Iraq and a Labour Foreign Policy future: Stand tall, be brave, send help

When you think of the state of our world, Labour’s troubles can seem very small, almost irrelevant. But they’re not. They’re important, because Britain is important, and because the Labour Party is important to Britain. We have lost our capacity to become the government,we have lost our intellectual credibility in the eyes of the country and the world, and – maybe most tragically of all – we have lost our instinctive sense of morality. To recover on any count means facing down some powerful, by now almost endemic, beliefs on the Left, and none more so than those embodied in the Stop the War Coalition, and Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘foreign policy.’ Their dominance for a decade and more over what constitutes moral internationalism has eroded away Labour’s belief in the robust defence of human rights in the world, and this is wrong. 

The most profound damage they have done is in shaping Labour’s understanding of the consequences of the intervention in Iraq. They argue perpetually that the world’s current ills started at the removal of Saddam in 2003. Kobani, Sinjar, Yezidis, Paris, Nice, Orlando, Allepo? Iraq, always Iraq. Nothing before that point is ever relevant, and to bring it up triggers incredulity on the Left. But what went before is of course relevant to understanding the world that came after. Long before the Iraq war the Taliban were already meting out Islamist enslavement of women and girls, Iran’s Islamist government had been burying women alive for adultery and hanging gay men from lampposts for decades, and Al Queda had already carried out mass murder in America on 9/11. What links them (and these are but the tiniest number of possible examples) is the political ideology of Islamism, a deep rooted, incredibly contagious, violent philosophy whose proponents have been killing and oppressing for decades. Imagine what the world could be like had Saddam’s sadistic regime been here to give Islamism financial, political and military support. No, it is good that he is gone, and we need to stop apologising for thinking that. Long before the Iraq war, Islamism was already a deeply oppressive force for those with the misfortune to live within it, and it had already become the ideology of contemporary international terrorism. It’s not about us, it never has been.

A terrible effect of the Left’s determination to blame the ongoing violence in the Middle East and beyond on the Iraq war is that Labour has focused on our own military intervention as the main cause of Islamist terrorism, when it should have been relentlessly trying to understand and find ways to counter Islamism itself. This is a political ideology with its own internal propulsion, it’s supporters may use our own actions as propaganda but the roots of Islamism have nothing to do with the Iraq war. Labour has spent a decade and more apologising for something we did not create, and – as Jeremy Corbyn did again last night in the Leaders debate – damning initiatives, such as Prevent, designed explicitly to protect children from Islamist propaganda. Labour should have been contributing to finding solutions, to making Prevent better, using our links within communities to help bridge divides. We should have been relentlessly constructive, but instead – beleaguered by an activist Left full of misplaced certainty and anti-Western theory – we have too often used our voice to condemn those who have been trying to help.

Labour is an internationalist party that has always believed that the strong should help the weak yet by the time parliament voted on whether to join the fight against Assad we voted against sending military help. We watched carnage being inflicted and we walked away. Thanks to the Tory government, Hilary Benn and many Labour MPs, we have now intervened against ISIS, but in the meantime the world has witnessed pure horror in Syria and the situation has deteriorated, possibly beyond repair. One day I hope to see a Public Inquiry into the reasons and the consequences of that initial inaction in Syria, (called for here by the Director of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq), which should include an assessment of the role and agenda of the Stop the War Coalition and its member MPs. For now, Labour must start to remember that without a strong military,  and the international will to enforce, ‘Human Rights’ is not a foreign policy, it’s just some words on poster.

The world can be a terrible, messy and infinitely complex place. That the Iraq war could be ‘blamed’ for every Islamist atrocity that subsequently occurred is by now as ludicrous as blaming it for every atrocity that went beforehand. We can’t continue to damn our politicians for failing to achieve a world peace that transparently cannot exist. It is fantasy. What we can do is ask them to make honest decisions, based on the facts in front of them, and on solid understandings of what they are dealing with. For those of us who believe in the principle of humanitarian military intervention, and for those of us who believe removing Saddam was right and necessary, that means being prepared to force the truth on to the table within the Labour Party. It also means accepting that there are no perfect answers in foreign policy and that leadership demands making choices, sometimes extremely difficult choices. Finally, if Labour is to stand tall again and make our rightful contribution to a the world, we must remember that the rise of Islamism is not about us, and it never has been.

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