New times, old slurs

By Mike Phipps

Open Labour have launched a new pamphlet, A Progressive Foreign Policy for New Times. It comes with a picture and quotation from Nelson Mandela on the front, below which it says in big letters “Beyond Corbynism”.

Surprisingly, given the academic credentials of the authors, Dr Harry Pitts and Professor Paul Thompson, there is a lot of sneering about the previous leadership, such as the reference to the “the magic spell of Corbynism’s invincibility.”  The authors accept the failures of New Labour interventionism in Iraq, but reserve most of their bile for “Corbyn’s anti-imperialist equivocation” and “outdated positions”.

The main charge is that Jeremy Corbyn took the politics of the Stop the War Coalition as his guiding spirit when he assumed the office of Labour leader. So rather than engage with the actual positions of Corbyn 2015-20, it is enough to malign the stance of the campaign which Corbyn chaired in the years before he became leader.  “The response of the Stop-the-War left to each and every major conflict the world over typically represents little more than a nostalgia trip getting the band back together for one last riff on the Iraq years,” the authors complain.

Yet it wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn who was leader in 2013, but Ed Miliband, who opposed military action against Syria and ensured this was defeated in the House of Commons.  And he was right to do so, not simply because the spectre of Iraq hung over every proposed military action, with its false prospectus, dishonest motives and colossal destruction of innocent life.  Military action also made no sense in geopolitical terms, with Parliament deciding to come to the aid of the Syrian regime just two years later by bombing ISIS positions.

And even this could be justifiably opposed when one scrutinises the content of the 2015 policy. “Air support for democratic forces fighting ISIS” is how our authors describe the initiative, unaware perhaps of the massive loss of civilian life inflicted by the western bombing of ISIS-held towns and cities.  In one coalition air strike alone, over 200 non-combatants were thought to have perished. Mosul was the epicentre of the campaign: the UN said that unexploded bombs were likely to litter the town for more than a decade.

Furthermore, Tony Blair himself admitted that ISIS would not have come into existence had it not been for the war on Iraq.  Where did ISIS get the bulk of their war materiel in the first place? It was supplied, inadvertently, by western forces.  As I have explained elsewhere, “When the Iraqi army fled Mosul without firing a shot, it left behind a massive trove of US-supplied weaponry. This included 2,300 armoured vehicles – a majority of all the armoured vehicles the US had delivered to Iraq – which made the subsequent war against ISIL all the more protracted.”

Labour’s response to the Salisbury poisoning is a repeatedly cited piece of evidence to conclusively prove that Corbyn’s foreign policy was woefully misguided.  It’s worth recalling that in response to the Salisbury attack, Jeremy Corbyn immediately explained, to jeers from the Tory benches, the government’s obligations under the chemical weapons convention to make a formal request for evidence from the Russian government and ensure that high resolution trace analysis was conducted on the nerve agent so as to establish where it was produced. This was absolutely the correct procedure to follow under international law.

It’s also worth recalling that the Shadow Cabinet proposed, against Tory opposition, to sanction Russians involved in corruption and human rights violations and deny their access to the UK. These facts may not fit the authors’ narrative, but facts they remain.

The pamphlet is big on the rising threat of Russia and China, but strangely accommodating to the impact on the international order of the Trump Administration, presumably because the authors feel that ‘anti-imperialism’ is too outdated a methodological framework.

Trump’s impact goes a bit deeper than a lack of coherence and “the president cosying up to despots”.  His Administration has acted decisively to legitimise the further displacement of Palestinians by Israeli settlements and to recognise Moroccan authority over Western Sahara, both steps that may well not be reversed by a new presidency.

Worse, the US has been a staunch ally of Saudi Arabia in its war on Yemen, providing arms, intelligence and logistical help – as has Britain. US and British military personnel are deployed in the command and control centre responsible for Saudi-led air strikes on Yemen. These strikes have targeted refugee camps, schools and hospitals. The United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Yemen said that these bombings constituted a war crime.

More broadly, Yemen is the centre of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. Almost 50% of children suffer from chronic malnutrition and 9.5 million are unable to access safe water, sanitation or hygiene.  Part of the reason for this is the Saudi blockade that is preventing ships from unloading their essential supplies of gasoline, diesel, food and medical supplies.  And it’s the British Navy that gave the Saudi Navy training in tactics that enable it to impose this devastating blockade.

Jon Rogers responded to the new pamphlet thus: “Since Open Labour claim to stand in the tradition of Robin Cook it is a shame that they haven’t tried to reclaim his concept of an ‘ethical foreign policy’ – it would be relatively easy to start by tackling the disgraceful fact that the largest customer of the UK Arms Industry is Saudi Arabia.“

UK arms sales to the Saudi regime have risen fivefold since 2016. They include cluster bombs that have been dropped over Yemen – despite Britain being among the 100 countries to have prohibited their use – but not their sale to clients abroad.

Astonishingly, for all the pamphlet’s hand-wringing about the plight of Syria and the need to prevent another Srebrenica before it’s too late, there is not a word about any of this.  And it’s easy to see why: the Biden presidency, we are told, will usher in “renewed American hegemony in support of the forces of democracy”.

But the hands-on support for the most authoritarian regime in the Gulf did not begin with Trump. President Obama and Vice President Biden were fully committed to the absolutist Saudi regime, whose largescale abuses are soberly documented by Amnesty International .They armed it and aided it in its genocidal war on Yemen.  That is unlikely to change much under a Biden presidency. But to make these observations is presumably to slide into the simplistic anti-imperialism supposedly embraced by the Corbyn leadership.

The authors’ emphasis on the anti-imperialism of the Corbyn outlook in foreign policy shifts inexorably into the allegation of a ‘campist’ outlook in which enemies of America could do no wrong.  The implication is clear: the leadership’s commitment to human rights was tactical and one-sided. While such views may be held by a few in the broader anti-war movement, there is precious little evidence that they had any meaningful influence on Labour’s foreign policy.

A cursory look at 2019’s Labour Manifesto is sufficient to reassure oneself that the Party’s foreign policy was not the caricature that these authors would suggest.  The section A New Internationalism focused on putting “human rights, international law and tackling climate change at the heart of our international policies”, and using “our global influence to end the ‘bomb first, talk later’ approach to security.”  Far from Jereny Corbyn being “a leader who does not appear to view this country, for all its flaws, as something that is worth defending”, an appraisal the authors are happy to reproduce without qualification, the leader’s last manifesto clearly stated, “Labour will always do what is needed to protect the security of people in the UK.”

And far from retreating into a simple ‘anti-imperialist’ view of the world, the manifesto actually explains how military intervention, for example in Libya, “worsened security across North Africa, accelerating the refugee crisis.”

It further proposed to “invest an additional £400 million in our diplomatic capacity to secure Britain’s role as a country that promotes peace, delivers ambitious global climate agreements and works through international organisations to secure political settlements to critical issues.”

Internationalism was at the heart of Labour’s 2019 foreign policy prospectus, although you would not learn that from this pamphlet.  It’s a shoddy piece of work by writers with little background in the field of foreign policy, international relations, defence or global affairs – which suggests the authors were more interested in scoring points than shedding light.

People often accuse the left of re-fighting last year’s battles. This pamphlet is less an attempt to map out from first principles a foreign policy for the 2020s, and more a device to settle old scores.  As such, it’s a wasted opportunity.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: Destroyed house in the south of Sanaa, Author: Ibrahem Qasim, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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