Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World
London: Vintage, 2003.
This interesting and impassioned critique of Britain's Foreign Policy under the Blair government extends to encompass the historical and international context from the early 20th Century to War in Iraq, 2003. While its over-ambitious aim contributes to a sense that arguments in some areas are disappointingly unsophisticated, the work includes well-argued positions on the injustice of sanctions, the (mis)use of No Fly Zones in Iraq and corresponding relative media silence. Curtis highlights the hypocrisy in British foreign policy (including Turkey, the Kurds and state- sponsored terrorism) in using humanitarian arguments for interventions. He also examines the poor media coverage of the Northern Alliance, portrayed in an inappropriately favourable or neutral light as our allies. The question of oil in relation to Central Asia is noted as important in determining relations in this region. This struggle for domination probably shaped US (and probably Russian) policy. Most convincing are the final chapters, which exploit newly released government files implicating Britain in past human rights abuses.
Curtis is also strongly critical of pro-government media bias and support for wars where victory results, regardless of their legitimacy. However, while he will cite newspapers as sources when it suits his purpose Curtis levels blanket criticism at academic and media discussion of foreign policy. This fails to recognise how many individuals struggle to give a balanced account despite numerous obstacles. Principles of free expression suggest that both advocates and detractors of Anglo-American policy should have opportunities to present their views and influence public opinion. Curtis' criticism of a government paper for stating that the public should be kept 'properly informed' leaves his position unclear. Does he wish no government communications?! These are clearly a statement of the government's views and not meant to critique government; parties, civil society, law and the media have this responsibility. The pressing issue is the inability of these to pressure government openness and to disseminate balanced information from a range of sources.
Despite his sometimes excellent sources, Curtis' evidence is insufficient to demonstrate some of his claims. While most would sympathise with his criticism of sanctions in Iraq, to add emphasis Curtis makes speculations he cannot measure let alone evidence ("likely that Britain has contributed to the deaths of more Iraqis than Saddam" (p.30)). Curtis saturates his text with the kind of rhetorical language that he criticises in the media and government propaganda, unnecessary when the abundant evidence is more convincing. Curtis concludes that a passage from a Defence Committee document referring to the "UK's efforts to shape perceptions" (p.22) represents a strategy to 'deceive' the public. This demonstrates a real need to define terms like "deception" and "propaganda," an essentially contested concept applied inconsistently here. Curtis' however, rightly rejects the widespread use of misleading euphemisms when dealing with propaganda (eg 'information support' and 'public diplomacy' (p.21, 22, respectively)).
Apparent though is Curtis' position that all propaganda as fundamentally wrong. He thus cannot acknowledge that, particularly during wartime, propaganda or censorship is in any state sometimes a necessary tool used to fight the enemy and maintain domestic morale, and undertaken responsibly can promote peaceful negotiation. All states must promote their self-image and communicate their intentions and culture to the international community in order to promote understanding and tolerance. Curtis is consequently unable to distinguish the abuses of propaganda of the Blair government as quite removed from ordinary diplomacy. In attempting to reconcile propaganda with individual freedom of thought and democratic principles, certain conditions governing its use must be adhered to (e.g. proportionality to the threat posed); principles ignored under Blair. Few would argue against the use of morale-boosting methods during the bleakest moments of World War 2. Lies or truth framed in a misleading way used to justify an illegitimate war without due consideration of the stability of the international system are quite different.
Conducting a War on Terror against such a hard-to-define and fragmented enemy produces many civilian casualties. In counter-insurgency wars the enemy would often be indistinguishable from the civilian population until too late. It is issues such as this that make it virtually unwinnable and Curtis does not explore this. As for the deliberate attacks on civilians that Curtis alleges, the Pentagon/MoD must be pressured to explain such incidents. Often appearing in the media, the inadequate explanation of these offered by defence officials feeds mistrust. Of course, military errors are all-too-frequent - multiple deaths due to friendly fire for example - and Curtis overlooks this. Missile accuracy is frequently mentioned in military propaganda and gives an impression that when a civilian target is hit it must be intentional. This may well be correct with services and communications buildings (p.53), both strategically important targets especially early in a war, yet morally dubious. In either case, accountability is of utmost importance.
Curtis' reasoning that War in Afghanistan was erroneous because the allies ultimately killed more civilians than the terrorists is similarly undeveloped. Although the morality of the use of force is a pressing and difficult question, no one can credibly claim that a simple equation of body counts it the solution. Wars generally arise for more complex reasons than to settle a score. Pulling out may be more destructive, resulting in an irresponsible waste of life and nothing having been resolved.
Curtis rightly rejects the argument that recent Foreign Policy was defending 'civilised values'. However, one motive is clearly the defence of or pursuit of Western culture, global capitalism, representative democracy and Christianity. For the most part Curtis offers a good critique of colonialism, liberal economic policies and development. He notes a growth in British interventionism and that the end of communism left a void in the focus of foreign policy now filled by terrorism. Curtis is correct in his assessment that much of the West's Cold War 'threat' came not from the USSR but from largely indigenous nationalist movements. Yet, in stressing how US planners have conspired to use terrorism to legitimise a pre-existing US plan of global hegemony he wrongly dismisses the role of ideology in the War on Terror and the Cold War. This concurrently underestimates the intelligence of those taken in by the imposed empty constructs he imagines.
A destructive ideological force drives both Western hard-liners and Islamic fundamentalists. The danger comes not from planners promoting hollow ideals such as humanitarian concern, freedom etc but from a genuine pursuit of ideological goals within the vision of a world built in the Western/US image with the US as the driving force. Disturbingly, those who focus foreign policy believe with conviction that their vision is ideologically, economically, politically and morally 'right'. This utopian ideal is so faithfully held that any price becomes legitimate (propaganda, even force), and its perpetuation ultimately tramples the values it promotes. Thus Iraq was more about absence of WMD than their existence; one of the few places it was easy to make a statement that pursues this vision.
Curtis seems to take issue with foreign policy in general more than Blair in particular. His attempt to explore alternatives by briefly advocating a host of ethical goals including nuclear disarmament doesn't address the practicality of such goals. Curtis' attack on what he sees as numerous injustices including Britain's choice of allies, elite power and propaganda are compelling but ultimately neglect the sophisticated analysis that is required in critiquing foreign policy. The international system is a complexity of competing interests in a constant state of flux, thus many actors and influences shape foreign policy, only some of which are acknowledged here. The book would not stand up to rigorous academic standards but accessibly introduces a popular audience to many key criticisms of Blair's foreign policy.
Glasgow Caledonian University
© the war and media network, 2005