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Anti-war demonstration in London, December 2015. Photo: Flickr/Jim Aindow

A disastrous summer for the foreign policy establishment should be a golden opportunity for Labour, argues John Rees

This was the summer the political establishment finally, conclusively, officially, admitted that British foreign policy is a drifting, abandoned ship fatally holed beneath the waterline.

Consider this:

  • The Chilcot Report slammed not just the Blair government but the armed forces and the security services, confirming the Iraq War as the worst foreign policy disaster since the Second World War.
  • A second Iraq related report brought an official apology from the Ministry of Defence for the murder of a 15-year-old Iraqi boy by British troops in Basra, the latest of 324 such cases where the MoD has had to pay compensation for mistreatment.
  • The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, dominated by Tories, indicted Cameron’s Libya intervention in very similar terms, prompting the former prime minister to rush his resignation as an MP the day before it was issued.
  • The Brexit vote means that the UK is no longer the US’s implement of choice for influencing European foreign and military policy and, simultaneously, rules out the UK playing a role in the EU’s emerging plan for a European army. As one report put it: ‘Britain, acting as a kind of natural proxy, always played a crucial role in ensuring European unity and representing common UK-US interests and ideas vis-a-vis the continental Europeans. With Britain leaving the EU, this indirect but important leverage and influence will be gone’.
  • The UK’s very special arms-dealing relationship with Saudi Arabia has come under pressure as two Commons committees called for it to be halted because the weapons are being used to kill civilians in the Yemen. And although a third Commons committee argued that the case was not proven newly released data showing that a third of all airstrikes hit civilains has made the charges against the Saudis unassailable.
  • In the Syrian civil war the West’s Free Syrian Army allies are attacking the Kurds (supposedly also backed by the West) with the aid of Nato member Turkey.

Wrapped within these strategic reverses are military defeats. Hidden from view but acknowledged by the military experts the British Army not only failed in planning terms. It was beaten in Basra in Iraq by the Iraqi resistance and had to withdraw to barracks before being rescued by the US army. It was beaten in Afghanistan’s Helmand province and again had to be rescued by the US army.

This is a foreign policy which is in system failure. The hubris of post-war imperial policy has finally turned to nemesis.

But this corpse needs to be buried, otherwise it will walk again. No political project, especially imperial strategy, is ever finally finished until it is replaced. And to do that requires a political force that will make public the full extent of this failure, inflict a political defeat on its architects, and ensure that it never returns to haunt us.

The Labour Party is best placed to accomplish this task. In Jeremy Corbyn it has a leader whose long association with the anti-war movement makes him uniquely placed to deliver the final blow to the discredited foreign policy of the political elite.

Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the Chilcot Report shows what can be done. But most of the rest of the Labour Party has been nowhere near as effective. And the recent silence from Labour over the Foreign Affairs Committee report on Libya, a God-given opportunity if ever there was one, has been deafening.

The foreign policy of the neo-conservative era, championed by Blair more than any other politician except George Bush, has not made us safer. Terrorism and instability have been spread by it. It is time it was thrown out in its entirety. And this is what Labour should advocate.

An alternative set of priorities is not hard to imagine. We should stop the current bombing of Iraq and Syria by the UK; stop all military operations, including covert operations, in Libya; break all links, and cancel the arms deals, with Saudi Arabia; cancel Trident as useless, dangerous and expensive; demand Turkey be expelled from Nato for its war on the Kurds; set in train the process of withdrawal from Nato and redouble efforts to support the Palestinians.

These are elementary foreign policy proposals which command the assent of either majority or very substantial minorities of public opinion. Fighting on this ground is not only the right thing to do, it is the only answer that makes sense when the old policy is falling to pieces before our eyes.

Of course there will be opposition from within the Labour Party to such a policy. The Labour right have always been as committed to Nato, to the nuclear bomb, and to the Saudis as the Tory Party. And they voted in droves for every conflict from Afghanistan and Iraq to Libya and Syria.

But the problem goes deeper than the Labour right. Only 11 Labour MPs voted with Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell against Cameron’s Libya adventure. That means many on the left voted for the Libya debacle. When it came to the last vote on Syria even John McDonnell advocated a free vote (something he’s not willing to call for on the vote on London’s third runway which happens to be in his constituency).

The same happened on Trident renewal. Clive Lewis led the Labour debate from the front bench, abstained instead of voting against Trident renewal, helping to give aid and comfort to an embattled establishment.

The unwillingness to directly confront the failures of British foreign policy runs deep. Owen Jones has long advocated that Jeremy Corbyn steer clear of difficult foreign policy areas and concentrate on domestic bread and butter issues, for instance in a column that touted Owen Smith as an impressive performer who could be won to Corbyn’s side by this approach.

Paul Mason, an otherwise stalwart defender of Corbyn, has developed such a profound case of Russophobia that he advocated support for a European army in just the week where Jean Claude Juncker, head bureaucrat at the EU, made it a central feature of his state of disunion speech, claiming it would ‘deter Russia’.

The truth is that soft-peddling or avoiding foreign policy won’t work for the Labour left. Britain is an old colonial power in crisis. The issues won’t go away. They are deeply connected with dominant forms of racism in this country and for this reason alone they cannot be ignored. The Tories will always use accusations of lack of patriotism and cowardice, or lack of concern for those oppressed by foreign dictators or terrorists, to try and mobilise opinion behind foreign wars. Labour can’t, even if it wanted to, ignore these issues.

On the contrary, it must face them head on. This is what Jeremy Corbyn has always stood for. The anti-war movement stands with him. But the question is how many Labour MPs will stand with him?

No one will be impressed by half-measures or evasions in the current crisis of foreign policy. Millions know it has failed. Even the establishment admit it has failed. Only a bold root and branch rejection of the failed strategy will be convincing.

Without it what will happen when the next crisis strikes? Only 13 Labour MPs to oppose the next disaster? The Labour right taking the high ground again as it did in the last Syria debate?

If it isn’t better than this then the Labour left will forfeit its claim to represent not only the views of the anti-war movement but of millions of people in this country who know a failure when they see one.

John Rees

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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