The Diplomacy of Lying

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In 1992, Mark
Higson, the Foreign Office official responsible for Iraq, appeared
before the Scott inquiry into the scandal of arms sold illegally
to Saddam Hussein. He described a “culture of lying” at
the heart of British foreign policymaking. I asked him how frequently
ministers and officials lied to parliament.

systemic,” he said. “The draft letters I wrote for various
ministers were saying that nothing had changed, the embargo on the
sale of arms to Iraq was the same.”

“Was that
true?” I asked.

“No, it
wasn’t true.”

“And your
superiors knew it wasn’t true?”


“So how
much truth did the public get?”

“The public
got as much truth as we could squeeze out, given that we told downright

From British
involvement with the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, to the supply
of warplanes to the Indonesian dictator Suharto, knowing he was
bombing civilians in East Timor, to the denial of vaccines and other
humanitarian aid to the children of Iraq, my experience with the
Foreign Office is that Higson was right and remains right.

As I write
this, the dispossessed people of the Chagos Islands in the Indian
Ocean await the decision of the Law Lords, hoping for a repetition
of four previous judgments that their brutal expulsion to make way
for a US military base was “outrageous,” “illegal”
and “repugnant.” That they must endure yet another appeal
is thanks to the Foreign Office — whose legal adviser in 1968,
one Anthony Ivall Aust (pronounced “oarst” and since knighted),
wrote a secret document headed “Maintaining the fiction.”
This advised the then Labour government to “argue” the
“fiction” that the Chagossians were “only a floating
population.” Today, the depopulated main island, Diego Garcia,
over which the Union Jack flies, serves the “war on terror”
as an American interrogation and torture center.

When you bear
this in mind, the US presidential race becomes surreal. The beatification
of President Barack Obama is already under way; for it is he who
“challenges America to rise up [and] summon ‘the better
angels of our nature’,” says Rolling Stone magazine, reminiscent
of the mating calls of Guardian writers to the “mystical”
Blair. As ever, the Orwell Inversion Test is necessary. Obama claims
that his vast campaign wealth comes from small individual donors,
yet he has also received funds from some of the most notorious looters
on Wall Street. Moreover, the “dove” and “candidate
of change” has voted repeatedly to fund George W Bush’s
rapacious wars, and now demands more war in Afghanistan while he
threatens to bomb Pakistan.

the popular democracies in Latin America as a “vacuum”
to be filled by the United States, he has endorsed Colombia’s
“right to strike terrorists who seek safe havens across its
borders.” Translated, this means the “right” of the
criminal regime in that country to invade its neighbors, notably
uppity Venezuela, on Washington’s behalf. The British human
rights group Justice for Colombia has just published a study concerning
Anglo-American backing for the Colombian regime of Álvaro
Uribe, which is responsible for more than 90 per cent of all cases
of torture. The principal torturers, the “security forces,”
are trained by the Americans and the British. The Foreign Office
replies that it is “improving the human rights record of the
military and combating drug trafficking.” The study finds not
a shred of evidence to support this. Colombian officers with barbaric
records, such as those implicated in the murder of a trade union
leader, are welcomed to Britain for “seminars.”

As in many
parts of the world, the British role is that of subcontractor to
Washington. The bloody “Plan Colombia” was the design
of Bill Clinton, the last Democratic president and inspiration for
Blair’s and Brown’s new Labour. Clinton’s administration
was at least as violent as Bush’s — see Unicef’s
report that 500,000 Iraqi children died as a result of the Anglo-American
blockade in the 1990s.

The lesson
learned is that no presidential candidate, least of all a Democrat
awash with money from America’s “banksters,” as Franklin
Roosevelt called them, can or will challenge a militarized system
that controls and rewards him. Obama’s job is to present a
benign, even progressive face that will revive America’s democratic
pretensions, internationally and domestically, while ensuring nothing
of substance changes.

Among ordinary
Americans desperate for a secure life, his skin color may help him
regain this unjustified “trust,” even though it is of
a similar hue to that of Colin Powell, who lied to the United Nations
for Bush and now endorses Obama. As for the rest of us, is it not
time we opened our eyes and exercised our right not to be lied to,
yet again?

27, 2008

was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His new book, Tell
Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs
, is
published by Jonathan Cape in June.

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