It’s tons of fun to fall into alternative realities, as well as think you’re smarter than everyone around you. Hence the reason why conspiracy theory books sell quite well, and why, even when somebody can’t properly calculate the strength loss caused by ignited jet fuel, they might still believe Mossad was behind 9/11.
But I thought we’d take a separate route here and look at five real conspiracies and examine them through the lens of geopolitics. A conspiracy, for our purposes, means a secretive agreement made to mislead or deceive others in pursuit of a less than legal goal. Geopolitically, it means when nation-states find ways to gang up and screw one another over. Naturally, this list isn’t definitive – and if anyone knows more conspiracies worth talking about, I’d love to hear about them.
Here are five great ones viewed geopolitically.
5 – The Spanish Civil War
By the 1930s, economic pressure within Spain had caused society to fracture. Many Spaniards had started to lean socialist. In 1930, the king abdicated, largely because of pressure from urban forces. Spanish conservatives were horrified and thought godless communism was right around the corner. They weren’t about to put up with this shit if they didn’t have to.
Francisco Franco emerged as the champion of this position and eventually gathered enough conspirators together to attempt a coup against the Republic in 1936. But while the coup grabbed quite a bit of Spain, enough was left for the Republicans – with Soviet support – to fight a three-year-long civil war.
The whole war turned into a proxy conflict between fascism and communism. Franco enjoyed support from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy while the Republicans relied on Soviet arms. The Soviets weren’t quite strong enough to project power outside their borders just yet, and so eventually the Republicans were ground down by Franco’s army. Nazi tacticians, meanwhile, learned a lot about how to use air power and armored units from the war. The initial conspiracy had devastated Spain and had set the rest of Europe ideologically up for coming of World War II’s struggle against fascism.
Meanwhile, Franco went on to rule until his death in 1975. Not a bad ending for him. Alas, the many his regime ended up killing can’t say the same.
4 – The Suez Crisis
In 1956, Israel, France, and Britain attempted to gang-bang Egypt and each negate the increasing power of Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser. In what must have seemed clever in the back rooms of London and Paris, the three engaged in some truly antique gunboat diplomacy, forgetting how much the world had changed in just ten years. Britain wanted the Canal back and to secure its position as Middle Eastern hegemon; France hoped to scare off any further rebellions in its Arab colonies; Israel wanted to end Nasser’s partisan operations from Gaza.
They should have won, as combined they could bring to bear much greater force on Egypt, which was attempting to develop a modern economy and military. But they were a lot like that sword wielding bad-guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark, able to dominate their local neighborhood until some outsider shows up and shoots them in front of a crowd.
First came the Soviets, who, by 1956, were armed with nukes, a massive army, a growing navy, and a surging economy. Stalin was dead and with him his military purges that so often hampered Soviet capabilities. The whole Suez thing was a godsend for them – though they officially did not believe in God – and they jumped at a chance to polish their anti-imperialist credentials while taking two American allies down a notch. It helped that the French and British were actually acting like absolute bastards.
Despite both France and Britain still having extensive empires, the Soviets were at a high point, their morale bolstered by China joining the communist camp and the spread of communist movements all over the world. This was giving the Soviets a surge in economic capabilities that translated into greater military power. Both France and Britain were weighed down by post-war debt and the costs of empire.
Worse, America hadn’t much interest in maintaining European empires, seeing as it was a former colony itself and could sympathize with independence movements. (Who hasn’t called their first president the local equivalent of George Washington?) It too wanted Egypt as an anchor in a Middle East that was up for grabs between the Soviets and Americans. America also had a subtle strategic interest in reigning in the actions of its two still-colonial allies, whose interests could not be allowed to threaten American ones. France and Britain were playing small ball compared to America; they had to be reminded as much.
With the Soviets threatening all kinds of hell and the Americans suddenly preparing to collapse Britain’s currency, the three couldn’t hold on. Britain and France withdrew; so too eventually did Israel. As the dust settled, everyone knew that regional conflicts would no longer just stay regional. Moreover, the pecking order was established. Britain played ball and became America’s “special relationship,” while France, though its Gaullists complained, learned to march behind America. The conspiracy had failed because it hadn’t taken into account the new geopolitics of the post-war era.
Nasser, beaming though he was in ’56, went on to fail to understand his own country’s capabilities, losing in Yemen’s civil war, the Syria-Egypt union, and the 1967 Six Day war. But at least he got to keep “Survived an invasion by three countries at once even though I would have lost if someone else hadn’t stopped them” on his resume.
3 – The Winter War
The Winter War was a classic false-flag operation. Soviets troops pretended to be Finnish ones and attacked Soviet posts. Stalin pretended to be horrified and ordered a full invasion in winter of 1939, believing that Europe, distracted as it was by Hitler, wouldn’t bother.
Stalin was determined to make the Soviet Union into a superpower come hell or high water. Part of that involved putting the czarist empire back together again. Finland was a key piece of the old territories, allowing domination of the northern Baltic Sea and securing the Soviet northern flank as they moved southwards to take the Baltic republics, lost after the Bolshevik Revolution. This would open up a series of warm water ports, the incessant Russian obsession, and almost turn the Baltic into a Soviet lake.
Alas, Stalin couldn’t bring to bear his full geopolitical power on Finland. The forces he sent were too small and badly led; they were hammered by Finnish forces and never did push deep into Finland. Meanwhile, with one wary eye on Hitler as well as the parts of Eastern Europe he wanted to conquer, Stalin never did deploy the numerically superior Red Army to finish the job. Instead, he left an open sore on the northern front, one which came back to haunt him when the Finns joined the Germans in their 1941 invasion.
That alliance didn’t end well for the Finns. By 1944, the Germans had lost in Russia and Stalin was prepared to finish the job he started. The Finns ordered the Germans out in hopes of forestalling an invasion, but the Germans took that badly and started the Lapland War.
By that time, Stalin’s strategic priorities had shifted. Finland was just a frontier he could afford to let go. The real prize was Eastern Europe and Germany itself. So Finland managed to avoid being dragged into the Cold War and ended up with its neutrality becoming something of an asset between East and West. The “plucky Finns” lived to invent Nokia later on.
2 – Iran-Contra
Stepping back, it’s easy to say that this whole affair was entirely nonsense. But place it into Reagan’s wider strategic priorities and you can start to understand why the man made such a bad call.
The Reagan administration’s strategy against the Soviets was simple – bleed them where possible, outspend them everywhere else. In Nicaragua, where Contra rebels were fighting a Soviet-backed government, the former applied. The problem was domestic politics. Few Americans (when they took a break from doing cocaine and listening to Eddie Murphy’s “Party all the Time”) saw much advantage in Nicaragua, but the White House hardly wanted to give any Soviet-leaning country even the smallest advantage. Nicaragua couldn’t be “lost” the way Cuba had.
So Reagan’s people had to get clever. This is where the geopolitics really kicked in. Iran was under attack by Iraq’s superior air force in the Middle East. Nobody would ever have thought the U.S., Iran’s Great Satan, would ever do an arms deal with them, so it made the conspirators all the more confident they could get away with it. In a time of close U.S.-Israeli ties, the U.S. could count on Israel’s Mossad to use its local contacts to approach Iranian agents in Lebanon, also in the midst of a civil war.
Initially, the plan was to sell weapons to secure American hostages in Lebanon. But Colonel Oliver North saw a way to slush fund the cash made from the arms sales and use that to support the Contras. All off the books, all supposedly clean and clear. Everyone won; the White House got to support its anti-communist rebels without Congress; Iran got missiles to shoot down Iraqi helicopters and fighter jets; Israel believed it had bought influence with Iranian moderates. It was such a clusterfuck of geopolitics that it’s still hard to follow.
Of course, the White House got caught, Oliver North went down, and the arms sails stopped. The Contras lost, but that didn’t really do much to stop the fall of communism. Reagan might have saved himself the headache.
1 – Operation Ajax
Recently, the CIA’s gone and admitted what everyone already knew, which is that it overthrew Iran’s first democratically elected prime minister in 1953. While the event’s been used plenty of times to point out how evil American foreign policy is (or to showcase a classic blowback), putting it into the amoral geopolitical context gives a bit of a fresh perspective.
After occupation by the Soviets and British in World War II, Iran’s main priority was security (as it still is today). But within Iran, nationalist groups had formed in the wake of the rapid defeat of the Shah’s army in World War II and were increasingly challenging his rule. To try to appease these forces (and keep them from trying to kill him again, as they did in 1949), the Shah convened the Iranian senate and started to allow a bit of democracy. Nothing guaranteed survival like giving crazy people more targets in the government.
Alas, the Iranian people and their Shah did not see eye-to-eye about how to ensure security. The Shah, having led Iran through a losing war, believed cooperation was the best way to avoid another such intervention. But many Iranians saw things differently. Enthused by the anti-colonial language circulating worldwide at the time, many sought nationalization of the oil industry as a way to build up Iran’s economy. Mohammed Mossadegh became prime minister on the waves of their enthusiasm.
Britain, however, was in no mood to allow its oil privileges to die out. Having not yet been humiliated at Suez, and having little inclination to abandon its Persian Gulf holdings, Britain was prepared to fight to save its position as the most powerful force in the Middle East. Bad enough, by 1953, that Nasser had taken over Egypt. The British government, led again by Winston Churchill (a classic imperialist if ever there was one), was prepared to act.
America, meanwhile, didn’t much understand Iranian aspirations. What they saw was a prime minister who leaned towards the Soviet Union. Loss of Iran meant giving the Soviets ports in the Persian Gulf and would have allowed them to pressure Iraq and Pakistan, two governments that the West really wanted on their side. Next to Egypt, Iran was the Middle East’s greatest prize.
So the two overthrew Mossadesh and gave the Shah the technical know-how to set up a rather efficient police state that ruled the country until 1979. Britain had gotten lucky the Americans wanted the same thing as them, or else this coup might have done what Suez did just a few years later and pushed the expiration date on Britain’s empire up.
The act – and the subsequent brutality of the Shah – certainly earned the U.S. a new type of enemy in 1979 – political Islam. But Iran never did fall to the Soviet Union, even after its revolution. In a way, America of 1953 got exactly what it happened. America of 2013, not to mention Iran, might not think that’s such a great thing.