The war before the war

Britain and the US carried out a secret bombing campaign against Iraq months before the tanks went o

Page by relentless page, evidence has been stacking up for many months to show that - despite Tony Blair's denials - the British government signed up for war in Iraq almost a year before the invasion. What most people will not have realised until now, however, was that Britain and the US waged a secret war against Iraq for months before the tanks rolled over the border in March 2003. Documentary evidence and ministerial answers in parliament reveal the existence of a clandestine bombing campaign designed largely to provoke Iraq into taking action that could be used to justify the start of the war.

In the absence of solid legal grounds for war, in other words, the allies tried to bomb Saddam Hussein into providing their casus belli. And when that didn't work they just stepped up the bombing rate, in effect starting the conflict without telling anyone.

The main evidence lies in leaked documents relating to a crucial meeting chaired by the Prime Minister in July 2002 - the documents which supported the Sunday Times story, published during this past election campaign, about how Blair promised George W Bush in April that year that Britain would back regime change.

A briefing paper for the ministers and officials at the meeting - this was in effect a British war cabinet - laid out two alternative US war plans. The first, a "generated start", involved a slow build-up of roughly 250,000 troops in Kuwait. Allied aircraft would then mount an air war, which would be followed by a full-scale invasion. The second option was a "running start", in which a continuous air campaign, "initiated by an Iraqi casus belli", would be mounted without any overt military build-up. Allied special forces giving support to Iraqi opposition groups on the ground would be joined by further troops as and when they arrived in theatre, until the regime collapsed. A few days after the meeting, the Americans opted for a hybrid of the two in which the air war would begin, as for a running start, as soon as the Iraqis provided the justification for war, while at the same time an invasion force would be built up, as for a generated start.

The record of the July meeting in London, however, contains a revealing passage in which Geoff Hoon, then defence secretary, tells his colleagues in plain terms that "the US had already begun 'spikes of activity' to put pressure on the regime". What is meant by "spikes of activity" becomes clear in the light of information elicited from the government by the Liberal Democrat Sir Menzies Campbell, who asked the Ministry of Defence about British and American air activity in 2002 in the southern no-fly zone of Iraq - the zone created to protect southern Shias after Saddam Hussein brutally suppressed their 1991 uprising against him.

The MoD response shows that in March 2002 no bombs were dropped, and in April only 0.3 tonnes of ordnance used. The figure rose to 7.3 tonnes in May, however, then to 10.4 in June, dipping to 9.5 in July before rising again to 14.1 in August. Suddenly, in other words, US and British air forces were in action over Iraq.

What was going on? There were very strict rules of engagement in the no-fly zones. The allied pilots were authorised to fire missiles at any Iraqi air defence weapon or radar that fired at them or locked on to their aircraft. As was noted in Foreign Office legal advice appended to the July 2002 briefing paper, they were only "entitled to use force in self-defence where such a use of force is a necessary and proportionate response to actual or imminent attack from Iraqi ground systems".

That May, however, Donald Rumsfeld had ordered a more aggressive approach, authorising allied aircraft to attack Iraqi command and control centres as well as actual air defences. The US defence secretary later said this was simply to prevent the Iraqis attacking allied aircraft, but Hoon's remark gives the game away. In reality, as he explained, the "spikes of activity" were designed "to put pressure on the regime".

What happened next was dramatic. In September, the amount of ordnance used in the southern no-fly zone increased sharply to 54.6 tonnes. It declined in October to 17.7 tonnes before rising again to 33.6 tonnes in November and 53.2 tonnes in December. The spikes were getting taller and taller.

In fact, as it became clear that Saddam Hussein would not provide them with the justification they needed to launch the air war, we can see that the allies simply launched it anyway, beneath the cloak of the no-fly zone.

In the early hours of 5 September, for example, more than a hundred allied aircraft attacked the H-3 airfield, the main air defence site in western Iraq. Located at the furthest extreme of the southern no-fly zone, far away from the areas that needed to be patrolled to prevent attacks on the Shias, it was destroyed not because it was a threat to the patrols, but to allow allied special forces operating from Jordan to enter Iraq undetected.

It would be another nine weeks before Blair and Bush went to the UN to try to persuade it to authorise military action, but the air war had begun anyway. The number of raids shot up, from four a month to 30, with allied aircraft repeatedly returning to sites they had already hit to finish them off. Senior British officials insist that no RAF aircraft opened fire until it was at least locked on to by an Iraqi radar, but it is difficult to see how the systematic targeting of Iraqi installations could have constituted "a necessary and proportionate response". The story of the secret air war dovetails neatly with the other evidence from the leaked documents, further demonstrating why, even after the general election, Blair's efforts to dispel the allegations about the background to war and get the country to "move on" seem doomed to fail.

It was the briefing paper for the July meeting which stated categorically that "when the Prime Minister discussed Iraq with President Bush at Crawford in April [2002], he said that the UK would support military action to bring about regime change".

The same document also stated bluntly that "regime change per se is not a proper basis for military action under international law" and it was therefore "necessary to create the conditions in which we could legally support military action".

America had none of these problems. It was Washington's view that it could decide for itself whether Saddam was in breach of his obligations to let in weapons inspectors. With British officials holding Blair back, insisting that without UN backing an invasion would be illegal, it would have been extremely convenient for Bush and Rumsfeld if Saddam had retaliated against the bombing offensive, thus giving London and Washington the chance to cry, "He started it!"

The leaked British documents have now found their way into the US political debate. The White House has declined to respond to a letter from 89 US congressmen asking Bush when he and Blair agreed to invade Iraq. The congressmen are now talking about sending a delegation to Britain to try to find out the truth, although heaven alone knows why they think they will get any more change from Blair than they did from Bush. Their concerns are none the less grave ones, for the leaked documents are as damaging to Bush as they are to Blair.

Under the US constitution, only Congress has the power to authorise war, and it did not do so until 11 October. Any military ac-tion to oust Saddam before that point would constitute a serious abuse of power by the president. But there is no reason to suppose that bothered Mr Bush.

Michael Smith writes on defence matters for the Sunday Times

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Why Oxfam is failing Africa

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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