Britain’s postwar foreign policy: A web of deceit

by Mark Curtis

A chapter in Prem Poddar and David Johnson (eds), A Historical Companion to Postcolonial Thought in English, Columbia University Press, 2005, available here:

The standard view is that Britain’s postwar foreign policy has aimed to promote democracy, peace, human rights and overseas development. If these supposed goals are not always explicitly outlined in mainstream analysis, they are invariably implicitly assumed. This is an extraordinary and false view. The evidence shows that Britain is a systematic violator of the noble virtues noted above as well as international law. It has traditionally been, and remains under the current New Labour government, a key ally of some of the world’s most repressive regimes and acts as a consistent condoner of human rights abuses.

The twin goals of British foreign policy are clearly revealed in the declassified planning files and continue today: to maintain British elites’ political standing in the world, ie, some form of “great power” status; and to ensure that key countries and regions, and the global economy, function to  benefit Western businesses. Both are to be secured primarily in alliance with US foreign policy. From these goals have flowed a great number of policies which consign much of the population of the world to the status of “unpeople” – victims of British policies.

Let us briefly sketch out some of the most important episodes in postwar foreign policy, some of which have been buried in the mainstream.

In 1953, Britain and the US collaborated to overthrow the nationalist Iranian government of Mohamed Musaddiq and replaced it with the Shah’s regime.  Musaddiq had challenged British interests by nationalising oil operations – then controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Corporation (AIOC), the forerunner of British Petroleum. The Labour government under Clement Attlee immediately began covert plans to overthrow Musaddiq, which were continued under the Churchill government. Britain’s aim was to install “a more reliable government”, Foreign Secretary Eden explained. “Our policy”, a British official later recalled, “was to get rid of Mossadeq [sic] as soon as possible”.

When the oil talks collapsed, the main British negotiator advised the Shah that the “only solution” was “a strong government under martial law and the bad boys in prison for two years or so”. British planners preferred “a non-communist coup d’etat preferably in the name of the Shah”. It was clearly understood by the British embassy in Tehran that “this would mean an authoritarian regime”. Britain’s ambassador in Tehran preferred “a dictator”, who “would carry out the necessary administrative and economic reforms and settle the oil question on reasonable terms”.

The subsequent repression under the Shah was supported both by Britain and the US. Britain trained some officers of SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, when it was set up in 1957, according to its former coordinator. MI6 was in close touch with leading SAVAK officials while the Head of MI6, Maurice Oldfield, met the Shah regularly in the 1970s and “had a close and intimate relation¬ship with His Imperial Majesty”, according to a former MI6 officer.

Britain’s invasion of British Guiana in the same year, 1953, is long forgotten. Democratic elections had resulted in victory for a popular, leftist government committed to reducing poverty. Its plans also threatened the British sugar multinational, Bookers, which pleaded with London to intervene. Britain dispatched warships and 700 troops to overthrow the government, and ruled out elections since “the same party would have been elected again,” the colonial secretary stated.

Many myths surround the British wars in Kenya and Malaya in the 1950s. Former members of the Mau Mau movement in Kenya are currently trying to sue the British government for human rights abuses committed by British forces who fought against them. They are calling for compensation “on behalf of the 90,000 people imprisoned and tortured in detention camps, 10,000 people who had land confiscated and a further half a million who were forced into protected villages”. The declassified files I have seen  paint a frightening picture of terrible human rights atrocities by the colonial authorities, especially in the Nazi-style detention camps and “protected villages” they established. Around 150,000 Africans are thought to have died as a result of British policy.

Britain used the war against Mau Mau as a cover for halting the rise of popular, nationalist forces that threatened control of its then colony. This was an early postwar example of wiping out the threat of independent development, a key concern of British, as well as US, planners.

In the war in Malaya, Britain resorted to very brutal measures, including widespread aerial bombing and the use of a forerunner to modern cluster bombs. Britain also set up a grotesque “resettlement” programme similar to that in Kenya, that provided a model for similar US programmes in Vietnam. It also used chemical agents from which the US may again have drawn lessons in its use of agent orange. Despite the standard portrayal of the war as one fought in a noble cause against “communist terrorists”, the secret files reveal the Foreign Office’s understood it as “very much as war in defence of [the] rubber industry”, then mainly under British control.

Britain’s invasion of Egypt in 1956 was followed the next year by an intervention in Oman, intended to counter a rebellion against a regime as repressive as any that has existed in the Middle East. There was no economic development to speak of, few schools, widespread disease and a barbaric justice system with torture endemic. The oil-rich Omani regime was in effect run by Britons, who served as commanders of the armed forces and as government ministers.

British strategy in the Middle East – then as now – is based on propping up repressive elites that support the West’s economic and political interests. This strategy has tended to undermine the prospects for more popular, democratic governments and has fanned the flames of religious extremism that is often the only alternative available to those being repressed.

The declassified British files show that the Gulf sheikhdoms were largely created by Britain to “retain our influence” in the region. London pledged to defend them against external attack and to “counter hostile influence and propaganda within the countries themselves”. Police and military training would help in “maintaining internal security”. The chief threat to these regimes was never Soviet inter¬vention but what the Foreign Office called “ultra-nationalist maladies”. In 1957, the Foreign Office identified the danger of the existing rulers “losing their authority to reformist or revolutionary movements which might reject the connexion with the United Kingdom”.

The fundamental Western interest in the region is of course oil, described by British planners in 1947 as “a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination”. “We must at all costs maintain control of this oil”, Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd noted in 1956.

In 1961 British planners were desperate to find a pretext to deploy military forces to Kuwait. The fear was that this newly independent country, where Britain had major oil interests, would sever ties from London. Kuwait had signed an agreement for  Britain to defend it if requested, but the solidity of this agreement was questionable. British fears were that “as the international personality of Kuwait grows, she will wish in various ways to show that she is no longer dependent upon us”. Therefore, “we must continue to use the opportunities which our protective role will afford to ensure so far as we can that Kuwait does not materially upset the existing financial arrangements or cease to be a good holder of sterling”.

Iraqi leader Qasim publicly claimed Kuwait as part of Iraq in June 1961 but the files show that British planners did not take this threat seriously. But Foreign Office officials in London, together with the British embassy in Baghdad, concocted a story that Iraq had ordered a tank regiment to speed south towards Kuwait. The files show that British officials in Basra, near the Kuwait border, saw no such threat. However, a terrified Kuwait emir, told by British officials that Iraq was about to invade, permitted the landing of British troops. A Ministry of Defence report 11 days later finally admitted it was “unlikely” that Iraq ever posed a threat.

1965 witnessed one of the postwar world’s worst bloodbaths when the Indonesian army under General Suharto set out to destroy the Indonesian Communist party (PKI), which led to around a million deaths. Britain, like the US, wanted the army to act against the PKI and encouraged it to do so. “I have never concealed from you my belief that a little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective change”, Britain’s ambassador in Jakarta, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, informed the Foreign Office. British policy was “to encourage the emergence of a General’s regime”, one intelligence official later explained. One British memo referred to “an operation carried out on a very large scale and often with appalling savagery”. Another simply referred to the “bloodbath”.

Britain directly connived with those engaged in slaughter. By 1965, thousands of British troops were in Borneo, defending Malaya against Indonesian encroachments following territorial claims by Jakarta. British planners secretly noted that they “did not want to distract the Indonesian army by getting them engaged in fighting in Borneo and so discourage them from the attempts which they now seem to be making to deal with the PKI”. So Gilchrist proposed that “we should get word to the Generals that we shall not attack them whilst they are chasing the PKI”. In October a US contact passed to the Generals “a carefully phrased oral message about not biting the Generals in the back for the present”.

A decade later in 1975, Britain supported Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, which led to further hundreds of thousands of deaths. The British ambassador in Jakarta informed the Foreign Office a few months before the invasion that “the people of Portuguese Timor are in no condition to exercise the right to self-determination” and that “the arguments in favour of its integration into Indonesia are all the stronger”. He suggested giving “greater sympathy towards Indonesia” if it decided to “take strong action” in East Timor. He added: “it is in Britain’s interest that Indonesia should absorb the territory as soon and as unobtrusively as possible, and that if it should come to the crunch and there is a row in the United Nations, we should keep our heads down and avoid taking sides against the Indonesian government”.

In the 1980s, with diminished means of unilateral intervention, Britain continued to act as the world’s leading supporter of US aggression, notably in aggression against Central America (after 1981), the bombing of Libya (1986) and the invasion of Panama (1989). “We support the United States’ aim to promote peaceful change, democracy and economic development” in Central America, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stated in January 1984; by this time the US aim of destroying the prospects for peaceful change and economic development – evidenced in US backing for the murderous regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala and in creating a terrorist army to operate against Nicaragua – was abundantly clear. British apologias sometimes reached astounding heights. A Foreign Office minister stated in 1985 – after years of devastation wrought by the Nicaraguan contras – that “the American government have stated time and again that they are seeking a solution by peaceful means to the problems of Central America”.

With a probable nod and a wink from London, the British private “security company”, KMS, trained some of the contras. KMS also organised the destruction of the El Chipote arms depot in the centre of Managua, and KMS helicopter pilots flew with the contras in Honduras. The company also recruited soldiers for Oliver North’s gun-running operation to the contras.

A further forgotten British role is that in the Rwanda genocide of 1994. The evidence shows that Britain used its diplomatic weight as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to help reduce the UN force in Rwanda that, according to military officers on the ground, could have prevented the killings. It then helped ensure the delay of other plans for intervention, which sent a green light to the murderers in Rwanda to continue, and also refused to provide the military capability for other states to intervene. Throughout, Britain helped ensure that the UN did not use the word “genocide”, which would have obliged to the UN to act, and put diplomatic pressure on others to ensure this did not happen. British officials also rebuffed personal pleas to stop the killings from the UN Secretary General and the commander of the UN force.

Entering the New Labour years, the illegal invasion of  Iraq in March 2003 was nothing new, certainly historically, nor even compared to Blair’s other foreign policies. By then, the Blair government had already indulged in six specific violations of inter¬national law: in conducting without UN authorisation the wars in Yugoslavia (1999) and Afghanistan (2001); in committing violations of international humanitarian law in the bombing of Yugoslavia; in the illegal bombing of Iraq in December 1998; in main¬taining the illegal “no fly zones” over Iraq, a permanent “secret” war; and in maintaining sanctions against Iraq, which over the previous decade contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

The principally Anglo-American war in Afghanistan was much more brutal than is conventionally believed, with apparent deliberate US attacks on civilians, clearly war crimes. The one dominating fact about the war is surely that more – probably far more – people were killed in the bombing than on September 11th, which provided its supposed rationale. But this fact has not noticeably upset the view across the mainstream political culture that Britain and the US were justified in bombing the world’s poorest country in retaliation.

Key allies of the Blair government with whom arms and trade continue as normal are among the most repressive regimes in the world, such as Russia – guilty of gross human rights abuses and aggression in Chechnya; Turkey – responsible for atrocities against Kurds on far greater scale than even the Saddam regime in recent years; and Saudi Arabia – where human rights organisations are banned, along with any political opposition.

It is clear that the new “war against terrorism” is being used by Britain, and the US, as a cover for a new phase of global intervention, similar to the cover provided by the “Soviet threat”. The British military is enhancing its “power projection” capabilities and now has a “new focus on expeditionary warfare”, a process that was beginning before 11 September 2001 but which is now justified by it. The extraordinary new phase of British military intervention under Blair is intended largely to secure the same basic goals as have motivated British foreign policy throughout the postwar era and are thus, sadly, consistent with a long, dark recent history.

For sources see Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, Vintage, London, 2003