Britain’s Real Role in the World
In his explosive new book, Mark Curtis reveals a new picture of Britain’s role in the world since 1945 and in the “war against terrorism” by offering a comprehensive critique of the Blair government’s foreign policy. Curtis argues that Britain is an “outlaw state”, often a violator of international law and ally of many repressive regimes. He reasons not only that Britain’s foreign policies are generally unethical but that they are also making the world more dangerous and unequal.
web of deceit: author’s introduction
Since achieving power in 1997, New Labour government ministers have ceaselessly made extraordinary claims about the morality of their foreign policies and wanting to be a ‘force for good in the world’. Never in British history has there been such a gap between government claims and the reality of policy.
The reality is that Britain under New Labour is a systematic violator of international law and ethical standards in its foreign policy – in effect, an outlaw state. It is a key ally of some of the world’s most repressive regimes that is consistently condoning, and sometimes actively aiding, human rights abuses. During a so-called ‘war against terrorism’, Britain is in fact one of the world’s leading apologists for, and supporters of, state terrorism by allies responsible for far more serious crimes than Al Qaida or other official threats. And, in the era of globalisa-tion, Britain under Labour is championing a fundamentalist economic ideology that is promoting the increasing takeover of the global economy by big business.
In the post-September 11th world, the threat of terrorism by organisations like Bin Laden’s Al Qaida is certainly real, but it is the policies of our own government, and our principal ally, the US, that are in reality the greatest threat to the public.
A web of deceit is obscuring this picture. People in Britain are largely unaware of what has been done in their name, even as government policies undermine our own interests. The public’s understanding of Britain’s real role in the world is being obscured by an ideological system – principally, the mainstream media – that is largely accepting at face value New Labour’s rhetoric on its moral purpose.
Current British foreign policies are generally not only immoral, but also dangerous, for the British public as well as others. These policies are helping to make the world more insecure, unequal and abusive of human rights. In the post-September 11th world, the threat of terrorism by organisations like Bin Laden’s Al Qaida is certainly real, but it is the policies of our own government, and our principal ally, the US, that are in reality the greatest threat to the public. It is in our self-interest, therefore, to press for fundamental changes to Britain’s role in the world.
Blair government claims are often extraordinary. Labour’s first Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, spoke of ‘putting human rights at the centre of foreign policy’ and outlined an ‘ethical dimension’ to foreign policy one month after taking office. Tony Blair promises to help heal the ‘scar on the conscience of the world’, referring to poverty and conflict in Africa, and to ‘fight for justice’ globally. He ceaselessly stresses the concept of global interdependence and has outlined ‘a new doctrine of international community’, saying that national interest is ‘to a significant extent governed by international collaboration’. ‘We are all internationalists now’, he declared in a speech in Chicago in April 1999.1
The reality of Britain’s current and past role in the world can be shown by taking an independent look at current policy using a variety of sources beyond the mainstream and by revealing the formerly secret, now declassified government planning files.
Former Foreign Office minister Peter Hain has written of ‘our mission to conquer world poverty and build international peace and a world based upon justice, equality and human rights’. The International Development Secretary, Clare Short, says that British aims are to ‘systematically reduce poverty and promote sustainable development in the poorest countries’. Even the Trade Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, says at every available opportunity that Britain is promoting ‘fair trade’ globally and is on the side of developing countries in the international trade negotiations that are reshaping the global economy. Officially, Britain is on the side of the angels.2
Never before has the public of a democratic country been subject to such an extraordinary ongoing tirade of propaganda. For the government is, quite generally, promoting actual policies that are directly opposite to this rhetoric.
The reality of Britain’s current and past role in the world can be shown by taking an independent look at current policy using a variety of sources beyond the mainstream and by revealing the formerly secret, now declassified government planning files. This book argues that we need to extricate ourselves from the web of reporting and analysis that obscures this reality and from the deceit promoted by the elite – and that behind the diplomatic language and presentation of policy-makers lies a peculiar British viciousness, evident all around the world, past and present. It is not that British elites are evil or that everything they do is immoral and dangerous. There are some exceptions to promoting generally unethical foreign policies – but they are few and pale in comparison with the broader picture.
Britain’s real role in the world is a great betrayal of people in this country. I believe they expect the government to uphold the moral values abroad that most people uphold in their daily lives. This is partly why, as I argue in this book, the public is in reality seen by elites as the great threat to pursuing their priorities.
In the chapters that follow, I look at some of the major foreign policies of the Blair government: its illegal wars; its support for a ‘war against terrorism’ that is acting as a pretext for a new phase of global intervention and US imperial power; its support for repressive elites and state terrorism; its arms exports that help sustain repressive governments; its aim to reshape the global economy; and its extraordinary new role as recognised international expert on state propaganda (mis-labelled ‘spin’).
I also tell the story of several long-forgotten past British interventions revealed in now declassified documents – in Iran, Malaya, British Guiana and Kenya. These interventions were much more brutal than usually believed and make exceedingly worrying reading – in Kenya alone, 150,000 Africans died as a result of British policy in the 1950s. These interventions reveal a contempt for grand ethical principles that has passed easily from Conservative to Labour and from the colonial era to the present.
To read many mainstream commentators’ writings on Britain’s role in the world is to enter a surreal, Kafkaesque world where the reality is often the direct opposite of what is contended and where the starting assumptions are frighteningly supportive of state power.
I also sketch an outline of the ideological system that prevents the public from seeing the reality of Britain’s role in the world. This system makes it easier for elites to pursue policies in their interests and against the public interest. It is not a conspiracy; rather, the system works by journalists and academics internalising sets of values, generally accepted wisdom and styles of reporting.
It means that even big stories can rarely if ever see the light of day. One example is how the British government was complicit in the genocide of Rwanda in 1994 that killed a million people. Another is Britain’s role in the slaughter of a million people in Indonesia in 1965 – a story as much buried as British complicity in Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975. Meanwhile, the people of Diego Garcia, thrown off their islands and the subject of a decades-long Whitehall conspiracy to banish them from history, continue to seek justice in a brave struggle but remain largely unknown to the British public.
The liberal intelligentsia in Britain is in my view guilty of helping to weave a collective web of deceit. Under New Labour, many commentators have openly taken part in Labour’s onslaught on the world, often showering praise on Tony Blair and his ministers for speaking the language of rights, development and global security as they proceed to demolish such noble virtues in their actual policy. To read many mainstream commentators’ writings on Britain’s role in the world is to enter a surreal, Kafkaesque world where the reality is often the direct opposite of what is contended and where the starting assumptions are frighteningly supportive of state power. My view is that the intelligentsia suffers from the same malady of ‘elitism’ as policy-makers, generally choosing to side with them, often being willingly taken in. The British liberal intelligentsia generally displays its servitude to the powers that be rather than to ordinary people, whether here or abroad.
The view has long been held that Britain ‘has lost an empire and not yet found a role’, in the famous words of US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, several decades ago. Yet Britain’s real role is easily discovered if we are concerned enough to look; the problem is that the results of such a search are quite unpleasant. Britain’s role remains an essentially imperial one: to act as junior partner to US global power; to help organise the global economy to benefit Western corporations; and to maximise Britain’s (that is, British elites’) independent political standing in the world and thus remain a ‘great power’.
In the final chapter, I end with some thoughts on the major challenges ahead if we are serious about changing for good Britain’s role in the world – a truly necessary task, in the light of its past and present record.
web of deceit: chronology of british foreign policy
A chronology of major events covered in this book
1947 Foreign Office describes Middle East oil in secret document as ‘a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination’.
1948 Britain declares ‘emergency’ in Malaya and begins 12-year war to defeat rebels, who are mainly marginalised Chinese. Britain secretly describes war as ‘in defence of [the] rubber industry’ and engages in widespread bombing, draconian police measures and ‘resettlement’ of hundreds of thousands of people in fortified ‘new villages’.
1951 June: Attlee government begins covert plan to overthrow Iranian prime minister Musaddiq following the latter’s nationalisation of oil operations.
1952 October: Britain declares state of emergency in colony of Kenya. British forces conduct human rights atrocities, establish Nazi-style concentration camps and ‘resettle’ hundreds of thousands of people in ‘protected villages’. Around 150,000 Africans die.
1953 August: Musaddiq government in Iran overthrown in MI6/CIA-organised coup. Shah installed in power as per London’s and Washington’s plans.
1953 October: Britain conducts military intervention in British Guiana to overthrow democratically elected government.
1954 July: US overthrows Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz and US-backed junta seizes power. Britain aids US position at UN.
1956 October: Britain invades Egypt to remove nationalist president Nasser, eventually being forced to withdraw due to US and financial pressure. MI6 plans and carries out several assassina-tion attempts against Nasser.
1957 July: Britain begins military intervention in Oman in support of extremely repressive regime against rebellion by Omani Liberation Army. SAS fights covert war and RAF conducts wide-spread bombing of villages and strongholds, defeating rebels by 1959.
1958 July: Britain conducts military intervention in Jordan, ostensibly to protect regime from alleged Egyptian-backed coup. Declassified documents suggest, however, that British planners fabricated the coup scenario to justify intervention.
1961 Death of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold in mysterious plane crash while trying to secure peace in Congo. Recent evidence has emerged of possible MI5 involvement.
1961 US begins major intervention in Vietnam. As US atrocities mount in the war that follows, Britain secretly provides US with military intelligence, arms and covert SAS deployments, along with diplomatic support.
1961 July: Britain conducts military intervention in Kuwait, ostensibly to defend the country from imminent Iraqi invasion. Declassified documents suggest, however, that British planners fabricated the threat to justify intervention.
1962 MI6 and SAS begin covert operation in North Yemen that eventually involves providing arms, funding and logistical support to royalist rebels in dirty war against pro-Egyptian republican forces. Around 200,000 die in the war.
1964 Britain begins second war in support of Oman regime, against the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf, fought mainly covertly by the SAS. The ‘Dhofar Rebellion’ is defeated by 1975.
1965 October: Bloodbath in Indonesia begins as army moves against supporters of Indonesian Communist Party, reaching around a million deaths. Declassified documents show Britain aids the Indonesian army in conducting the slaughter through covert operations and secret messages of support.
1968 Britain begins illegal and secret removal of 1,500 population of Chagos islands, including Diego Garcia, following agreement to lease islands to US. Whitehall conspiracy begins, contending there are no indigenous inhabitants.
1970 July: British coup in Oman overthrows Sultan and installs his son. Sultan Qaboos remains in power today.
1975 December: Indonesia invades East Timor, leading to 200,000 deaths. In secret cable, British ambassador in Jakarta says Indonesia ‘should absorb the territory as soon and as unobtrusively as possible’ and that Britain ‘should avoid taking sides against the Indonesian government’.
1980 MI6 begins largest postwar covert operation in Afghanistan to train mojahidin groups fighting the Soviet occupation.
1981 US begins covert intervention against Nicaragua, training contra rebels in sabotage and terrorist operations. Britain provides strong diplomatic support to US and nod and wink to ‘security’ company, KMS, to train and recruit contra guerillas and conduct gun-running operations.
1983 October: US invades Grenada. British government privately furious at US failure to consult in invasion of Commonwealth country, but publicly backs intervention.
1985 First contract with Saudi Arabia signed in massive Al Yamamah arms deal. With second deal in 1988, overall worth is around £50 billion.
1986 Spring: MI6 begins supplying Afghan mojahidin groups with ‘Blowpipe’ shoulder-launched missiles, some of which are used to shoot down passenger airliners.
1986 April: US conducts air raids on Libya. Britain allows US use of British air bases and provides strong public support.
1989 December: US invades Panama. Britain is only major state to unstintingly support US.
1991 January: US, Britain and coalition begin massive bombing campaign against Iraq to force withdrawal from Kuwait following its invasion the previous August.
1991 April: Britain and US establish ‘no fly zones’ in northern and southern Iraq. They begin covert, permanent war of bombing in the zones.
1991 November: Indonesian forces massacre hundreds of peaceful demonstrators in Dili, East Timor. Britain continues arms exports and business as usual.
1992 MI6 draws up plans to assassinate Yugoslav president Milosevic, according to an MI6 official. These plans are apparently not carried out.
1993 June: US conducts cruise missile attacks against Iraq. Britain provides political support.
1994 April: Rwanda genocide begins, quickly killing a million people. Britain effectively aids the slaughter by helping to reduce UN force that could have prevented the killings, in helping to delay other plans for intervention and in resisting use of the term ‘genocide’ which would have obligated the international community to act.
1996 MoD quietly sends first of several training teams to assist Saudi Arabia in ‘internal security’ as part of wider support to Saudi Arabian National Guard, the force that protects the ruling family.
1996 February: Assassination and coup attempt against Libya’s Colonel Qadafi with, according to former MI5 officer David Shayler, MI6 funds and backing.
1996 April: British-supplied Scorpion light tanks used in Indonesia to repress demonstrators. It is the first of eight known occasions in 1996–2000 that British armoured cars are used for internal repression. Blair government continues arms to Indonesia.
1996 September: US conducts cruise missile attacks against Iraq. Britain provides political support.
1997 February: Labour leader Tony Blair reassures BAE Systems, Britain’s largest arms company, that ‘winning exports is vital to the long term success of Britain’s defence industry’.
1998 August: US launches cruise missile attacks against Al Qaida training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. Britain provides strong political support.
1998 December: US and Britain begin four-day heavy bombing campaign against Iraq, followed by weeks-long secret escalation of bombing in ‘no fly zones’.
1999 March: Britain and NATO begin bombing campaign against Milosevic’s Yugoslavia over Kosovo. The humanitarian catastrophe that Western leaders claim they are preventing is in reality precipitated by NATO bombing.
1999 April: Former members of Kenyan Mau Mau movement announce they are suing British government for human rights atrocities committed in 1950s.
1999 August/September: Around 5,000 are killed in East Timor and 500,000 forced to flee from Indonesian-backed terror around the vote for independence. Britain continues arms sales to Jakarta and finally agrees only to delay not stop them, while inviting Indonesia to an arms fair in Britain. Blair government tries to take credit for stopping Indonesian violence by helping to establish UN peace enforcement mission.
1999 October: Chinese premier Jiang Zemin visits Britain. Blair government refuses to raise human rights issues publicly, while police deny protesters the right to peaceful assembly and illegally seize Tibetan flags.
2000 January: Chinese defence minister, General Chi Haotian, who commanded the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, visits Britain to explore ‘military cooperation’, showing London’s apparent defiance of EU arms embargo on China.
2000 February: As Russian forces ferociously bomb the Chechnyan capital, Grozny, reducing the city to rubble, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook says he ‘understood’ Russia’s problems in Chechnya.
2000 July: British national Ian Henderson resigns as adviser to Bahraini government after career as head of repressive internal security service.
2000 November: High Court rules against government that Chagos islanders be allowed to return to some of their homeland islands, but not Diego Garcia.
2001 British arms exports reach £5 billion for 2001.
2001 February: US/British airstrikes against Iraq in response to alleged threats to aircraft in ‘no fly zones’.
2001 August: US and Britain secretly step up bombing campaign in ‘no fly zones’ in Iraq.
2001 October: US and Britain begin massive bombing campaign against Al Qaida and Taliban regime in Afghanistan following terrorist attacks of September 11th. Civilian deaths in the war outnumber those killed on September 11th.
2001 November: At the World Trade Organisation summit in Qatar, Britain with EU allies tries to force ‘new issues’ on to the WTO’s negotiating agenda in face of opposition from developing countries. The latter remain united and the decision is delayed for two years.
2002 Foreign Office website continues to lie that there are ‘no indigenous inhabitants’ of the Chagos islands, while Foreign Office continues in effect to block islanders’ return.
2002 August: With full-scale war against Iraq appearing imminent, US and Britain secretly step up bombing campaign in ‘no fly zones’.
2002 October: In midst of continuing Russian atrocities in Chechnya, Tony Blair says ‘it is important to understand the Russian perspective’.
2003 March: After months of build-up, US and Britain launch war against Iraq, discarding the UN weapons inspection process and bypassing the UN Security Council.
To order the book:
“Scrupulously, relentlessly, Mark Curtis rescues the historical and documentary record from a web of distortion and self-serving illusion. The range of his inquiries is as impressive as the care and diligence with which they are conducted. “
– Noam Chomsky
Web of Deceit describes the staggering gulf that exists between New Labour’s public claims to uphold ethical values and the reality of current policies. It outlines the new phase in British global intervention, the immorality of its policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Indonesia and support for repressive governments in Israel, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Curtis also reveals Britain’s acquiescence in the Rwanda genocide and economic policies in the World Trade Organisation that are increasing poverty and inequality around the world.
Drawing on formerly secret government files, the book also shows British complicity in the slaughter of a million people in Indonesia in 1965; the depopulation of the island of Diego Garcia; the overthrow of governments in Iran and British Guiana; repressive colonial policies in Kenya, Malaya and Oman; and much more.
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