Why the United States must reject British foreign policy in Syria

Middle EastUS Politics
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One of the effects of the Obama presidency is that it has turned international warmongering on its head. The script, has been somewhat flipped. During the George W. Bush era there was very little doubt who was perceived to be leading the mindless, breast-beating clamour for war. What is now clear and impossible to avoid is that the United Kingdom is assuming the lead in calling for more Western intervention in the Middle East. As such and like Libya, the British have been leading the calls for a United States led intervention in Syria. [1]

In an interview with the historian Niall Ferguson, David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, declared his “frustration” at the lack of interest in intervening in Syria. He had similarly declared his frustration when it did not seem the British were going to be granted an intervention in Libya. [2]

Since Obama’s re-election Cameron has raised the verbal stakes in advocating intervention in Syria. Firstly, on the day of Obama’s historic re-election and on the back of peddling weapons to the Persian Gulf despots he may have attempted to usurp the natural publicity centred on the re-election of America’s first African-American President by claiming that he will encourage his “friend” Obama to intervene in Syria. [3]

Secondly, in the following month Cameron rehashed the ‘inaction is not an option’ formulae to the Syrian conflict. [4] This formulae dates back to the build up of the Iraq war in 2003 and was popularised by then vice-President Dick Cheney who in turn adopted it from the military historian Victor Davis Hanson. [5]

Thirdly, several days later Cameron was claiming that his government is leading the calls to review the arms embargo on Syria and therefore supply more weapons to the “rebels”. [6] It is now acknowledged that the British have complained to the Obama administration for the latter preventing Qatar from sending more sophisticated weaponry to the “rebels”. It seems that Qatar is currently the local conduit for European strategies. [7]

However, if the Obama administration heeds and acquiesces to Cameron’s advice for military intervention in Syria what can precedent teach us shall be the repercussions for the United States and the Middle East?

Let us begin with the most famous time the United States followed the British into a Middle East hotspot. In 1953, the British instigated an initiative to overthrow the democratically elected President of Iran, Muhammad Mosaddegh. The reason for this is because he had committed a gross crime. Specifically, denying a British corporation priority over Iran’s main natural resource earner, oil. It was only natural for the British elite, after 400 years of waging war and pillaging mankind, to suppose that Iran was in need of an imperialist corrective.

Before Mosaddegh, the British corporation, Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) ran the show in controlling Iranian resources and handsomely reaped the profits. Up to 90% of profits were ploughed into the corporation while the Iranian nation was palmed off with whatever remained. Recognising that it needed assistance in re-establishing the natural imperialist order, i.e. other nations’ resources should be prioritised to the British, it successfully convinced the United States to assume leadership in a covert operation to topple Iranian democracy. [8]

The United States was ultimately roped into the British conspiracy after it was allowed to ‘dip its beak’ (as Funucci from the Godfather would say) in the profits of Iranian oil. The United States agreed to a 40% cut. Thereafter, Mosaddegh was overthrown and the Shah dictatorship began. And everyone lived happily ever after for the next 25 years with the United States becoming the main supporter of the Shah showering him with weaponry to repress his people and bestowing him with the appellation of “moderate.” But, of course, history intervened and the downtrodden masses overthrew the dictator as well as storm the United States embassy.

Decades of antagonism between the United States and Iran have since ensued all because of a venal and imperialist British initiative to safeguard its interests. The irony of it all was that the United States joined its former imperial master in overthrowing a government which only wanted independence from the United States’s former imperial master. By the way, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) was renamed British Petroleum (BP).

The rise of Arab Nationalism and specifically the Egyptian president Gamal Abd al-Nasser was also a threat to mainly British interest and specifically livelihood in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. British imperialism had previously happily exploited and looted Ireland, India, Africa and other parts of the world to its hearts content for centuries in order to provide its populace in the imperial metropolitan a relative good standard of living on the backs of millions of indigenous peoples. [9] It did not concern the governing British elite or its people that this standard of living caused millions to perish in famines in India and elsewhere. By the end of World War Two and especially after Indian independence it was the turn of Arabs to join the party and lavishly allow the British elite to wrench their imperial fangs into the natural resources of their lands. This was not lost on the United States.

In 1956, President Eisenhower acknowledged and accepted the fact the British would be impoverished without allowing for the British state to have priority on oil profits from the Persian Gulf. [10] The reason for this is because Eisenhower needed the British on side in America’s confrontations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  To contain the threat of Arab Nationalism to America’s ally, the British, political Islamism was employed to counter Nasser’s Arab Nationalism.

According to the Arab journalist and political biographer, Said Aburish, the United States enlisted into the Islamist strategy with the implementation of the Eisenhower doctrine in the late 1950’s. [11] Or as Professor Nathan Citino has argued in his book on U.S. Oil politics, “Eisenhower’s Islamic strategy did not emerge out of a vacuum.” [12] Indeed, Eisenhower’s “assumptions about the importance of Islam in the Cold War were far from original and reflected trans-Atlantic continuities in Middle Eastern expertise just as the U.S. inherited regional power from its European allies.” [13]

The reason it lacked originality is because the British had promoted Islamism and Islamic sectarianism in the inter-war period. In the Arabian peninsula, it was the British who initially armed the Saudi clan to military and geographically re-establish itself after being in exile for decades. In Egypt, it was the British that also identified the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920’s as a counterweight to calls for Egyptian independence. In India they advocated and campaigned on behalf of Muslim sectarianism in the 1930’s. [14]

So when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, it was this “Islamic strategy” that the United States adopted, to fight the Soviets. It was these same Islamists which specifically came out of this policy that were later held responsible for 9/11 atrocities in New York and Washington.

When Iraq in 1990 invaded Kuwait, a country literally drawn out of the sand by the British to prevent the proposed Berlin-Baghdad rail line having a terminal hub in the Gulf, the then American President, George H. Bush initially seemed to lean towards a peaceful solution. Or as he was later to write:

“I don’t know if I had yet determined that the use of force would be required. After all, the UN was still taking action and I hoped the matter could be ended peacefully with political and economic measures.” [15]

Not so Margaret Thatcher who quickly saw an opportunity to further extend Western influence in the Middle East. Even before the Iraq invasion, Thatcher was clamouring for NATO extension into the region on the basis that the European nations were too dependent on Middle Eastern oil and therefore with advances in military technology a threat to NATO may develop from outside NATO territory.

Or as her biographer, John Campbell wrote: “Her outrage about Iraq’s violation of Kuwaiti sovereignty, though sincere as far as it went, was at the same time a convenient cover for deeper national and western interests.” Douglas Hurd, the British foreign secretary claimed that Thatcher had influenced George H. Bush “quite substantially” in his decision .[16]

Even after the 1991 Iraq war ended, Thatcher complained that the war had ended too soon:

“The failure to disarm Saddam Hussain and to follow through the victory so that he was publicly humiliated in the eyes of his subjects and Islamic neighbours was a mistake which stemmed from the excessive emphasis placed right from the start on international consensus.” [17] And this was written before the appearance of the “neo-conservative” political appellation. On the other hand, George H. Bush had this to say:

“I still do not regret my decision to end the war when we did. I do not believe in what I call “mission creep.” Our mission, as mandated by the United Nations was clear: end the aggression. We did that.” [18]

After the war ended in February 1991 a stringent and vicious economic blockade was maintained which only ended with the war on Iraq in 2003. According to a war crimes tribunal held in Kuala Lumpar in November 2011, 3.3 million Iraqis and 750,000 children were killed as a result of sanctions and wars. [19] A country was devastated, destroyed and millions of Iraqis orphaned, widowed and turned into internal and external refugees.  

In all three cases, Iran in the 1950’s, the employment of “Islamic strategy” during the Cold War and the siege and wars on Iraq, the United States was perceived as the main culprit behind British initiated and supported policies. The reason for this is because ultimately it is the United States which takes the lead in military interventions with the British in supporting role. The people on the receiving end of a military intervention are not going to blame British lobbying and pressuring for an intervention, but the main military super-power which is dropping the bombs.

There is no reason to think that an American led intervention in Syria will produce a different outcome to the above precedents. Indeed, it is now widely acknowledged that the very “rebels” that are leading the armed opposition in Syria are more or less of the same ideology as the Islamist “jihadis” supported by the West in Afghanistan in the 1980’s.

Furthermore, a rejection of British calls for intervention in Syria will also provide the Obama administration with an opportunity to reject the Cheney neo-conservative-British imperialism axis for permanent war in the Middle East and even the wider world. Having recently and conclusively defeated the right-wing on the domestic front, is there any wisdom in accepting their strategies on foreign policy and specifically in Syria?


[1] Nu’man Abd al-Wahid, “British blowback and the killing of the US ambassador in Libya”, Mondoweiss, 19th September 2012 for an account of this “frustration”.

[2] ibid.

[3] Peter Foster and Jon Swaine, “David Cameron congratulates ‘my friend Barak Obama’ as he wins second term in White House”, Daily Telegraph (London), 7th November 2012, Access on 8th February 2013 at, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/us-election/9660476/David-Cameron-congratulates-my-friend-Barack-Obama-as-he-wins-second-term-in-White-House.html

[4] Justyna Pawlak and Peter Griffiths, “EU to consider all option to help Syrian rebels.”, The Daily Star (Lebanon), 14th December 2012, Accessed on 5th February 2013 at,http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2012/Dec-14/198502-cameron-syria-is-facing-a-desperate-situation-inaction-is-not-an-option.ashx#axzz2K257UuTN

[5] Bob Woodward, “Plan of Attack”, (London: Simon and Schuster, 2004), pg 428-429

[6] Tim Sculthorpe, Ban Glaze and Theo Usherwood, “Syrian arms embargo to be reviewed”, The Independent, 17th December 2012, Accessed on 5th February 2013 athttp://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syrian-arms-embargo-to-be-reviewed-8422796.html

[7] Steven Erlanger, “Syrian Opposition Leader Confers With U.S. and Russia”, New York Times, 2nd February 2013. Accessed on the 5th February at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/world/middleeast/syrian-opposition-leader-confers-with-us-and-russia.html?_r=0

[8] Stephen Dorrill, “MI6”, (London : Forth Estate, 2000), pg. 558-599.

[9] Mike Davis, “Late Victorian Holocausts, El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World”, (London: Verso, 2002).

[10] David A. Nichols, “Eisenhower 1956, The President’s Year of Crises” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), pg.70 and pg 88.

[11] Said Aburish, Nasser, The Last Arab, (London:Duckworth, 2005), pg.128

[12] Nathan Citino, From Arab Nationalism to OPEC, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), pg.95

[13] ibid., pg.98

[14] Nu’man Abd a-Wahid, “British colonial strategy and the 9/11 blowback”, Mondoweiss, 10th September 2011. Accessed on the 6th February 2013 at,http://mondoweiss.net/2011/09/british-colonial-strategy-and-the-911-blowback.html

[15] George H. Bush and Brent Scowcroft, “A World Transformed”( New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 1998)  pg.333

[16] John Campbell, “Margaret Thatcher, Volume Two: The Iron Lady”, (London: Vintage Books, 2008), pg.664

[17] Margaret Thatcher, “The Downing Street Years”, (London: Harper Press, 2011), pg. 828

[18] George Bush, “All the Best: My Life in Letters and Other Writings.” (New York: Touchstone, 2000), pg. 514

[19] Sherwood Ross, “Op-Ed: US-UK Genocide Against Iraq 1990-2012 Killed 3.3 Million  – Including 750K Children”, UK Progressive, 5th December 2012. Accessed on 6thFebruary 2013 at http://www.ukprogressive.co.uk/op-ed-us-uk-genocide-against-iraq-1990-2012-killed-3-3-million-including-750k-children/article21016.html

About Nu'man Abd al-Wahid

Nu’man Abd al-Wahid is a Yemeni-English independent researcher specialising in the political relationship between the British state and the Arab World. His main focus is on how the United Kingdom has historically maintained its political interests in the Arab World. A full collection of essays can be accessed at http://www.churchills-karma.com/. Twitter handle: @churchillskarma.

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