America’s Cold War “Tugboat”

Photo by Daniel Lobo | CC BY 2.0

Several years ago, I had occasion to interview the Guardian’s Russia correspondent, Jonathan Steele, and asked how he assessed Britain’s ties to US foreign policy. He humorously described the US as the big ship in the harbor and Britain as its “tugboat.” No longer a world power on its own, Britain these days escorts the US into foreign outposts where neither belongs. British propaganda scholar Emma Briant appears to agree: “Britain’s defence strategy was pragmatically steered towards complementing US capabilities and spinning its ‘expertise’ in counter-insurgency warfare… to engineer inroads for relative influence.”

The Middle East Prologue

One will remember the Tony Blair-George Bush bromance in 2002, when the Labour prime minister began a collaboration with the US toward the 2003 invasion of Iraq on the pretext that the Saddam government was producing and storing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Blair pledged to Bush, “I will be with you, whatever.” It’s no wonder he was widely seen in Britain as “America’s poodle.” A memo written by Matthew Rycroft, then private secretary to Blair and later (2015 to early 2018) UK ambassador to the UN, was leaked to the British press. It disclosed that “theintelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” (i.e., a propaganda operation) to make the case against Saddam, with “little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.”

Despite the shallow justifications, Britain joined the US invasion, even as a UN inspection team on the scene, acting under UN Security Council resolution 1441, could find no evidence of WMD (chemical, nuclear, or biological) in Iraq. One might also recall the earlier (1991) US bombing of a supposed biological weapons plant in Iraq, which, according to numerous credible sources, turned out to be an infant milk formula production factory. Punishing Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait, the US brought along the UK and a wider coalition in its brutal attack on their former client, Saddam, who just a few years earlier had proved his utility by invading Iran (1980-1988) and was personally congratulated and rewarded for doing so by Donald Rumsfeld.

The deep collaboration of British intelligence, MI5 and MI6, with the CIA is another big piece of the imperial partnership. When Libya under Gaddafi was still regarded as a US and UK ally in the fight against Islamic jihadists, the superspy agencies worked together to set up that country, extra legem, as a secret detention and interrogation center under the program of “extraordinary rendition” (kidnapping and torture of suspected “terrorists”). And when Gaddafi was no longer considered an asset, they destroyed the man and the country, once again without the slightest concern for the aftermath. Reaping disaster upon countries and rebuilding selected sectors in their own image is the “creative destruction” formula that guides America’s major global enterprises.

In 2004, Britain worked with the CIA to abduct two Libyans living in exile in Thailand and return them to Libya, where they were held and tortured. Trump’s latest CIA appointment, Gina Haspel, was in charge of agency operations in Thailand at the time. Recently, Britain’s prime minister Theresa May issued a belated apology for Britain’s part in that “anti-terrorist” abduction. She hasn’t apologized, however, for the £4.6 billion ($6.1 billion) sale (2016 and 2017 alone) of bombs and missiles to Saudi Arabia for the purpose of invading Yemen, along with the provision of military advising and training, “despite mounting evidence of war crimes and massacres at [Yemen’s] hospitals, schools and weddings.” Indeed, following the pathways of Obama and Trump, she received the red carpet treatment during a November 2017 visit to the sheikhdom. The tugboat’s weapons sales to the Saudis complements those of the US, which sent the Saudis $23 billion during the same period, dedicated in part to combat operations in Yemen.

Britain is thickly involved as a junior partner in US interventions and violence throughout the region. Going back to the late 1960s, its Indian Ocean possession of Diego Garcia has been leased to the US as a naval station for rapid regional intervention, as a strategic outpost to control the supply of oil and natural gas in the region, and as a CIA detention, torture, and transit center. After 2003, UK airports were also routinely used by the CIA as transport centers for abducted prisoners taken from the Middle East and other countries. Among those taken to the US maximum security prison at Guantánamo, with MI5 and MI6 interrogators on staff, were British nationals and residents. According to Robert Verkaik, author of Jihadi John: The Making of a Terrorist (2016), “Almost every British terror suspect who fell into the hands of the CIA in the past 13 years has ended up claiming he was brutally tortured.”

It’s not clear in the present period whether Tugboat Terry can afford to openly embrace Trump as a Middle East ally. According to a Yougov poll, as of April 12, only 22% of Britons, supported the missile strikes on Syria that month – even if the Assad government were actually found to have carried out a chemical attack in Douma (43% opposed, 34% unsure). But can she afford to alienate the US in the event of a “hard Brexit,” which would cut off Britain from the common market and customs union with the EU and make the country more dependent on the US? The prime minister may have other considerations. At the time of the April missile attack, her husband, Philip, was an executive for Capital Group, an investment management company and the largest shareholder in BAE systems, manufacturer of Tornado fighter-bombers used against Syria, as well as a major investor in the world’s largest defense contractor, Lockheed Martin.

The New Cold War Partnership

Even without America’s tutelage and patronage, Britain has not historically been a friend of Russia, not even during the United Front in the Second World War. The UK has long used its significant propaganda talents, much admired by Joseph Goebbels, to cudgel Russia and the Soviet Union – going back to before the Crimean War, and indeed more than a century before that. The English poet John Milton, reflecting on British 16thcentury accounts of Russia-bashing in his ‘Brief History of Muscovia,’ concluded that Russians “have no learning, nor will suffer it to be among them.” The earliest known depiction of Russia as a threatening bear first appeared, beginning in 1737, in a series of English engravings, titled “The European Race.” The Cold War thus has some of its origins in the historic ethnic condescension of the English toward Russians.

In recent years, the British state has continued its role as a collaborator in the New Cold War and in seconding America’s fishy, conspiratorial assumptions about Russian interference Anglo-American politics (as if both the US and UK haven’t interfered in theirs for the past 70+ years). There’s an unspoken mainstream media accord that professional journalistic standards, including careful fact checking, are suspended when it comes to reporting on perceived adversaries, and there’s no penalty for such violations, which speaks to the propaganda model as discussed by Herman & Chomsky. Taking a free ride on America’s Russophobia bandwagon, the British press jumped on the opportunity to circulate unproven and overblown accounts of alleged Russian state assassination attempts in the UK, namely the cases of two former (UK-Russia) double agents, Sergei Skripal (MI6/GRU), allegedly attacked with a nerve agent earlier this year, and Alexander Litvinenko (MI6/FSB),reportedly killed by a dose of polonium in 2006.

On these matters, there’s little difference between the partisan reporting of Luke Harding in the Guardian, who’s convinced without benefit of actual facts of the Kremlin’s blood-soaked hands, and the lurid Russian spy novels of Alex Dryden, except that Harding doesn’t compare as a writer. In an December 2017 interview with the British journalist for The Real News Network, the bright young Canadian journalist Aaron Maté took apart “the veteran” Harding’s conspiracy allegations, reproduced in his  book, Collusion, that Donald Trump worked with Vladimir Putin to steal the 2016 US presidential election. A few months later, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was pilloried by BBC and other mainstream media when he called on the government to undertake a proper investigation of the Skripal case before hastily rendering a judgement that it was a Putin plot. One of BBC’s regular programs, Newsnight, featured a photoshopped slide of Corbyn against a backdrop of the Kremlin, wearing a doctored hat to make him look more “Russian.” It clearly was used to insinuate that Corbyn is Putin’s dupe – a blatant example of New Cold War “news” propaganda and defamation, not unlike the liberties the US media have taken in portraying Trump in the same frame.

The official claim that Putin was involved in the Skripal poisoning plot came from the cartoonish New York City-born, Eton-bred British foreign secretary and unofficial gaffeteer, Boris Johnson. As a side note, it’s instructive that when Johnson ran for Oxford Union president in his youth, which he won, his campaign manager was the infamous American political language manipulator Frank Luntz. It might also be noted that Johnson has a history of casual mendacity, as when he was sacked from the (London)Timesin his earlier career for faking a quotation. Or when he lied that the UK Porton Down defense research laboratory concluded that there was “no doubt” that the alleged “novichok” substance that poisoned the Skripals was made in Russia.

The academic and award-winning journalist Gareth Porternoted that the British government merely deduced from the “assumed application of nerve agent to the door handle of the Skripal house that this was a sign of Russian intelligence tradecraft.” He argues that had the British government held evidence of Russia keeping such stocks, they surely would have reported it to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons(OPCW) and even demanded that alleged Russian chemical weapons facilities be inspected. In neither case did they do so, instead accused the Kremlin of being behind the attempted murder without offering a motive. Britain has learned much from the US on the crude art of political and ideological spin.

To date, there is no conclusion about the source of the poison, whether it was indeed novichok, and whether Russia even had stocks of that substance or any other nerve agent. Johnson insisted that he was “almost 100% sure,” which itself betrays it as mere speculation, that the Russians were behind the attack. For its part, Russia insists it eliminated its last remaining chemical weapons stockpiles in 2017, while the US keeps postponing its promise to do the same. Acting on its presumptions and with US backing, the British government abruptly expelled 23 Russian diplomats, joined by similar over-reactions by the Trump administration (60 expelled), Canada (4), Australia (2), and token responses by other in-step allies. Were it not for the political signals from big brother, however, it’s unlikely that the British government would be at liberty to abandon such diplomatic niceties as discussing the Skripal matter with the Russian government. Unlike America’s Nikki Haley, Britain lacks the audacity to say of the Russians, “we’ll slap them when needed.”

Meanwhile, Britain’s Conservative Party has had no problem taking bribes from Russian oligarchs – to the tune of at least £1,157,433, delivered “through British citizens who were formerly Russian citizens or are married to Russians or their associated companies,” according to BBC News. And that was only between 2010, when the Tories returned to power, and 2014. Russian oligarchs have added another £820,000 to the Tory coffers since May took office. The surviving wife of Litvinenko told the Tories to return the tainted money. To date, May has been reluctant to kill the golden goose.

Political winds in the US seem to regularly find an open corridor to Britain. The London press blamed even rough winter weather on the Russians, as when a major snowstorm that hit Britain in February was labeled by the Guardian and other British media as “the beast from the east.” Then there’s the “anti-semite” card that the Tories and their allies in the press have been deploying against the Labour Party. Taking a page from Donald Trump, who accused Obama of being Israel’s enemy and the US senate, which wants to criminalize anti-Israel protest, Theresa May and her Tory colleagues, backed by the BBC and other media, have attacked Labour, particularly its leader Jeremy Corbyn, of harboring anti-semitism in its ranks, obviously a political distraction. The duplicitous tactic of conflating criticism of Israeli apartheid policies with hatred of Jews has discouraged open debate about the illegal building of all-Jewish settlements on Palestinian territories, the regular assaults on Palestinian civilians, and the ongoing massacres in Gaza.

To be sure, the hypocrisy meter is working overtime in both countries. Their mainstream media do not come close to meeting their own espoused standards of freedom and truth telling. Based on a Reporters without Borders 2018 survey, the US ranks 45th in the world in press freedom. Britain ranks just slightly ahead in 40thplace, one of the worst in western Europe – and trailing Uruguay, Samoa and Chile for restrictions on reporters and just ahead of Burkina Faso, but behind Trinidad and Tobago. In 2016, in the wake of their transatlantic partner, the UK passed the Investigative Powers Act, which gave police and intelligence agencies the most sweeping snooping and hacking powers in the western world – even more intrusive than the US warrantless internet surveillance program, renewed by Congress in January 2018. In a climate of spying on citizens and the media, it is no wonder that investigative and honest reporting suffers in both countries, both of which ironically position themselves at the forefront of “democracy promotion” (i.e., regime change) liberators.

America First, Britain Second?

For May and Britain’s posh political elites, Donald Trump is unfortunately somewhat of an embarrassment, so it was not considered particularly scandalous that one of their former MI6 intelligence officers, Christopher Steele (1987-2009), was hired as a mercenary by the Hillary Clinton Campaign and the Democratic National Committee to do opposition research on the Republican presidential nominee. Delivering his report, via John McCain, to then FBI director James Comey, Steele alleged that among other things, Trump had carried out “perverted sexual acts” with prostitutes in Moscow during a 2013 visit, captured on hidden cameras and microphones (though Steele himself hadn’t been to Russia in years). The Russian FSB and President Putin, he claimed, were thus able to blackmail him into doing the Kremlin’s bidding while “cultivating and supporting” his election to the presidency (Durden, 2017), as if the Russians in 2013 had a crystal ball on the forthcoming presidential event.

If Trump has a historic role to play, it is to raise the level of dissent against US state and corporate power both at home and abroad, breaking up America’s ironclad ideological and perhaps material grip on the rest of the world. His transatlantic partner, Theresa May (though Trump doesn’t countenance female equality all that well), might have counted on escalated trade with the US as an alternative to the European Union, the tweeter-in-charge quickly put an end to that expectation with his revised import tariff structure, which badly affects the British steel sector.

May’s alliance with Trump, who’s extremely unpopular in the UK, and with most of her own party on a “hard Brexit” strategy at a time of shifting public opinion could very well be the wedge that ends her tenure. And it just possibly could veer Britain back to the fold of Europe and adrift from its traditional moorings in tugboat international relations and foreign policy.

Gerald Sussman is a professor of urban studies and international communications at Portland State University. He is the author or editor of several books, including Branding Democracy: U.S. Regime Change in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe. He can be reached at