As Donald Trump descends upon London for today’s NATO summit, it’s a stark reminder that two competing visions for British foreign policy are at stake in this election.
On the one hand, we have cynical demagogues like Trump and his trans-Atlantic footstool, Boris Johnson, promising endless wars abroad and a clampdown on civil liberties at home. With an Orwellian flourish, they call this an agenda of “national security,” but all the evidence shows that it’s a recipe for perpetual insecurity and conflict.
On the other, we have Labour’s call, articulated by Jeremy Corbyn, for a clear break with this discredited approach to world affairs. As Corbyn said in his speech last Sunday:
“The war on terror has manifestly failed. Britain’s repeated military interventions in North Africa and the wider Middle East, including Afghanistan, have exacerbated rather than resolved the problems. Now we risk being dragged into a further conflict with Iran, on the side of a Saudi regime which is an enemy of human rights . . . this policy has not made us one bit safer — if anything, it has made us less safe.”
Most of the discussion on foreign policy in the British media can be boiled down to this: people who have unquestionably made Britain and the wider world a more dangerous place, lining up to condemn those who warned against their disastrous choices when it required a lot of courage to do so.
They can often generate enough noise to drown out a truth they find repugnant: the views articulated by Corbyn are already shared by the majority of people in Britain. The destructive foreign-policy consensus relies on its stranglehold at the top of British society, not the breadth of support it enjoys at the bottom.
A Labour victory next week could be the first step towards breaking that stranglehold. All Boris Johnson has to offer is continued subservience to the whims of Donald Trump.
The former MI6 boss Richard Dearlove is one of the most prominent figures wheeled out to accuse Corbyn’s Labour Party of “endangering national security”. Dearlove’s latest outburst came in the Mail on Sunday. But seasoned Dearlove-watchers will remember a series of attacks by the retired spook, each presented by the right-wing press as a unique cry of distress.
Dearlove himself played a central role in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. Blairite luminaries like Jack Straw, Alastair Campbell and of course Blair himself have rightly faced intense scrutiny for their actions in that period. However, Britain’s “intelligence community” wasn’t a helpless victim of political manipulation: its leading figures lent their enthusiastic support to Blair’s campaign of misinformation.
The Chilcot Report singled out Dearlove for criticism:
“Sir Richard Dearlove’s personal intervention, and its urgency, gave added weight to a report that had not been properly evaluated and would have coloured the perception of ministers and senior officials.”
The report in question purported to draw on material supplied by a high-level Iraqi source with priceless information about Iraqi WMDs. The “source” turned out to be a charlatan who had based one of his stories on the plot of a Nicolas Cage action movie.
No wonder John McDonnell said, in response to another tirade from Dearlove, that his retirement would be better spent “in quiet contemplation of the role that he played with regard to the Iraq War where over half a million people at least were killed”.
“No Questions were Asked”
Parliamentary opposition to the Iraq war was fairly broad, at least in the months leading up to the invasion. By contrast, just thirteen MPs voted against participation in NATO’s Libyan war, including Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.
The Westminster foreign affairs committee later published a scathing report on David Cameron’s North African adventure, observing that it was “founded on erroneous assumptions and an incomplete understanding of the evidence”: “The possibility that militant extremist groups would attempt to benefit from the rebellion should not have been the preserve of hindsight.”
The committee chair, Tory MP Crispin Blunt, said that British policy-makers “had no proper appreciation of what was going to happen in the event of regime change, no proper understanding of Libya, and no proper plan for the consequences”.
As with Iraq, the ability to perceive what was obvious at the time, without hindsight to call upon, was largely confined to marginal figures like Corbyn and McDonnell who never bought in to the suffocating foreign-policy consensus.
The Libyan war came back to haunt the Tories and the “intelligence community” after the Manchester bombing that killed twenty-two people in May 2017. The bomber, Salman Abedi, had gone to Libya in 2011 to join the uprising against Gaddafi. Britain’s intelligence services waived the usual restrictions to facilitate such journeys. As one fighter recalled, “no questions were asked”.
According to a report published last November by another Westminster committee, MI5 and British counter-terrorism police missed several “potential opportunities” to prevent the attack.
The report itself was damning enough. But another issue, which had caused the committee members “serious concern”, was kept out of public sight because it raised “highly sensitive security aspects”.
The main “threat” posed by Corbyn’s Labour Party is to the reputations of powerful men who’ve left a trail of carnage behind them, anxious to stigmatise anyone who doesn’t have the same abysmal track record.
As Donald Trump jets over for the NATO summit, Boris Johnson has been reduced to pleading with the US president not to endorse his election campaign. But there’s only one candidate for Prime Minister who is willing to defy Johnson’s political mentor. As Jeremy Corbyn said last Sunday:
“It is time for Britain to stop clinging on to Donald Trump’s coat-tails. Boris Johnson has been the world’s leading sycophant towards the US president. From climate-change denial to unconditional support for the Israeli far right, from racism to confrontation with China, Trump is taking the world on a dangerous path. Britain must make its own foreign policy, free from a knee-jerk subservience to a US administration which repudiates our values.”