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Margaret Thatcher and West Asia

Thatcher contributed to a long history of Western policies that prioritised militarised solutions.

Last Modified: 21 Apr 2013 13:52
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

Dr Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is Reader in Comparative Politics and International Relations and Chair of the Centre for Iranian Studies at SOAS, University of London.
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Margaret Thatcher's embracement of certain policies provided only short-term fixes in the Middle East [Reuters]

Margaret Thatcher was a true Cold War Amazon. Her perception of world politics was seriously affected, if not determined by the global competition between the West and the Soviet Union. This bipolar world view lent itself to thinking in dichotomies: good versus evil, justice versus terrorism, freedom versus socialism. Many commentators have argued that her ability to act forcefully in the name of an "ideal" was one of the great strengths of the Iron Lady.

One quote sticks out in the obituaries: As the world debated over how to deal with the annexation of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein in 1990, Thatcher is reported to have warned Bush senior, "Don't go wobbly on me, George" in the build-up to Operation Desert Storm in 1990. At the time, there were no easy solutions, but the Thatcher government never really followed a principled strategy when it came to the international politics of the non-Western world.

In particular, there was no hint of any "idealism" when it came to Thatcher's foreign policy preferences in the Arabian Gulf. The occupation of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein in 1990, for instance, cannot be isolated from the immense support that his regime received by the West, in particular by the Thatcher government, which aided and abetted his military campaign against Iran throughout the mid-1980s.

In March 2003, the Guardian revealed that British companies were involved in building a chemical plant in Fallujah commencing in December 1984 which was central to Iraq's chemical warfare arsenal during a period when "senior officials recorded in writing that Saddam Hussein was actively gassing his opponents". The documents also show that at the time, then UK Trade minister Paul Channon rejected a strong plea from the Foreign Office minister Richard Luce, who argued that the deal would ruin Britain's image in the world.

"I consider it essential everything possible be done to oppose the proposed sale," Luce pleaded, "and to deny the company concerned [Export Credit Guarantee Department] cover." The reply was uncompromising and fully in tune with the support of Saddam Hussein against Iran by the Thatcher government: "A ban," Channon maintained, "would do our trade prospects in Iraq no good."

Ironically, the chemical plant in Fallujah - custom made in Britain (and Germany) - featured in Colin Powell's case for the invasion of Iraq presented to the UN Security Council in February 2003. The Fallujah plant was also highlighted in a September 2002 report by Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee, to the great benefit of Tony Blair when he sought to justify the invasion. The legacy of the Thatcher government's preferential trade and military agreements with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, then, had knock on effects that lowered the threshold of military conflict in the region.

Surely, Saddam Hussein must have felt emboldened by the fact that world leaders such as Thatcher and Reagan ignored his chemical warfare campaign against Iran and his own people (for example, the Halabja massacre of the Kurds in the so-called Anfal campaign in 1988). Surely, it must have been reassuring that they kept supplying him with dual-use equipment that he readily employed in his burgeoning WMD industry.

The nefarious support to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war ushered in an era of hypocrisy that delivered us the disastrous "wars on terror" in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thatcher was entirely supportive of Tony Blair's wholehearted embrace of George W Bush's "freedom through war" narrative. In a typically sweeping manner, she likened "Islamic extremism" to a global threat equal to "bolshevism".

From her perspective, Islamism was an "armed doctrine... an aggressive ideology promoted by fanatical, well-armed devotees. Like communism it requires an all-embracing long-term strategy to defeat it". Residues of a Cold War mentality are apparent here. Thatcher perceived the war against al-Qaeda in broadly dichotomous terms, expanding the conflict into a clash of civilisations between the West and the Islamists. The nuances and complexities of world politics are largely lost when politicians invent cosmic wars like that where "our" goodness is pitted against "their" evil.

Inside Story - The legacy of the 'Iron Lady'

Thatcher contributed to a long history of Western policies that have prioritised militarised solutions to conflicts in West Asia and North Africa that may have provided a short fix, but which did not contribute to long-term security. What the region requires (and occasionally requests) is the language of diplomacy, an intelligent foreign policy that reveals the perils of war and accentuates the promise of peace.

Thatcher and subsequent prime ministers have proved to be incapable of such a decisive push, not at least because of the lack of a discourse that is nuanced, principled and geared towards diplomatic solutions, rather than cosmic battles. Thatcher disagreed with such approaches. To her , "diplomacy" and "consensus" were not advisable - for instance in Bosnia, where due to this approach "250,000 people were massacred".

According to her , "dictators are encouraged by weakness [and] stopped by strength". By virtue of their "moral foundations", free societies in the West had to carry the burden to civilise the world and to fight against "evil" and "tyrants who are not moved by idealism".

In a post-modern disorder where the boundaries between us and them have broken down and where the complexities of world politics do not allow for confrontational rhetoric, the divisive language of Thatcherism is exactly what we do not need.

Dr Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is Reader in Comparative Politics and International Relations and Chair of the Centre for Iranian Studies at SOAS, University of London. He is the author of The International Politics of the Persian Gulf: A cultural genealogy; Iran in World Politics: The question of the Islamic Republic; A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations: Us and them beyond Orientalism; and the forthcoming On the Arab Revolts and the Iranian Revolution: Power and Resistance Today.

Follow him on Twitter: @Adib_Moghaddam

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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