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:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 13 No. 5 · 7 March 1991

Paul Foot was right to refer to the invasion of East Timor as an example of UN hypocrisy (LRB, 7 February), but wrong to say that East Timor has no oil. In December 1989, Indonesia and Australia signed the Timor Gap Treaty, giving Australia access to one of the richest reserves of oil in the world, lying off East Timor’s south coast. A 1977 study of the area’s oil potential by the French petroleum company Elf Aquitaine spoke about hopes for ‘an extremely large discovery’, with forecasts of between one and seven billion barrels of oil. In 1972, Australia had talks with Portugal, then in control of East Timor, on a sea-bed boundary as the preliminary to joint exploitation of the oil. When East Timor was on the threshold of independence in 1975 and Indonesian designs were obvious, the Australian Ambassador in Jakarta cabled Canberra saying that the Department of Minerals and Energy ‘might well have an interest in closing the present gap in the agreed sea border and this could be much more readily negotiated with Indonesia than with Portugal or independent Portuguese Timor. I know I am recommending a pragmatic rather than a principled stand but that is what national interest and foreign policy is all about.’

Less than a year after the invasion, the first sea-bed negotiations began. In 1979, Canberra gave de jure recognition to Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor. Canberra does not deny either that the annexation was illegal or that East Timor was acquired by force. Foreign Minister Gareth Evans told the Senate: ‘We have taken the view since 1979 that whatever the unhappy circumstances and indeed, possible illegality, surrounding Indonesia’s acquisition of East Timor in the 1970s, Indonesian sovereignty over the territory should be accepted not only on a de facto basis but on a de jure basis. There is no binding legal obligation not to recognise acquisition of territory that was acquired by force.’ So much for law-abiding Australia’s respect for international law. Unlike Kuwait, for East Timor, the oil factor was a crucial reason for the West to back the invader against the victim.

Carmel Budiardjo
Indonesia Human

Like Paul Foot I am opposed to the war in the Gulf and like him I am nauseated by the sight of journalists playing the military buffoon in spotted parka and outsize helmet. But Foot goes very much further. He would not even support the sanctions that might with time have worked against Saddam. All he shows is that the expedient of inverting what the Sun and the Mail say does not provide an adequate platform for a view of anything – as the ultra-left rump of English socialism should long ago have discovered.

Lurking in the top-soil of Foot’s elegant prose is the seed that bursts into the manic mantras of thousands of SWP members: ‘US, Britain, Out of the Gulf!’ Of Saddam’s terror state, barely a critical word, in Foot’s text or in theirs. There’s a litany to explain this: criticism of Iraq plays into the hands of imperialism; Kuwait was only an artificial entity, an undemocratic oil receptacle for the Western powers; the Ba’ath regime is really no worse than those of Israel or South Africa. Foot might dissent from some of these arguments, but he provides careful variations on all of them. For those of us in what SWP intellectuals like to call ‘the swamp’ – living without benefit of party – it is possible to disagree more vehemently. Saddam was not a creation of Western imperialism; the Ba’ath has organised what must now be the worst state in the world; and this vicious indigenous fascism has benefited from an almost complete absence of attention on the part of Western liberals, conservatives and leftists for over twenty years.

Some other simple things need to he said (and if the semi-state UK press is saying them too, then tough – because the bourgeoisie say the Earth is round does not mean it must be flat). States should not be allowed to annex other states, and national sovereignty is a value worth defending. It matters to millions of people that their borders should be secure, despite the considered opinion of think-tankers, generals and dialecticians that their community is ‘artificial’ and the state in which they live ‘unviable’. Kuwait was, among Arab states, relatively liberal and tolerant and its people are much worse-off under Saddam than they were under the al-Sabahs. The UN position on the invasion is the correct one, for it implicitly recognises the truth of these statements. The outrageous double standards of the USA can’t be used to negate them; many on the left supported calls for action against Indonesia in the mid-Seventies after its brutal invasion of East Timor. The fact that the UN did nothing then does not mean its hands should be tied now.

Neil Belton
London SW1

In his latest denunciation of non-leftist opinion, Paul Foot, conceding that the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait might be rather a bad thing, drags in various cases of unpunished aggression, including the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. How convenient to omit mentioning that this was immediately preceded by a Greek Cypriot declaration of Enosis and the overthrow of the internationally-agreed constitution of the island and (incidentally) of the Greek Cypriot President, Makarios, by Nikos Sampson in collusion with the Generals in Athens. I doubt if it is memory that fails him; or that he does not also remember that prior to launching their invasion the Turks appealed to the two other powers which had guaranteed the constitution to come to the help of the threatened Turkish minority. Nor that they received no comfort in this – predictably from the military junta in Athens, shabbily in the case of James Callaghan. I am sure also that Foot does not require to have his attention drawn to the fact that, prior to the Greek seizure of Crete in 1912, that island had a Turkish population approximately proportionate to that of the Turks in Cyprus in 1974; nor that this proportion was subsequently very quickly reduced to zero. But if it is not memory that fails him, then what? Surely not integrity?

John Christopher
Rye, East Sussex

When Abyssinia attacks Eritrea, the world community perceives no threat to world stability. When Hitler remilitarised the Rhineland, the European nations perceived no threat to Europe – but they should have perceived one, for this was their last chance to stop Hitler without major warfare. When Saddam occupied Kuwait, he was perceived to be menacing Saudi Arabia, Oman, Syria, and then Lebanon and Jordan and Palestine, as Hitler went on to menace Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland. Thank goodness our affairs are not controlled by Paul Foot.

P. Crowson
Adderbury, Oxfordshire

Vol. 13 No. 6 · 21 March 1991

Paul Foot’s piece ‘Bye Bye Baghdad’ (LRB, 7 February) not only hits the targets it aims at but also selects the right ones. It is enjoyable journalism from a clear anti-war point of view, But it includes, sadly, a couple of own goals, as well as some factual inaccuracies. The former are more important than the latter.

Paul Foot asks what will be the result of an Allied victory over Saddam? He replies: ‘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 become more secure?’ It is obvious that he would like the first result but assumes that in practice it will be the second. We do not yet know the full outcome, but the most likely result is one Paul Foot apparently does not consider – that both options occur simultaneously. They are not inconsistent.

It would be a tragedy to spurn the present opportunity to achieve more influence for the United Nations, a better world order and a bleaker prospect for dictators. To ignore it would be to pass up an opportunity to make governments subject to the constraints of principle in a practical way. The fifty or so very small and weak members of the UN feel this acutely. Of course it will also be a victory for the Americans, but without them Saddam Hussein would have been the only victor.

Paul Foot’s argument is also disappointing to those who believe that the great international issues of the coming decade and beyond are human rights and Third World development. Those who take these objectives seriously do not suppose that they will be easily achieved. Victory in these fields will have to be won, if at all, piecemeal and by taking advantage of all favourable opportunities. The UN Charter is a crucial instrument of policy in bringing about improvement in both (connected) fields. The US and other great powers profess to accept the Charter, and never more so than at present. This surely is an important moment at which to try to turn professions into practical policies. Though it was not his intention, Saddam Hussein has created (and maintained) a situation in which there are possibilities of strengthening the UN, deterring dictators, upholding human rights and creating a better climate for Third World development free of the burden of arms purchases. We need to make use of the opportunity, and we will not do this by assuming that it does not exist because some fat cats in America will also profit.

John Thomson
Castle Douglas, Dumfries and Galloway

Vol. 13 No. 7 · 4 April 1991

Like Neil Belton (Letters, 7 March), I am opposed to the war in the Gulf and ‘living without benefit of party’. Unlike him, I don’t think that opposition to the war is consistent with supporting UN sanctions. This position, which shades very quickly into support for the war pure and simple (viz. Fred Halliday’s trahison in the Guardian), has been looking rather threadbare ever since the UN Security Council authorised the use of force to expel the Iraqis from Kuwait. From that point on, even the most hopeful internationalist would have to have recognised that there was no distinction between UN pronouncements and US policy, the latter hell-bent on the destruction of Iraq, as Edward Said rightly observes in the same issue in which Belton’s letter appeared. Regrettably, there are only two sides in this ugly war: support or opposition. Belton’s attempt to fine-tune the latter remains entirely unconvincing, particularly now as the US and its allies sit idly by while civil war rages over large sectors of Iraq.

A couple of other points. Does Belton really believe that ‘Kuwait was, among Arab states, relatively liberal and tolerant’? Tell it to the Yemenis and Palestinians who lived and worked there, producing the surplus on which the upper classes feasted. And while it is obviously true that ‘Saddam was not a creation of Western imperialism’ – any more than Margaret Thatcher was a creation of the ‘special relationship’ – it is nevertheless fair to say that consistent Western support through the Eighties helped shore up the Baath regime, particularly during the war with Iran. Hence, it is equally correct to conclude that if the Iraqi regime was and is murderous, antidemocratic, and sufficiently well-armed to sustain itself against any foreseeable domestic opposition, responsibility for this state of affairs lies squarely on Western – primarily British and American – shoulders.

Michael Sprinker
Wesleyan University,

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences