Foreign Policy and Conspiracy
Ramsay, Allan, Contemporary Review
IN the early melodramas about international conspiracy, when the Blue Train appeared to exist for no other purpose than carrying anarchists and women with a past from one end of Europe to another, the villains always seemed to have Middle European names. They were sinister and disturbing figures but at the same time a little ridiculous; secretive, sombrely dressed, and unwashed. They had peculiar mannerisms and could be identified immediately. Nevertheless they gave the police of many countries a run for their money and succeeded in alarming people, sometimes in blowing them up, before being captured and the ring in which they operated broken.
They were all, of course, ideologues. This added to their absurdity in the eyes of ordinary people concerned about the bread and butter issues that occupy most of mankind. They believed passionately in some idea, some blueprint, that would alter the course of history irrevocably and for the better. This required a cataclysm since nothing else would shift the stratified society to which they so strongly objected. They could be said to have had a vision, however purblind and confused. It goes without saying that when they achieved what they set out to do, it would be them and not someone else who would be found sitting on top of the ruins. They, and no-one else, would be responsible for re-arranging the world to the prescribed pattern. They would give the orders and others would fall gratefully into line. No-one would bite the hand which had so generously and altruistically liberated them from the shackles of a tyrannical past.
Despite their sinister influence and disturbing creed, these melodramatic characters are remembered today chiefly for their incompetence. Society was relieved from the consequences of their folly because they blew themselves up more often than other people, or because their devotion to some utopian ideal, worked out in interminable discussions in attic rooms and cafes, led them into a blind alley.
It would be a mistake to think that once there, that would be the end of it, that they would be rounded up and removed out of harm's way by a vigilant international police force. The species is persistent, as persistent as ideas themselves or, more accurately, as persistent as a man's habit of turning ideas on their heads or distorting them to suit his purposes. Even the Middle European names have a habit of cropping up. We find them today in the USA where so many of their forefathers found refuge, and especially in Washington, the Mecca for those who want to be at the centre of affairs which is what all those melodramatic villains aspired to, men with names like Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, important men with an ideology and an answer to the manifold problems of mankind. Unlike their predecessors they have resources at their disposal of which the latter could only have dreamed in some intoxicated haze, the resources of the most powerful state in the world, no less, militarily so far above the rest that its supremacy need never be seriously challenged. They work, moreover, within the apparatus of legality and public sanction, not from outside them. They enjoy the support of an elected President who shares their view of the world as a place to be put into order. Some have described him as one who sees himself as a man twice born, motivated by an intensely personal evangelical faith. It does not matter if they do not share it; the melodramatic villains were always turning the credulity of others to their own advantage; it was a useful tool, no more, no less. They have subservient allies, anxious to do their bidding, and, most marvellously of all, they have an identifiable enemy, terrorism, which inspires fear and loathing throughout the world and serves as a rallying call for doubters. It is almost too good to be true, at least that is how it would surely seem to the old-style villain with his spluttering fuse. Being a purist he would Probably deny that they had anything in common, that to be a cause must always be a lost cause otherwise it becomes an orthodoxy and dies; that it is better to dream of power than to embrace it, much as Robert Louis Stevenson found it better to travel than to arrive. Sadly he would be wrong. The melodrama, like much else was gone. What remains is the incompetence.
A terrorist looking at the world today--not bin Laden, let us call him X, omniscient and ubiquitous, charismatic, leader of a group whose international ramifications are similar to those of al Qa'ida--would be well satisfied with the way things are going. If this were a boxing match of which the first round opened on 11 September 2001, he might with reason consider himself ahead on points. That is as much as he wants since he does not have the capacity to deliver a knock-out blow against such an overwhelmingly powerful opponent. Of course he would have to concede that he has had to take some hard knocks. He has lost some key operatives and his complex financing arrangements have been uncovered and frustrated, up to a point. It is true also that governments are cooperating more effectively over exchanges of intelligence, surveillance, confiscation of assets and blocking of funds, and that to a certain extent the popular appeal he once enjoyed among the vast body of disaffected peoples from whom he obtains his recruits has fallen off and that his enemy has finally got the message and appears to be working hard to resolve the one issue which packs the hardest punch emotionally, that of Palestine. Were his opponent to concentrate all his powers on these things, X would be on the ropes.
But X's opponent hasn't. For reasons best known to himself he has declared war, on X primarily but also on others, indeed on anybody whom he sees as being on the 'other side'. For him that means military action. He drove X out of Afghanistan, removing the protection of the Taliban in the process. This did not disturb X unduly since in the nature of such things the alliance between them was temporary and the parting of the ways would have come sooner or later, especially if X's opponent had used all the vast diplomatic resources at his disposal instead of military ones. The war saved X from possible embarrassment. X's opponent appears to have forgotten the old military adage: first concentrate then destroy your enemy. Scattering X's forces as he has done has made that much harder. Moreover he has left turbulence and instability behind him. The Taliban are still there, in the hills, and the authority of the new government is confined to Kabul and its environs. (See Hafizullah Emade: 'Nation-Building in Afghanistan', below.)
To compound these errors X's opponent then invaded Iraq. He succeeded in removing the regime but it is questionable how far he has actually destroyed it even after eliminating the dictator's two sons. He was warned of the consequences of such action but chose to ignore the warning and is now reaping them. It is a potentially rich and powerful country geographically at the cusp of affairs in the Middle East and it is impossible to say how far the contagion of instability will spread. He has moreover threatened its neighbours, thus increasing tension throughout the region. X has his own ways of helping this process forward, of course. In effect all this instability is very useful to him. It makes the ideological battle easier. His opponent is there, out in the open, perceived by most of the peoples living in a region stretching from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas and beyond as an aggressor. X's case rests. X could hardly have written a better script himself.
But this is not all. In going to war with Iraq it appears that the 'Coalition'--how indicative of the uneasiness lying beneath his opponent's claim that he would if necessary be prepared to go it alone that expression is--might have misled their electorates. If there was widespread opposition to war throughout the world before it began there is now more. People look at the mess in Afghanistan and now in Iraq and it appears to dawn on them that those revolutionaries with their claims of a new world order were talking nonsense, that they appear to have no clear idea of what it is they are doing, or that if they do, it follows an agenda hidden from the sight of ordinary men. It was precisely this suspicion which made it so hard for the melodramatic villains to get a hearing. People suspected there were other designs behind the promised utopia. Even with their successors' mastery of mass media it has not been possible to prevent the same suspicion gathering momentum today. As the soothing messages issue from Mr Bremer's bunker in Central Baghdad, the contrast between reality and illusion becomes daily clearer. Where is General Garner? Where is Ms Bodine? 'We are looking forward to working with Barbara', said the self-styled Iraqi Governor of Baghdad at one point, full of rosy optimism. Alas, poor man, he was arrested for his temerity and his bird has flown. Promises have been made, and remain unfulfilled, to the international community, to the peoples of Afghanistan, to the Iraqis. It is early days, but it is precisely those early days which are so important.
All this X would chalk up on the credit side. But it is not all, not by any means. The 'Coalition' decision to go to war without UN sanction has made it, in the eyes of a significant majority of people, an illegal war (see Charles Foster: 'International Law: Another Casualty of the Iraq War?' in last month's Contemporary Review). In stating their opposition to it people were explicitly rejecting the new doctrine of 'preventive war'. Nor did they believe the evidence on which it was based. If they did many, if not most, considered that there were other, less dangerous means of dealing with the alleged threat. Mr Hans Blix, the Head of the UN Weapons Inspection Team did for one, and it appears, with hindsight, that he was right, that he, rather than President Bush and Mr Blair, knew what he was talking about. A few countries--France, Germany, Russia, supposedly on a popular mandate--opposed what they saw as a precipitate and unjustified military intervention but were trashed by the US and UK media. However in the days following President Bush's declaration of the end of hostilities from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise their nerve failed them and they voted to legitimise what the UN now formally recognised as the occupation of Iraq. So once again, thinks X, the international system has failed to demonstrate that it is capable of defending the principles on which it was founded in the face of a campaign of threats, bullying and denigration on the part of the authors of the UN Charter. One only has to note the popular reactions to the G8 Summit at Evian, to M. Giscard d'Estaing's attempts to devise a European Constitution, to the UK drowning in a sea of contradictions in mid-Atlantic, to the row about the 'dodgy dossier' in Britain and the suicide of one of the government's scientists, to the widespread cynicism surrounding the Road Map for Palestine, to see how far the cancer has spread, how far, as institutions battle in their own bureaucratic world and politicians assemble behind security cordons quite as elaborate and extensive as any surrounding Saddam Hussein, the degree to which a sense of alienation is spreading, a world of 'them' and 'us', exactly the kind of world in which X and his kind prosper.
It is not that the US and its allies can claim that their conduct of 'war' has been particularly efficient. Both in Afghanistan and Iraq war has cost the lives of innocent people. In sum the offence of 11 September has been compounded. In terms of the actual conduct of operations it is difficult to think of an historical analogy but both in Afghanistan and Iraq they were roughly equivalent to the campaigns of Empire when machine guns were used against men armed with spears. To have gone into action against the Taliban with the rag, tag and bobtail of the Northern Alliance as allies is hardly something a proud regiment would want to see among its battle honours. In Iraq the 'enemy' was a broken backed army devoid of air cover, desperately short of air defence capacity and fighting with outdated equipment. It had no leadership and questionable morale though it fought better than expected in places. This does not mean to say that the 'Coalition' forces did not fight with courage and Colonel Collin's now well known remarks to his soldiers before going into action show that for the most part they were well aware of the need to protect the lives of ordinary people. But there is little doubt that, in the US especially, the presentation of the 'war" was tailored to the US Administration's PR effort. Gains were presented in the same triumphalist terms as those that might have been won after hard fought and protacted battles against a well matched opponent. The BBC, which had the courage to present a balanced picture of what was going on, was criticised for it, and accused of undermining the 'war effort'. At least one officer in the British Forces has said that the experience was so one-sided as to make him feel uncomfortable. The 'Desert Rats' gained little credit from knocking out 14 Iraqi T-54s with their Challengers. The former came off the production line at the end of World War II, the other is state of the art technology. It was by no stretch of the imagination the 'clean' war the 'Coalition' said it wanted. The Iraqi people might have been liberated from Saddam Hussein but many of them privately doubt even that, many did not want to be, and many if not most consider themselves prisoners of a new tyranny.
The point of all this, as X would see it, is that it represents a sort of moral vacuum or blight. Just as the film Saving Private Ryan was a travesty of the Normandy Campaign, so too have the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq been a travesty of how responsible governments should behave in the face of the threat posed by X and others like him. In a world where presentation is all, it does not seem to matter that the truth might suffer through being twisted, nuanced, shaded, sexed, souped or hyped up or that reality should disappear behind a cloud of obfuscation, complex situations become oversimplified, and solutions are always going to be quick with as little 'collateral damage' (meaning dead or maimed people and orphans) as possible. When this turns out not to be possible we descend into strenuous self-justification and mawkish self-pity. X sees all this and notes at the same time that, with a quite astonishing lack of protest, people seem to be prepared to surrender liberties and principles hitherto regarded as the bedrock of civilisation, all in the name of security and are prepared to condone treatment of certain individuals and groups which effectively deny them any rights at all.
X can view all this with satisfaction. He is not thinking in presidential terms or general elections. His constituency is too big for it to be necessary to vote. He can take the long view and smile when he hears Mr Straw lecturing to Ayatollahs from an American script in the name of democracy. They will remember that for years the Shah's role was held up as an example of progressive and enlightened governance. If critics of X's own faith say that it is that more than anything else he is damaging, he can likewise afford to smile: so be it, he will say to himself; if it is destroyed it is because it is corrupt and contaminated and a purer one will rise from its ashes. Like President Bush he believes that those not with him are against him and that includes all the corrupt regimes who have sold their souls to the Great Satan. The more repressive governments become in order to remain in power the more he is pleased. Martyrdom is a very effective recruiting officer.
Is there a cloud on X's horizon? To be sure; very few horizons are entirely clear. If the Road Map becomes a credible means of bringing peace between Israeli and Palestinian; if people in Bethlehem and the Gaza strip get used to living free from the presence of occupying Israeli forces, it will make support for terrorist actions, such as the recent bus bombing in Jerusalem, the more difficult to secure; if the US sees sense in Iraq and makes a genuine attempt to co-opt the Iraqi people, end its vendetta against all Ba'athists and instead conscripts the ablest of them (of which there are a great many, by no means devoted Saddam supporters), reconstitutes the Iraqi army, moderates its aims in order to secure wider international participation and comes up with a coherent and viable blueprint for the future which has, as its central objective, the establishment of a genuinely representative Iraqi government within the shortest possible time frame and rids itself of the implausible Mr Ahmad Chalabi. Finally, if the US in Afghanistan commits itself to the rapid extension of Mr Hamid Kharzai's government throughout the country and suppresses the warlords, the amount of ring space left to X to dodge and weave in would become steadily smaller. Instead of obscuring the vast amount of good the US, true to its most generous instincts and liberal traditions, does throughout the whole world, towards AIDS in Africa, famine in Ethiopia, development programmes everywhere, such actions would be consistent with them and enhance the US reputation.
X will want to prevent any of this happening: instability, disorder, doubt, fear, anxiety, confusion, waning public confidence and growing public scepticism, the discrediting of politicians and political institutions, the nurturing of a sense of marginalisation and victimisation, the exploitation of the growing gap between rich and poor, the proliferation of peacekeeping operations in which fragments of armies are exposed to attrition, not just from ceaseless harassment and the physical and mental burden of maintaining a presence in places where it is often resented, but also of the corruption, subtle or blatant, which seems at times inseparable from such operations and the debilitating and frequent absences from home which they demand, these are the conditions in which his cause prospers and he will want them to continue since for as long as they do the battle can hardly be said to be won. Above all he will want the great delusion to persist, today as in former times among the cloaks and beards and tinted glasses in the cafes of Zurich and Geneva, that there is a prescription for solving the world's ills and he will continue to look to the curious assembly of self-proclaimed prophets in Washington who believe in Mr Robert Cooper's strange construct of a world divided into pre-modern, modem, and post-modern and all the hallucinatory jargon that accompanies it, a construct that acknowledges the right of post-modern nations to use pre-modern methods in order to regulate the affairs of nations, to elaborate it knowing perfectly well that no nation, or group of nations, can afford the political and economic burden that sustaining such an idealised world would impose. More importantly our imagined terrorist sees, perhaps more clearly than we do, that such thinking involves the steady corruption of the principles on which any claim to moral rectitude which might still exist today in the West is based. As he sees he has his friends in high places, though they might not see it quite like that, and he might calculate that they need him no less than he needs them.
It is easy to mock. On 2 July after drafting the above I listened to the BBC Radio 4 News and then to Moral Maze, a discussion programme. On the first Mr Straw was interviewed during his visit to Iraq. There was no question of internationalising the reconstruction of Iraq, he was reported as saying: it was an US/UK responsibility and the 'Coalition' would remain for as long as was necessary to achieve the aim of establishing a genuinely representative government. In the meantime he was hopeful that an Iraqi Consultative or Advisory Council might be nominated within the space of two to three weeks. On the same programme the US Divisional Commander in Baghdad said 'Make no mistake, these are combat operations', meaning, I suppose, that the 'war' is still on. The unstated implication behind Mr Straw's words--and this is how the commentator interpreted them--was that the sooner the Iraqis take responsibility for their own affairs the sooner UK troops can be withdrawn. I may be confused (as I am certainly critical of what has happened so far) but confusion exists in the minds of others too, including Mr Straw's. The 'Coalition' cannot have it all ways. It cannot impose security or rebuild Iraq on the cheap, not even using Iraqi oil revenue, even without the consent of the Iraqi peoples. There are clearly highly motivated men and women working across the board, in the civil administration, in the armed forces, among the NGOs and aid agencies in Iraq who are giving of their best, who really do believe in the idea of a democratic and prosperous Iraq, but so long as the 'Coalition's' underlying purpose remains in doubt, especially in Iraqi minds, their efforts will continue to be undermined and they will remain, as they are seen today, as a foreign occupation. Iraq will absorb far more time, effort and expenditure than the US and its allies can afford in present circumstances. An occupation which was said to last for no more than a matter of weeks or months now stretches to an indefinite future, made all the more uncertain after the attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad and other 'soft targets', such as oil pipelines and water supplies. The Anglo-American 'Coalition' lacks the resources to provide security essential for reconstruction, short of a massive reinforcement of its existing forces. The financing of reconstruction remains in doubt if an analysis of projected oil revenue carried by Le Monde recently is credible. The longer occupying forces remain, the greater the risk that resentment and opposition will deepen. But if they leave too soon, those left behind will pay the price of the resentment.
The Moral Maze programme discussed the moral and ethical case for US intervention in Iran as presenting a more credible threat to the West than Iraq. It was not only the ethical case for military intervention under discussion but of encouraging change from within, by lending support to student movements and opposition calling for a more representative and modern form of government. My first thought was that we have been through all this before; my second, disbelief that parts of the US Administration should be reported as actively considering a range of options not excluding military intervention at a time when the Iraq issue is so far from being resolved. My third concerns that part of the discussion which considered the question whether the possession of WMD required new strategies from the West or the formulation of new ethical justification for war, including preventive war. There is certainly a case for arguing that there is no moral case at all, indeed that it is pointless to try and justify intervention, of whatever kind, on any grounds other than direct national interest. If there is a direct and imminent threat, you remove it, it would be irresponsible not to. One needs, as Mr Cooper writes, describing the challenge to the post-modern world, 'to get used to the idea of living in a world of double standards ... among ourselves we keep the law (i.e. international law and regulating the conduct of relations between states as enshrined in the UN Charter and elsewhere - my italics) but when we are operating in the jungle we must also use the laws of the jungle'. One just gets on and does it, using the 'rougher methods of an earlier era, force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary'. This, then, is the new morality. One doesn't need evidence, motivation etc, etc. Deception is acceptable.
But is it so new? Selective quotation out of context is a bad habit. But the thesis is given some space in Robert Kagan's book Paradise and Power in which he attempts to assess the reasons for divergencies in US/European relations which came to light most vividly in the run-up to the Iraq war. It is a thesis that fills me, and I imagine others, with anxiety. It is one which would have been quoted with approval by Hitler, for a start, indeed it was one he put into practice as he surveyed the lesser nations around him, the Untermenschen, as he saw them, out there in Central Europe and elsewhere, the decadence of France and Britain, believing National Socialism and its post-modern methods to be the answer to everything, the prophylactic for which the world had been waiting, the Thousand Year Reich. He used the methods advocated by Mr Cooper, indeed he used whatever was necessary. But even Kipling, advocate of Empire and the 'White Man's Burden' that he was, recognised that a law is necessary in the jungle that rises above the law of 'tooth and claw'. So it is important to read the concluding paragraphs of Mr Kagan's short and stimulating book, notably his suggestion that 'It (the US) could, in short, take more care to show what the founders called a "decent respect for the opinions of mankind" '. If they do there is no reason why X should not quickly be given the KO, to the grateful applause of the spectators.
And if they don't? ff they persist in discussing their fantastical projects among themselves in an overheated fug of conspiracy while the world shuffles by outside laden with shopping in the snow, what then? Well, X will have a longer run for his money, for a start, and there will be more horrors. The sad irony of all this is that just as it seems possible that some progress might at last be made on the Israel/Palestine issue the Iraqi bomb should have exploded. It was a homemade bomb too, just like those that used to make such a mess of the plans of those old villains. It was their incompetence that saved us all, in the end, their incompetence and not knowing when to stop. The same failings bring all grand designs crashing to the ground in the end. The 'Old Europe' knows that, though it needed a millennium to discover it.
Sir Allan Ramsay was Head of Chancery at the British Embassy in Baghdad from 1980 to 1983 and Ambassador to Lebanon, Sudan and Morocco.…
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Publication information: Article title: Foreign Policy and Conspiracy. Contributors: Ramsay, Allan - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 283. Issue: 1652 Publication date: September 2003. Page number: 135+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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