Long before Tony Blair took the country into a disastrous war with Iraq, the foreign policy implemented by the Labour Party, in government and in opposition, had been virtually indistinguishable from that pursued by the Conservative Party, especially in relation to former colonies and the Middle East. There were Labour members of the war cabinet back in 1916-18, not to mention World War II. Sympathy for the new Zionist state, and the wish to remain a close ally of the United States, led the government of Harold Wilson to support Israel in the 1967 six days war and, although, under pressure from the party grassroots and the left, Labour took a more critical position to the Nixon administration’s alignment with Israel in 1973, the party’s foreign policy remained on the whole in alignment with that of the US.
It is clear that aspects of this foreign policy will change with Jeremy Corbyn as leader, which is why it is hardly surprising that almost every day the rightwing press comes out with another scare story about Corbyn’s international outlook and his current or past statements. His parliamentary record, his press and media interviews, on international issues have come under such intense and hostile scrutiny. The mainstream media have one aim: to demonise the new Labour leader.
The most recent ‘revelations’ were those in the Daily Mail and The Guardian about Corbyn’s interview with Press TV in 2011, during which he called the assassination of Osama bin Laden a “tragedy”, adding it would have been better if bin Laden had been tried in a court.
The readers of the Daily Mail and Rambo fans might be shocked by such a statement. However, many ‘moderate’ academics, lawyers and politicians have expressed similar opinions. In fact immediately after the execution of bin Laden, Dr Robert Lambert, a lecturer in terrorism studies at the University of St Andrews, wrote an article in the very same Guardian, making a very similar point: “By choosing to execute the al Qa’eda leader, the US has denied justice to the victims of 9/11 and perpetuated the ‘war on terror’.”1 Similarly, in an article on the BBC website, entitled ‘Should Osama bin Laden have been caught and tried?’, Jon Silverman, professor of media and criminal justice at the University of Bedfordshire, made similar points,2 while Paddy Ashdown, former Liberal Democrat leader, speaking on the BBC’s Question time in 2011, described the al Qa’eda leader’s “execution” without a trial as “wholly, wholly, wholly wrong”.3
The problem with the Corbyn statement is not that he called for a trial of Osama bin Laden, but the illusions this seems to demonstrate about bourgeois ‘international law’ and the judicial system under the capitalist order. In fact there can be no doubt that the United States would have never allowed such a trial. This would have opened up a whole can of worms about the origins of al Qa’eda and the CIA’s role in financing and arming it in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Saudi relations with the group would have been exposed too. And these are not allegations made only by the left. If you are in doubt about this, I recommend you view the video of Hillary Clinton and her statement to the US Senate.4
Corbyn’sillusions about ‘international law’ and the United Nations is also apparent in his comments about the Iraq war. There can be no doubt we should admire his consistency in opposing that war, and in opposing all military intervention and sanctions (itself a form of war) against Iran and air attacks on Syria. Corbyn’s anti-war record is excellent and he should be praised for it. But it is essential to establish whether the politics of the new Labour leader are different from those of the Marxist left. For us, war is the continuation of politics by other means and we have no illusions about international organisations such as the UN, which was set up to maintain the rule of capital and in practice acts to crown the supremacy of the US world hegemon.
In a statement to The Guardian, Corbyn said he would apologise to the British people for the “deception” in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and to the people of that country for their subsequent suffering. There is no doubt that the Labour government’s role in helping to drive the invasion was totally abhorrent and merits a clear and strongly stated apology. But Corbyn adds:
Let us say we will never again unnecessarily put our troops under fire and our country’s standing in the world at risk … Let us make it clear that Labour will never make the same mistake again, will never flout the United Nations and international law.
Leaving aside the question of “our troops” and whether they should “unnecessarily” be put under fire, it could be said that, given the current situation in the Middle East, in the civil wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen – most of them direct or indirect consequences of the invasion of Iraq – what is at stake is more serious than the UK’s “standing in the world”. When it comes to war, the definition of ‘legality’ is not as clear-cut or straightforward as Corbyn implies. The UN sanctions imposed on Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and more recently on Iran’s Islamic Republic were forms of war, aimed at weakening a ‘rogue state’, a dissident former ally, and paving the way for regime change from above. In the case of Iraq, the subsequent military invasion and occupation came after years of UN-approved ‘legal’ sanctions, but there can be no doubt about the damage they caused to the ordinary citizens of the country. The destruction of the Iraq’s infrastructure was also undertaken through the use of punitive sanctions justified by ‘international law’. They paved the way for both the invasion and regime change Rumsfeld-style.
In the case of Iran’s Islamic Republic, Corbyn rightly opposed sanctions and campaigned for their lifting. However, there can be no doubt that those sanctions were imposed under “international law”. They were ‘legal’ right up to July 2015, when the United States and other P5+1 countries signed a deal with Iran regarding its nuclear development programme. In fact the UN played an active role in the implementation and policing of sanctions that cost the lives of hundreds of Iranians, including hospital patients, the poor and the vulnerable.
Until we accept that these wars are international crimes, that they are not mistakes, whether or not they are ‘illegal’, we will not be able to deal with the massive problems they have caused. Unless the international left takes on the issue of ‘legality’ when it comes to imperialist war, we will see further alienation of the peoples of the region, as they fall into despair, anger and frustration, helping the jihadists to recruit volunteers, and eventually causing hundreds of thousands to flee the region.
Of course, at the time of the Iraq war, the Stop the War Coalition (including Corbyn as one of its leading members) argued that the coalition’s stress on ‘illegality’ helped attract large numbers to the anti-war cause. That might have been true in the case of the Liberal Democrats, for instance. However, it did not stop the warmongers in the US and elsewhere – and it certainly did not help the left recruit from amongst the radicalised youth opposed to the war. It did not help win people to oppose the imperialist pillage of the ‘third world’ or US world hegemony.
Whether or not the invasion of Iraq was ‘illegal’, its occupation was swiftly approved by the UN security council. On day one of the occupation, the question became irrelevant. Having been given a platform from which to speak at the February 15 2003 demonstration, the Lib Dems returned to type. Once British soldiers were on the ground, the Lib Dems went patriotic and severed themselves completely from the anti-war movement.
As Mike Macnair wrote at the time,
By arguing against this invasion on the grounds of its illegality, we hand a weapon to the warmongers, which has been and will be used in other invasions. If – in whatever way – the US-led ‘war against terrorism’ is driven by the economic interests of US capital, the strategic problem of stopping the war drive becomes united with the problems addressed by the anti-capitalist/anti-globalisation movement: the problem of world order in the 21st century. And it is here that international law comes back into the picture, as the symbol of a certain sort of strategy for dealing with these problems.5
To sum up this section of the article, Jeremy Corbyn’s plans to issue a public apology over the Iraq war on behalf of the party should be welcomed and attempts to undermine the importance of such a gesture should be exposed. However, we should have no illusions in the new leader’s analysis of legality, war and imperialism in the 21st century.
Trident and Nato
Speaking at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament commemorative event in London in August, Corbyn reminded the audience that if he were prime minister he would not replace the Trident nuclear weapons system and would initiate a transition away from nuclear weapons entirely.
While he was criticised for jeopardising some 19,000 Scottish jobs, the strategy seems well planned and clearly defined in a document entitled ‘Plan for defence diversification’. This explains how the skills of those who work on Trident, as well as in other defence-related industries, will be protected and how “socially productive”, hi-tech industry and infrastructure projects will be able to use such skills. The document includes in its aims and objectives “making the case for a defence diversification agency, because we have a moral duty, and strategic defence and international commitments, to make Britain and the world a safer place.”6 It states:
As a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, Britain should therefore give a lead in discharging its obligations by not seeking a replacement for Trident, as we are committed to accelerate concrete progress towards nuclear disarmament.
Corbyn’s anti-nuclear policy has attracted a lot of attention, with the rightwing press doing its best to ridicule it. However, there is nothing ultra-left about such proposals. In fact, as some journalists have admitted in the last few weeks, senior military figures have argued that the UK’s nuclear weapons are ‘militarily useless’ and its possession of such weapons encourages other countries to seek a similar arsenal, so undermining efforts being made to advance the cause of international nuclear disarmament. In 2009, field marshal Lord Bramall and generals Lord Ramsbotham and Sir Hugh Beach labelled Trident “irrelevant”.7
In my experience the majority of nuclear scientists and engineers would agree with such an approach, so the proposal is indeed fairly mainstream – it should, of course, be supported. The Scottish National Party campaigned on similar lines in this year’s general election campaign and the party’s defence spokesperson, Angus Robertson, pledged that an SNP group of MPs holding the balance of power in the House of Commons after May’s general election would make halting the renewal of Trident an “absolute priority” – and health and education would be the SNP’s “first call” on the billions of pounds freed up.8
Under such circumstances, it is extremely worrying that, according to The Daily Telegraph, Corbyn’s advisors have suggested that “scrapping Trident and leaving Nato” should be placed on the back-burner.9 On this I agree entirely with CND chair and Left Unity national secretary Kate Hudson, when she writes: “Now is the time to stick to principles.”
Trident cannot be put on the ‘back burner’ because a decision on whether or not Trident is to be replaced is expected in parliament in early 2016. Labour will have to vote on it, and Labour needs a policy which represents the majority view of the population – which happens to be the view of Jeremy Corbyn: Trident should not be replaced. This is not something that can be deferred. This is without doubt a question for the first 100 days and it should not be fudged because a relatively small number of powerful Labour figures are attached to a cold war system of weapons of mass destruction.
If Jeremy’s advisors are trying to sanitise Jeremy, push him into the middle ground and drop policies that will challenge the Labour establishment, then they are doing him a grave disservice. Nothing is to be gained from ‘triangulating’ with the right. Maybe they want to keep Andy Burnham on side, but dropping a fundamental issue because he threatens to leave a shadow cabinet over it is just plain ludicrous. If anyone thinks that the party establishment will be satisfied with a few policy concessions – like Trident, for example – then they are seriously mistaken. They will come back and back for more, and eventually nothing will be left but a few gestures to those at the bottom of the pile.10
At the start of the leadership campaign Corbyn made it clear that he was calling for a withdrawal of the UK from Nato. However, by late August this was in doubt. According to reports that appeared on August 27, he appeared to water down his position by claiming that there is no “appetite” among the public to oppose Nato. When challenged by Andy Burnham on whether he would pull out, Corbyn said he would have a “serious debate about the powers of Nato”, but was silent on withdrawal. Instead it appears he will argue for Nato to “restrict its role”.
Admittedly, “I have criticisms of Nato – it’s a cold war organisation and it should have been wound up in 1990, along with the Warsaw Pact.” However, “I think there has to be a debate about the powers of Nato, the democratic accountability of Nato and why it’s given itself a global role.”
It is regrettable that so early in the process we are witnessing a compromise on this issue. You do not need to be on the radical left to be concerned about the international role played by Nato in maintaining the imperialist world order.
Hamas and Hezbollah
First of all, we should point out that Hamas and Hezbollah are very different organisations. Hamas is currently an ally of Saudi Arabia and in fact is in the process of considering a peace proposal put forward by Tony Blair. According to The Daily Telegraph (August 19), Blair is “holding secret talks with Hamas”, which “are apparently aimed at securing a deal that would guarantee Israel an eight- or 10-year truce in exchange for the Gaza Strip blockade, that has been in place since 2007, being lifted”.11
Corbyn has always made it clear he does not agree with Hamas or Hezbollah, but has said: “I think to bring about a peace process you have to talk to people with whom you may profoundly disagree.”12 It isn’t clear how the Blairites justify attacks on Corbyn for commenting that any peace deal must involve discussions with Hamas. True, on this Corbyn was years ahead of Blair! The same could be said of Hezbollah. And, as far as I know, unlike sections of the British radical left Corbyn never used the dreadful slogan, “We are all Hezbollah”.13
Since 2008, Hezbollah has been part of the Lebanese government, elected by the Shia population in the south as well as parts of Beirut. In other words, a call for talks with elected members of the Lebanese parliament and government is not exactly an extremist position. However, the fact that the press is paying so much attention to these statements shows how far Zionist propaganda and a pro-US international agenda has dominated the British political scene for the last few decades.
When it comes to Palestine or Lebanon, we cannot and should not expect left Labourites to propose radical solutions. It will be up to the Marxist left to argue for revolutionary positions in support of the Palestinian Arab cause, while at the same time opposing the anti-Corbyn, pro-imperialist positions of the rightwing press.
Jeremy Corbyn has consistently called for the immediate scrapping of sanctions on Iran, and for many years he had called for an end to the “demonisation” of that country by the west. Now that is more or less the mainstream US/European position – once more it could be said that Corbyn was ahead of his time on this issue. Following the signing of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers, European foreign ministers, including Philip Hammond, and prime ministers and heads of states are now queuing up to visit the country. Angela Merkel is about to go there, and president Barack Obama is likely to meet his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rowhani, when he visits New York later this year.
Having said that, it probably was not a good idea for Corbyn to do a trailer for a chat show on Press TV in July.Corbyn’s aids later made the claim that he was not aware of the connection between Press TV and the Iranian government.
But in general Corbyn’s anti-war position on Iran has to be lauded. As I have written before, he was also one of only two MPs (the other being John McDonnell) who have consistently defended Iranian workers against the attacks of the Tehran regime. It is a shame that in order to maintain peace with the rest of the STWC leadership he failed to take a principled position regarding the ban imposed on Hands Off the People of Iran. At the time his silence on the subject was taken as support for STWC’s apologist position regarding Iran’s Islamic Republic. Presumably, the conciliatory Corbyn did not want to confront others on the STWC leadership.
At this time, the radical left must combine robust defence of Corbyn’s progressive international statements with a commitment to move the arguments beyond the rightwing, Eurocentric colonial approach of mainstream press and media, and so open up a genuine debate about war, the world order and both the legal and illegal means. Some of these arguments will be beyond the comprehension of many who traditionally lead a bourgeois workers’ party, yet they remain vital if we want to change the dominant discourse about the ‘third world’, about current conflicts in Africa and the Middle East and about jihadist political Islam and ways of disarming and defeating it.
5. ‘The war and the law’ Weekly Worker September 24 2003.
13. The slogan, used in pro-Lebanon demonstrations, ignores the fact that Hezbollah is associated with the Iranian organisation of the same name: ie, club-wielding government militia used to attack workers’ protests.