Margaret Thatcher, Supposed Champion of Freedom and Democracy, and her Dictator Friends by Nima Shirazi
Margaret Thatcher died Monday, April 8, 2013, at the age of 87. Predictably, there is no dearth of hagiographic profiles of the former British Prime Minister in the mainstream press and scathing vitriol elsewhere. But while The Economist hails Thatcher for her “willingness to stand up to tyranny” and Barack Obama calls her “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty,” it should be remembered that, throughout her career, Thatcher was a staunch supporter of many of the world’s most brutal regimes, propping up and arming war criminals and dictators in service to Western imperialism, anti-Communism and neoliberal hegemony.
Throughout the 1980s, Thatcher’s government backed Iraq during its war against Iran, funneling weapons and equipment to Saddam Hussein in contravention of both international law and British policy, all the way up until Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. She even sent Christmas cards to both Saddam and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in 1981.
During her first trip to Israel in 1965, less than two decades after the Nakba and while Palestinians still lived under martial law, Thatcher spoke highly of Israelis for “their sense of purpose and complete dedication, their pioneer spirit, and their realism.” She later advocated that Palestinian self-determination be realized within the context of “some kind of federation with Jordan,” which she deemed “the best and most acceptable solution.”
In 1986, Thatcher said of Golda Meir, who not only denied the Palestinian right of return but also the existence of Palestinians in general, “I greatly admired her. I greatly admired her as a war leader. I greatly admired her tremendous courage. I greatly admired her as a pioneer. I greatly admired her as a great human being, warm, thoughtful, kind, for all her fellow citizens and for human kind in the world as a whole.”
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a review of some of her other pals…
In April 1978, prior to her ascension to Prime Minister, Thatcher visited the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in Tehran where she praised him as “one of the world’s most far-sighted statesmen, whose experience is unrivalled.”
Despite the popular protests against the Shah occurring across the Iran with increasing frequency, Thatcher said of her host, “No other world leader has given his country more dynamic leadership. He is leading Iran through a twentieth century renaissance.” Exactly one month before her visit, street protests in over 55 Iranian cities resulted in the killing of more than 100 civilians, when police opened fire on the crowds.
Iran “holds a key strategic position in the defence of the Western World,” Thatcher continued, “Her strength and resolve are vital to our future.” She added, “Iran has been the West’s most resolute and stalwart ally in this crucial region.”
Upon his overthrow the following February, the Shah expressed his desire to seek asylum in England at his lavish country estate in Surrey. While the British government at the time wound up secretly helping the Shah make his way from Morocco to the Bahamas, it rejected his request to enter the UK.
Thatcher, who became Prime Minister soon thereafter, respected the decision of her predecessor for political reasons, but was “deeply unhappy” that Britain could not offer sanctuary to Pahlavi, whom she called a “firm and helpful friend.”
A longtime supporter of the Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, Thatcher once received a memo from the UK Foreign Office referring to Mubarak as “no intellectual but…always friendly and cheerful,” noting that while “apt to express simplistic views, he has become an experienced and accomplished political operator.” The brief continued, “His affable exterior evidently conceals a degree of ruthlessness since it seems likely that he has conducted some successful political infighting to maintain his position” having “succeeded in ousting or at least surviving all other prominent figures in the government or armed forces.”
“Nevertheless his reputation is free of any taint of corruption or malpractice and he is not thought to have made many enemies,” the memo said of Mubarak, adding that he was “eager to improve relations with the Royal Air Force and to buy British [military] equipment.”
Thatcher was only too happy to oblige.
Over the years of her leadership, Thatcher routinely commended Mubarak for his “courage” and “strength.” In 1985, at a banquet in Cairo, she said she “admire[d] particularly, Mr. President, the leadership which you personally…have shown.” Five years later, while hosting Mubarak and his wife at No. 10 Downing Street, Thatcher declared, “You are among our very favourite visitors because we all know you as particularly good and close friends of this country, as we are of Egypt,” and once again expressed her admiration for the Egyptian president, this time for his “incredible energy.”
“You are as full of beans as ever,” she said. Unfortunately for the Egyptian people over the next 11 years, thanks largely to American and British largesse, she was right.
Thatcher was a steadfast defender of Augusto Pinochet, whose unspeakably brutal dictatorship of torture and repression terrorized Chile from 1973 to 1990. She visited Pinochet in 1999 during his house arrest in England, saying that her country “owed” him “a great debt” of gratitude for his help during the 1982 Falklands War.
Without any sense of irony, Thatcher added, “I’m also very much aware that it is you who brought democracy to Chile.”
Never one to mention his appalling human rights record, Thatcher expressed her “outrage at the callous and unjust treatment” of Pinochet during a speech that October at the Conservative Party Conference, called him “this country’s only political prisoner,” and hailed him as Britain’s “staunch, true friend in our time of need” and “who stopped the communists taking Chile.”
The next year, upon his release and return to Chile, for which she fought tirelessly, Thatcher sent Pinochet a silver Armada dish as a gift, condemned his detention in England as “a great injustice” and wished the deposed dictator and his family “all good wishes for a peaceful and secure future.”
When Pinochet died six years later, Thatcher said she was “deeply saddened” by his passing.
Subsequently, Robin Harris, a former official in Thatcher’s administration, wrote in The Telegraph that Thatcher “took a positive view of Pinochet’s 17 years in power” and “would not have spoken up for him if she had believed him a monster. She could not judge the merits of every allegation. But, clearly, the legal case against him was weak and the motivation of those involved suspect.”
Harris similarly praised Pinochet for “[leaving] behind a stable democracy,” concluding that “Margaret Thatcher has nothing to be ashamed of in defending Augusto Pinochet, when others refused to do so” and that Pinochet “was lucky to find such a champion.”
In March 1987, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, visited Thatcher. Beforehand, Thatcher said in an interview, “Relations between Saudi Arabia and Britain are excellent. We have common interests in peace and stability in the Middle East. The Al Yamamah Project for the sale of Tornado and other aircraft to Saudi Arabia has done much to focus Saudi attention on Britain and British attention on Saudi Arabia.”
The Al Yamamah arms deal, signed a year and a half earlier, was “the biggest export transaction in British history, estimated by a British Aerospace executive in 2005 to be worth £83 billion in past and future sales to Saudi Arabia of military hardware including aircraft ranging from Tornado fighters and Hawk trainer jets to Eurofighter Typhoons,” in addition to a wide range of arms, naval vessels, radar, spare parts, and a pilot-training program.
The deal was largely the result of Thatcher’s own lobbying initiative on behalf of the British defense industry and weapons manufacturers and, ever since its signing, allegations of corruption, fraud and bribery have abounded.
In 1993, in a speech to a Chatham House Conference on Saudi Arabia after leaving office, Thatcher maintained that “[o]ne of Al Yamamah’s achievements has been the training and equipping of the Royal Saudi Air Force by Britain. Both training and aircraft were put to the test of wartime combat far sooner than anyone expected. As we now know, both the aircraft and their RSAF pilots performed superbly in Operation Desert Storm.” She continued, “The Al Yamamah programme has continued steadily since the conflict. When this year’s new order of a further 48 Tornado aircraft for the RSAF has been executed it will be safe to say that Saudi Arabia will have one of the strongest and most effective Air Forces in the world.”
Beyond this, Thatcher described the kingdom as “a peace loving nation” and a “modern miracle,” touting its “domestic achievements” and the “stable framework” and “solid rock of a well established and respected monarchy.” Thatcher called herself “a great admirer of Saudi Arabia and the leadership of King Fahd,” which she declared was “a strong force for moderation and stability.”
“We are strong partners in trade and defence. We share great strategic interests,” she said.
Regarding Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, Thatcher was silent. “I have no intention of meddling in that country’s internal affairs,” she insisted. “It is one of my firmest beliefs that although there are certain basic standards and goals we should expect from every member of the international community, the precise pace and approach must reflect different societies’ cultural, social, economic and historical backgrounds. And Saudi Arabia, in particular, is a complex society which Westerners do not often fully comprehend.”
Again, without even the slightest hint of irony, Thatcher – in the very same speech – noted, “It is the surest signal to other dictators that the West lacks the resolve to defend justice. We have yet to see its full consequences — our lack of effective action will return to haunt us.” She was talking about Bosnia.
While Thatcher maintained throughout her political that she “loathe[d] apartheid and everything connected with it,” she referred to Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, as “a typical terrorist organization” and refused, alongside Ronald Reagan, to back sanctions against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. “In my view, isolation will lead only to an increasingly negative and intransigent attitude in the part of white South African,” she said in December 1977.
In 1984, Thatcher invited South African Prime Minister P.W. Botha to visit London, the first such visit in 23 years, sparking understandable outrage in the anti-Apartheid movement. The next year, the Associated Press reported that she “rejected demands by the opposition Labor Party that she meet with Oliver Tambo, leader of the African National Congress guerrilla movement, who is visiting Britain…on grounds he espouses violence.”
“I do not accept that apartheid is the root of violence… nor do most other people,” Thatcher insisted and, during a speech before Parliament, stated that Botha’s “South African government has taken more steps to start dismantling apartheid than any of their predecessors.”
“I can see little point in sanctions creating more unemployment in this country only to create more unemployment in South Africa…It seems to me a ridiculous policy that would not work,” she added.
In response to her death today, Oliver Tambo’s son Dali told the press, “My gut reaction now is what it was at the time when she said my father was the leader of a terrorist organisation. I don’t think she ever got it that every day she opposed sanctions, more people were dying, and that the best thing for the assets she wanted to protect was democracy,” adding, “It’s a shame that we could never call her one of the champions of the liberation struggle. Normally we say that when one of us goes, the ANC ancestors will meet them at the pearly gates and give them a standing ovation. I think it’s quite likely that when Margaret Thatcher reaches the pearly gates, the ANC will boycott the occasion.”
After deposing Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977 and imposing martial law, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq retained power in Pakistani for a decade. Supported by the United Kingdom, United States and Saudi Arabia, as well as cultivating ties with both Israel and India, Zia-ul-Haq served as an anti-Communist bulwark against Soviet expansion after the occupation of Afghanistan, he presided over Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and promoted the spread of Islamist militancy.
TIME’s Ishaan Tharoor writes, “Lost in a Cold War fog,” Thatcher supported Zia-ul-Haq’s “military government…helping prop up a South Asian generalissimo now seen as one of the chief architects of the Islamist radicalization of his country,” and adds, “under his watch, the Afghan mujahedin bloomed and the seeds of a new era of terrorist militancy were planted.” His rule was consistently consolidated and dissent silenced through torture and public executions.
During a visit to Pakistan in 1981, Thatcher hailed the dictator’s “courage and skill” and said she and other Western states “admire and support” his commitment to affirm “the right of the Afghan people to choose their own form of government in peace.” Clearly, since Pakistan wasn’t occupied by Soviets, Thatcher didn’t care much for the Pakistani peoples’ own rights to self-determination.
She pledged that Britain and Pakistan would “maintain a close and friendly relationship,” with her government “giving Pakistan practical support, and toasted the “health and happiness of His Excellency.”
Six years later, soon after the general had lifted martial law and granted himself even more presidential powers, Thatcher hosted him in London. She hailed “with great pleasure” the “remarkable strides” Pakistan had made under his rule, praised his “generosity” with regard to Afghan refugees, and wished Zia “every success in your great endeavours.”
“I believe that your courage, your strength and your persistence will have their reward and your example will be a lesson to the world,” Thatcher said. “[W]e are your friends and you are our friends.” She raised a glass to his health and “to the success of democracy in Pakistan and to the continuing and abiding friendship between our two countries.”
The very next year, Zia dissolved Pakistan’s National Assembly and dismissed his appointed Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo for signing the Geneva Accords and not sufficiently supporting his continued Islamization projects.
In the midst of the bloody Indonesian occupation of East Timor, Thatcher visited genocidal Indonesian dictator General Suharto, praised Indonesia’s “agricultural and industrial development” and, although East Timorese had been killed, starved, disappeared and herded into “resettlement camps” as part of Suharto’s “encirclement and annihilation” campaign, dismissed allegations of human rights abuses, explaining that East Timor was none of Britain’s business and that Suharto himself has “assured me that the International Red Cross not only had access to East Timor, but was very welcome there.”
She told the press, “Trade brings us together and identifies our interests, and I am sure that trade between Indonesia and Britain will increase as a result of the very friendly and warm atmosphere created by my visit here. We are clearly the best of friends and there is no sounder basis on which to construct future collaboration.”
In 2008, veteran journalist John Pilger recalled that Thatcher referred to Suharto as, “One of our very best and most valuable friends,” and how, “[f]or three decades the south-east Asian department of the Foreign Office worked tirelessly to minimise the crimes of Suharto’s gestapo, known as Kopassus, who gunned down people with British-supplied Heckler & Koch machine guns from British-supplied Tactica ‘riot control’ vehicles.”
“A Foreign Office speciality was smearing witnesses to the bombing of East Timorese villages by British-supplied Hawk aircraft – until Robin Cook was forced to admit it was true. Almost a billion pounds in export credit guarantees financed the sale of the Hawks, paid for by the British taxpayer while the arms industry reaped the profit,” Pilger adds.
With this kind of record, it is clear that Thatcher’s constantly pledged support for “freedom and democracy” was really a violent, imperial campaign waged for free markets and domination.