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Labour foreign policy: our heads must rule our hearts

britanniaIf the Labour Party’s foreign policy is to make sense it must be based on a careful analysis of the long term agenda of the neo-con Washington consensus. In the UK the establishment now faces an opposition that dares to challenge this consensus: a consensus which plays out at a national and international level.

The Labour party is ready to reject an ever shrinking state and a free reign for large corporations (especially those of the banking sector). The idea that the UK should compete for footloose capital by lowering corporation tax and by cosying up to the City has been seen to be a race not to the top, but to the bottom. Similarly, the purchase of London real estate by foreign billionaires, rich from monopolies in oil or the sell off of the Soviet Union under Yeltsin, the idea that we can maintain a welfare state by taxing their wealth, this whole trickle down philosophy of the Blair-Brown years has finally run out of steam.

Rather than accept that the ground has shifted, the establishment, and this includes figures within the Labour party, are desperate to return to the status quo.

On the international front, the Washington consensus has very clear aims: it wants its giant multi-national corporations to expand unchallenged across the globe, from the coastal areas of China, to Vietnam and the Middle East. Supporters point to the huge increase in living standards in the emerging economies to support their views.

In the Middle East, however, there is resistance to their hegemony. This dates back to 1953 when the elected Iranian Prime Minister Mosaddegh challenged Anglo Iranian oil: for his sins the CIA had him assassinated. While regimes such as Saudi Arabia are our friends because they work hand in hand with US corporations, Syria, Iraq and Iran have historically challenged the multi–nationals.

As an Iraqi told me the other day, these three countries, along with Egypt, had the most advanced intelligentsia in the Middle East. Furthermore, the Baath parties of Iraq and Syria have been friendly to Russia and want control of their own assets. Under cover of opposing tyranny, the neo-cons are determined to destroy these states and to bring them into the western orbit, away from Russian influence. The political narrative follows: the sins of repression in states such as Saudi Arabia are ignored: the sins of Sadam and Assad are broadcast to the world.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq, I invited some local Kurdish and Shia Iraqis to speak to our local labour party. They said that Saddam was a western creation so the West should help topple him. They made it clear that the Iraqi Baath party and the Iraqi army should be left in place. They were incredulous when post invasion the Americans dismantled the entire Iraqi state: the army, the police, the Baath party functionaries, all were abandoned. The basis for civilisation was destroyed. Neo-con philosophy is a kind of mirror image of Khmer Rouge fundamentalism.

Now the Syrian situation seems to be following the same path.

About a year before the anti-Assad demonstrations began in Syria, I was invited to set up an English Language School in Aleppo. Syria, I was told, was a stable culturally pluralistic society, where Christians and Muslims went about their daily business without religious interference from the state. The young could dance in clubs wearing western dress without fear or hindrance.

How does this compare with allies such as Saudi Arabia? Ask Amnesty International. As I write, the Saudi poet, Ashraf Fayadh is awaiting the death penalty forapostasy.

The west has been bombing the Middle East for more than a decade and throughout this time the terrorist threat has grown. The neo-cons appear to believe that following the destruction of a state, democracy can magically sprout up and gratefully invite in western corporations to rebuild the economy.

There are so many questions that Hilary Benn’s pro bombing speech failed to address. Why do we court a regime that imposes the death penalty for apostasy yet use moral arguments as justification for bombing Daesh? If we want to cut off Daesh’s income why bomb the Syrian oil fields? This will kill innocent oil workers. Why we don’t bomb those who are buying the oil, or if that seems extreme, why don’t we embargo oil from Daesh?

Because the West is buying it? Because our NATO partners Turkey, in their opposition to the PKK, are supporting Daesh? Because we cannot fathom how it is getting into the international market? Or is it because the destruction of Syria provides profits for the western corporations whose technology first destroys and then rebuilds in a balance sheet win-win scenario?

Such awkward questions contrast with the beguiling simplicity of Benn’s anti- fascist rhetoric. However, the loudest applause for Benn’s oratory came from the Tories. Were they applauding for those socialists and communists who left the UK to fight against Franco in Spain? Were they moved by Labour’s solidarity with socialist President Francois Hollande?

Or were they applauding to ensure Benn’s oratory undermined Corbyn’s authority?

In the Middle East nothing is simple: alliances are tribal, religious, kin based and shifting. Yet we wade in as if our latest technology will dissolve a complex web of ancient rivalries.

If western bombs flatten every 4by4, every machine gun in Daesh held territory, will we be safer? Will this create the conditions for a non-extremist functioning state or does it kill innocent people AND increase terrorist motivation?

How free is the Syrian free army? What is the strength of its Salafist elements? Why do the forces we support always require western training while Daesh need no such help? What is the role of the House of Saud? Are some of its members supporting Daesh?

Decades after the invasion of Afghanistan the Taliban seem as strong as ever and Brits working in private companies to train Afghans in security say the Kabul Government will be incapable of ruling the country when the western involvement declines.

Meanwhile, the Russians argue that Assad’s army is the only non-Kurdish force that both wants to fight Daesh and has the experience and cohesion to do so. In the short term, more bombing by Assad’s air force will drive up the refugee exodus, which the West seems totally unprepared for.

Some may imagine that the locals are a homogenous citizenry horrified by an evil oppressor. This was our assumption in Iraq. Yet an oppressor needs a support base. After twenty five years teaching Arabs from throughout the Middle East who come here to study English, I have learned one thing: humiliation breads loss of face which breeds searing resentment and, in a minority of people, the desire for violent revenge.

Bombing, however well targeted, (and do our politicians really know the accuracy of our bombing?) causes collateral damage. To the folk on the ground, this means your next of kin getting incinerated from on high by a superior technology controlled by a different race and a different religion. A technology you yearn for, but in the meantime a Kalashnikov or suicide vest will have to suffice. As wiser commentators have said, Daesh relishes western bombing. It confirms their belief system.

Many voices question the patriotism of those who oppose the quick fix sound bites, be it “shoot to kill” or “standing firm against terror”. The knee jerk reaction that we must do something to show solidarity with France is natural but wrong- headed. It is an easy retreat for politicians who, worried about being seen to be impotent, play the age old card: “patriotism, the last refuge of the scoundrel”.

Without a realistic ground strategy, forged by participants from within the Middle East rather than by outsiders, displays of western aerial power play into extremists’ hands. We empower them: by damning them in their eyes we give them dignity and the chance for martyrdom. Long after the politicians who ordered the bombing have gone, the threat of terror will remain. Raining bombs on Syria fertilises the ground for anti-western extremism.

Extremists do not just sit in Raqqa organising bombings in Europe: they sit in Europe organising bombings in Europe. To fight Daesh we need to stop buying its oil, close down its source of arms and spend more on intelligence. We should stop accepting extremism in some states while raging against it in others. Above all, we need to stop feeding a sense of victimhood. Bombing is easy and wrong. It creates failed states, and extremists fill the vacuum.

Unwittingly, the Hilary Benn argument, however sincerely held, has failed to see the big picture. Wisdom is a precious commodity. On balance, the unglamorous Corbyn and John Baron approach is the one that will counter extremism both here and abroad. Hopefully in time wisdom will prevail.

Steve Laughton ran an international language school for twenty five years and is Political Education Officer of Bournemouth Labour Party


  1. Neil Skitt says:

    Get off your anti-West, anti US high horse. You sound like Rick from The Young Ones. Instead of slavishly lapping up Russian bollocks, just remember the situation in the Middle East is the legacy of Cold War politics where both the US and the USSR were interfering in action states for their own ends. I know you don’t want to hear this, but Putin and his predecessors are as much to blame for this mess as we are. Grow up and stop spouting nonsense 1980s student union politics.

    1. James Martin says:

      You want to talk like a grown up Neil? Fine. Let’s have a grown up debate about the US plan to invade and topple 7 sovereign states in 5 years (not by Russia of course), here it is straight from an insider horses mouth:

      Here’s the talkative horse again explaining how ISIS was supported by US (not Russian) allies and why:

      Grown up enough for you? So yes, I’m happy to talk about what foreign independent policy we need to develop, one that doesn’t include membership of NATO and one that doesn’t waste billions on Trident WMD’s would be a very good start don’t you think?

      1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

        Certainly I think so too; but you severely underestimate the extent and pervasiveness of the post war American corporate hegemony, as you right pointed out the Americans, (the CIA, had Mossadegh among too many other just like him deposed for using state assets in the interests of the people of Iran,) and above all their fundamentalist convictions regarding the sanctity of private property, justified by a too familiar set of convenient fictions, (such as the by now infamous trickle down effect and the complete non sequitur of, “productivity,” and allegedly of increased prosperity, (certainly for the few,) paid for by the abuse and exploitation of the vulnerable majority.

        The Bhopal disaster in India, (as one fairly typical example,) illustrates the reality of this perfectly.

  2. Jim Denham says:

    Isolationism, as advocated by the author of the piece (and John Barron, Peter Oborne, the StWC, etc) mayor may not be the best policy for the ME, but if it is let’s not con ourselves that gthere’s anything particularly “left wing” about it.

    Also, I fail to understand how it is that only Western bombs cause “collateral damage” but the present Chair of the StWC supports Russian bombing that (presumably) doesn’t?

    1. Karl Stewart says:

      I don’t think the author is arguing for ‘isolationism’ here, but more for a different foreign policy orientation that’s independent from the USA.

      If pushed to label his position, I’d suggest ‘non-alignment’ might be a more accurate depiction of what’s being advocated rather than ‘isolationism’.

      And some of his specific suggestions – sanctioning Saudi Arabia and Turkey, targetting ISIS’s sources of revenue and material support – are certainly not ‘isolationist’ positions.

      Indeed, this would be a far more effective means of defeating the evil of ISIS.

      1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

        Unfortunately as all the former, “non aligned,” states have always known, American hegemonists will never ever accept political or commercial independence or non alignment as a legitimate political option.

        Anyone who refuses to fully support the US unconditionally and uncritically is ulimately judged to be, “against,” them and as an enemy by default.

        Thucydides puts the situation brilliantly in the Melian dialogue:

        Athenians. For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us and make a long speech which would not
        be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us
        both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

        1. Karl Stewart says:

          So a very early use of the “might is right” argument. Yes good point.

          Further to that, and perhaps in partial response to that, I’d suggest if a non-aligned orientation is to be a serious proposition, then consideration of exiting both the EU and NATO should be part of that?

          1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

            Again for what it’s worth I largely agree with you about desirability of us leaving NATO and the EU, but unfortunately the whole trident debacle illustrates what’s really happening here perfectly.

            Instead of us maintaining a truly independent nuclear capability, with all the skills, expertise and industry required to maintain it; we now effectively, “lease,” Trident, (which we probably can’t even use without the Americans consent,) off the shelf as it where, and pay for it with loans to be paid for once again, (roughly after the pattern of lend lease,) by cuts to key services the results of which and the effects on the poorest and the most vulnerable in our society are not altogether dissimilar to being, “nuked.”

  3. Makhno says:

    “Syria, I was told, was a stable culturally pluralistic society, where Christians and Muslims went about their daily business without religious interference from the state. The young could dance in clubs wearing western dress without fear or hindrance.”

    I’m sure that served as a real comfort to the people being tortured to death in the dungeons of the Mukhabarat.

  4. David Ellis says:

    The only foreign policy needed by socialists is for world proletarian revolution. Everything we do or say refracts through that prism. If you think you can run an `ethical’ foreign policy from an imperialist state you are just posing as a progressive and you are simply an opportunist.

  5. Alan Story says:

    For a satirical view of the bombing of Syria, on the thoughts of Wing Commander Cameron …and LP politics, watch COBRA CAPERS:


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