‘I can’t speak for Jeremy’ was a phrase I heard several times on the Today programme as Hilary Benn appeared discussing the Labour Party’s confused position regarding terrorism, the shoot to kill policy and Syria. We now find the opposition in such an absurd position that the Shadow Foreign Secretary - a thoughtful, rather than a bellicose, man - is not only disagreeing with his leader but also not offering him much of a defence.
Of course, in many ways, Jeremy Corbyn is right. It would be preferable for characters such as Mohammed ‘Jihadi John’ Emwazi to be brought before a court of law and be tried, found guilty and appropriately sentenced for his brutal murders. Similarly, it would be better if we were able to diffuse potential terror attacks far in advance and not be forced to rely on a shoot-to-kill policy; this is, after all, a last ditch defence and can go wrong – just think of poor Jean-Charles de Menezes.
|Corbyn's view on the shoot-to-kill policy|
But, ultimately, neither of these options is currently credible.
Corbyn is also right that to a certain extent the mistakes of the West have contributed to this terrible situation. We are still clearly feeling the consequences of the invasion of Iraq and it is perfectly easy to present an argument that the West’s actions have caused instability and terror over decades in places like Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Yemen. But, relying on simply blaming the errors of the West as the basis for a foreign policy is wholly inadequate and not sustainable.
Ultimate responsibility for the onslaught in Paris, the recent bombing of the Russian plane after it left Sharm el-Sheikh, and other similar attacks, lies with the perpetrators and no one else. The horrific actions by ISIL within the land they control cannot be blamed on the actions of the West. No one but ISIL alone can be held responsible for its prehistoric rule of terror, the beheadings, the mass executions, the stonings, the sexual exploitation, the beatings.
There is, for apparently good reason, widespread acceptance that it isn't possible to sitdown at a table with these people and negotiate; there will be no agreement or peace and reconciliation commission. We are faced with the difficulty that the jihadis, high on blood lust and power, regard it as a privilege to be killed. This disconcertingly alien doctrine makes it horrendously difficult to know how to obstruct them. Ironically, it would seem that we need to give them the satisfaction of achieving martyrdom; the only way to defeat them must be by military means; it will, of course, be far more difficult, but all the more important, to defeat their ideas.
Instead of grappling with these realities, however, Corbyn is sticking with pacifist principles, insisting that there needs to be a peaceful solution to Syria. It goes without saying that not many would argue about the desirability of following such a path. If the situation were not so serious, there would be something almost admirable about Corbyn's insistence on remaining loyal to his ideals in the face of such horror. After all, there were many admirable men who were conscientious objectors in the last world war, usually motivated by a profound religious belief, who refused to fight or kill but still served society with great heroism. They did not, however, succeed as leaders of a major political party. The cold reality is that, when faced with complex, difficult moral crises, leading politicians require their ideals to be malleable, infused with a streak of Machiavellian realism.
So while Corbyn was comfortable as a principled, anti-war critic on Labour’s backbenches, as leader he now shies away from formulating policy knowing that the majority of the parliamentary Labour Party disagrees with him.
Cameron’s strategy towards Syria may be incoherent and relies on ignoring the refugee crisis currently in Europe, but at least there is a semblance of a strategy emerging. There is a recognition that only massive international co-operation will tackle ISIL.
Corbyn, meanwhile, plans to instruct Labour MPs to vote against extending British bombing in Syria - surely such an issue should be a matter of conscience - and yet has failed to offer a viable alternative. Shadow ministers know they cannot keep appearing in the news, flatly contradicting their leader, and, simultaneously, be a credible opposition. His parliamentary party know this and are furious and embarrassed.
I’m left wondering what Corbyn’s attitude would be towards situations like the genocide in Rwanda or the Bosnian War; under what circumstances would Jeremy Corbyn support military intervention? So far, it’s a question he refuses to answer and it won't go away.