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The man or the message?

July 6th, 2019

The recent decision by Iran to start enriching uranium, in breach of the JCPOA, shortly after the attack on two ships in the Gulf of Oman is a reminder of the Middle East’s penchant for unpleasant surprises.  No sooner had the attack happened, than the US, followed by Britain, asserted Iran’s responsibility.  There was intelligence proving this.  Unsurprisingly perhaps, Corbyn queried its reliability and, even more predictably, was slapped down by the Foreign Secretary.

Corbyn was, however, right to ask such a question.  Instant findings are not always correct.  Intelligence does not always get it right.  At any event, the US swerved away from what seemed at one point like a potential casus belli.  We are unlikely ever to know exactly who did what and why.

The understandable focus on establishing responsibility has tended to elide three far more interesting questions: (1) Should the US react? (2) If so, how? and (3) If militarily, should the UK join in?  Until recently, there has been an almost automatic assumption that Britain should join in with whatever the US decided.  It has not proved a wise assumption.  And partly because the assumption was that Britain should act, more credibility was perhaps afforded to the intelligence than it really warranted.

It is not surprising that alternative voices have arisen querying this.  Not all of these are motivated by malice towards the US.  (One of Blair’s fiercest critics regarding his decision to join the Iraq war in 2003 was Ken Clarke, a man unlikely to be swayed by the arguments of the Stop the War groupuscule.)

Reactions to claims based on intelligence seem to fall into two camps.  One trusts the intelligence authorities on the basis that they do a difficult, thankless task, their successes unremarked and their failures all too bloodily visible.  Criticism of them is seen by some politicians and commentators as akin to a form of treachery, though this is not shared by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee.

The other view is to see them as self-serving operatives more concerned with upholding unjust and reactionary power relations and dismissive of the demands of democratically elected radical politicians.  There has long been such a tradition on parts of the left, not all of it Corbynite, to hold a version of this view, certainly since the 1924 Zinoviev affair.  The fact that at times some Labour MPs and others on the left did consort with the Soviet Union and were in consequence under the eye of the intelligence authorities did not help matters.

So if Corbyn was right on this occasion to be a little cautious, can the concerns previously expressed by members of his own party  about his approach to military adventures abroad and security issues be dismissed?  Not so fast.  The questions to be asked of Corbyn are these: (1) If the evidence existed, would you accept it?  (2) If military action was the most sensible course of action, would you take it? And, finally (3) Do you apply the same high standards of proof to claims by other states or only to some? 

This is where Corbyn faces difficulties.  Scepticism is valuable.  But demanding endless proof beyond a reasonable point suggests someone who is looking for a reason to disbelieve rather than genuinely testing the evidence.  It is not at all clear what Corbyn’s reaction would be in circumstances where military action was the right thing to do or the lesser of two evils.  And it is in relation to the third question that he faces the greatest difficulties of all.  

As his response to the Skripal poisonings showed, his scepticism about Western claims is only matched by a credulity about the claims of other states, with a far less transparent political system and without any sort of free press.  It is, therefore, all too easy to dismiss what Corbyn says on the basis that his responses are predictable and based less on evidence and more on an a priori assumption about which side he should be against.

This may not matter in the immediate future. Whatever else the Iraq war has done, it, the ill-fated Libyan adventure and the Syrian imbroglio have probably exhausted Britain’s desire to project force abroad, at least in anything more than a token way.  It will be a long time before a British PM can stand up in the Commons, say “Trust me” on a matter of war and peace and not be viewed with a gimlet eye by 649 other MPs.

Does Corbyn’s credibility on security issues matter?  Isn’t the topic discussed and what is said more important?  Well, yes and no.  Difficult topics like what Britain’s role should be in relation to civil disturbances/civil wars/terrorist or military threats from abroad need to be discussed openly and frankly, not declared off limits or no longer relevant because of the agreed established consensus, what might be termed “received opinion”.  If Corbyn becomes PM he will benefit from a new consensus or, at least, a weariness with and wariness of military adventurism, certainly if it involves following Trump.

Still, as the Skripal poisonings and the downing of the Malaysian airline over Ukraine show, let alone ISIS terrorism, events have a habit of upsetting the consensus.  When British lives are lost or at risk, voters will want to feel the PM is on their side, that this is his default instinct.  It is not necessarily obvious that this is the case with Corbyn or, perhaps, to be fair to him, that this is the case with his closest advisors.

It is all very well criticising past British actions and how this has impacted what other states think of Britain.  That does not help those blown to smithereens.  However self-critical one wants to be about British history, it is naïve to think that Britain has no enemies or that they will respond gently to discussion and an “I feel your pain” apologia.

Geo-politics is not a Socratic debate in genteel drawing-rooms.  Who makes the argument is often as important to us as what is said.  Why?  Well, motive and sincerity matter.  A person’s history and associations are relevant to both.  Those who hold up Corbyn’s views on the Iraq war as evidence that he got it right and that, therefore, his foreign policy views should be listened to ignore how he arrived at that decision.  Was it through chance or careful thought that he got it right?

If WMD had been found, if the UN had passed a second resolution, would Corbyn have changed his mind?  If not, then his rightness was no better than that of a stopped clock.  Indeed, he may have been right but for the wrong reasons.  It is the reasoning which matters not the conclusion.  Too many of Corbyn’s supporters look at the latter and ignore the former.

But equally – and however distasteful the messenger – a challenging message needs to be listened to.  Politicians are fond of touting Britain’s intelligence operations, its membership of the Five Eyes Group, its defence capabilities as strengths in a post-Brexit world, one way in which it can project power, be important and relevant.

The more pertinent question is what is the purpose of Britain’s intelligence services: just to protect British citizens and interests?  Or also as a platform for a wider projection of British influence, the cyber-equivalent of the Navy of old?  As for defence, all very well for Hunt to promise a huge increase in spending. But what is this for?  What role can Britain play, should Britain play, whether alone or with others?  Surely these questions should be debated long before budgets are decided?

There is an ambiguity in Corbyn’s approach: contrast this thoughtful speech following the Manchester Arena bombings in 2017 with his earlier defence speech and response to questions.  But there is much to agree with in what he said, as well as much to disagree with.  The issue of Corbyn’s true views and what he would do when events happen may not be entirely clear.  His response to the Skripal affair seemed at odds with his speeches a year before.  But we would nonetheless do well to pay closer attention to what he has said.

Regardless of whether he becomes PM, how Britain should deal with events beyond its immediate horizons will, like much else, require fresh thinking not a complacent assumption that Britain can and should behave as it has always done.  Just because it is Corbyn making that point is no reason to disregard it.

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