagement in Syria is likely to provoke further escalation on all sides, deepening the civil war and strengthening the forces of extremism, sectarianism and criminality”. Many NGOs were equally opposed. “Providing more weapons will mean prolonged fighting and more civilian deaths”, noted Oxfam America, while the women’s rights organisation MADRE stated “funnelling more weapons to the opposition” would “further diminish chances of a democratic outcome for Syria.”

The US ignored the warnings from senior academics, analysts and organisations with years of experience of dealing with conflicts, and instead worked with the UK, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply an “extraordinary amount of arms” to the rebels in Syria, according to then US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2016.

And as predicted by the two former heads of NATO above, this increase in support provoked the Syrian government and their Russian and Iranian allies to escalate their own involvement in the conflict. This is because, as Julien Barnes-Dacey, a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in February 2016, “A central story of the Syrian conflict has been the cycle of escalations and counter-escalations in the continued pursuit of victory by both sides”.

For instance, in an October 2015 article titled Did US Weapons Supplied To Syrian Rebels Draw Russia Into The Conflict? the Washington Post noted that TOW anti-tank missiles delivered to the rebels by the US and its allies  were “so successful… in driving rebel gains in northwestern Syria that rebels call the missile the ‘Assad Tamer’.” The report goes on to quote Oubai Shahbandar, a Dubai-based consultant who previously worked with the Syrian opposition: “A primary driving factor in Russia’s calculus [to militarily intervene in September 2015] was the realization that the Assad regime was militarily weakening and in danger of losing territory in northwestern Syria. The TOWs played an outsize role in that”.

Confirming the veracity of the earlier warnings about the West arming the rebels, last year Professor Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, explained “America has prolonged the civil war and has abetted the terrible destruction”, and “destabilised the region”. The death and destruction has been enormous. In 2016 United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura estimated 400,000 people had been killed in the conflict, while the UN reports more than half of all Syrians have been fled their homes – an estimated 5 million have left the country and more than 6 million are internally displaced.

The US and UK governments, then, consciously chose to escalate the conflict in Syria, knowing it would likely increase the level of violence and the number of civilian and combatant deaths, as well as making a peaceful resolution more unlikely.

It’s an unpalatable conclusion that jars with the liberal idea of the West’s ‘basic benevolence’, though one that is backed up by the evidence and elementary logic. And it is a conclusion you will be hard pressed to find in any other British national newspaper.

The Myth of Dunkirk

The Myth of Dunkirk
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 July 2017

The British public, one of my university tutors once said, are still feeling the effects of Second World War propaganda today.

The events surrounding the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk in late May 1940 are no exception. The popular story – one of the foundation stones of modern British national identity – goes something like this: facing the German army, the brave British forces were let down by their French and Belgian allies, and forced to retreat to the coast where they were evacuated to safety by the ‘little ships of Dunkirk’ manned by volunteer civilian seafarers, given the opportunity to fight another day, and eventually help to win the war. Victory, the nation was told, was snatched from the jaws of defeat.

It hasn’t been mentioned much but Christopher Nolan’s new Dunkirk movie isn’t the first blockbuster with that name. That honour belongs to Leslie Norman’s 1958 hit black and white feature. Watching Norman’s film today – made in the aftermath of the 1956 ‘Suez Crisis’ (AKA Britain’s invasion of Egypt) – it’s easy to laugh knowingly at its quaint nationalism and repetition of the Dunkirk myth. But while Nolan’s film is an incredibly intense and visceral cinematic experience, politically it deviates little from Norman’s unquestioning picture made nearly 60 years earlier. Indeed, Nolan’s film has received glowing reviews in conservative organs including the Telegraph (“heart-hammering and heroically British”), the Evening Standard and the Mail on Sunday, which said it should be “compulsory” viewing.

With this in mind, it is worth considering what the popular Dunkirk narrative either downplays or omits to mention completely.

First, as Max Hasting notes in his 2011 history of the war All Hell Let Loose, it is important to recognise that “disproportionate historical attention has focused upon the operations of the small British contingent, and its escape to Dunkirk” in accounts of the fighting in May-June 1940. In reality “the British role was marginal”, he explains. “The overriding German objective was to defeat the French army.”

With the German army quickly advancing through Belgium, in his book 1940: Myth and Reality Clive Ponting notes the British started pulling back from the frontline without telling the Belgian forces on their flank. British forces also refused requests from the French high command to fight alongside French forces (British soldiers were formally under French command at the time), says Ponting. Writing in his diary, General Pownall, Chief of Staff to the Commander of the BEF, described the Belgium military as “rotten to the core and in the end we shall have to look after ourselves.” Asked about the possibility of evacuating Belgians troops, Pownall replied “We don’t care a bugger what happens to the Belgians”.

After the Germans had started cutting off supply lines “stealing from civilians soon became official policy”, according to Nicholas Harman in his 1980 book Dunkirk: The Necessary Myth. And with morale at rock bottom and troops under extreme physical and psychological stress, historian Glyn Prysor notes there was “widespread British antagonism towards refugees and other innocent bystanders.”

Prysor records the story of artillery NCO William Harding who remembers a fellow soldier shooting an old woman in the street in Calais. When challenged by Harding the perpetrator replied “Anybody dressed as old women, nuns or priests or civilians running around get shot.” Harman notes that “British fighting units had orders to take no prisoners” except for interrogation. This policy, combined with the widespread fear of ‘fifth columnists’, led to a “large number of executions without trial”, writes James Hayward in his book Myths and Legends of the Second World War. For example, Harman notes the Grenadier Guards shot seventeen suspected spies in the Belgian village of Helchin.

With the evacuation at Dunkirk moving ahead, Ponting notes “the British relied on their allies to hold the Germans without offering to evacuate their partners.” On 29 May French troops were manhandled off British ships – a fractious relationship highlighted in Nolan’s film. “There are many reported incidents of British officers and soldiers resorting to firing upon their French counterparts at Dunkirk”, Prysor notes. In the end around 340,000 allied soldiers were rescued, including 125,000 French troops.

And what of the “little boats of Dunkirk”? As the historian Angus Calder notes in his 1991 book The Myth of the Blitz “Few members of the British Expeditionary Force owned their passage to ‘little ships’ manned by civilian volunteers”.

Moreover, former Telegraph editor Hasting argues that like all significant historical events “the legend of Dunkirk was besmirched by some uglinesses”.

“A significant number of British seaman invited to participate in the evacuation refused to do so, including the Rye fishing fleet and some lifeboat crews”, he notes. According to Calder the Royal Navy had to commandeer boats in Devon whose owners would not volunteer. However, this is not surprising – Calder explains the British public was only informed of the evacuation in the evening of 31 May, by which time around three-quarters of British personnel had been rescued, so it’s likely many would not have known what they were volunteering for.

Rather than the simplistic and patronising bedtimes stories the British public have been told at school, by the news media, television and film industry, the evidence presented here points to a complicated, sometimes unpleasant – more human – reality.

However, as George Orwell once wrote about the UK, “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark”. This happens “without the need for any official ban”, he argued, but by “a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.” The accuracy of Orwell’s truism is demonstrated by the reverence the allied role in the Second World War continues to be held in – across the political spectrum it seen as the Good War, the ultimate Just War.

The problem with this framing, the comedian Robert Newman argued on his 2005 album Apocalypso Now, is that it’s “based on a very misleading premise: which is just because the enemy you are fighting is evil, that makes you good”.

Can it really be a Good War when it included “Allied bombing in which German and Japanese civilian populations were deliberately targeted claimed the lives of about 800,000 civilian women, children and men”, according to historian A.C. Grayling? Were the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the US knew the Japanese government was on the verge of surrendering, part of a Just War? What noble aims and values lay behind British forces working with German collaborators to violently suppress the popular anti-German resistance movement in Greece in 1944-5? Were British forces rescued from Dunkirk so at the end of the war British troops could work with the defeated Japanese forces to crush nationalist uprisings in Vietnam and Indonesia, as written about by the journalist Ian Cobain and historian John Newsinger, respectively? And while we are at it, why were tens of thousands of British troops ‘defending’ Singapore and the Middle East during Britain’s ‘darkest hour’ in summer 1940?

Where are the blockbuster films about these campaigns conducted by British forces and their allies in the Second World War?

Using the Establishment to Skewer the Establishment: UK Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Using the Establishment to Skewer the Establishment: UK Foreign Policy in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 July 2017

In May 2017 the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations published a report titled The Middle East: Time for New Realism. The group who compiled the report include ex-foreign policy advisers to William Hague and Gordon Brown, former Labour Defence Secretary Lord Reid and Lord Hannay, the UK Ambassador to the United Nations from 1990-95.

Some people on the left are dismissive of establishment sources. This is a shame because they can be very useful, so are worth reading carefully if one has the time. For example, the 116-page report contains original testimony from high level policymakers, giving a rare insight into elite thinking. US dissident Noam Chomsky has a similar view of the business press, arguing “it is useful to read what the ruling class tells its people… they tend to be more honest, because they are talking to people they don’t have to worry about, and to people who need to know the truth so that they can go out and make decisions”. Select committees also attract some of the best experts on the topic under consideration. As a consequence, reports such as this are considered trustworthy and credible by many, especially the establishment itself, so are useful to cite to back up one’s argument in any debate.

The report starts by noting “The UK has critical interests in the region, both economic and security”. With the stability of the oil and gas markets having a direct impact on global economic prosperity, it explains “the interest for the UK in Middle East energy remains in securing stability of global oil supplies through the Gulf and securing its own liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies.” Stewart Williams, Vice-President of the energy consultancy group Wood Mackenzie, explains that over half of the UK’s gas is now imported, of which around a third comes from Qatar.

The region’s energy resources have long been a central geopolitical interest of the West, with the US State Department noting at the end of the Second World War that Saudi Arabia’s oil supplies were “a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”

“British commercial interests in the region are sizeable”, the report continues, noting trade in goods and services between the UK and the Middle East amounts to approximately £18.9 billion, with the Gulf states accounting for around £16 billion of this. “Above all, the Middle East dominates the UK defence export market and is the largest regional importer of British defence services and equipment”, the select committee says.

Neil Crompton, Director of Middle East and North Africa at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), notes these security and commercial interests “draw us towards more engagement” with the region.  This euphemistic description is clarified later in the report when Hayder al-Khoei, a Visiting Fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations, explains the UK “gives almost unconditional support” to its Gulf Arab allies. And we have no bigger Gulf Arab ally than the theocratic monarchy Saudi Arabia, who the UK has been supporting in its bombing of Yemen “in every practical way short of engaging in combat”, according to the UK foreign secretary in 2015. The report notes that in January 2016 a United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen estimated that 60 percent of civilian deaths and injuries in Yemen were caused by air-launched explosive weapons, with “air strikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law”, including refugee camps, weddings, residential areas, medical facilities, schools, mosques, markets and food storage warehouses.

“The UN has warned that Yemen is on the brink of a famine, with children paying the heaviest price”, the report notes. As of 6 July 1,600 Yemenis had died from cholera, according to UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.

Invited to give evidence to the select committee, the group Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain maintains the UK’s support for the Saudi-led bombing has “likely extended the conflict and deepened UK complicity in a humanitarian catastrophe”. Moreover, the report goes on to note “The conflict in Yemen has jeopardised UK development work in the region”, with the Department for International Development forced to suspend its development programme in the country.

Discussing broader developments since the 2011 uprisings, Dr Christopher Davidson, Reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University, notes that the UK has supported counter-revolutionary forces in Egypt and Bahrain. The UK’s “supposed support of democracy… would be strongly challenged by many people” in the region, he argues. Antoun Issa from the Middle East Institute builds on Davidson’s testimony, explaining that a “large source of anti-Americanism (and anti-UK sentiment as an extension) stems from a region-wide perception that Western powers underwrite the regional autocratic order”.

Turning to the future, the selection committee believe that post-Brexit the UK government will seek “to deepen its security and trade relations with the Gulf states” with “the UK’s dependence on arms exports… likely to increase”. Worryingly, Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House think-tank, explains that Gulf nations will see that the “UK needs new friends or renewed relationships with old friends” and consider British policy to be “more malleable and susceptible to influence”.

It gets worse. In a section titled Dilemma of Democracy Promotion the report argues “In the long term, in a more pacific context, the aim would be to actively encourage more democracy; but that is not the situation we find ourselves in. The priority is now to encourage efforts at stabilising the region.” There is that word again – “stability”. In a recently compiled list of Common Terms Used by the Elite to Mislead the Public British historian Mark Curtis argues the actual meaning of “stability” is “repression by Western-backed governments.” The report shows that Curtis is right on the money, when it explains the UK’s support for “the stability offered by hereditary family rulers” in the Gulf means it has “undergirded a system of authoritarianism.”

The dire ramifications of this shameful policy are inadvertently made clear by Neil Crompton from the FCO. The “underlying causes” of the Arab spring, including “the sense of economic disempowerment” among young people “have not really been addressed by any of the governments in the region”, he notes. So, contrary to the mainstream media’s framing of the West being interested in promoting democracy in the Middle East, a careful reading of the House of Lords report highlights a far more uncomfortable reality: that UK’s foreign policy plays a role in stifling popular movements that are trying to throw off the shackles of their authoritarian and unelected rulers.

Retrieved from the memory hole: British intervention in Greece in the 1940s

Retrieved from the memory hole: British intervention in Greece in the 1940s
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
19 June 2017

Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, the Battle of El-Alamein, D-Day, Arnhem, V.E. Day, V.J. Day – the 70th anniversaries of various well known engagements in the Second World War have been commemorated extensively over the last few years, with official events and widespread media coverage. However, one British engagement in the Second World War did not, as far as I am aware, receive any national recognition – has, in fact, been effectively scrubbed from the nation’s collective memory: the British intervention in Greece.

Though it garnered a huge amount of press coverage at the time, arguably British actions in Greece during and immediately after the war – including aerial attacks on Athens and working with Nazi collaborators – have disappeared down the memory hole because they fatally undermine some of our most sacred national myths: about the so-called just war of 1939-45, the “Greatest Briton” Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee’s much celebrated post-war Labour government.

The occupation of Greece

Before the Second World War Greece was ruled by fascistic General Ioannis Metaxas. Supported by the Head of State, King George II of Greece, and the British, “Metaxas’s regime was a fully fledged police state”, according to historian John Newsinger, “banning strikes, imposing rigid censorship and imprisoning large numbers of socialists, communists and trade unionists in concentration camps.” With the outbreak of the war in September 1939, Metaxas was keen to keep Greece out of the hostilities. Italy had other ideas, invading Greece in October 1940. This initial aggression was repelled, and British and allied forces were invited in to assist after Metaxas’s death in January 1941. However, Germany, keen to shore up its Balkans flank, came to the aid of its axis ally and quickly swept through Greece, taking Athens in April 1941. The king fled – first to Crete, then to London, before eventually settling in Cairo.

With Greece under a tripartite German, Italian and Bulgarian occupation, in September 1941 the Communist Party of Greece set up the National Liberation Front (EAM), and its military wing (ELAS) in spring 1942, to resist the occupiers. In his 1992 book A Concise History of Greece, Richard Clogg explains EAM had two principal aims: “the organisation of resistance and a free choice as to the form of government on the eventual liberation of the country.” The latter aim should be seen in the context of the pre-war dictatorship and the British preference for the return of the King, “for which there was little enthusiasm in occupied Greece”, according to Clogg – largely because of the monarch’s acquiescence during Metaxas’s rule.

Newsinger notes the EAM was “a broad based organisation with Popular Front politics… committed to social reform, women’s liberation, democratisation and national freedom.” With the military occupation biting hard, EAM “encouraged local food production, established soup kitchens, prevented hoarding and profiteering, and controlled the movement of foodstuffs”. ELAS played a key role in helping to save Greek Jews from the Nazis, often offering sanctuary in the hills, with Professor Mark Mazower noting in his book Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-1944 ELAS’s actions “saved the lives of hundreds if not thousands of Jews.” Quoting Chris Woodhouse, the British Special Operations Executive’s senior officer in Greece at the time, Newsinger notes the resistance carried out hundreds of attacks on the railway network, derailing trains, destroying engines and blowing up tunnels and bridges. Writing after the war, Woodhouse noted ELAS tied down “about three hundred thousand enemy troops.”

Less well known was EAM’s organisation of a trade union front (EEAM), which opposed the occupation by strikes, industrial action and sabotage – an impressive campaign of nonviolent resistance. Newsinger describes EEAM’s success in defying the German’s plan to conscript labour to work in Germany as “one of the most remarkable in the history of the European labour movement during these grim years.” The credit for this achievement “belongs largely to the Communists”, Woodhouse noted.

Answering the question “Was EAM-ELAS a valid popular movement?”, in his 1961 book The Cold War and Its Origins 1917-1960 the historian D.F. Fleming notes it “had the allegiance of great numbers of people.” Newsinger concurs, arguing “In the course of 1942-43 EAM became a mass movement without any precedent in Greek history.”

Keen to reinstall the Greek king and a friendly government to shore up British strategic interests in the Mediterranean, the make-up and popularity of the resistance to the occupation posed a conundrum for Britain. As the British Minister of State in Cairo pointed out to Churchill in 1943: “our military policy (to exert maximum possible pressure on the enemy) and our political policy (to do nothing to jeopardise the return of the monarchies) are fundamentally opposed.” In an attempt to square this unpalatable circle, Newsinger explains the “SOE was charged with keeping assistance to ELAS to a minimum, while making every effort to sustain and encourage [a] rival right-wing guerrilla organisation”, which went on to set up a truce with German forces.

The Battle of Athens and the start of the Greek civil war

By time German forces retreated from a devastated Greece in early October 1944 (500,000 people had died during the occupation – about seven percent of the population), EAM claimed a membership of two million and ran a proto-government in the 80 percent of the country they controlled. Preparing to restore the king, British forces under the command of Lt Gen Ronald Scobie arrived in Athens in mid-October 1944 and installed a provisional government, which included EAM members. However, tensions were rising between the EAM resistance movement and British forces, with Britain hoping to disarm EAM supporters as quickly as possible. Tensions came to a head on 3 December 1944 when Greek police shot dead 28 people and injured hundreds at a peaceful pro-EAM demonstration. In response EAM supporters stormed police stations across Athens, and organised a general strike. On 5 December 1944 Churchill sent a telegram to Scobie, ordering him to clear EAM forces out of Athens, with the infamous instruction he should not “hesitate to act as if… in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress.” The subsequent street fighting included British tank offensives, artillery bombardments and aerial attacks on neighbourhoods by RAF Spitfires and Beaufighters. “The mortars were raining down and planes were targeting everything”, recalls one Greek eyewitness. Having studied families living in Athens at the time, anthropologist Nemi Panourgia notes that British and government forces “were able to make forays into the city, burning and bombing houses and streets.” One British seaman who was involved in the attack remembers it “was nerve-racking going on deck for all you could hear was the sound of women and children wailing and crying.” The British forces eventually prevailed, but only after releasing thousands of prisoners who had collaborated with the Germans so they could fight EAM, and by receiving reinforcements from Italy. 267 British troops died in the fighting, and nearly a 1,000 were wounded.

Churchill likely felt he has a free hand in Greece to crush the anti-Nazi resistance forces because of the cynical Risk-style Percentages Agreement carving up territories and markets in south-east Europe he had secretly signed with Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin in October 1944. According to the document – one single sheet of paper given a tick by Stalin – the Soviet Union would have 90 percent influence in Romania and 75 percent in Bulgaria; the United Kingdom would have 90 percent in Greece; and they would share 50 percent each in Hungary and Yugoslavia.

Following EAM’s defeat in the Battle of Athens – known in Greece as ‘The Dekemvriana’ – a ‘White Terror’ was instituted, with anyone suspected of supporting, or being a member of, ELAS rounded up and sent to concentration camps. “Thousands… were executed, usually in public, their severed heads or hanging bodies routinely displayed in public squares”, noted Ed Vulliamy and Helena Smith in a 2014 Observer piece about the British role in Greece. With the British Police Mission recruiting Nazi collaborators and overseeing the repression, “nowhere else in newly liberated Europe were Nazi sympathisers enabled to penetrate the state structure – the army, security forces, judiciary – so effectively”, they explain. As the historian David Close argued in his book The Origins of the Greek Civil War: “The white terror was made possible only by British backing.”

More slaughter and division was to come. “The Greek Civil War that lasted from 1946 until 1949 completed the destruction of the left”, notes Newsinger. “By the time it was over 100,000 people had been killed in the fighting, 40,000 were being held in concentration camps, 5,000 had been executed and another 100,000 had fled the country.”

Shameful British history

The British intervention in Greece was a shameful episode in British history – one that deserves to be better known and which counters a number of cherished national shibboleths. For example, Seamus Milne’s assertion in 2014 that the Second World War was a “just war” sits uneasily alongside the fact RAF Spitfires strafed Athens and the British violently suppressed the Greek resistance who had sacrificed so much fighting the Germans by working with those Greeks who collaborated with the Germans. And this wasn’t a one-off. In a September 2016 Guardian article Ian Cobain highlighted how, in 1945, the British government used captured Japanese troops to quell a nationalist uprising in Vietnam (which had only just been occupied by the Japanese), so France could recover control of her pre-war colony. The British followed a similar strategy in Indonesia – working with the defeated Japanese forces to crush a nationalist uprising to re-establish Dutch rule.

The Greek drama also punctures the myth of Churchill as a great leader and ‘Great Briton’, and shows up the pro-imperialism of Labour Party heroes Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevan, who were intimately involved in the destruction of popular leftist forces in Greece, first under Churchill’s leadership and then during Attlee’s 1945 government, which oversaw the repression in Vietnam and Indonesia.

With Vulliamy and Smith noting the British intervention has “haunted Greece ever since… creating an abyss between the left and right thereafter”, Britain’s nefarious role has had a long and destructive legacy that the British, if they believe themselves to be a humane and fair-minded nation, would do well to remember.

The Rise and Fall of Phil Shiner

The Rise and Fall of Phil Shiner
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2017

On 2 February 2017, Phil Shiner, the award-winning human rights lawyer who brought the UK government to account for the 2003 killing of the Iraqi hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, was struck off by the solicitors disciplinary tribunal (SDT). In March 2017, Shiner, who was also ordered to pay interim costs of £250,000, was declared bankrupt, and was reported to be in poor health.

Shiner and his legal firm, by fighting for victims of the Iraq war, had made enemies of some of the most powerful forces in our society – the government, the military, and the right-wing press. The British military has been on the back foot since the deeply unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with its international reputation damaged and recruitment dwindling.

It seems likely that these rattled centres of established power have been hounding Shiner – and have now seized on his professional demise – to drive home their own long-term agenda: to shift national politics back to unquestioning support for the armed forces and an interventionist foreign policy.

Shiner, 60, set up Midlands-based Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) 18 years earlier, gaining plaudits for the company’s environmental work, for winning a landmark battle for equal pay and pensions for Gurkhas, and for acting for veterans suffering from ‘Gulf War Syndrome’.

However, it was the Baha Mousa case which brought Shiner to the public’s attention – and led to him to coming ‘under concerted attack’, Bill Bowring, professor of law at Birkbeck at the University of London, told me. As a result of Shiner’s efforts, it was found that Mousa had died in British custody after sustaining 93 injuries, including fractured ribs and a broken nose.

In 2004, Shiner was named human rights lawyer of the year by the organisations Liberty and Justice for ‘his tremendous skill, tenacity and dedication to fighting for justice’. William A Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University, told me: ‘For many years, Phil Shiner was one of the most effective and eloquent voices against impunity for the violations of international law attributable to the government of the United Kingdom and its armed forces.’

Firing squad

It was after the Al-Sweady public inquiry was set up in 2009 that Shiner’s fortunes started to change. The inquiry investigated accusations by PIL and others that British soldiers had murdered and mistreated prisoners following the ‘Battle of Danny Boy’ in Iraq in 2004.

The inquiry concluded in 2014 that a number of prisoners had been abused, and that British troops had breached the Geneva Conventions. However, in relation to murder, the judge stated that the accusations against British soldiers were ‘wholly without foundation and entirely the product of deliberate lies, reckless speculation and ingrained hostility.’

The British defence secretary, Michael Fallon, denounced Shiner for leading the ‘shameful attempt’ to attack the British armed forces. He announced that the solicitors regulation authority (SRA) would be investigating.

Taking his cue from Fallon, in a December 2014 article titled ‘These human rights parasites should be tried for treason’, Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Mail suggested that those falsely accused ‘would be happy to form a firing squad’ to shoot Shiner.

This campaign against Shiner was widely criticised. ‘In sending a dossier to the Solicitors Regulatory [sic] Authority the government is not only trespassing on an important separation of powers’, a March 2015 Guardian editorial argued; ‘it is risking the same over-identification between lawyer and client’ that led to the murder of Irish human rights lawyer Patrick Finucane in 1989.

Indeed, Shiner was receiving multiple death threats. The UK law society and the council of bars and law societies of Europe wrote to the UK government to protest against its political attacks on Shiner.

In absentia

Announcing in February that Shiner had been struck off, the SDT upheld 22 charges of professional misconduct surrounding the Al-Sweady inquiry. This judgement was based on sources including emails, text messages, handwritten notes and witness statements. Shiner, pleading ill health and lack of funds, did not appear – and was not represented – at the trial. According to the SDT, the charges were ‘proven to the criminal standard of proof’.

The Legal Futures blog summarised the charges: ‘authorising unsolicited direct approaches to potential clients; paying prohibited referral fees to, and approving an improper fee-sharing arrangement with, a middleman, Mazin Younis, and later bribing him to change his evidence on how the clients had been identified; misleading the SRA [all these were admitted by Shiner, though he did not admit to the following]; failing to comply with his duty of candour to the court; failing to comply with his duty of full and frank disclosure to the Legal Services Commission; and making improper allegations at a press conference that the British Army had unlawfully killed, tortured and mistreated Iraqi civilians, including his clients.’

‘His misconduct has caused real distress to soldiers, their families and to the families of Iraqi people who thought their loved ones had been murdered or tortured’, stated Paul Philip, the SRA chief executive.

Other than Shiner, I cannot find any journalist or commentator who has questioned the SDT’s findings, though the Leigh Day law firm (see below) has claimed the SRA may have been pressured by the government to bring the case.

Impunity returns

Shiner’s professional disgrace has already had significant repercussions, with Professor Schabas noting it ‘has only emboldened those who proclaim impunity for war crimes and other violations of international law.’

In October 2016, the government announced plans to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights during future conflicts to block an ‘industry of vexatious claims’ against troops – a move criticised as dangerous by both Liberty and the Law Society.

In February 2017, it was announced that the Iraq historical allegations team (IHAT), the unit investigating claims of abuse by British forces in Iraq, would be shut down. Shiner’s downfall was ‘the beginning of the end for IHAT’, Fallon noted, ‘Now we are taking action to stop such abuse of our legal system from happening again.’

As part of this process, the royal military police are to discontinue investigating 90 percent of the 675 allegations of abuse from Afghanistan, according to the ministry of defence.

The government’s pursuit of Shiner seems to have been a deliberate attempt ‘to chill future claims’, according to the Guardian (3 February 2017).

Professor Bowring agrees: ‘Any lawyers who assist victims of UK government injustice can now expect similar treatment’ to Shiner. He adds: ‘The attacks on Shiner culminating in the latest findings, closure of Public Interest Lawyers, bankruptcy, and criminal prosecution are likely to be the fate of any campaigning lawyers.’

It was reported in April that the law firm Leigh Day is being prosecuted by the SRA because of its conduct during the Al-Sweady inquiry.