Foreign policy to scupper JC

Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott

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Jeremy Corbyn.[/caption]

I’ve been having an email exchange in recent days with a friend of mine, a native Irish speaker long based in North London. We went to college together and have a lot of the same views on things. Take the Irish presidential election of 2011, for example. If emigrants had had voting rights, we both would have given our first preference to Michael D. Higgins, the ultimate winner in that seven-person race.

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We differ, though, on the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, or simply JC to his fans. He’s the radical maverick who seems poised to take over the leadership of the British Labour Party. My friend is enthusiastic, but then he actually lives in deepest Corbania; I’m skeptical, to say the least. I tend to believe it’s best, as a general rule, that a center-left leader be seen to occupy as much of the center ground as possible, with the left aiming to keep her or him honest

Now the question must be: how can an older leftie, who defied the whip hundreds of times, credibly keep young party right-wingers and centrists in line?

Certainly, a lot of strange things are happening on the political landscape – Bernie Sanders vs. Donald Trump, anyone? But specifically what we’re hearing in Britain is not so much a revolution as a section of the base revolting. It happened here in 2008, also following an electoral defeat, with the emergence of the tea party on the right. You had grief, anger and denial, with no prospect of getting to acceptance any time soon.

Labour recently opened up the party membership, allowing 120,000 new individual members to join for £3 each and an even greater number as part of their unions -- and opinion polls would suggest that they mostly find Corbyn persuasive.

To the general public, the other candidates would appear to be intelligent, presentable and talented. They are Andy Burnham, 45, Liz Kendall, 44, and the 46-year-old Yvette Cooper, who has been endorsed by the New Statesman and the Guardian. But to the new £3 members, they are robotic Westminster insiders and just more of the same. The 66-year-old Corbyn is the future for them – though for his foes, he’s a 1980s throwback.

Party establishment figures are horrified, not that some of them don’t agree with Corbyn’s anti-austerity approach – they do and so do economists – but they feel that it doesn’t in itself provide a route to power. The former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Hain wrote of Corbyn in the Guardian: “He demonstrates little understanding of the immensely arduous challenge of electing, let alone running, a social democratic or democratic socialist government, when neoliberalism is so destructively dominant globally and the British media mostly in hock to it.”

Gesture politics

Indeed, on that last point, if we were to compare elections to an 11-a-side soccer game, the Tories have a 12th, rather brutal player in the form of the media. The tabloids crucified Michael Foot, a leading veteran politician and gifted orator and writer who was elected Labour’s leader during Margaret Thatcher’s first term as prime minister. In the 1983 general election, Foot’s party ran with a wish-list of the sort that swept Francois Mitterand to the French presidency two years earlier (though the president opted for an austerity turn a few months before the British election). Despite the mass unemployment caused by Thatcher’s policies, Labour slumped to just under 28 percent of the popular vote. The prime minister was helped both by a divided opposition and her victory in the Falklands conflict.

The Tories and the media are always ready to play the nationalist card and in Corbyn they have a particularly soft target. He is, by all accounts, a very decent human being, and personally austere (he’s a vegetarian and non-drinker, i.e. the type of leftie the socialist writer George Orwell couldn’t abide). But he has left quite a few hostages to fortune in the positions he has taken.

Only last week, he said if elected leader he will apologize to the Iraqis for his party’s role in the “deception” that led to the war, of which he was a vocal opponent. Well, why not wait until after he becomes prime minister and say sorry on behalf of the government and the people that elected it? It was the people in 2005, two years after the war began, who reelected Tony Blair’s party. In any case, either would be just gesture or posture politics, a Corbyn trademark.

A few days ago, a 2014 interview he did with the Russian-owned TV station RT came to light. In it, speaking about ISIS, he said: "Yes they are brutal, yes some of what they have done is quite appalling. Likewise, what the Americans did in Fallujah and other places is appalling…”

Some will see in this as kneejerk anti-Americanism; others will say that he was merely speaking to a particular audience and making a rather obvious point at that.

A few immediately jumped on it, accusing the Islington North MP of “moral equivalence.” This is a somewhat overused term, and can be employed to shield or to minimize murderous behavior by Western powers or their supporters. Besides, the woman in the street and the guy down in the pub are war-jaded. They know that people die and they believe that, on occasion, they’ve been deceived. They’re not as interested as they once were in a good guy vs. bad guy narrative.

But here’s the thing: those same people still expect their leaders to project strength and to be prepared to fight to defend Western values, institutions and interests. And this is a problem for a perennial protest figure like Corbyn, now that he’s clear favorite to become leader of the Labour Party. The “Give Peace a Chance” vibe every time just doesn’t cut it at that level, particularly if you’re too close to those who’ve replaced “my country, right or wrong” with “my country’s always wrong,” or some others who aren’t all that interested in peace, anyway. The worldview that labels Tony Blair a “war criminal,” as Corbyn people do routinely, and sees Vladimir Putin as a benign figure isn’t credible to most people.

‘Idiot noise’

Libertarian socialist writer Paul Anderson has referred to, Corbyn’s “Chomskyite thicko’s take on the world” ( Anderson, who is backing Cooper in the election, said the “idiot noise online favors Corbyn.” He decried the internet populism that has “devalued expertise and nuance.”

Certainly, a little bit of nuance and history might explain why the charge of moral equivalence still has a great deal of resonance. Western powers helped the rise of ISIS, it’s said. However, it’s also true that the victorious Allies of World War I paved the way for the rise of the Nazis. And from 1935, the British Labour Party under Clement Attlee had no intention of rolling over in the face of the threat. It was Attlee and his colleagues, much more than the Tories that made Winston Churchill prime minister in 1940. Yes, appalling things were done in the pursuit of victory – perhaps in retrospect the price seems too high, morally. But that doesn’t mean Labour can’t reasonably believe its values were superior to those of the Nazis.

Americans and Europeans don’t join their armed services with a view to killing innocents, even if the sordid reality is they often end up doing so. The voters know that it wasn’t young people from Iowa, New Orleans or Queens that made themselves into human bombs before getting on London trains and a bus on July 7, 2005. Those who murdered 52 innocent civilians were Islamist extremists from Bradford and Leeds.

The great mass of people know the world is a complicated place, but sometimes they know which side they’re on – as after the events in Paris in January. They understand it involves a battle of hearts and minds, as much as it does security.

Last week, we heard the news of the public beheading of 82-year-old Syrian archeologist Khaled al-Asaad, for refusing to lead ISIS to the treasures of the ancient city of Palmyra. And the New York Times Magazine had an article about three academically high-achieving London girls running off to join ISIS. Another day, the Times had a piece about how French police are struggling to maintain surveillance on radical suspects.

Corbyn’s waffling about ISIS and the U.S. in that context doesn’t seem terribly inspiring.

The focus currently is on Corbyn’s economic policies, which could work well for Labour. His foreign policy stances, on the other hand, derive less from any intellectual rigor than a near-psychological need to take an anti-establishment view. That’s why “hard left” perspectives so often overlap with those of the “far right” (as in France’s Marine Le Pen), such as in the preference for Putin over Barack Obama and the hostility to the European project.

JC would need to change his tune fast in these matters – and I don’t believe he will – if he’s to appear remotely prime ministerial.