John Gledhill: It’s Corbyn’s critics who need the history lesson

This post is part of a feature on the 2017 UK elections, moderated and edited by Patrick Neveling (SOAS, University of London).

In his very carefully argued speech of 26 May 2017 on the relationship between contemporary terrorism and foreign policy, Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn observed: “Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home.” Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians immediately accused him of bad timing and muddled and dangerous thinking. Some critics, exemplified by Conservative Security Minister Ben Wallace, argued that Corbyn needed a history lesson, since it was obvious that the roots of “Islamic” terrorism predated 9/11 and then US President George W. Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan. “These people hate our values, not our foreign policy,” Wallace insisted in a radio interview that I listened to this morning.

But it’s Wallace who needs a history lesson. Al-Qaeda developed from resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, during which its fighters received financial support from the United States. US and British foreign policy in the Middle East has continually backed Saudi Arabia since these two states facilitated the overthrow of a popular democratic government in Iran in a coup in 1953 because it had the temerity to nationalize our oil interests. The academic reading list on these contradictions, their causes, and their many unintended consequences is extensive and its conclusions are compelling. From Bosnia to Iraq and Syria, these include promoting political fragmentation on lines of ethnic and religious sectarianism and empowering heterodox perversions of Islam. Surely even Conservative ministers can start connecting the dots that get us to 9/11 and from 9/11 to ISIS, via Iraq, and on to Syria and Libya.

Corbyn was not legitimating the ideological discourse that Islamic fundamentalist terrorists use to justify their crimes (or arguing that there is nothing else we need to think about in order to understand why a very small proportion of British Muslims actually become terrorists). He was simply arguing that we need to think much more carefully about the consequences of overseas military interventions in future and not act without a workable plan for establishing a stable, just, and lasting peace that will reduce the opportunities for terrorist organizations to thrive and recruit. That surely is a powerful lesson of recent history.

Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn speaking on UK terror attacks on 26 May 2017.

The Manchester tragedy was not the work of an isolated individual wielding a knife or running people over with a vehicle, although the perpetrator’s profile did match that of some of the other younger people in Europe involved in terrorist acts in recent years. This terrorist had a bomb that worked, of a kind that was certain to kill a large number of people and maim even more, which was almost certainly not made by him. He and his family were directly involved in the post-regime change mess left in Libya after the intervention that the British government supported.

A good deal of what has been done in the name of security outside the Middle East, such as the US-sponsored “war” against drug cartels in Mexico, has not made anyone safer, but quite the reverse. Much of what has been done in the name of the West’s security since World War II has not been done for very noble motives either, and it has certainly not paid much attention to the consequences for ordinary people who live in the affected regions or are likely to have to flee from the violence engulfing them. Jeremy Corbyn’s position is not simply a return to the principal that foreign policy should be ethical, although we should remember that former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s abandonment of this principle following a previous effort to reshape British foreign policy forced Robin Cook to resign as foreign secretary over the Iraq War, and that the much-delayed findings of the Chilcot Inquiry did vindicate Corbyn’s strong support for Cook’s decision at the time.

Corbyn also insists that our foreign policy decisions need to get a lot more intelligent in terms of the thinking strategically and long-term about pros and cons, and known and unknowable consequences. With Donald Trump in the White House, that seems more essential than ever. The present British government continues to provide its backing to Saudi Arabia in Yemen, surely a situation of humanitarian catastrophe that is very much “our fault” as the former colonial power that bailed out without ceasing to meddle and a long-term arms supplier to the Saudis that not only remains deaf to demands to stop this lethal trade but also positively encourages new business. Trump used his own recent visit to democracy-free Saudi Arabia to mount another fierce verbal attack on Iran, just after the Iranian “moderates” won an unexpected landslide victory in the elections, which that country does regularly celebrate. If there is ever more “muddled and dangerous” thinking around in the “Western alliance,” the British Conservatives are part of that problem. A government led by Jeremy Corbyn would offer some hope that the Labour Party finally could contribute to changing things for the better.

John Gledhill was Max Gluckman Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester until 2014 and has published widely on anthropological theory, political anthropology, and Latin America. This post first appeared on his personal blog, which also features updates on his current academic work and an overview of his publications.

Cite as: Gledhill, John. 2017. “It’s Corbyn’s critics who need the history lesson.” FocaalBlog, 8 June.