A specialist in foreign policy failure
Published by The i paper (29th May, 2017)
A battle for power that looked dull, despite the bubbling undercurrents of British politics, has exploded into life. Theresa May anticipated a bloodless coronation.Instead she shrunk in the electoral spotlight, her lead shrivelled and her team began the blame game for campaign blunders, which is never a good sign at this stage in the struggle. Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn, meant to be playing the role of hapless hard-left loser, has seized headlines and closed the gap.
This is the point of an election campaign: to challenge candidates and expose flaws and weaknesses in party manifestos. May still seems set fair for Downing Street with a bigger majority, despite her social care nightmare and stuttering campaign. She has been aided by Ukip dissolving in a puddle of Islamaphobic bile, while the Liberal Democrats have disappeared in action. Corbyn is putting up a fight, however, so there is now the tiniest thrill of a chase.
His bold campaign exposes the big divide between the two central combatants. The Tory party drifted right in wake of Brexit seeking to soak up Ukip votes, while Labour veered hard left under its current leader. Both parties flirt foolishly with populism and, as former chancellor George Osborne said last week, are retreating from liberalism and globalisation. Nowhere is this seen more starkly than in foreign policy as May promulgates hard Brexit and Corbyn pushes his blinkered world view.
Corbyn makes much of the fact that he was correct on one big call: he opposed the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. Given the craven way so many fellow MPs from all sides trooped through the lobbies in defence of the indefensible, he has every right to take pride in this action. Yet it did not emerge from skilled reading of diplomatic runes: it was born instead from the Labour leader’s lifelong anti-Americanism and opposition to almost any military intervention. Over a long political career, the odds were strong one of his many rebellions would look statesmanlike in retrospect.
The more you examine Corbyn’s record on foreign affairs, the shakier his claims to be potential prime minister. For all his self-proclaimed morality, he backs repressive regimes that crush citizens’ freedom so long as they oppose Washington. He hailed Fidel Castro’s ‘heroism.’ Then two years ago he celebrated ‘the achievements of Venezuela’, a place he praised previously for ‘21st century Socialism’ that supposedly conquered poverty. Now look at this nation with the world’s biggest oil reserves: it suffers hyper-inflation, shattered health care, street fighting, surging hunger, food shortages and soaring infant mortality amid its agonising collapse.
Even worse is his antipathy to Nato, which leads him to end up in bed with the far-right. Together these extremists combine to do dirty work for the blood-splattered Russian regime of an ultra-nationalist president determined to undermine Western values. So Corbyn poses as peacemaker while proclaiming the dangers of Nato, demanding this vital defensive alliance should ‘demilitarise’ borders with Russia despite the justified nerves of small Baltic states that shook off Soviet oppression – as I saw a few months ago in Estonia.
But then to the hard-left cabal in control of Labour, Nato is Europe’s villain. Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s spin doctor, has argued the organisation ‘relentlessly expanded’ after the ‘disastrous Versailles-style break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s’. So instead of praising brave protesters who withstood mass murder to overthrow a corrupt Ukrainian government, Milne sympathised with Vladimir Putin’s ‘defensive’ theft of Crimea and subsequent devastation of a fledgling democracy. When asked whether he would ever aid a Nato ally under attack, Corbyn dodged the question with an evasive reply that he wanted to avoid Britain getting involved in foreign conflicts.
This panders to a post-Iraq mood that opposes any military interventionism. Yet power confers responsibility, not just for a nation but for its values. And Corbyn’s head-in-the-sand isolationism is just as irresponsible as the gung-ho adventurism of the last Labour prime minister. From Bosnia to Mali and Sierra Leone, there are recent instances of rightful Western intervention.
Even Libya is less clear-cut than many now make out given its meltdown and links to Britain’s latest terrorist attacker. This was not unwarranted invasion of a sovereign nation as in Iraq. Instead Britain and France led limited air strikes in support of a popular uprising against loathed dictatorship. There were fair elections, won by moderates who rejected outside support then failed to disarm militias. How much more fury would there have been had Western powers simply sat back and seen Benghazi razed amid atrocities?
These huge decisions highlight how diplomacy is messy, complicated and often goes wrong. It depends on a strange fusion of realism, idealism and patriotic interest. Yet the tragedy of Corbyn is not just that he proved himself unfit to be entrusted with national leadership, especially amid the daft disruption of Brexit. Nor even all those distasteful flirtations with terrorists. It is that for all his faults, the Labour leader raises some valid issues over an approach pursued by previous prime ministers and now embodied by May.
Instead of pausing, mourning and then moving back to business as usual after a terrible terrorist attack, we should search our national soul. Yes, our actions have played some role in the rise of jihadism. And there are profound questions over what are we achieving in Afghanistan, the impact of civilian casualties from bombs in Syria, the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, our subservient relationship to the US and whether Britain should take more responsibility for historic actions?
Sadly Corbyn’s own history shows why his answers can never be trusted.