HOW THE ‘SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP’ WORKS

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 6 Feb 2009

Jake Lynch

“In building a balance of power that favors freedom, the United States is guided by the conviction that all nations have important responsibilities”. So says the US National Security Strategy, the 2002 version in this case, and just one more iteration of a long-established strategic posture: the so-called ‘hub and spoke’ doctrine of American foreign policy.

Countries are defined by their relationship with America, not each other; and they know where they have to come, to receive their orders: “Nations that enjoy freedom must actively fight terror. Nations that depend on international stability must help prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Nations that seek international aid must govern themselves wisely, so that aid is well spent. For freedom to thrive, accountability must be expected and required”.

The ‘special relationship’ is a phrase in common currency across party boundaries in the political class of Great Britain, but the concept applies to many other countries as well, even if it goes by other names. Question is, how does it work? How is “accountability” exacted? What led Tony Blair, for instance, to squander his political capital and poison his legacy by following, not an ideological soul-mate like Bill Clinton but an obviously toxic figure of the Right, George W Bush, into the judicial oubliette of Guantánamo Bay and the illegal invasion of Iraq?

The Ghost
, the latest political thriller by former journalist Robert Harris, follows a writer drafted in to help with the memoirs of a recently retired British Prime Minister, Adam Lang – a thinly disguised version of Blair – who is threatened with indictment for war crimes. I won’t give away the plot, especially as Roman Polanski is now directing the movie: suffice it to say, for present purposes, that the narrator begins to join the dots of a conspiracy when someone asks him if he can think of even one small thing Lang/Blair did with his premiership which even slightly inconvenienced the United States.

Some of the hidden bonds between London and Washington have been exposed recently with an extraordinary ruling in a UK courtroom in a case brought by a British resident, Binyam Mohamed, who was seized and held incommunicado in Pakistan in 2002 before being secretly rendered to Morocco to be tortured. He was subsequently flown to Afghanistan before being rendered to Guantánamo Bay. Mr Mohamed alleges that the UK security service, MI5, knew about this, but the evidence he relied on, which is contained in documents released to the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, was withheld – a decision then challenged by Mr Mohamed’s legal team.

The ruling, by Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Lloyd Jones, that the evidence should not be produced in open court, came after explicit threats that, if it were, the US would stop sharing intelligence with Britain, and a statement from Miliband that this would damage the country’s security.

It’s been in the news because the court ruling, and a strong parliamentary statement by a prominent MP from the Opposition Conservative Party, David Davis, have served to underline that these aspects of ‘the relationship’ are now the subject of ‘elite discord’. The American media researcher Daniel Hallin – in The Uncensored War, his classic study of reporting of Vietnam and its influence on public opinion – identified this as the key to when anti-war sentiment crosses the border between the ‘deviant’ and the ‘legitimately controversial’.

Menwith Hill

In my own bid to lift such dissension into the bracket of news, I once reported for Sky TV on opposition in Britain to the Menwith Hill spybase, near Harrogate in North Yorkshire. Officially part of the Royal Air Force, Menwith Hill is, in practice, a slice of American territory, leased indefinitely to the United States in 1954. It’s alleged to be the largest listening station on earth, and a key component of the globe-spanning Echelon monitoring system.

A report for the European Parliament, whose release was the ‘peg’ for my piece, described how Echelon was set up by the US National Security Agency to listen in on telephone conversations and email exchanges – any electronic communication, in fact – and filter it according to certain key words and phrases. Now, if someone says, in a phone call, “so, how’s our plot to kill the president going, then?”, and that rings an alarm bell somewhere, you might think, ‘fair enough’.

But the European Parliament report found that Echelon was also being used to spy on commercial rivals of US ‘defense’ companies. When the Brazilian government commissioned an early warning radar system to detect incipient fires in the gigantic Amazon basin, the French firm, Thomson, was the front-runner in the race for the multi-million dollar contract. But its American rival, Raytheon, came from behind to win, allegedly by using inside information supplied by Echelon.

The respected analyst John Pike, of globalsecurity.org, told me, in an interview for the programme, that the power and sophistication of the worldwide American spying network made it the prime US strategic asset, outweighing even the Pentagon’s unrivalled array of military hardware, in its importance to the maintenance of global domination.

Lest anyone doubt that this is the agenda, turn again to the National Security Strategy document: “Our forces”, it says, “will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States”. In this, it echoes a much earlier document, Defense Planning Guidance, prepared in 1992, for then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, by a team under Paul Wolfowitz and including Zalmay Khalilzad and Lewis Libbey; all four, of course, went on to become key figures in the Bush Administration.

America had won strategic victories, this said, in both the Cold War and the campaign, the previous year, to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, but a third, less heralded triumph was of arguably greater importance. The post-war period had also brought success in binding potential rivals into a US-led security system, notably the defeated adversaries of 1945, Japan and Germany. The task now, it said, was to devise ways to prolong this state of affairs, preventing the emergence of alternative hegemons in three key areas of the globe – Europe, East Asia and the Middle East.

Without the obvious disciplining effect of enmity across the Iron Curtain, there was now a need for another narrative to bind America’s ‘friends’ together, especially as the fall of Communism had brought dangerous talk of a ‘peace dividend’. There was now a full-blown crisis of military legitimacy – the first since the mid-1970s, then brought on by defeat in Vietnam – which risked making redundant the painstakingly assembled US comparative advantage in armed might.

Operation Desert Storm supplied it – the ‘New World Order’, in which the Pentagon was supposed to be the enforcement arm of the ‘international community’. As the political scientist, Alex Callinicos puts it, “The 1991 Gulf War provided an opportunity to remind Germany and Japan that the security of their oil supplies depended ultimately on American weaponry”.

The effect, on the calculations and responses of conflict actors across the globe, was profoundly destabilising. In just one example, the Indian Army Chief of Staff, General K Sundarji, told an interviewer: “The lesson of Desert Storm is, don’t mess with the United States without nuclear weapons”. Sure enough, his country’s nuclear missile program, dormant for nearly 20 years, was promptly revived, till India acquired nukes of its own in 1998.

Because India had them, Pakistan had to get them; the Pakistani ‘rogue scientist’, AQ Khan, is supposed to have supplied components to Iran, the supposed rival hegemon in the Middle East; the Iranian ‘threat’ is invoked to justify Israeli action against its supposed proxy armies, Hezbollah and Hamas, and so the cycle continues.

Propaganda and non-violence

To make such connections now is, if not commonplace, then broadly in line, certainly, with the inferences many people have drawn, from the events of recent years, about the way the world works. These ‘audience frames’ have been reinforced by ‘media frames’. The NSA was once so secretive that even Washington insiders referred to it as ‘No Such Agency’, but it’s now ten years since Enemy of the State saw Will Smith and Gene Hackman tracked by an NSA team, in a remake of the 1974 Coppola movie, The Conversation. These days, it crops up routinely on screens large and small.

The rapid and conspicuous unravelling of propaganda in the Iraq invasion, notably the claims about ‘weapons of mass destruction’, have brought, arguably, another crisis of military legitimacy. When invited to contemplate the logic set out in the US National Security Strategy, we balk – the notion that Australia, for instance, still has “responsibilities” in Afghanistan, has now fallen into disrepute. The annual poll by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute found, last September, that a majority of Australians, 54%, favour withdrawing Australian troops from the country.

The point is, we seldom do get the chance to consider our views on such issues, still less to express them and bring them to bear. The political class here is united in the opposite view, and there are regular rumblings about reinforcing Australia’s contingent and moving them to a higher-risk part of the country. There is, in other words, a disconnect between public opinion and political opinion, and that represents a classic case and opportunity for strategic non-violence. One of the aims of strategic non-violence is to concentrate minds – to bring our complaisance, in continuing injustices, from the back of our minds to the front.

Pine Gap, the ‘sister station’ to Menwith Hill, in central Australia, was the focus of a notable act of non-violence in December 2005, when six members of the Christians Against All Terrorism group staged a protest outside the base. Four of them subsequently broke in to the facility, and were arrested.

At their trial, Australia’s Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952 was invoked for the first time in court. The four were fined $3,250 with the possibility of a seven-year jail term. The Commonwealth prosecutor appealed the decision saying that the sentence was “manifestly inadequate”, however, the Pine Gap Four cross-appealed to have their convictions quashed. Twelve months ago, they won their acquittal. Judges who worked on the case stated that a “miscarriage of justice” had taken place because the four were not allowed to argue before a jury that Pine Gap was not a “defence facility” for Australia.

Pine Gap has played a key role in coordinating US military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, against the stated wishes of a majority of the Australian public. Dr Hannah Middleton, of the Australian Anti-Bases Campaign Coalition, says: “Intelligence collected at Pine Gap has made a much more substantial contribution to the US ‘war on terror’ than the efforts of the Australian Defence Force. Hence, Pine Gap makes Australia a key accomplice in any US attack and in the subsequent deaths, destruction and misery”.  

Her comments come in response to a proposed retrospective tightening of Australian law, which attempts to ensure that any repetition of the Pine Gap case takes a very different course. Schedule 3 of the Defence Legislation (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2008 amends the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952 to provide that the “Joint Defence Facility” at Pine Gap is a special Defence undertaking and a prohibited area. A new section states that the Act is intended to provide for the “protection of works, undertakings and areas required for the defence of Australia” and to “enable Australia to fulfil its international obligations”.  

“International obligations” is an euphemism, in this case, for orders from Washington, and the proposed legislation shows how far allied countries will (still) go in curtailing the freedoms of their citizens, and confounding the will of their own courts, to oblige the United States. A challenge, to all of us, to make such depredations impossible to ignore.

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 6 Feb 2009.

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