Selective Intervention: Britain’s Inconsistent Foreign Policy Post-WWII

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has blamed a foreign conspiracy for trying to destabilise his country, suggesting that Western media outlets and governments alike are at fault for the mass uprising against his rule, which has left over 5,000 people dead since it began almost a year ago. With Arab League observers doing little more than overseeing Assad’s forces’ slaughtering of “terrorist” agitators – which apparently include women and children – the president should be grateful that harsh words is all that he is receiving from abroad. If the NATO-approved intervention in Libya proved anything, it is that Western firepower is easily capable of neutralising the weapons of terror deployed by despots in the Middle East.

However, the chances of a similar intervention are unlikely. Just last month Sir Peter Ricketts, David Cameron’s national security adviser, suggested that whilst similarities existed between Libya and Syria in terms of levels of violence, a similar path of resolution would not be pursued. According to Ricketts, the decision to intervene in Libya was because “we had urgent appeals from a wide range of people”. This, says Ricketts, is apparently not the case with Syria, despite the continued pleas from the country’s citizenry and the Free Syrian Army suggesting otherwise.

This selective intervention is typical of British foreign policy since the end of the Second World War. Whilst decisions to involve British forces in another country’s affairs have never been taken lightly, they have hardly been exercised with a consistent logic. Britain played a key combat role in Korea yet stayed out of Vietnam; intervention in Iraq remains fresh in the memory and the UK stays at war in Afghanistan, yet countless other dubious Islamic regimes in the region have been left alone; meanwhile, the UK even sent ground troops into Sierra Leone during a bitter civil war in 2000, yet has neglected to intervene in either Sudan or Zimbabwe, two countries of greater repression and suffering; and now Syria is left unaided despite the military support in Libya. Why has British interventionist policy been so haphazard and inconsistent? What motives decide whether British forces are deployed in another country’s territorial domain?


Ideological Justification for Intervention

Before intervening in the Libyan Civil War as part of the UN coalition, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that the Libyan people’s “aspirations for greater democracy, for greater freedom, for greater rights should be met with reform, not repression”. One month later, in March 2011, UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was passed, having been lobbied for by the UK and France in particular. A no-fly zone was imposed over Libya and the Royal Air Force and Navy began their campaign to help topple Colonel Gaddafi. When Gaddafi was finally deposed in October, Cameron claimed that he was “proud” of Britain’s role in giving the Libyan people “an even greater chance…of building themselves a strong and democratic future”. From these statements it appeared as if Britain’s intervening role in Libya was based on ideological reasoning: the support of democracy against authoritarian tyranny. Most British interventions since the Second World War have been justified along such lines.

When British forces joined the Korean War in 1950 after the passing of UNSC Resolution 84, it was with a clear message of anti-Communist intent. The North Koreans’ decision to attack the South was the ideological confirmation Britain and their Western allies needed to portray communism as an expansionist threat to newly-budding democracies throughout the world; the so-called “domino effect”. Though no existential threat was posed to the UK, nearly fifteen thousand British troops were committed to the Korean Peninsula. The fact that North Korea remains today the most committed communist country in the world is proof enough that the Western allies did not succeed in their ideological objectives.  Interestingly, British support for anti-Communism did not extend to committing ground forces to the Vietnam War, a far bitterer ideological struggle. It is possible that the incumbency of Harold Wilson’s Labour administration (1964-1970) – one leaning towards socialist policies – throughout the most intense periods of the war explains this inactivity. Labour’s animosity towards communism was perhaps not as strong as the previous Conservative governments or the ruling American administration, making ideological intervention less desirable. Maybe it was the memory of Korea that detracted the British from going into Vietnam. Either way, it marked a very inconsistent policy of foreign intervention against the supposed communist enemy.

Despite the close proximity to WWII, Britain committed almost 15,000 troops to Korea

This inconsistency has been mirrored in Britain’s recent history of intervention in the Middle East. The UN-opposed invasion of Iraq was officially sanctioned by the British and US governments because of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). This was based on the ideological conviction of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, particularly within and across authoritarian states. Later events would reveal the misinformation the British administration had acquired regarding Saddam’s nuclear programme. Basically, it did not exist. That did not stop the war in Iraq from continuing, the fateful repercussions of which are still noticeable on a daily basis in a country unprepared for post-war reconstruction. Given that nuclear non-proliferation is apparently so important to Britain, why have its politicians made no steps to intervene in Iran? The Iranians are far from covertly carrying out a uranium enrichment programme and are notoriously hostile towards the “west”. Although economic sanctions have been imposed, military intervention does not appear a viable option, suggesting proliferation concerns alone are not enough for British foreign policymakers.

The same can be said of the determination to stop Islamic fundamentalism, as part of the broader “war on terror”. Again, aside from the US, the British have been the largest military contributors to the War in Afghanistan. The determination to not only overthrow but to destroy the Taliban, decried facilitators of Islamic fundamentalism, has long been trumpeted as the goal of the mission. Yet, there has been no intervention in Yemen; in Somalia; in Pakistan, or any other nation that harbours Islamic extremists. Furthermore, the recent British involvement in Libya has arguably helped to increase the powerbase of extremist militants and their political associates, rather than sowed a fertile ground from which democracy can grow.

Al-Shabaab fighters plague war-ravaged Somalia. Yet these Islamic extremists have been left untouched by the UK

Can all these decisions really be the result of an inconsistent foreign policy application? It appears more likely that ideological considerations, however much they are declared to be so, have never been the primary motivator for British politicians and generals when intervening in a foreign country.


The US Alliance as Justification for Intervention

Although not as openly preached as ideological considerations, the importance of the US alliance to Britain has often been invoked as a partial reason for intervening in foreign conflicts. The determination to preserve the “special relationship” formed by Churchill and Roosevelt during the Second World War lingers to this day and has certainly played a significant role in British foreign policy over the past sixty years.

After staving off left-wing agitation during the inter-war period, Britain emerged as the strongest supporter of America’s anti-communist doctrine, the first test of which came in Korea. As we know, the British played a strong supporting role in helping the US force the communist invaders back north, albeit without capitalising on their gains. Despite the questionable success of the mission, the actions of Great Britain and the USA in Korea helped establish them as world leaders in the preservation and support of democracy. British politicians have been reluctant to relinquish this mantle ever since.

Having said that, there was no British intervention in Vietnam, despite US appeals. That in itself is enough to raise doubts over the importance of the US alliance in British interventionist policy. Conversely, Tony Blair’s decision to support the US to the hilt in the build-up to the Iraq War was widely seen as a desire to retain Britain’s privileged status with the world’s only superpower. The false intelligence gathered about Saddam’s WMD programme was compiled by the US, yet unquestioningly supported by the Blair government. The subsequent blame regarding the “non-legality” of the ensuing war and the failure to design and implement an effective reconstruction plan for Iraq has almost exclusively been directed at the US and the UK. Unlike the conflicts in Korea and Afghanistan, for instance, the UN, long derided as a US puppet institution, were not supportive of the Iraq invasion.

Although British forces have provided valuable assistance to US troops in Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan – all operations at least partly-instigated by the US – the British government has at times taken the initiative in foreign interventions. The recent support for the Libyan rebels is a prime example, where pressure from the UK and France helped sway a reluctant Obama administration into using its undoubted lobbying power to gain support from the UN. A more intriguing example is the successful deployment of British troops during the Sierra Leone civil war in 2000, when a British Special Forces unit was used in support of the Sierra Leone government against rebels backed by Liberian president Charles Taylor. Although not a prolonged intervention, it was nonetheless an unusual example of British forces intervening in foreign territory without the presence of the US.

British marines were a surprising addition to the Sierra Leone Civil War in 2000

Given that Britain has not always aided the US in its foreign battles, despite the obvious desire amongst a succession of governments to retain the “special relationship” between the two nations, it cannot be deemed the most important factor guiding British intervention policy. Again, as with ideological motivations, the invoking of the US alliance as a reason for supporting foreign intervention has been an all too inconsistent strategy.


Resources and Strategy – the hidden agenda?

Whilst British interventionism has often been legitimated by ideological claims and the “special relationship”, cynical observers would suggest that the real reasons for intervention are often far more sinister. For instance, the desire of Western nations to increase their geo-strategic influence over potentially-valuable regions, and thus enhance their power-projection capabilities away from their own homelands, is often touted as a covert motive for intervention.

All of Britain’s foreign interventions since the Second World War can be tied to this “hidden agenda”. Korea, for example, offered Britain an opportunity to strengthen its influence in East Asia, at a time of de-colonialisation. Simultaneously, the chance to reduce Soviet and Chinese influence on the Peninsula was undoubtedly a key factor, therefore tying in with anti-communist sentiment. By the time of the Vietnam War, however, British strategic interests in Asia were waning. Having seen their last Asian colony of Singapore merge with Malaysia in 1963, British politicians abandoned any last-ditch attempts to preserve a degree of imperialism. Attention was being turned to the equally-troublesome European Community instead. Furthermore, given that a new economic powerhouse allied to the West had emerged in the form of Japan, any lingering British concerns about communist domination of East Asia dissipated. Whilst this might not have been the case with the US, the Americans’ large presence in Vietnam also gave the British and other Western allies the confidence that their interests were being protected in any event.

The British support for the War in Afghanistan can to a degree be seen as a revival of British politicians’ desire to regain a foothold in the Middle East, long ago a bastion of British colonial strength. In support of the strategic goals of the US, Afghanistan presented an opportunity for Britain to develop its influence in the region, at the expense of larger powers like China, India, or even Pakistan. Although intervention in the former Taliban state now looks to have damaged the Western reputation amongst ordinary Afghans, the large British presence automatically makes them a key strategic decision-maker in a volatile region. The desire to root out supporters of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban would undoubtedly have influenced the British decision to support intervention in Afghanistan, but strategic considerations arguably played a larger role than the official line suggests. With the growing potential of a nuclear-armed Iran, the continuing tribal ruptures in Pakistan and the sectarian violence in Iraq, both the British and Americans may be using their deployment in Afghanistan as a hedge against future ruptures in the Middle East.

In Sierra Leone, a planned evacuation force of British marines ended up playing a decisive role in the civil war. Whether this was an uncontrollable escalation of events or an opportunistic strike by British generals hoping to gain sway with leaders in the resource-rich region is again hard to determine. However, the fact that Sierra Leone is a significant, if small, trading partner of the UK, and offers a plethora of mining and industrial opportunities to British companies, suggests there were hidden factors at play.

Whilst Korea and Afghanistan may have been driven by strategic considerations, the interventions in Iraq and Libya appear far more resource-driven. Although it would be unfair to suggest the Iraq War came about solely because of Anglo-American oil interests, the presence of “black gold” in Saddam’s country undoubtedly made a military operation far more appealing. Therefore the dual goals of securitising energy resources and overthrowing an uncompromising tyrant probably went hand in hand. The same could be said for Libya. Had Colonel Gaddafi’s grip on the country’s oil – a large proportion of which is sold to Britain –persisted amidst the civil war, the disruption of energy exports would also have continued. Sensing the opportunity both to help topple the deranged Gaddafi and at the same time secure a future stream of precious oil, the British took the lead in proposing a no-flyzone along with France, a similarly large beneficiary of Libyan oil reserves. Syria, meanwhile, whilst also a net exporter of oil, relies more on its Middle Eastern neighbours for trade than it does the nations of Western Europe; hence the importance attributed to the toothless Arab League observers. Could it be that the country’s relative lack of resource-importance in comparison to Libya has prevented Britain and its allies from an intervention? Whilst it is almost impossible to prove this, a great number of desperate Syrian citizens see the West’s malaise in relation to their country as inextricably linked with its relative resource deficiencies. If the “hidden agenda” really holds such credence amongst British foreign policymakers, the Syrians may have a long wait on their hands for support in toppling Bashar Al-Assad.

A cause for intervention? Iraq's productive oil wells were of great interest to the Anglo-American alliance.


Consistently Inconsistent

There has certainly not been a consistent doctrine for British intervention in foreign countries since 1945. Whilst any intervention has often been justified by the ideological tenets of liberalism and democracy, the genuineness of such claims are far from convincing. If British interventionism was directed by ideological concerns, reality would dictate that the UK would be embroiled in countless countries across the world. As it is, British forces are concentrated only in a select few. Why is that?

It appears a combination of unpronounced strategic goals, coupled with a desire to maintain strong relations with the US, largely sets the mould for British intervention. Although foreign policymakers are undoubtedly concerned by repressive regimes and anti-democratic political systems, these foibles alone are not enough to justify involvement in a foreign country.

Consequently, unless the Syrian Free Army and their political representatives can put forward a case outlining not only the ruthlessness of the Assad regime but the strategic importance of their country to the West, British military support is unlikely to be forthcoming. Whilst such a selfish foreign policy appears unfortunate, anything other than selective intervention is unrealistic. For the British, as undoubtedly with other states, it is self-interest that must come first.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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