Should NATO change its posture?

October 24, 2014

Extracts from NATO Watch Comment: ‘Can NATO be saved from strategic obscurity?’ by Paul Ingram, the Executive Director of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC).This blog was originally posted on the BASIC website on 16 October.

[W]hen it comes to security and strategic relationships, what transformation was achieved in ending the Cold War arms race by Presidents Reagan, Bush Senior and Gorbachev, has been squandered by leaderships since.

The recent challenges in Ukraine and previously in Georgia are the result of earlier decisions in the 1990s, made by an emerging kleptocracy in Moscow, and by NATO members who no longer viewed Russia as worthy of engagement and who themselves were willing to re-write the rules unilaterally.

In many respects NATO now appears lost in the shadow of the Cold War legacy. It faces a brave new world of economic turbulence, terrorism and cyber-threat, issues it is ill-suited to handle. But today’s crisis appears to have catapulted it centre-stage . . .

celtic manor nato

Diplomats returning from the recent summit in Newport, Wales (above, Celtic Manor), speak with renewed purpose. And Rasmussen’s ubiquitous media profile has supported this newfound confidence very effectively . . .

Will Stoltenberg continue along the line set out by Rasmussen? The change of leadership itself may provide a ray of hope in the possibility of reconciliation with Russia; Putin himself has already stated his hope that Stoltenberg could be someone he could deal with. But the indications remain mixed. It is perhaps inevitable that Stoltenberg would be careful to stay in line with the majority view within the Alliance, and has been heavily supportive of the sanctions against Russia. He has suggested he would support the disastrous provocative moves of considering Ukrainian membership of NATO. He has, however, referenced his own cooperation with Russia over the challenging disputes over security in the Arctic, and has been careful to talk of the desire to build a constructive relationship.

putin stoltenberg

Stoltenberg is one in a long line of centre-left reformist politicians whose views on NATO and on the use of force have evolved dramatically in the last thirty years. As reported by Ian Davis of NATO Watch back in March, in his early career back in the 1980s he was hostile not just to nuclear weapons but also to NATO itself. But since his leadership of the Norwegian Labour Party in 2000, he has come to argue for increased military spending and robust expeditionary forces. Think Tony Blair, and you wouldn’t be far off the mark . . .

A few indications of dwindling faith in NATO?

Nobel Peace laureate and former Polish President Lech Walesa recently said that Poland should acquire its own nuclear weapons. Leaving aside the technical, financial, diplomatic and legal challenges to this solution, that such an icon would even suggest this path should send the alarm bells ringing. It should also be of concern to those with faith in NATO. Why would Poland need to consider an independent strategic defence capability as a member of this defence pact? Unless, that is, it had little faith in the alliance delivering defence and deterrence in the moment of truth.

Similarly, the UK prides itself as the closest ally of the United States–so uniquely close that it is given the most prized possession of the US military: its most sophisticated nuclear system. Indeed, perhaps this is the core reason for the UK renewing the Trident system, to remind the Americans just how special the Brits are. Why else would Britain need an ‘independent’ deterrent if it could rely upon the US nuclear umbrella? This was a key question the Trident Commission in July was unable to answer to any reasonable satisfaction; their conclusion–that Britain could not rely upon the United States in the long term–is surely an uncomfortable one for those NATO bureaucrats in Brussels. Because if even the UK cannot rely upon the United States, how can we in all honesty demand that our allies in Eastern Europe take that risk?

A genuine fear of the expansion of western capitalism through NATO

But there are also more fundamental questions the alliance needs to consider. It sees itself as a defensive alliance, but one that operates out of area. We look around the world and see a sea of threat and challenge, but how much effort do we genuinely put in thinking about how we ourselves are seen? The support within Russia for Putin’s autocratic strategy arises out of a genuine fear that the expansion of western capitalism through NATO will squash Russia. We are quick to consider means of assuring our formal allies, but it is equally important to consider how we might draw the sting from our adversaries by giving them confidence to move in a more constructive direction.

Basing our own security on military and political dominance of global institutions, and upon nuclear deterrence and the threat of annihilation is hardly the example we need to be setting. NATO’s new secretary-general would do well to consider strategies that avoid the unintended consequences that go hand in hand with its chosen posture. Or change the posture.

The Ingram article was originally featured on a regular column by Paul on Open Security, a section of


Ebola: proper soldiering for NATO?

October 20, 2014


“At a time when questionable missions are being contemplated to address threats from the so-called Islamic State in the Middle East, NATO boots on the ground to fight infectious disease seems like a more urgent and appropriate response for a military-political Alliance”. Read more on the NATO Watch website.

Proper Soldiering3The late Michael Harbottle (former chief of UN Peacekeeping in Cyprus) pointed out the advantages of using military skills and equipment in What is Proper Soldiering? p15:

In many cases it has been all the armed forces, naval, army and air force, which have played important roles in the early phases of life saving relief and reconstruction.

Each experience provides them with an opportunity to improve upon their techniques, operating procedures and the special equipment they need. Sometimes they have estab­lished special teams for dealing with the more com­plicated kinds of emergency which are often to be experienced in a disaster area.

It is becoming in­creasingly recognised that the armed forces should expect to be called in at an early stage to provide emergency humanitarian aid anywhere in the world wherever disaster strikes. It is a role in which they should take pride and see as being as important, in terms of human survival, as their traditional role of national defence . . .

The military possess the technical and specialist units and equip­ment needed in a comprehensive relief and rescue operation. Equipped and organised to handle most disaster situations, the army possesses the neces­sary infrastructure to meet the immediate demands of a disaster and to be in place and functioning before the main national operational relief effort has been mounted. This can often mean the differ­ence between life and death for hundreds, probably thousands . . .

The NATO Watch article continues:

“(The Chairman of the Committee of the Chiefs of Military Medical Services in NATO (COMEDS), LTG Gérard Nédellec, MD, PhD) says that NATO must be prepared to provide a coordinated and unified response to the current Ebola threat in addition to any future communicable disease threat. He recommends that current deployable and domestic capabilities (both civilian and military) need to be identified, with a view to greater sharing and coordination of such capabilities. He also calls for a realignment of NATO planning and funding priorities to focus on developing an efficient, effective and sustainable response to future infectious disease outbreaks. Detailed guidelines for Ebola management by NATO are expected to be released later this month. Not a moment too soon for the people of West Africa. His statement on communicable disease outbreaks may be read here: COMEDS Statement on Communicable Disease Outbreaks

“NATO forces should be well prepared to set up state of the art field medical facilities, are trained in the management of chemical and biological warfare and have the equipment ready to isolate and treat patients. Most NATO member states also have medical professionals within their militaries who could potentially treat Ebola. Pre-deployment training, personal protective equipment, strict medical and hygiene protocols, and constant monitoring would mitigate the soldiers’ risks of becoming infected.

NATO centre milit medicine header

“NATO also has a Centre of Excellence for Military Medicine (MILMED COE) located in Budapest, Hungary, which is tasked with facilitating interoperability between the military medical services in NATO. It has eight member nations (Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, Romania and the UK) and four medical branches: Deployment Health Surveillance Capability (DHSC) – a satellite branch located in Munich, Germany; Interoperability, Lessons Learned and Training. The DHSC, in cooperation with the German Medical Intelligence, published a risk assessment of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa on the 24 September. While not an official NATO document, the authors conclude that it “makes sense to apply the principles of ‘collective response’ and the doctrine of ‘smart defence’ to combat the outbreak of Ebola”. . .

Dr Ian Davis, Director, NATO Watch ends by emphasising: “In the longer term, of course, there needs to be greater emphasis on strengthening already fragile health systems in West Africa”.


Read about hospital ships, predominantly run by the military, in another NW article:

Are competing oil and power-related interests weaving this murderous web?

October 14, 2014

Ajamu Baraka was the founding executive director of the US Human Rights Network from July 2004 until June 2011. The network grew from a core membership of 60 organizations to more than 300 U.S.-based member organizations and 1,500 individual members who worked on the full spectrum of human rights concerns in the U.S. A summary of his article follows; read it in full here.

Background from another source:

Last year the European Court of Human Rights held Turkey responsible for the deaths of 38 people in a 1994 attack on two Kurdish villages, and ordered Ankara to pay €2.3 million in compensation. It awarded an additional 5,700 euros to the 38 plaintiffs who lost relatives or were injured, and rejected Turkish findings blaming the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for the bombings. The court also found that Turkish investigators of the incident were not independent and had tried to withhold findings from the victims. Read more on this subject here.

Back to Ajamu Baraka:

ajamu baraka dalai lama

Ajamu Baraka reports U.S. military spokespersons claimed that they are watching the situation and have conducted occasional bombing missions but are concentrating anti-ISIS efforts in other parts of Syria – bombing empty buildings, schools, small oil pumping facilities, an occasional vehicle and grain silos where food is stored to feed the Syrian people. He adds:

“Turkey also seems to be watching as the Kurds of Kobani fight to the death against ISIS. They are to be sacrificed because they are ‘the wrong kind of Kurds’ . . .

kobani attacked

Kobani, the largely Kurdish district that straddles the border with Turkey, is being attacked by ISIS forces; Belal Shahin, a Kobani refugee in Suruc, told MSNBC: “Isis came into the villages. They beheaded people as well as animals. But the whole world has blocked their ears in order not to hear. And they’ve become dumb. There’s nothing to stop them”.

Baraku explains: “Masoud Barzani and the bourgeois Kurds of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) are the “good Kurds” and the predominant force among the Kurds of Iraq. Their control of almost 45% of Iraqi oil reserves and the booming business that they have been involved in with U.S. oil companies and Israel since their “liberation” with the U.S. invasion makes them a valued asset for the U.S. The same goes for Turkey where despite the historic oppression of Kurds in Turkey, the government does a robust business with the Kurds of Iraq”.

The situation is different in the Kurdish self-governing zones in Syria. In Kobani, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Turkey-based Kurdish independence organization labelled a “terrorist” organization by the U.S. and Turkey – provide the main forces resisting the ISIS attack.

Baraka points out that the ISIS attack in Kurdish territory converges with the strategic interests of Turkey and the US in denying control of territory because Turkey wants to undermine the self-governing process among Kurds, Christians and Sunni Arabs. There appears to be an agreement that the US will not oppose Turkey taking parts of Syrian territory which could form a “buffer zone” along the Syrian-Turkey border.

He adds that this is why U.S. government spokespersons have been floating the idea of a no-fly zone in Northeastern Syria in the U.S. state/corporate media, presenting the action as necessary to protect civilians from attacks by the Syrian forces: ‘the humanitarian hustle’ again.

Baraka’s conclusion – right or wrong: “The current situation in Kobani is part of the cynical farce that is the fight against ISIS. Turkey has no interest in preventing Kobani from falling to ISIS when it suits its strategic interests to deny the Kurds any semblance of self-determination. And the U.S. is not interested in altering the balance of forces on the ground in Syria by seriously degrading ISIS militarily and undermining its primary short-term strategic objective of regime change in Syria”.


Western foreign policy’s third principle

October 4, 2014


Professor Geoffrey Roberts points out in the Financial Times that Martin Wolf omits a third in his recent analysis that the western position is based on two simple principles:

Roberts adds the missing (and critical) qualification: “as long as it suits the west”, continuing:

“Without this proviso it is impossible to comprehend the practice of western foreign policy as opposed to its rhetoric and propaganda.

“In 1962 the US brought the world to the brink of nuclear war because it did not approve of the Cuban government’s decision to invite the Soviet Union to place missiles on its territory.

“Today Iran faces isolation and sanctions to thwart its ambitions to become a nuclear power like the west’s allies, Israel, Pakistan and India.

“In Libya and Syria western states have intervened and interfered with woeful results. Borders are sacrosanct, but not those of the former Yugoslavia or Serbia, which has been dismembered by the western-sponsored secession of Kosovo.

“Yet when Russia acts to protect what it sees as its interests and security in Ukraine, Mr Wolf deems it a menace and the greatest challenge facing the US. He even trots out Vladimir Putin’s statement that the Soviet Union’s collapse was a major geopolitical disaster, without quoting the Russian president’s rider that anyone who thinks the Soviet Union can be recreated needs their head examined.

“Is it any wonder that Russia views the west’s moral posturing in international politics as not just hypocritical and self-serving but dangerous?”


professor geoffrey roberts russiaLondon-born Geoffrey Roberts is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and currently professor of modern history at University College Cork & head of the School of History at UCC. His academic awards include a Fulbright Scholarship to Harvard University & a Government of Ireland Senior Research Fellowship. He is a regular commentator on history and current affairs for British & Irish newspapers, contributing to the History News Service, which syndicates articles to American media outlets. He has made many radio and TV appearances, acting as an historical consultant for documentary series such as Simon Berthon’s Warlords, broadcast in 2005. He specializes in Soviet diplomatic and military history of the Second World War.


A Quaker comment on drone warfare and the arms trade

September 25, 2014


The pressing of a button to send a drone to destroy a target, killing innocent people, too, including children is as barbaric, to me, as the cruel beheading of hostages.

The button presser never faces the immediate consequences of his actions either. Sadly, neither do we. The horrendous results are shown on Al Jazeera never the BBC.

The Islamic State is the creation of the West. It is a reaction to the Iraq war and our hypocritical policy to the Islamic world. We support and sell arms to a country that conducts public beheadings and prevents women from working without their husband’s permission.

We need to campaign for an ethical foreign policy and an end to western military intervention in the Middle East. We also need to make links with the mainstream Muslim community to support them in confronting extremists and demonstrate that we and others are willing to join them in their critique of Britain’s foreign policy and the consequent killing of innocent Muslims in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

James Whiting
Wandsworth Meeting, London

the Friend 29.9.14

Changing direction: toward peace, away from war? Further Israeli opposition to the status quo

September 13, 2014


Haaretz reports that a public letter has been sent to the chief of staff of Israel’s armed forces and the head of military intelligence, signed by reservist members of the ‘prestigious’ Israeli Defence Force’s Intelligence Unit 8200. Like Britain’s GCHQ, the unit intercepts electronic communications including email, phone calls and social media, in addition to targeting military and diplomatic traffic.

israel unit 8200Unit 8200: “arguably the best military intelligence gathering apparatus in the world”

The signatories of the letter are refusing to serve in operations involving the occupied Palestinian territories, alleging that the widespread surveillance of innocent residents is used for “political persecution” and to create divisions in Palestinian society; they say that this activity is designed to perpetuate the occupation by infiltrating all aspects of Palestinian life, deepening the military control over the occupied territories.

The Guardian adds that, accompanying the letter, are a series of testimonies provided by the signatories to Yedioth Ahronoth, organised several months before the recent Gaza war.

tel aviv peace rally

This letter gives further weight to hope for beneficial change, added to the earlier public demonstrations in August: kibbutzim anger building against the Israeli government and military – followed by ten thousand demonstrators gathering for a pro-peace rally in Tel Aviv (above) under the slogan, “Changing direction: toward peace, away from war”.


After reading the Wyndham prophecy that “sooner or later that (nuclear) slip will occur” we salute those seeking to rid the world of a dangerous weapon and an insecure and polluting power source

September 6, 2014


Hiroshima bombIn 1951, John Wyndham wrote:

“From August 1945, the margin of survival has narrowed appallingly. . . In the years succeeding 1945 the path of safety started to shrink to a tight-rope along which we had to walk with our eyes deliberately closed to the depths beneath us. “In any single moment of the years since then the fatal slip might have been made. It is a miracle that it was not. It is a double miracle that can go on happening for years.

But sooner or later that slip will occur . . . whether through malice, carelessness or sheer accident; the balance will have been lost and the destruction let loose”.

The atomic bombing raids killed between one and two hundred thousand Japanese civilians and military personnel outright, with the heat, radiation, and blast effects. Many tens of thousands would later die of radiation sickness and related cancers. (Rezelman, David; F.G. Gosling and Terrence R. Fehner (2000). “The atomic bombing of Hiroshima” and The Manhattan Project: An Interactive History, U.S. Department of Energy).

State of play

nuclear armed states map

South Africa has the unique status of a nation that developed nuclear weapons but then disassembled its arsenal before joining the NPT.


Veterans of U.S. intelligence send a memorandum to Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor

September 4, 2014


natowatch observatory header

NATO Watch editor Ian Davis writes:

Prior to today’s ceasefire announcement, fighting between government forces and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine had been escalating sharply. Russia had stepped up support for the rebels and reportedly deployed troops inside Ukraine.

Although the war in Ukraine is pulling in foreign fighters for both sides, allegations of Russian government involvement are rife. Last week, for example, NATO released a series of satellite images showing what a top general described as “Russian combat soldiers, equipped with sophisticated heavy weaponry … operating inside Ukraine’s sovereign territory”.

However, a group of former officers of the US intelligence community (formed in January 2003 as a “coast-to-coast enterprise” to protest the use of faulty intelligence “upon which the US/UK invasion of Iraq was based”), the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), published a memorandum on 31 August 2014 that raises important questions about NATO’s role in the crisis. The memo is reproduced on the NATO Watch website with the kind permission of one of the signatories, Ray McGovern.

ray mcgovern former cia analyst

MEMORANDUM FOR: Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany
FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)
SUBJECT: Ukraine and NATO

“We the undersigned are longtime veterans of U.S. intelligence. We take the unusual step of writing this open letter to you to ensure that you have an opportunity to be briefed on our views prior to the NATO summit on September 4-5.

“You need to know, for example, that accusations of a major Russian “invasion” of Ukraine appear not to be supported by reliable intelligence. Rather, the “intelligence” seems to be of the same dubious, politically “fixed” kind used 12 years ago to “justify” the U.S.-led attack on Iraq. We saw no credible evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq then; we see no credible evidence of a Russian invasion now.

“Twelve years ago, former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, mindful of the flimsiness of the evidence on Iraqi WMD, refused to join in the attack on Iraq. In our view, you should be appropriately suspicions of charges made by the US State Department and NATO officials alleging a Russian invasion of Ukraine”.


Other points made:

  • One year ago, hawkish State Department officials and their friends in the media very nearly got Mr. Obama to launch a major attack on Syria based, once again, on “intelligence” that was dubious, at best.
  • . . . NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s checkered record for credibility. It appears to us that Rasmussen’s speeches continue to be drafted by Washington. This was abundantly clear on the day before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq when, as Danish Prime Minister, he told his Parliament: “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. This is not something we just believe. We know.”
  • The images released by NATO on August 28 provide a very flimsy basis on which to charge Russia with invading Ukraine. Sadly, they bear a strong resemblance to the images shown by Colin Powell at the UN on February 5, 2003 that, likewise, proved nothing.
  • If the photos that NATO and the US have released represent the best available “proof” of an invasion from Russia, our suspicions increase that a major effort is under way to fortify arguments for the NATO summit to approve actions that Russia is sure to regard as provocative.
  • According to a February 1, 2008 cable (published by WikiLeaks) from the US embassy in Moscow to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, US Ambassador William Burns was called in by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who explained Russia’s strong opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine . . .Two months later, at their summit in Bucharest NATO leaders issued a formal declaration that “Georgia and Ukraine will be in NATO.”
  • Fuzzy photos were released by NATO and reporters like the New York Times’ Michael Gordon were set loose to spread the word that “the Russians are coming.” (Michael Gordon was one of the most egregious propagandists promoting the war on Iraq.)
  • We believe that Russian support probably has been pouring across the border and includes, significantly, excellent battlefield intelligence. But it is far from clear that this support includes tanks and artillery at this point – mostly because the federalists have been better led and surprisingly successful in pinning down government forces.

At the same time, we have little doubt that, if and when the federalists need them, the Russian tanks will come. What is to be done at this point? In our view, Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk need to be told flat-out that membership in NATO is not in the cards – and that NATO has no intention of waging a proxy war with Russia – and especially not in support of the ragtag army of Ukraine. Other members of NATO need to be told the same thing.


For the Steering Group, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity

William Binney, former Technical Director, World Geopolitical & Military Analysis, NSA; co-founder, SIGINT Automation Research Center (ret.)
David MacMichael, National Intelligence Council (ret.)
Ray McGovern, former US Army infantry/intelligence officer & CIA analyst (ret.)
Elizabeth Murray, Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Middle East (ret.)
Todd E. Pierce, MAJ, US Army Judge Advocate (Ret.)
Coleen Rowley, Division Counsel & Special Agent, FBI (ret.)
Ann Wright, Col., US Army (ret.); Foreign Service Officer (resigned)


Unrest in Hong Kong

August 31, 2014

Hong Kong was promised universal suffrage by 2017 under the Basic Law, a mini-constitution in effect since the official handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. The Chinese National People’s Congress is expected to endorse a framework for the first direct vote by a Chinese city to choose its leader. However, it is feared that Beijing will filter out any candidates deemed unacceptable. Only two or three nominated “patriotic” candidates, who are backed by at least 50% of the 1,200 elite “nominating committee” members, will stand for election. Pro-democracy activists and many locals are increasingly concerned about the growing influence of China on Hong Kong’s media – and in June, China published a “white paper” on Hong Kong which sparked concern by suggesting that Hong Kong judges needed to be “patriotic”, raising questions about judicial independence.

HONGKONG JULY PROTESTFormer head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen (centre), 82, took part in a ceremony urging people to vote

Thousands protested in Hong Kong on Sunday against a Chinese plan for electoral reform that would prevent critics of Beijing from running for chief executive in the former British colony.

The FT reported in July that pro-democracy group Occupy Central ran an unofficial 10-day poll offering three different options for how a candidate for chief executive might be chosen. Beijing described it as “illegal”. Organisers put the total number of votes cast just short of 800,000, 22% of Hong Kong’s registered voters.

Hong Kong geared up for street protests on July 1 – a national holiday; campaigners were pressing for the direct election of the next leader by the public. The organizers estimated that 510,000 people took part; the crowd was fluid, with a continuous stream from Victoria Park to the heart of downtown for nearly eight hours.


Earlier, the FT reported that the big four global accounting companies took out press advertisements in Hong Kong stating they are “opposed” to the territory’s democracy movement, warning that their multinational clients may quit the city if activists carry out threats to disrupt business with street protests.

After a devastating account of the misdeeds of the ‘Big Four’ all over the world, Prem Sikka, Professor of Accountancy at the University of Essex added: “these adverts show the length to which big accountancy firms go to cultivate profitable relationship with authoritarian regimes”.

Kenneth Leung, a Hong Kong lawmaker representing the accountancy profession, said that it was “not a tradition” for Hong Kong’s business people to involve themselves in politics: “I was shocked to see that advertisement. The big four’s partnership and management have no interest in local politics or political debate at all. It’s mainly about their commercial interest and operation in [mainland] China.” Ernst and Young, KPMG, Deloitte and PwC all declined to comment.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists plan to blockade the city’s Central business district in the coming weeks and public broadcaster RTHK said 5,000 police will be deployed for the “Occupy Central” protest; the city’s 28,000-strong police force is already on high alert. 


Wrong, perverse, and fatal decision – Charles Kennedy: “The big fear that many of us have is that the action will simply breed further generations of suicide bombers.”

August 30, 2014

. .  

In recent ‘state of the world’ conversations with friends it has been agreed that the escalation of conflict in so many areas dates from the invasion of Iraq.

NATOWatch_logoTo date we have not seen this dispassionately spelt out, but – with permission – NATO Watch has reproduced an article by John Gittings, former assistant foreign editor and chief foreign leader-writer at The Guardian, which first appeared on the author’s blog, on 26 August 2014:

Reckless Consequences of the Iraq War

As Iraq is falling apart or, more accurately, as Iraq is falling further apart, some politicians who supported the 2003 invasion are beginning to acknowledge that it might not have been the wisest decision. But they couch their regret in the most limited of terms. Asked in The Observer whether the current chaos made him regret supporting the war as a minister in Blair’s government, David Miliband says: “I regret it because I made a decision on the basis of upholding the norms of respect to weapons of mass destruction, and there were none.”

And Hillary Clinton has written in her new book Hard Choices: “I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had,” she wrote. “And I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong.”

Strategic experts and commentators often talk in similar terms these days about the spread of Al Qaeda extremism as an “unintended consequence” of the war or, in the term favoured by the CIA, as “blowback”.

These are all dubious alibis for having made the wrong, perverse, and fatal decision back in 2003 to launch what the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan rightly called an illegal war.

They are dubious for two reasons:

First, the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction or, if he still had the remnants of ones previously made, or the precursors to making new ones, that this issue could not be dealt with by the UN inspectors, was widely challenged on good evidence by critics of the war. Their scepticism was bolstered by numerous signs that the case against Saddam was being dressed up, as in the notorious “dodgy dossier”.

We should recall what Robin Cook said in his resignation speech on the eve of the House of Commons (18 March 2003) debate:”Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term—namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target. It probably still has biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions, but it has had them since the 1980s…Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for 20 years? Only a couple of weeks ago, Hans Blix told the Security Council that the key remaining disarmament tasks could be completed within months….”

Second, there was no shortage of predictions at the time that unleashing a Western war on a key Middle Eastern country in the Muslim world would pour fuel on the flames. As Tam Dalyell said in the Iraq debate: “What could be more calculated to act as a recruiting sergeant for a young generation throughout the Islamic and Arab world than putting 600 cruise missiles—or whatever it is—on to Baghdad and Iraq?”And from Charles Kennedy, then leader of the LibDems: “The big fear that many of us have is that the action will simply breed further generations of suicide bombers.”

Critics of the war were derided then for suggesting, as the dissenting Conservative MP Douglas Hogg had in the debate, that “the probability is that thousands and maybe tens of thousands of people will be killed or injured on all sides.” But they have been proved disastrously right, and the correct phrase should not be tens but “hundreds of thousands”. We should regard these wrong decisions, taken in the teeth of reasoned doubt and opposition, as leading not to “unintended consequences” but to “reckless consequences”. It was wrong from the start — which means the original Afghan war against Soviet occupation – to support such armed insurgency, and we may reflect on the following tale.

In 1986 Margaret Thatcher welcomed to London the Afghan mujahidin leader Gulbadin Hekmatyar, a man with a reputation for savagery, praising him as a “fighter for freedom”. In 2002 the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, injured during the US invasion of Afghanistan, made his escape with the help of Hekmatyar, now an Afghan warlord. And in 2003 Al Zarqawi founded the extremist group which has become the “Islamic State” and is terrorising whole regions of Syria and Iraq.


john gittingsJohn Gittings is the author of ‘The Glorious Art of Peace: From the Iliad to Iraq’ (Oxford University Press, 2012). After teaching at the University of Westminster he worked at The Guardian (UK) for twenty years as assistant foreign editor and chief foreign leader-writer (1983-2003). Having specialised for many years on China and East Asia, he is now doing research on the historical perception of peace, and is an Associate Editor of the Oxford International Encyclopaedia of Peace.  His website is it includes links to his latest writings on the subject.


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