Understanding British Foreign Policy in the Middle East

by David Wearing

A transcript of NLP co-editor David Wearing's talk on British foreign policy to the UCLU Stop The War group

First published: 19 March, 2011 | Category: Corporate power, Foreign policy, History, International, Politics, Terror/War

British foreign policy was big news in the first decade of the 21st century. The so-called “war on terror” brought us the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan – now in its tenth year – and the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which precipitated one of the worst humanitarian disasters in living memory, with hundreds of thousands killed, and millions driven from their homes by the violence.

In the summer of 2006, Britain gave strong support to Israel in the latter’s war on Lebanon, another humanitarian disaster. And a year earlier, terrorists claiming to have been provoked by Britain’s actions abroad committed atrocities on the streets of London, including one lethal bombing just a few hundred yards from this room.

The worst financial crash for 80 years, and its consequences, have taken up much of our attention since 2008. And rightly so. But now that the global economic crisis has helped to spark a wave of revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa against autocratic regimes allied to the West, we find that British foreign policy is firmly back on the news agenda.

That being the case, now seems a good time to talk a little bit about Britain’s role in the world. This evening, I’d like to offer you an account of the deeper sources of British foreign policy, one which I hope will help us to make some sense of why Britain acts in the way that it does. Given what’s happening at the moment, I’ll do that with particular reference to the record in the Middle East.


A couple of weeks ago, Labour’s shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy warned that the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan could encourage a dangerous “state of ambivalence” in British foreign policy.

“In the state of ambivalence”, Murphy said, “we would still believe in core values, we just may not so readily stand up for them”. Murphy’s argument went that the UK should retain a proactive, strong defence policy, and a willingness to intervene beyond its borders.

This basic perception of the nature and purpose of British foreign policy is a seductive one for liberals and the mainstream left, and its one that needs to be challenged. The view has two elements:

1. that Britain is essentially a benign actor on the world stage, trying as best it can to “stand up for its core values”, as Murphy puts it; And
2. That the worst that may happen is that the government makes mistakes or misunderstands situations, and that this can be put down to the wrong individuals being in office, to procedural issues, or something like that.

And these perceptions are persuasive because there’s a strong element of truth to them.

Take the first element, the essentially benign nature of the state. When you live in a relatively liberal, open and democratic society like ours, its reasonable to assume that the government broadly reflects those values. However, the banking crash, and the government’s attempts to force the public to pay the costs of it, makes it increasingly clear that our political system sits within and represents a hierarchical economic order which does not reflect the interests or values of the general public. 

Well, that principle generalises to foreign policy, where again, it is dangerous to assume the British state to be essentially a benign actor.

Then take the second element of the mainstream view, that in foreign affairs, government does no worse than make mistakes due to the wrong individuals being in charge, situations being misunderstood, and so on. Again, its a persuasive view in part because it carries a strong element of truth. It matters that George Bush was in the White House rather than Al Gore on September 11th 2001. It matters that a particular individual, Tony Blair, with his particular set of beliefs and flaws, was Prime Minister at a particular juncture in our history.

But if we become fixated on individuals and the choices they make, we lose sight of the deeper story, which is the political and economic system that allows such people to rise to the highest offices of state.

And by over-emphasising the role of individuals, bureaucratic procedure, and day-to-day policy choices, we end up letting the broader system that produces them off the hook. And that’s a serious mistake, because it’s the system, ultimately that’s the real problem.

A wise man once said that people “make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted”. What I’m going to talk about here is the “given and inherited circumstances” that produce British foreign policy.


The de facto purpose of Britain’s foreign policy has traditionally been to advance the interests of concentrations of social and economic power, not to reflect the will or the interests of the general public, or to promote liberal, humanitarian values. Above all, it is the commercial interests of those best placed to influence the government that tend to be prioritised by policymakers.

This is why Britain supports the US-led maintenance of a global system which is seen as amenable to those commercial interests, and tries to maximise Britain’s influence within that system.

This picture needs to be placed in an historical context. While we think of globalisation as a recent phenomenon, its roots go back to the imperial age of the 19th century.

Then, Britain presided not merely over an empire but over a global trading system, lubricated by credit from London’s banks, underwritten by its insurers, and imposed on weaker nations by violence where necessary. To better understand the commercial character of the British empire, its worth noting that those areas coloured red on the map were but one part of London’s imperial domain. By the eve of World War One, less than half of Britain’s foreign investment went to its formal Empire. Over the preceding century, the colonies never bought much more than a third of Britain’s exports. Britain held sway over areas like Latin America and the Middle East, at that time, in much the same way as the United States maintains its empire in the present day. Access to markets and raw materials was secured through treaties, the exertion of political and economic influence, and the ever-present threat, in the background, of military force.

The devastation wrought by the calamitous years of 1914-1945 dealt a fatal blow to the country’s capacity to perform this global management role. The task was inherited by the US, whose view of how the world should be organised economically and politically was broadly consistent with that of British elites.

London therefore sought to protect its economic power and international status by placing itself close to Washington. The instruction given by Blair’s chief of staff to Britain’s ambassador to the US, Sir Christopher Meyer, to “get up the arse of the White House and stay there”, was an expression of that longstanding policy.

Britain and America have, throughout this time, faced one major threat above all. This is the threat that you might expect to face when your oil is, for some reason, under somebody else’s land, when your sugar cane grows in somebody else’s fields, and when the labour you require resides in other people’s minds and bodies. The threat is independence. The natural human need for self-determination is bound to come into conflict with your desire to subordinate as much of the world’s materials, markets and labour as possible to the enrichment of your elites and businesses. Lesser mortals may from time to time be seized by the notion that they have the right to run their own affairs in their own interests, to direct their own economies toward the development of their own societies, and that they have a better idea of how to go about all this than you do.

When attempts have been made to assert independence from the Western-led political and economic system, the reaction has tended to be hostile, and often violent in the extreme.

Wars fought by Britain to maintain colonial possessions in Kenya and Malaya during the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s involved widespread torture and atrocities, and led to the deaths of up to 160,000 people.

In 1953, Britain supported a US-backed coup in Iran, after the Parliamentary government there attempted to nationalise its oil reserves from the company that later became BP. The Western-imposed regime of the Shah was backed by successive Tory and Labour governments as it repressed and tortured its opponents en masse, killing about 10,000 over the course of its 25 year reign.

In 1965, to prevent Indonesia moving in a more independent direction, the then Labour government of Harold Wilson, alongside the US, supported a coup and subsequent campaign of suppression in Indonesia that claimed up to 1 million lives. The Indonesian economy was then opened up fully to Western investors. When Indonesia invaded and occupied East Timor in 1975, again slaughtering tens of thousands, it was backed by the then Labour government of Wilson and James Callaghan, and by subsequent British governments.

In 1973, Britain welcomed General Pinochet’s US-backed coup against the democratically elected government in Chile, and successive administrations in Whitehall supported the regime as it applied neo-liberal shock-therapy to the Chilean economy in direct violation of the known wishes of almost the entire population, which policies were necessarily, given their anti-democratic nature, accompanied by a vicious campaign of state-terror. Margaret Thatcher developed a personal friendship with Pinochet, which endured long after both figures had left office.

It may well be difficult for any of us to see this grisly record as showing Britain “standing up for our core values”, to recall the shadow defence secretary’s phrase. It is, however, how a political and economic system dominated by wealthy elites, states and corporations stands up for its “core values” of power and profit, whatever the human cost.

[For more on these episodes, see “Web of Deceit” and “Unpeople” by Mark Curtis]


Let’s look a bit more closely at the record in the Middle East, given what’s happening in that part of the world at the moment.

Most regions of the globe have some value to international economic elites, be it in terms of raw materials, export markets, investment opportunities and so forth. And if the Middle East only produced dates and olives it would still no doubt retain some material value to governments and corporations. But it’s the massive proportion of the world’s energy reserves that are located in that region which constitutes what the US State Department described, in 1945, as “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history”.

Note the mention there of power as well as material value. Effective control over the lifeblood of the industrialised world economy means power over rival and lesser states. Securing access to oil and gas is by no means the only concern here. British planners in 1947 described the oil reserves of the Middle East as “a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination”. In 1999, the future US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, said that “Oil is unique because it is so strategic in nature. We are not talking about soapflakes or leisurewear here. Energy is truly fundamental to the world’s economy. The Gulf War [of 1991] was a reflection of that reality”.

Throughout the post-war era and into the present day, the urge to establish and maintain a hold over this “stupendous source of strategic power” has led the British and American governments to support some of the worst regimes in the world, and to commit some of their own worst crimes of recent history. The policy in respect of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq gives a flavour of the cynicism involved.

Saddam was strongly supported during the 1980s as he waged war against post-revolutionary Iran (a vicious regime certainly, but one whose real crime in the eyes of Washington and London was its independence). This support was not disturbed when Saddam attacked Kurdish civilians in northern Iraq with poison gas, or as he continued to torture and murder his internal opponents. However, when he became disobedient, invading Kuwait (another Western-backed autocracy), Saddam was magically transformed into the new Hitler, with Western leaders suddenly discovering to their horror that he had gassed his own people and committed other heinous crimes which now became a source of great moral concern.

After expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991, crippling Saddam’s military capabilities in the process, Britain and America, through the UN, imposed a sanctions regime on Iraq which, according to UNICEF, resulted in the deaths of up to a million people, half of them children under the age of five. With Saddam still clinging to power, the US and Britain invaded Iraq in 2003, toppling the regime with such thoughtless brutality that the country degenerated into a failed state. The stage was set for a war that was part counter-insurgency part sectarian conflict for the future of the country, which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, and created four million refugees.

British and American policy in respect of Iraq, we were constantly told, was necessitated to maintain our own security, and also guided by humanitarian concern for the people of Iraq, to whom we hoped to bring democracy, prosperity and freedom. Mistakes were made, of course, as Jim Murphy admitted in his recent speech. But none that should cause us to doubt our “core values” or discourage us from standing up for them, with the application of massive violence where this might regrettably prove necessary.


Throughout the Middle East, Britain has consistently backed those regimes most likely to be accommodating to its interests, no matter how thuggish, how exploitative or how undemocratic. Britain provides training to the militaries and/or police forces of states such as Bahrain, Oman, Libya (at least until recently) and Saudi Arabia. It also sells arms to practically every regime in the Middle East and North Africa bar Syria and Iran, which are strategic rivals. In the 12 months up to September 2010 alone, the value of government-granted licences for military exports to the region stood at over a third of a billion pounds.

On a recent tour of the Middle East, David Cameron poured scorn on the notion that the countries of the region could be expected to produce all their means of defence, assertung that since they could not, it was right that Britain should continue to sell arms to the regimes in question. The problem with that argument is that the primary concern for these governments is to defend themselves against their own people and their demands for democratic freedoms. Again, Britain has been on hand to combat the threat of self-determination, and help prevent it from rearing its ugly head. For example, in 2010, the Coalition government approved the sale of tear-gas, small arms ammunition and crowd-control equipment to Libya, and assault rifles, tear-gas and ammunition to Bahrain.

On 16 February, the King of Bahrain – who incidentally will be a guest at the Royal Wedding next month – sent his troops to attack pro-democracy demonstrators while they slept in the national capital’s main square. Tear-gas and rubber bullets were used as at least four people were killed, including a two-year old girl. Export licences to Bahrain and Libya have subsequently been revoked by Whitehall, demonstrating the worthlessness of Britain’s supposedly tough controls on arms sales. Of course, the idea that Britain was surprised that a tyrant might use the tools of tyranny that we sold to him to tyrannise his own people is not one we need waste time entertaining. It was, for example, less than a year before Tony Blair’s famous 2007 meeting with Colonel Gaddafi, at which then BP boss Tony Hayward signed an oil deal worth around two billion pounds, that Gaddafi had publically encouraged his supporters to “kill” enemies of his regime.

So lets be under no illusions. Britain arms these regimes with its eyes wide open. Recent embarrassments have plainly not prevented Cameron from hawking the wares of Britain’s arms industry around the Middle East, and dismissing concerns with his familiar, contemptuous air.


British links with these regimes are not limited to arms sales. Accompanying Cameron on his tour were leading executives from companies such as Balfour Beatty, AMEC, Carillion, Mothercare, and senior staff from Cambridge University, Imperial College, and University College London. Oxford University and London’s School of Oriental and African Studies have both accepted donations from the royal family of Saudi Arabia. Donations from the Libyan regime to the London School of Economics have forced the resignation of the school’s director, Sir Howard Davies, and caused some embarrassment to LSE Professor Anthony Giddens, Tony Blair’s intellectual guru. A 2007 article by Giddens extolling the bright prospects for political reform in Libya can be found on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free website, in which Giddens welcomes Gadaffi’s willingness to open Libya up to Western-led globalisation, i.e. to penetration by Western multinationals.

The article’s worth quoting. Giddens tells us that:

“As far as one party states go, Libya is not especially repressive. Gadafy seems genuinely popular. If he is sincere in wanting change, as I think he is, then he could play a role in muting conflict that might otherwise arise as modernisation takes hold. My ideal future for Libya in two or three decades time would be a Norway of North Africa: prosperous, egalitarian and forward looking. Not easy to achieve, but not impossible”.

It seems fair to assume that Giddens honestly believed all this at the time of writing, and no doubt such views helped the LSE management to justify to themselves their acceptance of donations from Libya. All the same, it is hard to see in what sense the leading universities of the UK are upholding the traditions of the liberal enlightenment by accepting money from despots whose use of torture and political murder is a matter of public record.


In a talk of about 25 minutes, its hard to give more than an impressionistic sense of the political economy of British foreign policy. What’s important to understand is that we’re talking about a complex, multi-faceted system that produces government policy and the discourse that rationalises and legitimises it (an aspect I didn’t have time to go into). Our government sits within a hierarchical economic order dominated by social elites and large corporations, and within a global system still just about dominated by the United States; a country perhaps even more corrupted by wealth than our own. Policies serving these various concentrations of power are a natural product of this system, and are buttressed by the supportive discourse of the corporate-owned media.

And notwithstanding the fraudulent pretexts advanced from time to time for adventures like the occupation of Iraq, its important to understand that this is not a conspiracy. Merely the predictable workings of a particular set of socio-economic circumstances wherein people, many of whom are perfectly decent individuals, find themselves embroiled and complicit in state policies and social relations that have terrible consequences in the outside world.

But one political force within this overall system that I’ve yet to mention here is the general public. Consider the following:

63% of people said, in July 2006, that the relationship between the Blair government and the Bush White House was too close;
63% oppose the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system;
• 61% opposed the scale of Israel’s 2006 assault on Lebanon, which Britain supported;
• The British government is currently looking at legal changes that can be made to make it easier for those accused of war crimes – specifically Israelis – to visit this country. Just 7% of the public agree that such measures should be taken.
• In February 2003, less than 10% said that it would be right for Britain to invade Iraq without a second UN Security Council Resolution.
77% say the invasion of Iraq increased the terrorist threat to Britain, while 3% said it decreased the threat
• 52% say Blair deliberately misled the country on Iraq, and a sizable minority, 23% say he should stand trial for international crimes.

What this suggests is two things. Firstly, there is a considerable democratic deficit in British foreign policy, with key aspects of policy completely out of line with the wishes of the population.

Secondly, activists have a lot to work with here. There is widespread public opposition to government policy which we can think about first engaging with and then mobilising. Obviously in terms of the debates that go on amongst politicians and media commentators, people like us in this room are very much on the margins. But in terms of the views held by the wider public, it is the political elite that is out on a limb, while anti-war activists are often far more in touch with mainstream opinion.


In the last few weeks, the question has increasingly been asked, what can we do to help the people in the Middle East and North Africa as they fight for their democratic and human rights? The answer, for us, is a relatively simple one. We should campaign against the British government’s long-standing complicity in the oppression of the people of that part of the world. We should use the considerable freedoms that we enjoy to raise the political costs of our government’s collusion in the denial of those rights to others. And we should work to challenge and ultimately dismantle the concentrations of socio-economic power that corrupt our politics and our nation’s foreign policy.

None of this will be easy, of course. But the bravery, the determination and the successes of people in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world, who have in recent weeks overcome far greater challenges than we face, should provide us with a source of encouragement, inspiration, and hope.

This is a transcript of NLP co-editor David Wearing's talk on British foreign policy to the UCLU Stop The War group.

David is a PhD researcher at the UCL School of Public Policy, focusing on Britain's response to the Arab uprisings

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