Why the UK went to war when France and Germany didn't: satellites
August 19, 2013 8:37 AM   Subscribe

"We’ve suspected for some time that the French and German governments’ refusal to take part in the Iraq war had something to do with their access to independent overhead imagery satellites. Briefly, France and Germany did (with the HELIOS and SAR Lupe programs respectively), and didn’t take part at all. Spain and Italy had some access to French imagery and had advanced plans to get their own. They made a limited commitment. The UK, Australia, Denmark, and the ROK relied on the United States and were, in a phrase that should be better known outside Australia, all the way with LBJ." -- Alex Harrowell explains how the absence of independent satellite intelligence may have helped the UK into the War on Iraq

Back in 2006, Ken Silverstein, quoting an unnamed intelligence official, reached the same conclusion:
“They say everyone else was wrong,” said this former official, “but we conditioned them to be wrong. We spend [tens of billions of dollars per year] on signals intelligence and when we reach a conclusion, the people who spend less than that tend to believe us. They weren't wrong, they chose to believe us. The British, Germans, and Italians don't have all those overhead assets, so they rely on us. Historically they have been well-served, so they believe us when we tell them the earth is round. The French have their own assets—and guess what? They didn't go with us.”
posted by MartinWisse (13 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
(The Ken Silverstein quote is also in the Harrowell article, but the link there had gone bad, hence the link here to the archive.org version.)
posted by MartinWisse at 8:42 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

This doesn't make sense to me.

The UK went to war because it is a strategic partner to the US - or poodle if you will - in a way that France and Germany are not, even accounting for NATO. The UK has long been a partner in ECHELON, for example.

It's not like the UK government at the time didn't move heaven and earth to make the case for war. That's why we had the Dodgy Dossier, the ludicrous 45 minute claim that came via human intelligence not signals intelligence, and the absurdity of the Hutton Enquiry that found that the government had not, in fact, sexed up the evidence. It's also one reason why former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook resigned from the Cabinet.

What the UK did and did not know has probably been examined in more detail by more people than any other participant in the war. At the Hutton Enquiry, in the subsequent Butler Report, the Chilcot Enquiry and as various civil servants have sought to distance themselves from the mess created at the time.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:21 AM on August 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

Another data point against the thesis: Plenty of countries that chose not to participate (despite pressure from the US) do not have their own spy satellite networks. Notably Canada and most members of NATO that weren't Britain and Poland.

Besides, we all had access to excellent, on-the-ground intelligence that repeatedly contradicted what the Bush & Co. was saying about the Iraqi threat. I'm quite convinced those governments who joined were far more concerned with appeasing the US than about the truth about WMDs.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:45 AM on August 19, 2013

It seems like there's always some way to reduce the impact of France's refusal to go to war, one way or another. "It was linked to oil" being the most common (and certainly was part of the decision, just as it was for the US, but it was not ALL of the decision), and then it was Freedom Fries (meaning "the French are cowards"), now I suppose it's satellites. Except the article contradicts itself, right there in the pull quote: "the people who spend less than that tend to believe us." The French didn't believe the US, and the UK spends more on its military than France does.

I had been living here for several years when this went down. In those several years preceding 9/11 and what followed, I saw many things on French public television (e.g. done by journalists, presumably not related to satellites):
- coverage on the ongoing war in Afghanistan and terrorist cells there linked to the Taliban. Arabic-speaking French journalists were on the ground with mujahideen for several years.
- coverage of Iraq and Saddam, inside Iraq. It was dead obvious they were not developing nuclear weapons.

The reasons, plural, France did not go to war were several, and these are the same facts the US "discovered" afterwards:
- Iraq and Saddam were not linked to Al Qaeda at the time.
- Saddam was not developing nuclear weapons.
- Going into a fundamentalstm-motivated war with a secular country (Iraq) would worsen religious-motivated terrorism. France has a long and painful history with just that; they have been there and done that (Algeria, for one).

The constant stupidifying of the French position, largely based on the use of WWII tropes (cowardly French and what have you), the blatant unwillingness to face uncontrovertible facts and the reality that France was saying them, point blank, and describing consequences that have in fact come to pass, is a travesty. It is a travesty not because France Was Right, but because the US showed, publicly, that it did not give a shit about facts. That kind of attitude has a way of seeping into everyday life, as we are seeing more clearly now.
posted by fraula at 10:00 AM on August 19, 2013 [22 favorites]

Disclaimer: I had a couple of pints with Alex earlier in the summer.

I think Harrowell is making a slightly subtler argument here, which is that military technology choices are an expression of broader political doctrines, and that the French, going back to their early semi-detached relationship to NATO, have prized a degree of autonomy that hasn't generally been matched across the Channel. They had the assets to vindicate their independence.

His conclusion is that strategic partners of the US would be better served by having their own resources to avoid being foisted with whatever suits the Americans. For expensive things like, say, an advanced jet fighter, that's easier said than done; for lumps of metal shot into orbit, the economics are now a lot more favourable.
posted by holgate at 10:08 AM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

yeah. I don't have my own satellite network, but even I knew US "intelligence" was bullshit.
posted by silence at 1:21 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

France was well-served (relatively) by the oil arrangements in Iraq at the time and lost this or was fighting to gain compensation when the UK and USA privatised (=sold cheap to their companies) Iraq's oil supplies against the wishes of Iraq's democratically elected government (=the government refused and we just did it anyway). That's how i remember what i read. Oil was at the bottom of it for everyone. France had exterminate by one of its "Francophonie" dictators an indigenous tribe in africa whose land was where they wanted to drill for oil - i remember reading this in Le Monde in the pre-internet age.
No citations except this book on us stealing iraq's oil (previously on mefi, i know) newspaper article which summarises it - the book link's his website, he's obviously still actively concerned about iraq, good dude.
posted by maiamaia at 1:33 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

NB The UK has by far the largest army and biggest military expenditure in europe, France comes a distant second. You have, in part, to spend money to have military hardware.
posted by maiamaia at 1:35 PM on August 19, 2013

If I recall correctly, at least in the context of the ROK's involvement, it had less to do with intelligence and more to do with trying to smooth over already contentious relations with the US, which, if I recall correctly, were at a rather low point at the time, primarily based on political wrangling over whether to keep US bases in Korea, in Seoul, the number of troops to be stationed, the chain of command, and so on.

South Korea sent engineers and medics in 2003, after "major combat operations" had ended, and sent peacekeeping troops for a couple years starting in 2004.

I feel that the article's overstating Korean involvement here.
posted by qcubed at 1:49 PM on August 19, 2013

NB The UK has by far the largest army and biggest military expenditure in europe, France comes a distant second. You have, in part, to spend money to have military hardware.
Are you sure? Here's Wikipedia's list of countries by number of military and paramilitary personnel. According to that, at least, not only does the UK have less active personnel (197,780) than France (352,771), they both have less than Turkey (664,060) and Russia (1,040,000). If you're saying "army" literally, as opposed to "military", then the individual pages like "British Army" have France a little smaller than the UK -- certainly not "by far" -- but still dwarfed by Turkey and Russia.

And the list of countries by military expenditures shows a similar story: the UK ($60.8 billion) is a little bigger than France ($58.9 billion), but a lot smaller than Russia ($90.7 billion). Turkey's significantly lower than them on this metric.

To be clear, I don't know that Wikipedia should be trusted on any of this, and I'm not saying you're wrong. I'm just asking: Are you sure?
posted by Flunkie at 3:21 PM on August 19, 2013

Poking around in those tables a little more, if you include reservists and such in your count instead of just active, then not only is the UK listed as smaller than France, Turkey, and Russia, but also as smaller than Greece, Belarus, Italy, and Spain.
posted by Flunkie at 3:25 PM on August 19, 2013

Early in 2003, Sir Richard Dearborn gave Tony Blair a summing-up of the Foreign Office's attempts to construct a case against Saddam Hussein. He told Blair that no honest assessment of the evidence concerning the alleged weapons of mass destruction possessed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq could justify an invasion of Iraq.

Blair replied, "Yes, but he's evil, isn't he ?"

I think this article gives the UK far too much credit.
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 3:40 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anyone remember that Iraqi guy who lied about the WDMs? Didn't he chat with U.K. officials before U.S. but U.S. officials were the first to believe him because they were the first that wanted to? I've forgotten his story.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:59 PM on September 8, 2013

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