Web of Deceit: A critique of Britain’s foreign policy

The 3rd Centre for Global Education annual lecture, Delivered at Queen’s University, Belfast, October 2004

Mark Curtis

In my last book, Web of Deceit, I tried to show that 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. That it is a key ally of some of the world’s most repressive regimes that consistently condones, and sometimes actively aids, human rights abuses. And that in the era of globalisation, Britain under Labour is championing a fundamentalist economic ideology that is promoting the increasing takeover of the global economy by big business.

I also documented some of the past episodes in British foreign policy revealed in the declassified files, such as 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; extremely brutal and repressive colonial policies in the 1950s Kenya, Malaya and Oman.

My new book, Unpeople, is an attempt to uncover the reality of British foreign policy since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It also analyses several major episodes in Britain’s past foreign policy, exploring in detail formerly secret government files which have been ignored by mainstream commentators. It tries to expose the reality behind British governments’ supposed commitment to grand principles such as human rights, democracy, peace and overseas development.

The Blair government’s foreign policy since the invasion has been disastrous in terms of human rights, and is continuing to occur outside any meaningful media or parliamentary scrutiny. Since March 2003, British decision-makers have been implementing a series of remarkable steps: first, Britain is deepening its support for state terrorism in a number of countries; second, unprecedented plans are being developed to increase Britain’s ability to intervene militarily around the world; third, the government is increasing its state propaganda operations, directed towards the British public; and fourth, Whitehall planners have in effect announced they are no longer bound by international law. I will come on to these issues.

Current British policy towards Iraq is in many ways nothing new. Many aspects of the invasion and occupation are normal, permanent features of British foreign policy, in particular: the violation of international law, the government’s abuse of the UN, its deception of the public and its support for US aggression. Yet what the Iraq episode has revealed to large numbers of people is the nature of British foreign policy-making: a cabal of unelected advisers around its chief, the Prime Minister, taking decisions in an unaccountable and increasingly centralised way and contemptuous of restrictions on its authority from public opinion and international law.

Blair’s cabal – consisting of his closest foreign policy advisers in Downing Street – has been heading an unprecedented propaganda campaign to deceive the public, and has appropriated the power of the state to an unprecedented degree, even to the point of capturing its legal functions. Britain’s ‘democratic’ political system has been revealed as more a kind of personalised autocracy. There are, moreover, no formal mechanisms within the British political system to restrain it. The Hutton and Butler inquiries were set up by the Prime Minister and predictably cleared the government of acting in bad faith or for ‘sexing up’ intelligence on Iraq, in defiance of all the evidence. They suggest a stage-managed lack of accountability which would be hard to match outside the former Soviet bloc.

On the eve of the invasion the majority of the British public, 58 per cent, were shown to be opposed to the war. Air Marshal Brian Burridge, Commander of British forces in the invasion, later noted that ‘we went into this campaign with 33 per cent public support’. Yet parliament still backed war; indeed, more MPs voted to oppose the government over the proposed ban on fox-hunting than did over the invasion of Iraq – perhaps evidence that to those who supposedly represent the British people, animals are more important than (un)people. Following the parliamentary debate on the Butler report in July 2004, only 41 MPs voted against the government. At the same time, an opinion poll showed that 55 per cent of the public believed that Tony Blair lied over the war. The ‘democratic deficit’ in British political culture is now gaping. The invasion of Iraq highlights the need for a transformation in the way Britain is governed – something which now seems obvious even to some supporters of the war.

The government has stated that, following Iraq, propaganda will increase. According to the Ministry of Defence, British military strategy “will place greater emphasis on information and media operations, which are critical to success”. An MoD report entitled Operations in Iraq: Lessons for the future, published in December 2003, says that in future British military strategy ‘will place greater emphasis on information and media operations, which are critical to success’. In a section called the ‘key lessons’ of the Iraq campaign, number one is: ‘An information campaign, to be successful, needs to start as early as possible and continue into the post-conflict phase of an operation’.
 The government also no longer sees itself bound by international law, having recently stated: “We will always act in accordance with legal obligations but also effectively to defend the UK’s people and interests and secure international peace and stability”.

The new Ministry of Offence

As Tony Blair, Jack Straw and others were swearing that war with Iraq could not possibly have anything to do with oil, the government published a document in February 2003, just weeks before the invasion began, showing how concerned it is with securing foreign energy supplies. The document is the Department of Trade and Industry’s white paper called Our energy future – Creating a low carbon economy. Tony Blair’s foreword to the document notes that Britain faces ‘new challenges’ and that ‘our energy supplies will increasingly depend on imported gas and oil from Europe and beyond’. The document then outlines the central dilemma that ‘as a country we have been a net exporter of energy . . . but this will change.’ Britain, it says, is set to become a net importer of gas by around 2006 and of oil by around 2010.

One solution emphasised strongly in the report is to diversify sources of energy and ‘avoid the UK being reliant on too few international sources of oil and gas’. The key gas-supplying countries and regions will be Russia, the Middle East, North and West Africa, and the Caspian Sea region. For oil, which accounts for 40 per cent of global energy consumption, the major producers will be Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, South and Central America, Africa, Russia and the Caspian region. Of particular importance to ensuring diversity of oil sources, the report notes, are non-OPEC suppliers such as Russia, the Caspian region and West Africa. Therefore, ‘we will continue to promote good relations with existing and new suppliers in the Middle East, Russia, the Caspian and Africa’. ‘Our aims are to maintain strong relations with exporting countries’ while ‘in promoting diversity we will also work to minimise the risk of disruption to supplies from regional disputes’.

In December 2003 the government produced another extraordinary public document, this time outlining its military strategy. It counts as one of the most worrying pieces of government literature I have ever seen, even including the declassified files. Nine months after the invasion of Iraq, the New Labour government delivered a very clear message: from now on, it will be more of the same. The document is a Defence white paper, entitled Delivering security in a changing world – a formulation worthy of Orwell. It surpasses the military strategy outlined in the government’s Strategic Defence Review (SDR) produced in 1998, which stated that the priority in future will be ‘force projection’ and that ‘in the post cold war world we must be prepared to go to the crisis rather than have the crisis come to us’. This involved plans to buy two larger aircraft carriers ‘to power more flexibly [sic] around the world’. Other new weapons systems would be a new generation of attack helicopters, submarines equipped with cruise missiles, and fighter and bomber aircraft. A new chapter added to the SDR in July 2002 noted ‘the emphasis on expeditionary operations’, and the need for ‘rapidly deployable intervention forces’ and ‘force projection and strike capabilities’.

The latest document, the December 2003 white paper, says that British intervention capability needs to go beyond even that envisaged in these two earlier documents. It states that ‘we must extend our ability to project force further afield than the SDR envisaged’ including in ‘crises occurring across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia’ and arising from ‘the wider threat from international terrorism’. ‘The threat from international terrorism’, it notes, ‘now requires the capability to deliver a military response globally’. It calls for the British military to conduct ‘expeditionary operations’ while ‘rapidly deployable forces’ are needed for ‘a range of environments across the world’. The forces needed include cruise missiles which ‘offer a versatile capability for projecting land and air power ashore’, and two new aircraft carriers and combat aircraft which will ‘offer a step increase in our ability to project air power from the sea’.

It was Britain not the US that first committed itself to the strategy that is mislabelled ‘pre-emption’. A better description would be ‘preventive’: it means that military force will be undertaken not in response to an imminent threat, but before a threat materialises. The first is a kind of self-defence; the ‘threat’ posited in the latter is open to interpretation and can easily be used to justify offence, as in the invasion of Iraq.
Indeed, these documents amount to a reconfiguration of British military strategy to an overt focus on offensive operations; Britain now has a Ministry of Offence. ‘Defence’ was always a misnomer intended largely for public relations: Britain has always had a strong intervention capability and has conducted numerous offensive operations which have had nothing to do with defending Britain or the interests of the public. But now this is barely even being hidden. Geoff Hoon has said that ‘long experience indicates that a wholly defensive posture will not be enough’; the key ‘is to take the fight to the terrorist’. This ‘terrorist’ threat is the cover for greater and more frequent interventions. While the media have been sidetracked by issues such as who named David Kelly when and at what meeting, the Defence Secretary has been pushing ahead with plans for a new ‘expeditionary strategy’ that envisages more Iraqs all over the world. Presumably, only the current humiliation in Iraq, together with public opposition, is holding the Blair cabal back.

Friendly terrorists: New Labour’s key allies

There are certain issues which it is not done to mention in respectable circles, and one of these is British involvement in terrorism. If we define ‘terrorism’ as the systematic use of violence and intimidation for political ends, then there are two kinds of terrorism in the world today: on the one hand, the campaigns of private networks like al Qaeda; on the other, the violence promoted and sponsored by states. The latter operates on a considerably greater scale, yet its perpetrators receive little or no attention in the mainstream media – particularly when they are British allies. Indeed, on any rational indicator, during a supposed ‘war against terrorism’ Britain counts as one of the leading supporters of terrorism in the world. Moreover, Britain’s support to states promoting terrorism has been noticeably stepped up following the invasion of Iraq, notably with regard to Russia, Israel and Colombia. Let me just deal briefly with Russia.

Russian atrocities in Chechnya have worsened throughout 2003 and 2004, according to human-rights groups. Overall, untold thousands of people have been killed, tens of thousands have been forced to flee and, according to the Russian press, tens of thousands of Chechen children suffer from traumas, congenital pathologies and illnesses caused by the war. While Britain was busy invading Iraq in March–April 2003, Human Rights Watch was documenting the highest rate of ‘disappearances’ since the beginning of the conflict in Chechnya and concluding that violations were increasing and that the situation was ‘abysmal’.

The Blair government has essentially backed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy in Chechnya all the way. While Grozny was being flattened at the beginning of 2000, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon was speaking of engaging Russia ‘in a constructive bilateral defence relationship’. Blair himself has been the most outspoken apologist for Russian terror in Chechnya and, at numerous meetings with President Putin, has consistently publicly defended Russia and praised its leader. Indeed, Blair has even boasted of this support, once conceding that ‘I have always been more understanding of the Russian position [regarding Chechnya], perhaps, than many others’. Meanwhile, relations with the Russian military have deepened and none of the potential levers available to London – an annual aid programme, a large line of export credit and major trade relations – has been used to press Moscow.

At this time Blair also reportedly claimed, without offering any evidence, that Chechens had fought in Iraq against US and British forces. He repeated this allegation in parliament in September citing ‘US military sources’. A few months later, the government admitted that ‘we have no evidence of Chechen terrorists being in Iraq’. This meeting took place three months after a referendum in Chechnya blatantly designed to secure a win for Moscow’s position on a mandate for a new constitution for the province. It took place ‘in atrocious circumstances – widespread arbitrary detention, daily disappearances and an overall atmosphere of impunity’, according to Human Rights Watch. This was good enough for Blair, who praised the process by telling the Russians that ‘I think it is absolutely right that you resolve [the situation] through the policy process and political dialogue that you have engaged in’.

This is ‘the most serious human rights crisis of the new decade in Europe’, according to Human Rights Watch. Yet it is not true to say, as the Guardian has done, that ‘in Chechnya, the West looks the other way’.11 British policy is not to turn a blind eye to Russian terror: it is to support it.

The declassified files

The principal victims of British policies are Unpeople – those whose lives are deemed worthless, expendable in the pursuit of power and commercial gain. They are the modern equivalent of the ‘savages’ of colonial days, who could be mown down by British guns in virtual secrecy, or else in circumstances where the perpetrators were hailed as the upholders of civilisation.

I have calculated that Britain bears significant responsibility for around 10 million deaths since 1945. Let me highlight some of the findings from my research for Unpeople:

In 1963, 5,000 members of the Iraqi Communist Party, including doctors, lawyers and other professionals, were hunted down and killed by the military regime that seized power in a February 1963 coup. It has long been known that the US passed a hit-list of names to the new regime. The British documents show that officials knew the massacres were occurring and welcomed the new regime as it was carrying them out. A Foreign Office official wrote: “Such harshness may well have been necessary as a short term expedient”. Britain’s Ambassador, Roger Allen, wrote: “We should support it [the regime] and help it in the long term to establish itself so that this communist threat may gradually diminish”. The Foreign Office stated: “We wish the new regime well” and wanted to “make friendly contact as soon as possible with the Ba’athist and nationalist leaders”.

In 1963 and 1965 Baghdad launched brutal offensives, described by British officials as a “terror campaign”, against the Kurds, who were demanding autonomy in Iraq. Britain supplied various categories of arms knowing they would be used against the Kurds: 18,000 rockets to the Iraqi air force, 280,000 rounds of ammunition, mortar bombs, machine guns and armed helicopters. Demolition slabs were exported knowing that they “will probably be used… for the demolition of Kurdish villages”. 27 Hawker Hunters previously supplied by Britain were used in “indiscriminate air attacks” against villages. The Iraqi campaign involved the use of poison gas but when Kurdish leader, Mustafa Barzani, appealed to Harold Wilson in 1965 to prevent Baghdad further using such weapons, Wilson simply did not reply. This complicity was the precedent for Baghdad’s chemical attacks in the 1980s.

British role in the Vietnam war
• The government always denied sending troops to Vietnam, but the documents show they did. The covert “Noone mission”, under Richard Noone, a British adviser to the colonial Malayan government, began in summer 1962 and was active for at least a year. It appears to have included SAS troops acting under civilian cover and was attached to US units.
• Britain also denied providing military support to the Vietnamese regimes. But the documents show that Britain provided “counter-insurgency” advice and trained hundreds of Vietnamese soldiers. The brutal US “counter-insurgency” programmes were in fact based on British prototypes developed by Robert Thompson, a senior official in the colonial Malayan government.
• The documents reveal private British backing for all stages of US military escalation. When Harold Wilson sometimes dissented from specific US actions in public, he invariably reassured US President Johnson of his continuing support in private. For example, when the US bombed Hanoi and Haiphong for the first time in June 1966, Wilson told parliament that “we have made it clear that we would oppose any bombing involving Hanoi or Haiphong” and issued a statement disassociating the government from the bombing. Yet the documents show that the statement was passed to the US for approval while Wilson assured Johnson that “I cannot see that there is any change in your basic position that I could urge on you”.

British support for Idi Amin
• The January 1971 coup was strongly welcomed by British officials. They were keen to see the back of the Milton Obote government which was threatening nationalization of British commercial interests and criticising the UK over selling arms to apartheid South Africa. After the coup, senior Foreign Office official, Harold Smedley, wrote that “Anglo-Ugandan relations can only benefit from the change”. Officials recognized that Amin was “corrupt and unintelligent” and immediately acquiesced in the new regime’s repression. One Foreign Office official wrote that “I can appreciate that a period of rule free from all politics… could be desirable”. Dozens of armoured cars were supplied along with a military training team. In August 1971, when Amin established a military junta and a month after hundreds of army officers were killed by forces loyal to Amin, Britain offered a £10 million loan.
• British initial support for Amin helped to consolidate his rule, soon leading to a reign of terror in which 300,000 were killed. The break with Amin only came in June 1972 when Amin called for joint African exercises with the Soviet navy and with army indiscipline increasing. In August, Amin announced he would expel Asian British passport-holders. The documents also show British refusals to participate in moves by Obote loyalists to attempts a return to Uganda.

Past “dirty wars” in the Middle East
• The documents reveal a covert British operation to destablise the republican government in Yemen that took power in 1962, fuelling a civil war costing around 200,000 lives. MI6, with SAS and mercenary support, organized secret arms supplies to Royalist forces in Yemen and in neighbouring Aden to fight the Egyptian-backed government. Mine-laying and sabotage operations were conducted along with “assassination or other action against key personnel… especially Egyptian intelligence service officers”. While this was occurring, Prime Minister Douglas-Home told parliament that: “Our policy towards Yemen is one of non-intervention in the affairs of that country”.
• The documents reveal military attacks on civilian targets such as livestock and water supplies, in suppressing revolts in Aden in 1964 and Oman in 1957. In the latter, secrecy was recognized as paramount:. The Foreign Office noted: “we want to avoid the RAF killing Arabs if possible, especially as there will be newspaper correspondents on the spot”. The British commander stated that throughout the campaign “a game of bluff and deceit was carried out, which was far from pleasant”.

In researching the Whitehall planning files, a fairly clear picture emerges from these files as to what British governments really want in their foreign policy. A July 1970 report entitled ‘Priorities in our foreign policy’ states that Britain needs ‘to act in support of our commercial and financial interests throughout the world…We must contribute within our economic capability to international stability and the protection of our interests in the rest of the world from which so many of our raw materials derive . . . We shall need to pay particular attention to the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Southern Africa’.

The basic aim is to ensure that other countries establish economic climates favourable to British, and Western, companies. A Foreign Office report from 1968 recognises that the primary goal of foreign policy is to make Britain economically strong, meaning that ‘we should bend our energies to help produce a world economic climate in which our external trade, our income from invisibles and our balance of payments can prosper’. The key to this is ‘freer’ global trade and ‘increasing our efforts to open up new markets in Europe, Latin America and the Far East’.

British planners were at pains to counter the trend towards nationalisation since ‘expropriation nearly always results in a measure of loss for the UK interests involved’. This policy was promoted in the knowledge that nationalisation embodied ‘the hope that a large share of the profits may be retained locally and increased funds be made available for local investment’.5 Thus British policy-makers were perfectly aware that in opposing nationalisation they were also opposing likely improvements in the welfare of the people of those countries.

Possessing nuclear weapons is another way Britain maintain their status in the world. The Cabinet Office in 1960, for example, noted that in the 1950s ‘our influence throughout the world was enhanced’ by ‘being a nuclear power with a significant potential both in weapons and delivery systems’. It noted that ‘unilateral nuclear disarmament is, of course, within our power’ but this would threaten Britain’s security and ‘would undermine our standing in the Atlantic Alliance and in the world as a whole’.


In Web of Deceit I argued that the root of the problem of British foreign policy is the political system and nature of decision-making itself. Foreign policy is made by a secretive elite protected even from any serious democratic scrutiny, let alone any systematic influence over that policy by the public. There has long been no fundamental difference between the Labour and Conservative parties in foreign policy. As this book tries to show, many of the worst episodes have been presided over by Labour governments. Britain will always promote terrible foreign policies until this elitist system is democratised and a fundamental transformation of governance takes place.

The government’s recent recourse to unprecedented propaganda shows the extent to which the public is feared. A perennial truth which emerges from the declassified files is the public’s ability to mount protests and demonstrations that divert the government from its course. In the talks and meetings to which I have been invited recently, it seems to me that these perceptions are contributing to the emergence of a new radicalism even among previously unpoliticised people. There is an increasing sense that the mainstream parties offer the same and nothing in terms of promoting a foreign policy respectful of human rights and moral values.

There is widespread recognition that the various activist groups, more radical political elements and social movements need to find a way of coming together behind an alternative political and economic programme. My own view is that an agenda of promoting real democracy – domestically and globally – could provide an umbrella for uniting groups behind a coherent, common programme and appeal to a broad cross-section of people. I also believe that opposition groups need to engage in harder-hitting campaigning tactics such as non-violent direct action to press for changes in official policies, rather than relying on insider lobbying, rational persuasion or more traditional forms of campaigning.

Self-education is a vital task. There is a plethora of websites where excellent independent analysis is freely available. The Glasgow University Media Group and Medialens, for example, offer incisive exposure of mainstream media coverage with the latter encouraging supporters directly to challenge instances of misreporting. Other organisations such as Indymedia and Schnews offer alternative media analysis and information on campaigning. A new organisation has recently been set up in the academic world, called the Network of Scholars of International Politics and International Relations (NASPIR), which brings together analysts writing critically on international issues, to share information and to see research as an element in social change.

I believe that one of the biggest challenges of all lies in more people making the shift from being ‘liberal’ to ‘radical’, to increase the weight of pressure for fundamental change. It still amazes me how many people in NGO circles, where I have often worked, retain essentially liberal outlooks – prepared to accept that reform within the existing system is the only required, or possible, strategy and often barely aware of the ideological role of the mainstream media. Governments are often still viewed in good faith and their public claims accepted, rather than being automatically dismissed or even questioned, as I think should be the default position.

In my view, many civil society agencies, and especially the charitable NGOs, share the blame for reinforcing the liberal mindset of their supporters by pressing only for mild reform of government policies. Although their work is vital, such organisations also fail to tell their supporters about the systematic responsibility of the British government in, say, poverty or human-rights abuses, and often choose to welcome the mildest of government policy-reform proposals. Most organisations are frightened of criticising government policy beyond certain limits even when the facts warrant it – and these limits are often very narrow. These organisations play the role of containing wider, radical opposition while appearing to be genuinely independent. The process of transforming British foreign policy requires not only bringing together various opposition groups and radicalising many existing organisations, but also a personal transformation, decolonising the mind of accepted truths and received wisdom. This self-education can be a liberating experience in itself, as well as in our own self-interest.