Foreign Policy is in the Hands of Sleepwalkers

The criticism of foreign policy has come from the House of Lords


ROME, Mar 2015 - The United Kingdom has been accused of “sleepwalking” into the Ukraine crisis – and the accusation comes from no less than the House of Lords, which isn't usually considered a place of critical analysis.

 In a scathing report, the upper house of the U.K. parliament has said that the United Kingdom, like the rest of the European Union, has sleepwalked into a very complex problem without looking into the possible consequences, letting bureaucrats take critical political decisions.

 It said that only when the conflict was well entrenched that political leaders decided to negotiate the Minsk ceasefire agreement, reached by Angela Merkel of Germany, François Hollande of France, Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation and Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine, with the notable absence of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron.

 In fact, it was left up to bureaucrats of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to take decisions regarding Ukraine, the same kind of bureaucrats as those appointed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Commission who, with their usual arrogance, decided the European bailout conceded to Greece. It is widely known that its priority was to refund European (especially German) banks, before applying funds to the Greek economy, but few media have underlined that aspect. And when Tsipras,  whose election was fuelled by popular resentment.

 The media have a great responsibility in this situation. In all latter day conflicts, from Kosovo to Libya, the formula has been very simple. Let us divide conflicts into good and bad, let us repeat the declarations of the ‘good guys’ and demonise the ‘bad guys’. Let us not go into analytical disquisitions, complexities and side issues because readers do not like that. Let us be to the point and crisp.

 The latest example. All media have been talking of the Iraqi army engaged in taking back the town of Kirkuk from the Caliphate, the Islamic State. But how many are also informing that two-thirds of the Iraqi army is actually made up of soldiers from Iran? And that the Americans engaged in overseeing this offensive are in fact accepting cooperation from Iran, formally an arch-enemy?

 How many have been reporting that the ongoing negotiations over the nuclear capabilities of Iran are really based on the need to restore legitimacy to Iran, because it has become clear that without Iran there is no way to solve Arab conflicts? And how many have informed that all radical Muslims have received financial support from  Saudi  Arabia, which is intent on supporting Salafism, the Muslim school which is at the basis of al-Qaeda and now of the Islamic State?

 Recent history shows the West has gone into a number of conflicts (Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2012), without looking beyond the immediate consequences, and without any consideration for long-term analysis. The costs of those conflicts have always exceeded the benefits foreseen. An auditor could not certify any of those conflicts in terms of costs and benefit.

 Let us start from the collapse of Yugoslavia, and let us remind ourselves that the West has three principles of international law under which to shield itself as a result of its actions.

 One is the principle of inviolability of state borders, which was not applied to Serbia, but is now the case for Ukraine. The second is the principle of self-determination of people, which was used in Kosovo for the Albanian minority living in that part of Serbia but it is not considered valid now for the Russian populations of East Ukraine. The third is the right to intervene for humanitarian interventions, which was used first in Libya, and is now under consideration for Syria.

 The last act of the disintegration of Yugoslavia was the revolt of the Albanians living in Kosovo, for independence. After the genie had been let out of the bottle, the only way to end the conflict was to oblige Serbia to accept the end of the Great Serbia, on which the Kingdom of Serbia was based.  So a near extinct NATO  was revived, and the bombing done in 1999 (which destroyed all Yugoslav industries) was presented as an “humanitarian action”?.

 All media did report the declarations of the US ambassador-at-large for war crimes (sic), David Scheffer, who claimed that as many as 225.000 Albanian men aged between 13 and 59 might have been murdered. Few reported that a year later, the UN Tribunal of Yugoslavia announced that final count of the dead in Kosovo was a total of 2.788, including combatants on both sides and Serbs and Roma murdered by the Albanian Liberation Army.

 The drama of the Balkan conflicts was due to a very unilateral action by Germany, which decided to extrapolate Croatia and Slovenia from the Yugoslav federation as its zone of economic interest. The then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, pushed this in an unprecedented way throughout the West.

 It was the first time that Germany had play an assertive role, with U.S. support, and it was a Cold War reflex – let us eliminate the only country left after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which still inspires itself to a socialist state and not to a market economy.

 Serbia, which considered itself heir to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (out of which Josep Broz Tito had created the socialist Yugoslavia), intervened and a terrible conflict ensued, with civilians paying a dramatic cost.

 That conflict renewed dormant ethnic and religious divisions, about which everybody knew, but Genscher, who was then no longer in the German government, explained at a meeting in which the author participated: “I never thought the Serbians would resist Europe.”

 It is interesting to note in this context that just a few weeks ago, the International Court of Justice ruled that neither Serbia nor Croatia had engaged in a genocidal war. The news was reported by many media, but without a word of contextualisation.

 Historians have been pointing is that in Lisbon, in 1992, Bosnian, Croats and Serbs did reach an agreement for a unified State. After a meeting at night with the American Ambassador, Bosnia the following day, reneged the agreement. And at the Peace Conference of Rambouillet, in 1999, the Serbs were presented with an American proposal: the military occupation of the whole country, and the privatization of all economic assets.  When Serbia did refuse, the bombing started. After Serbia, in ruins, did accept to surrender, the Bosnians were pushed to accept a peace plan very similar to what was blocked to allow the bombing.

 The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had been destroyed to implement the winning theory of “free market against socialism”. Did the creation of five mini-states improve the lives of the people? Not according to statistics, especially of youth unemployment, which was unknown in the days of Tito.

 Writes in his memoirs Boutros Ghali, then Secretary General of the United Nations: “In the first weeks in office, the Clinton administration has administered a death blow to the Vance-Owen plan that would have given to the Serbs 43 per cent of the territory of a unified stat of Bosnia. . In 1995, at Dayton, the administration took pride in an agreement that, after nearly three more years of horror and slaughter, gave the Serbs 49 per cent in a State divided in two entities?”. 

 Then there was Iraq where, in the aftermath of the Twin Towers attack in September 2001, the rationale for attacking the country was based on assertions that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was both harbouring and supporting al-Qaeda, the group held responsible for the attack, and possessed weapons of mass destruction that posed an immediate threat to the United States and its allies. These, which turned out to be lies, were blindly propagated by the media.

 But if, as is widely believed, petroleum was the cause, let us look at figures as an accounting company would do. That war is estimated to have cost at least two trillion dollars, without considering human life and physical destruction.

 Iraq’s annual petroleum output at full pre-war capacity was 3.7 million barrels per day. Now a part of that is under the control of the Islamic State and Kurds have taken more than one-third under their control. But even at the full production, it would have taken more than 20 years to recoup the costs of the war.

 It is, to say the least, unlikely that the United States would have had all that time – and since the war, has spent more than a further trillion dollars just in occupation and military costs.

 And what about Afghanistan where there is no petroleum? Two trillion dollars have also been spent there … and the aim of that war was just to capture al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden!

 Among others, it was said that democracy would be brought to Afghanistan. Now, after more than 50.000 deaths, nobody speaks any longer of institutional building, and the United States and its allies are simply trying to extricate themselves from a country whose future is bleak.

 Now, the question I want to raise here is the following: what has happened to looking beyond the immediate consequences and long-term analysis in foreign policy?

 Is it possible that nobody in power questioned the wisdom of an intervention in Libya for example, even assuming that Muammar Gaddafi was a villain to remove?  Did any of them ask what would happen afterwards? Did any of those in power ask what it would mean to support a war to remove Bashar al-Assad in Syria and what would happen after?

 It appears that the House of Lords is right, we are taken into conflict by sleepwalkers. The West is responsible either for creating countries which are not viable (Kosovo), or for disintegrating countries (Yugoslavia and now probably Iraq), or for opening up areas of instability (Libya, Syria).

 Now, the question that this article wants to raise is: how does it come that the media, who were supposed to be the windows of the citizens over the world, so they could know what goes on and decide on the basis of facts what to believe and what to think, lack the resources for international coverage, and therefore all depend by the international news agencies, which basically dedicate themselves to report events. Where is the work on analysis and process? Or it is that declarations from the governments are always more reliable than others? Or is it that the mechanisms of dividing the world into good guys and bad guys makes news more simple for readers, who do not have the inclination or time for analytical thinking? It is true that today no agency distributes anything longer that 850 words.

 Of course, it is easy to say that media  are part of the establishment, and therefore would not look things differently from the system.

 It is in the interest of Europe to have those two conflicts at our doors, far from the United States? Did Sarkozy think in the long term, before involving everybody in a war to eliminate Gaddafi? Did anybody else think about that? And did anybody realise that Syria would become the training ground for a war fought by proxies ( Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Gulf Countries, Europe, United States), and that the removal of Assad did not automatically mean peace and democracy?

 Now those errors have cost hundred of thousand of lives, displaced millions of people, and altogether required close to seven trillion dollars.

 To conclude, is it in the interest of Europe to push Russia toward China? Did any media analyse how in all those wars the interests of Europe and United States coincided, or were different? And how much analysis is possible for the average citizen, without all the information? I bet not many will remember the events of Kosovo in their real light, now that we have all data, but it hasn't been widely broadcast.

 This is without mentioning Ukraine where intervention is aimed at pushing the country towards Europe and NATO, thus provoking the potential retaliation of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

  Those errors have cost hundreds of thousands of lives, displaced millions of people and, altogether, cost at least seven trillion dollars. So, let us continue to sleepwalk. It's so comfortable.

*Founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency. In recent years he has also founded Other News (, a service providing ‘information that markets eliminate’.