The Sun (15 January) announces on its front page: THE SUN SPEAKS FOR EVERY MAN, WOMAN AND CHILD IN BRITAIN. This would normally be a joke, a fantastic flight of fancy to prove that editor Kelvin Mackenzie had at last gone mad. But when, the next morning, the Sun devotes its entire front page to the Union Jack with a good old British Tommy in its centre, and the rubric up above SUPPORT OUR BOYS AND PUT THIS FLAG IN YOUR WINDOW, thousands of people do so! The Sun has its best morning for years. The Star, the ailing tabloid from the Express group, has a good time too, starting with its headline (16 January): GO GET HIM BOYS over a picture of a Tornado jet skimming across the desert ‘to blast the evil dictator Saddam Hussein out of his bunker’. ‘War is seldom had for business,’ says a leader in the Times Business and Finance Section, which goes on to hope that a war in the Gulf will ‘pull Britain out of the recession’. Such optimism seems deranged. But as the circulation figures rise, and as the ‘key targets’ in Baghdad fall victim to allied air power, so caution is thrown to the winds and the papers stoke up the war fever they helped to create in the first place.
What is most remarkable about the press coverage of the Gulf crisis is its unanimity. Those who run the Sun and the Star will always support a fight, especially if it can be waged under a Union Jack. The Sun’s obsession with nuclear weapons (LET’S NUKE ‘EM. GET READY TO PUSH THE BUTTON, BUSH TOLD – headline, 8 January) is of long standing. No doubt the Daily Telegraph’s enthusiastic support for the war was predictable. That paper’s former editor, William Deedes, an archetypal buffer who once dealt expertly with press relations for the Tory government under Sir Alec Douglas Home, tells his readers on deadline day that for every yellow-bellied Guardian reader ‘a score will find their pulses quicken, when, as Kipling put it in his poem, “the drums begin to roll.” ’ The drums of death and mass destruction do something for the pulses of such people, and always have. Yet if the enthusiasm for the war were confined to the Sun, Star, Telegraph, Mail and Express, there might at least he an argument. It is the spread of that enthusiasm into the ‘middle ground’ – the Independent, the Observer, the Times and Sunday Times, the Mirror and its associate newspapers – which gives to the war party its precious unanimity. Even the Guardian, which appeared to be against the war before it started, threw up its hands at the first sound of gunfire, and declared that the ‘cause’ of the war party was ‘just’. Like the politicians against the war, the writers against the war – Edward Pearce in the Guardian, John Diamond in the Mirror, John Pilger wherever anyone prints what he writes – have to be winkled out from the chauvinist mass.
How to explain the mood which swept otherwise independent-minded journalists and editors into the stampede for war? The answer is that the intervention in the Gulf appears to many in the centre as an example of the world order for which they have craved since 1945. Here at last is the United Nations in action, bringing together, under the umbrella of internationally-agreed resolutions, all the forces of the world to defeat the aggressor and the bully. People who hated the Cold War now hail a new era when Russians, Chinese and Americans can fight together against a common enemy who, everyone agrees, has broken the rules. If the allied forces in the Gulf successfully discipline Iraq, so the argument goes, the world can look forward to an age of peace and order which, at long last, can be enforced.
To such people the standard arguments against the war are worse than useless. It is argued, for instance, that the post-war world has been full of dictators, some of them worse than Saddam Hussein, and many of them put in power or sustained there by the very forces which are now calling down death and destruction on the Butcher of Baghdad. Who put Pinochet in power? Who made it possible for Pol Pot to set about mass murder in Kampuchea? Who organised armed resistance to overthrow an elected government in Nicaragua and replace it with something like the dictatorship of Somoza? On any monster-count, these gentlemen, all creatures of American foreign policy, are as bad if not worse than Saddam. So why go to war against Saddam while propping up dictatorships in so many other places? This argument is met by our enlightened warmongers with the riposte: ‘five, six or even twenty wrongs don’t make a right. The United States may have supported dictatorships in the past, but in this case they are ranged against a dictator. Surely on this occasion they should be supported?’
The same answer greets the other standard anti-war argument – that aggression has been one of the constant features of the post-war world, and has never been checked by the American Government (which is often carrying out the aggression). What happened in Grenada and Panama unless it was naked aggression by a vast military power against a small defenceless state? Why was no armed force sent to throw the Israelis out of the territories they occupied by force in 1967; or into Cyprus to eject the Turkish invader in 1974; or into East Timor to evict the murderous Indonesian aggressor in 1975? In all three of these cases unanimous Security Council Resolutions were passed opposing the invasions, all of which were plainly illegal under what is laughably known as international law. No one could argue that Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait was any more brutal in its execution or disastrous in its consequences than these other three invasions. If aggression should bring instant and huge retribution on the aggressor, why was not a man, not a gun sent to deal with the aggressors in the occupied territories of the Middle East, Cyprus or East Timor?
Our middle-of-the-road warmonger waves all this aside. International force was not used in the past, he agrees. It should have been, The United Nations lost face because it could not enforce its Resolutions. Now, thanks to the end of the Cold War, it is able to walk tall and enforce what it resolves. Roll on the war – or, as the Sun so tastefully put it, ‘Bye Bye Baghdad.’
The grand old tradition of British empiricism, which hates to see patterns in politics and shuns as Marxist claptrap any attempt to discover an economic motive for the foreign policy of great powers, has, through these arguments, reached its logical climax. It has led middle-of-the-road politicians and journalists into outright support for what is, after all, the crudest and probably the nastiest of all modern imperialist wars.
For what is the common denominator which explains the twists and turns of US foreign policy and UN U-turns? Commercial interest – which in the Middle East can he reduced to a single word: oil. There is (and was at the time of the invasions) no oil in the Israeli-occupied territories, no oil in East Timor, no oil in Cyprus. No commercial interest in the US or Russia or any other great power was threatened by any of these invasions. Indeed, all three greatly assisted the commercial and strategic interest of the US, tied as it is so closely to Israel, Turkey and Indonesia. The toppling of Somoza in Nicaragua in 1979 threatened the hegemony of United States capital there, as did the democratic government of Chile from 1970 to 1973, the left-wing government of Grenada in 1982, and the dictatorship in Panama last year. In these cases, US business interests did just as well if not better as a result of old-fashioned aggression, and therefore old-fashioned aggression prospered. None of this had anything to do with the Cold War. All three UN Resolutions calling on the withdrawal of Israel from Gaza and the West Bank, Turkey from Cyprus and Indonesia from East Timor were passed unanimously in the Security Council. The US, Britain, France, Russia and China supported them all to the hilt – provided, of course, that no one was expected to do anything to enforce them.
Commercial interest and oil provide the only coherent explanation of US policy over Iraq. After the Iranian revolution of 1979, Iran appeared as the main threat to ‘stability’ (cheap oil) in the region. Thus Iraq was encouraged by the United States (and by Kuwait and by Saudi Arabia) to invade Iran and start a war for a strip of territory which was eventually conceded. During this war, in which a million people were killed or maimed, Iraq, the aggressor, was supported by the US and Britain. When complaints were made about Saddam’s genocidal attacks on the Kurdish people in north Iraq, critical UN Resolutions were watered down by the US, and formal British government protests were suitably muted. When an Iraqi missile accidentally hit an American warship killing 38 people, the US Government immediately sympathised with Saddam: ‘these things happen in time of war,’ they said. After the war, for a brief moment, Saddam became a hero in the Western world. Arms-traders queued up to sell him the weapons he now uses against his former benefactors. British Cabinet Ministers flocked to Baghdad to tie the knot of friendship with the dictator. During the visit of Tony Newton, now Secretary of State for Social Services, Saddam pronounced Britain a ‘most favoured nation’. All this stopped only when Saddam, weakened by war and threatened from within, threw his huge army into Kuwait to increase the price of oil. Suddenly the champion of stability in the region (cheap oil) became its enemy. Suddenly, ‘poor little Kuwait’ (a greedy little dictatorship which exploits its migrant labour as horribly as anywhere else on earth) became a symbol of liberty and independence, and the Government of the United States of America moved to obliterate the monster it had created and had armed.
There is no other credible conclusion but that the war in the Gulf is a war for oil, a war to maintain the central strategy of British and American foreign policy in that region for half a century – ensuring that the Arab people do not get control of the oil produced in their countries. It was for this purpose (as has coincidentally just been clarified by the release of government papers) that Britain offered Kuwait military aid in 1961 to protect it from an Iraqi invasion.
If this is the thrust behind the war effort, the real purpose of the UN Resolutions, then where does that leave our Modern Empiricists, our Peter Jenkinses and Hugo Youngs, our Edward Mortimers and Gerald Kaufmans and Paddy Ashdowns? Their ‘practical approach’, their faith in the ‘cock-up theory of history’, their insistence that political events must be judged as they come, each by each, without pattern or precedent and most particularly without any economic drive or thrust to them, leads them to a mealy-mouthed support for ‘a military initiative’ which is likely (at best) to kill tens of thousands of people, most of them, as always, poor, defenceless and civilian.
If this is, as seems plain to me, a war to ensure that Britain and the United States keep tight hold of the world’s richest and cheapest oil supply, then what will be the result of an allied victory over Saddam? Will it really lead to more influence for the United Nations, a better world order, a bleaker prospect for dictators? Or will it simply mean that the most powerful state on earth becomes more powerful, and the dictatorships which it supports in its own commercial interests all over the world will become more secure? Will it mean that the UN, instead of exercising more influence over its member states, will become even more grovelling a satellite of the great powers which control the Security Council: that the Cold War will be replaced by a new condominium of the United States Government, invaders of Panama and Grenada (and Iraq), the Russian Government, invader of Afghanistan and Lithuania (who knows where else?) and the Chinese Government, oppressors of Tiananmen Square? Will it not prove, after all, that the biggest Might is the biggest Right, and that the only way to dispose of a small world bully is by calling in a much bigger and more aggressive world bully whose victory will lead to the further throttling of the voices and aspirations of ordinary people everywhere?
I write this, half-watching early-morning television, on 17 January 1991. A BBC nincompoop in battledress, safe in his bunker in Riyadh, is reading out jingoistic nonsense from Henry V, and now Margaret Thatcher regales us with the horrors of Saddam’s attack on Iran, an attack she supported. The air is thick with chauvinist drivel. When the dead are stretched out, and the hideous cost of this crazy war is counted, the blame must not be allowed to stop at the Sun, the Prime Minister and his exultant predecessor. The Modern Empiricists, the ‘practical politicians’, the ’sensible’ journalists are every bit as responsible.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.