The Foreign Policy Bazaar With Ian McCredie
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Ian McCredie, a former senior British foreign service official.
Any conversation with Ian McCredie reveals that he has been at the epicenter of world events, many of which continue to captivate our collective imagination. Whether it was developing sources in Zambia at the height of the Cold War, acting as a Swedish diplomat in Iran after the Islamic Revolution or working to undermine the Soviet Union in various places, McCredie was there.
This makes speaking to him something a revelatory experience, reducing you to the role of an enthusiastic student, eager to understand the intersection of secret diplomacy and foreign policy — exposing a world that, for most, only exists in books and films.
As one of the most senior British officials in Washington DC on September 11, 2001 — and, later, as the UK/US intelligence coordinator for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 —McCredie is privy to information that few people will have, let alone get to hear.
Fair Observer traveled to Washington DC to hear what Ian McCredie had to say about world affairs. In such uncertain, unpredictable and interesting times, this edition of The Interview covers a lot of ground.
Landon Shroder: You have been in the political risk business for the better part of your life, specifically as a senior intelligence coordinator for the British government and then as the vice president for corporate security at Shell International. How has the world changed during this time, and what are the most glaring shifts that mere mortals might not be aware of?
Ian McCredie: It depends on what you mean by mere mortal. If you live in one of those areas where events are happening, you are certainly aware of them. The biggest change in my lifetime has been the fall of the Soviet Union. The threat of nuclear destruction and a global war was a very real fear for many years until the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. The first time I came to America in the 1970s, I remember seeing the nuclear fallout shelters scattered all over New York. These visible signs indicated that the threat was real. With the declassification of war plans in Europe, you can now see the extensive preparations for nuclear war, both in the US and Britain — all conducted in greatest secrecy to ensure the continuity of government and civil order.
This threat was existential on both sides, and the evaporation of the Soviet Union and the construction of the European Union has certainly been the most dramatic political and economic shift in my life. As a result, more people live in peace and security and are wealthier than was ever the case up until the fall of the Soviet Union.
Shroder: That is quite frightening. How did governments on either side of the Cold War plan for this pending nuclear war?
McCredie: One example is the construction of the Moscow Metro — its depth is because the stations are designed to be nuclear bunkers. There were very extensive civil defense organizations, both in US and UK, which were set up so [the] government could survive a first nuclear strike. Networks of underground bunkers for the continuation of government after a first strike were also developed. They were extensive and still exist, although they have since been scaled down. Then there was what to do the day after. This was all part of the war planning. Twice in my professional life, the West and the USSR [Soviet Union] came close to using nuclear weapons. This was a very real threat.
Shroder: September 11, for some, was the single, most defining moment in recent history. Since living overseas for most of my adult life, I am conscious, however, that this is almost exclusively an American narrative that reduces all other global events to the back page. Does the modern world expand outward from the events of September 11?
McCredie: No, it doesn’t, but that depends on your point of view. I had a good vantage point being a senior member of the British Embassy in Washington DC on 9/11. One thing I remember was that apart from the actual events of the day, it was hard to convince the UK government that there would be a significant shift in American perception of the world.
For the US, this was a watershed, but not for the rest of the world. From the point of view of London and other capitals, this was a very bad terrorist event, but there had been many terrorist events and indeed other awful atrocities — think of Srebrenica — around the world and this was one of many. I think many, including the Chinese and Russians, still wonder why Americans are so focused on this event.
Yet because of America’s size and policies adopted after the attack, it has impacted events, especially in the Middle East, out of proportion to the initial crime. Most of the terrorism and instability that has taken place since 9/11 has been partly of the consequence of the American reaction, and many of the things that have happened since might not have occurred, if not for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans had the whole world behind them on September 11, and they wasted that advantage.
Shroder: At what point do you think that advantage was squandered?
McCredie: George Bush’s pronouncement that you are either “on our side, or against us” was the pivotal moment. Many countries’ governments were equivocal about what exactly that meant and became automatic enemies or at least suspects. And the relentless pursuit of individuals, illegal prisons, renditions and the vilification of governments who spoke about human rights and the rule of law really soured the view of the Bush administration in many eyes. I believe you fight terrorism with the rule of law and don’t adopt the methods of those you are fighting. America crossed the line and, to be fair, many thoughtful Americans now bitterly regret doing so.
Shroder: In 2003, as the UK intelligence coordinator in Washington DC, you were part of the group helping to plan Britain’s involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. What were your impressions at the time?
McCredie: A big question was: Would the UK join the US coalition for the invasion of Iraq? The UK government of the day had many considerations to take into account, but one influential factor was that they very much wanted to honor their alliance with America, which they saw as a fundamental part of British foreign policy — and so right or wrong they would be at America’s side.
Another strong impression of the invasion was that, despite popular memory, it had nothing to do with 9/11. The policy of regime change in Iraq pre-dated 9/11, but 9/11 gave it great impetus, driven partly by a view of the Middle East, which had a significant influence on American foreign policy at that time.
Shroder: What was that view?
McCredie: The view was that Iraq represented the last Arab nation opposed to peace with Israel. By removing Saddam Hussein, you would remove the last vestige of support for the continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which would also remove the last vestige of Arab support for Palestinian resistance, who would in turn agree to a peace treaty.
And if you replaced Saddam with a democratically elected government, then peace would reign, both politically and economically. Free trade throughout the entire Middle East would flourish and that would be a permanent solution to the Arab-Israel problem. There was still Iran, but that was another matter.
Shroder: In the build-up to the Iraq War, was there an understanding of the kinds of challenges that would be present in participating in this kind of military adventure? Clearly, the British experience must have been informed by generations of colonial nation-building.
McCredie: I think we should tackle the myth that the British know how to do these things due to experience in colonial administration. If you look at the way Britain withdrew from [the] empire, most of the parts they abandoned were left in chaos and destruction. The independence of India was followed by the slaughter of millions on both sides — Hindus and Muslims. The pullout from Africa resulted in all sorts of internal conflicts and corrupt regimes, and our behavior in the Middle East — arbitrary borders and spheres of influence — has led to interminable wars. So I don’t think we have any claim to wisdom. Experience, yes, we used to have some, but the generation that had it are nearly all dead.
The people now running the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence are prone to the same kinds of misconceptions that their American allies are — and none of them have firsthand experience of running a foreign country, and few even speak local languages or are immersed in local cultures.
But were the consequences of the Iraq invasion discussed at the time? Yes, they were. There was a sharp difference of opinion between the British and American side on what would happen after the invasion. The Americans were convinced — at least the Pentagon was convinced — that just decapitating the regime would lead to a repeat of the same kinds of revolutions we saw in eastern Europe after the fall of communism. People would naturally become social democrats and rebuild their country into a flourishing civil society, and all those liberal institutions that were previously suppressed would somehow reemerge.
Shroder: But was there an awareness of the cultural disposition of Iraq, or an understanding of the factional and sectarian challenges that predated Saddam Hussein?
McCredie: I think some policymakers understood that, but at least on the American side, there was a belief that Saddam and the Baath Party was the problem, much like the Nazi Party or Communist Party. If you remove those, the rest of society would flourish.
Of course, that was a grave miscalculation. The British side did not believe society would automatically stabilize and were pushing very strongly for a large reconstruction plan to rebuild civil society. The Americans did not see it like that; they thought they could administer the country for a little bit by occupation and then pull out. But some aspects of the occupation was not thought through. For example, the governor of the Central Bank — immediately after the invasion — was not an Iraqi, but an American, which is outrageous if you are from Iraq. This was later corrected by the appointment of Sinan al-Shabibi in September 2003.
The de-Baathification of the Iraqi administration was also done swiftly and comprehensively and was a disaster for the Iraqi military. The tools left to any civil administration to maintain order were removed almost instantaneously, which made them entirely dependent on American troops for civil order and created a great deal of resentment. They might not have liked Saddam, but they certainly did not like a foreign occupying army.
Shroder: What are your impressions after all these years? America withdrew, now America is back. From an intelligence standpoint, what do you think?
McCredie: We are in a period of great chaos — a descent into the rule of warlords — and this is likely to continue for many years, as Iraq fractures into separate regions for Kurds, Sunni and Shiite. On top of a weak central government, many outside countries are continuing to interfere. The frustrating thing from the American point of view is that they cannot control events. For a while they did, but [they] no longer can, and no one knows where these events will eventually lead.
Shroder: Why do you think that is? Our politics tends to fixate on America leading from behind or not doing all it can, which typically means military solutions.
McCredie: Leadership in terms of what? What is there to do? Well, one thing there is to do is push [the] Islamic State (IS) back and do some capacity-building to support civil government. America is doing that, as are other governments, but that is only one small part of a very complicated problem. The natural reaction amongst laypersons is to say, “OK, we need to get a grip of the situation.” Well, getting a grip of the situation means occupying the country and telling everyone else to “shut the fuck up and do what you are told.” Well, America tried that, and it did not work out so well and no one wants to do that again — not a chance.
Shroder: Can we continue to talk about the Middle East? I have been referring to the region as the “modern” Middle East, because the colonial borders that were imposed after the two World Wars seem to be failing. It is almost like the region is resetting to zero. Where is all of this instability coming from?
McCredie: The current instability in the Middle East began after the fall of the Soviet Union. This is when the spheres of influence belonging to the British, French, Russian and American became fluidized. Previously there was some stability — the client regimes maintained order at home with the support of the external powers backing them up. And the external powers restrained them from going to war with each other. This ensured not just political, but also military and financial stability, access to markets and so on. After the fall of the USSR, almost everyone declared a peace dividend and reduced their foreign commitments and withdrew support from their clients. So what was left was that many countries were without any outside support or popular support from their internal populations. So, they were inherently weak. This has led to both instability internally and adventurism externally.
This started with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which I do not think would have happened during the Cold War. But Saddam did not think anyone was paying any attention, and who cared about the Kuwaitis? Apart from Saudi Arabia, none of the other Arab countries were particularly rattled by the invasion. In fact, the invasion of Kuwait was quite popular in the Arab world because they all thought that the Kuwaitis deserved it. However, in the Western world, alarm bells started ringing when they realized that they had neglected the stability of the region. And there was panic at the thought that Saddam could soon occupy the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were alarmed because not only did they risk losing their oil fields, but they found that Saddam’s ally, King Hussein of Jordan, had started styling himself [as] “Sharif Hussein,” which meant he had fallen for Saddam’s promises of restoring the Hashemites to the Emirate of the Hejaz and custodianship of Mecca and Medina.
Shroder: How much of the current instability in the region is linked to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003?
McCredie: The invasion of Iraq was the decapitation of a regime, but there was little nation-building or replacement of that regime with a government that had any legitimacy. There was an attempt to do that, but as we know it was a very poor attempt and it failed. The last attempt was with Nouri al-Maliki, the former Iraqi prime minister, who did not achieve legitimacy at all. In fact, the reverse, which has led us to where we are at now.
Shroder: Much of the US media focuses on things like sectarianism and factionalism, but how much of the ongoing conflicts can be traced to more traditional metrics like politics and economy?
McCredie: The traditional metrics still apply: politics and economy, and access to resources, jobs, stability.
Shroder: And this still underpins everything?
McCredie: One hundred percent, but grievance needs a language, and in the past that has been the language of anti-aristocratic revolution, or communism, nationalism, trade unionism or freedom (e.g. in the US case from British taxes or slavery).
One language of grievance today is the version of Islam used by groups such as IS. This, however, provides a similar kind of refrain: communal living, support for the poor, reversion to some utopian ideal and resistance to totalitarian rulers. Of course, Islam has the benefit of not being written by Marx and Engels, but actually dictated by God himself, and this adds legitimacy to the language. And it is the language or its embedded ideology, which is the focus as opposed to the underlying grievance. If you focused on rectifying the underlying grievance, a lot of these issues would go away: enough food and shelter, schools, hospitals, stability, representative government, health, security, rule of law and so on.
Shroder: To make a gross oversimplification, the region is split between influence, which fluctuates between Iran and Saudi Arabia. From one perspective, Iran has been the great nemesis of the US, but the projection of its foreign policy has been contained to some form of rational self-interest. From another perspective, Saudi Arabia has been something of an ally, but its ideology has fueled groups such as IS. How do we reconcile these two things?
McCredie: Well, you are right, that is a gross oversimplification. Iran has only recently had a sphere of influence, which has been the Shiite parts of Iraq and Lebanon, both of which see Iran as a spiritual leader and a source of financial and military support. Outside of that, Iran does not have much influence; a bit in Bahrain, a bit in Shiite Saudi Arabia, but not much elsewhere. And even in Iraq, it has its limits, since they are Arab Shiite, not Persian Shiite. From the Iranian point of view, they still feel surrounded and isolated, rather than having a sphere for influence. They were a regional power in the brief period of the British pullout in the Gulf in 1971 and the collapse of the Shah’s regime in 1979. They have aspirations to get back to that, but of course the Gulf States don’t want to see that happen. This has nothing to do with the current regime in Iran. It is just the way that Arabs and Persians view each other.
Saudi Arabia’s influence is similar — not great. They have got, or had, Yemen and the lands they have occupied and incorporated, but the House of Saud are seen as rivals by the ruling families of Jordan and most of the Gulf States. They have banded together, of course, out of common desire for preservation, but there is no natural Saudi influence.
Shroder: Since Saudi Arabia has the financial resources, I suppose, if there is a ground force invasion in Yemen, it will be outsourced to allied or affiliated countries?
McCredie: That remains to be seen. Inserting mercenary forces into the conflict will lead to great resentment even if they are Egyptian or Pakistani forces, which are the two countries most likely to support Saudi Arabia in this endeavor — and both of whom are greatly in Saudi Arabia’s debt. Egypt got a bloody nose in Yemen once before, and Pakistan is also well-aware that deploying its Sunni troops in a sectarian fight will inflame, not calm, the situation. These would not be peacekeeping troops acting under a UN mandate, but a mercenary army — and I would not be surprised at fierce opposition from many sections of Yemeni society, not just the Houthis.
Shroder: IS, in no small part, came about due to the US invasion of Iraq. Is there a moral or ethical obligation to intervene in Iraq because of this? Or do we just leave them to their fate?
McCredie: Well, we don’t leave them to their fate. We support civil society and reconstruction, and we can supply them with arms, intelligence and air support, but this is very much an Iraqi fight. IS is a brutal, horrible regime, but I am not sure IS is any worse than some of the others that have come before it — the Nazi Party, for example. Similarly, the methods they have used — for instance, the Jordanian pilot being burned alive — are particularly horrible, but the only thing new is that you can now watch it on the Internet and on social media.
Some of the things that IS does are given legitimacy by harking back to the campaigns of the Muslims in the early years of Islam — executions and waging war are part of jihad. Some in the region do not see this as unusually brutal. It is just the continuation of history, but it is the publicity which is shocking to our eyes. The Nazis did far worse, but mostly in secret.
Shroder: How viable is the actual threat from IS beyond the Middle East? Its ideology is compelling individual acts of terrorism globally — Paris, Tunis, Copenhagen, Sydney.
McCredie: I think you said it there: These are individual acts of terrorism. They are pinpricks on the elephant. None of these will be existential threats to France, Australia, Britain or America. But there will be some horrible events, more terrorism, more beheadings, more bombs going off — this is very likely. IS does not threaten America or any western European country in terms of their existence. They are not going to occupy any Western country; all they have done so far is occupied ungoverned space.
Shroder: You worked in Iran during the years right after the revolution. What do you think of the nuclear deal? Can the Iranians be trusted as partners?
McCredie: Trust is the wrong word. The Iranians are more like unknown business partners. They are brilliant negotiators — look at the way they have extracted concessions from the P5+1 from a position of great weakness. They enticed the West into negotiations and concessions, right up until the deadline and beyond. For example, I think there was a key moment of Western weakness when the talks hit the March 31 deadline and John Kerry did not get up and leave the table. This was a mistake. The Iranians knew they had him on the run and extracted a few more concessions, a few more centrifuges.
So yes, the Iranians can be dealt with and we have dealt with them, but we cut a less than optimal deal, but it is a deal, nonetheless. It is a deal we can live with; although they did better out of this than they should have done. Can they be trusted? Trust is still the wrong word, but can they be verified and held to account? Yes they can.
Shroder: Is having this kind of deal better than having no deal at all?
McCredie: Yes. Iran is ready for engagement. They are going through a generational change. One of the key issues, ignored in the press, is that [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei is going to die. He is the lynchpin holding the regime together. He is one of the last remaining members of the revolutionary group that came to power in 1979, and when he dies, he won’t be replaced. He will be the last supreme leader.
Iran as a whole is going through this generational and demographic shift — 50% are under 30 and only 15% are over 50 — and because of this, politics will change quite significantly. Once Iran opens up and there is freedom of travel, freedom of movement and normal trading relations, it will immensely strengthen the hand of the young and those Iranian politicians, and there are many who preach engagement and moderation.
Shroder: Do you think the US is still the indispensable nation in complex times such as these? It seems like more and more countries are now willing to make policies that advance their own interests at the expense of the US.
McCredie: America has not been an indispensable nation for very long. It saved Europe from Nazism, but only late in the day. Since World War II, it has replaced Britain as the global Western military power, and that produced a certain amount of stability. And there is this view of America as the indispensable policeman because if America is not there, who is? And if America shows weakness, the space will be filled by someone else or would leave chaos in its wake — I think there is some truth in that. I think America is not indispensable, but in the absence of anything else, it is a force for some stability because the alternative is [a] vacuum, and we know what happens when there is a vacuum of power.
Shroder: Let me ask you a question no one ever asks: Removing all emotive issues surrounding this, what does the US get out of constant and unwavering support of Israel? Clearly this will be one of the more pressing foreign policy positions debated in the forthcoming US election.
McCredie: What they get is a whole host of problems. The US does not get any strategic advantage because Israel cannot be used as a launching pad for any kind of military intervention in the Middle East. They get some intelligence support in exchange for their billions in military aid, but that is not the point.
One consequence of World War II — broadly speaking — was that European Jewry either perished in the gas chambers or escaped to America. World Jewry is mainly concentrated in America and Israel, and it is only natural that American Jewry takes a particular interest, an emotional and religious interest, in seeing Israel succeed. And that, as we all know, has a great influence on American politics.
However, looking forward, 50 years from now, the living memory of World War II will be gone; it will not be a memory, but a history. Those who can give a firsthand account of the Holocaust will all be dead, and the absence of their testimony will impact Jewish leverage on US foreign policy. But for now, yes, Jewish influence on US politics and in return the willingness of the American people to support Israel is the reality, and although it creates loads of problems for America, it remains part of the body politic, which will not likely change in my lifetime.
Shroder: Do you think the idea of Israeli resilience, being this tenacious country in the middle of a desert that also has a terrorism problem, impacts the American perception of Israel?
McCredie: Israel has always shoved out a fair share of propaganda: the plucky survivors who made the desert bloom. Israel has been very successful in representing a specific viewpoint on Arabs and Muslims, and Arabs and Muslims have been very unsuccessful in representing their own interests. For instance, the most active Muslim group currently manipulating the media is IS, and that is not a very attractive position.
Why should the US continue to support Israel? I think the answer is very clear: About 75% of the Jewish Diaspora lives in America and helps elect the US government. Do Jews have too much political influence? Maybe they do, but that is not America’s fault; that is a sign of Jewish ability to organize their community to make an impact. If you don’t like it, then get off your ass and organize, make an impact of your own, quit complaining.
Shroder: This has been a great interview. Is there anything we should leave our readers with? Anything on the horizon that people should prepare for: pestilence, locusts, biblical flooding?
McCredie: Yes. Climate change will force a reallocation of the world’s resources. The tens of millions who now live in areas about to be flooded, or covered in desert, or deprived of water for drinking and irrigation, will attempt to migrate to countries that are better resourced. The fight for those resources has just begun.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.