As First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton urged her husband to bomb Serbia. As the Democratic Senator from New York, she voted for and vocally supported the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. As Secretary of State, she zealously oversaw the bombardment and destruction of Libya. Mrs Clinton’s lucrative and long-standing connections to so-called ‘defence contractors’ are no longer a secret, and, true to form, she is now calling for a ground war in Syria. In spite of all this and more, her impending presidency is sending liberals everywhere into fits of glossolalist rapture.
Last Wednesday, we in Britain were reminded that we have a hawkish Hilary of our very own. Towards the end of a parliamentary debate on bombing Syria, the shadow foreign secretary delivered a theatric speech in which he euphemistically enjoined the House of Commons to ‘do [its] bit’ in a land which is already being ravaged by the air power of several different states.
The fourteen-minute long speech was, of course, met with universal exaltation. Conservative MPs applauded it effusively in the chamber. Tory rag the Telegraph gushed that it was ‘truly incredible’ and added that the member for Leeds Central ‘looked’, as he declaimed, ‘like [a] prime minister’. Both the Daily Mail and The Times called Benn’s oration ‘extraordinary’. The liberal Guardian, which twelve years ago stated that Tony Blair had ‘blazed with conviction’ as he made the case for committing war crimes in Iraq, described Benn’s performance as a ‘morality tale made flesh’.
Before dissecting the speech and the fulsome response it elicited, one should mention that just three weeks prior to making it—and two days after the attacks in Paris—the shadow foreign secretary had told the Independent on Sunday that ‘the focus for now is finding a peaceful solution to the civil war’. Supporting the ongoing peace talks in Vienna, he’d said, ‘is the single most [useful and] important thing we can do’. Benn’s swift and ignoble retreat from this position is to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.
The central theme of Wednesday’s speech, and indeed the note on which it properly began, was that Daesh poses a ‘clear and present threat’ to Britain. In one sense, the notion that these islands are directly threatened by fighters thousands of miles away in Iraq and Syria is both disingenuous and shrilly hyperbolic. To claim, then, as Benn repeatedly did, that Syria should be bombed in ‘self-defence’ is very nearly as absurd as the Israeli government’s relying on the same justification when it lays waste to the territories it unlawfully occupies.
Perhaps Benn’s Daesh includes any future British-born attackers who draw inspiration from the barbarity of that organisation but are not officially affiliated with it. As far as bombing Syria is concerned, such a subsumption is equally disingenuous. If air strikes are a legitimate and effective means of preventing ‘terrorist’ carnage on home soil, and if those who perpetrate such carnage tend not to be foreigners, then ought we not by Benn’s logic to be strafing London or Birmingham instead?
At any rate, to the extent that a ‘deadly serious threat’ to Britain does exist, it is probably as a result of the foreign policy of successive British governments. Indeed, the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq was said by a former Director General of MI5 to have ‘substantially’ increased the magnitude of the threat of attacks on British soil. That claim was tragically borne out by the suicide bombings in July 2005, the botched attacks later that same month, and more recently by the murder of soldier Lee Rigby.
And Britain of course has not been alone in suffering such horrible blowback. Last month’s massacre in Paris followed the expansion by France of its campaign of air strikes in Iraq and Syria, and a Russian airliner was shot down over the Sinai just weeks after Russia—at the behest of Bashar al-Assad—waded into Syria itself. In light of all this, how can the shadow foreign secretary or anybody else suggest that the manufactured threat to our security will be diminished rather than augmented further by the decision to ratchet up our bombardment of the Middle East? During his speech, Benn, who voted for the Iraq war, was utterly silent on the matter of first causes; utterly silent on the contribution of the West and its allies to the rise of Daesh; and unable or unwilling to situate terrorist attacks on Western soil in their proper context—that is, as instances of blowback arising from the vastly more murderous terror wrought and fomented for decades by Western powers in the Muslim world.
It is also worth asking in what way(s) the threat has become more severe since November 15, when Benn stressed the importance of seeking a ‘peaceful solution’ and stated unequivocally that he hoped the government would not table the motion which it did and which he backed last Wednesday. Perhaps Benn’s violent volte-face was prompted by some of the atrocities he described in his speech: the defenestration by Daesh of four gay men; its decapitation of a professor; its involvement in suicide bombings from Sousse to Suruç to Beirut. But all of these events had occurred before—and in most cases months before—Benn’s interview with the Independent. How, then, might his abrupt change of heart be explained?
Benn was said by the Independent to have indicated that ‘Labour would only consider backing air strikes in Syria if [David] Cameron had the support of the United Nations’. One assumes that by this the shadow foreign secretary meant that, for Labour, the support of the UN would be a necessary rather than sufficient condition for the extension of air strikes to Syria. And so the issuance of resolution 2249 by the United Nations Security Council cannot in itself be regarded as justifying Benn’s about-face. But let us for a moment allow that it can; after all, Benn claimed in his speech that the UN is, by way of the ‘clear and unambiguous’ foregoing resolution, ‘asking for us to [bomb] Syria as well as… Iraq’.
Writing on the website of the European Journal of International Law, Dr Marko Milanovic states that Jeremy Corbyn was correct to note during his own contribution to Wednesday’s debate that resolution 2249 ‘does not give clear and unambiguous authorisation for UK bombing in Syria’. To do so, said Corbyn, ‘it would have had to be passed under chapter 7 of the UN charter, [which is something] the Security Council could not agree [on]’. British air strikes on Syria, then, cannot be said to enjoy the support of the United Nations. ‘Calling [resolution 2249] ‘clear and unambiguous”, concludes Dr Milanovic, ‘is, with respect, a real howler’. Benn’s ‘bravura’ speech continues to unravel, and the egregiousness of his U-turn becomes even more apparent.
Of course, the resolution did recommend that ‘all necessary measures’ be taken to ‘prevent and suppress terrorist acts’ committed by Daesh and to ‘eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria’. Given that the threat posed by Daesh is ‘global and unprecedented’, surely one such measure would be the severance of diplomatic ties to the various allies which continue to finance that organisation. But of course, having chosen to employ the language of war, Benn only perfunctorily mentioned the need to asphyxiate Daesh in this way. Perhaps another such measure would be the immediate cessation by Western corporate-financial elites of all economic exploitation that they carry out in the Middle East. But as already indicated, Benn’s speech was so shamefully narrow in its scope that not one sentence of it discussed—or even threatened to discuss—the West’s culpability for creating the chaos which today engulfs the region.
The speech was flawed in many other ways. For example, Benn declared that ‘none of us today act with the intent to harm civilians’. But benign intentions, as Chomsky has written, ‘are virtually always professed, even by the worst monsters, and hence carry no information, even in the technical sense of [the] term.’ That a great many innocent civilians will die as a result of Wednesday’s vote is inevitable, and those who supported the government’s motion are well aware of this fact. Benn also adduced in support of his argument the US-led air strikes in Iraq, even though Patrick Cockburn—widely regarded as a leading expert on Daesh—has more than once disputed their efficacy. And then, of course, there was the refusal of the shadow foreign secretary to properly interrogate David Cameron’s fantastical claim that there are 70,000 ‘moderate’ fighters willing to work with Western powers to defeat Daesh in Syria.
Benn concluded his speech with a paean to the Labour Party, which, in his extremely dubious opinion, ‘has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice’. This assertion, and indeed the rest of his final remarks, are nothing more than rhetorical rot. Never mind the crimes of Tony Blair: is Benn aware of Harold Wilson’s foreign policy, or the foreign policy of the Attlee he so reveres? And how dare he misappropriate the idea of proletarian internationalism, or associate himself with the brave anarchists who fought Franco without so much as an iota of assistance from either the Labour Party or the British government of the day?
Looked at in the round, Benn’s rather prosaic speech was uniformly devoid of substance and not nearly as eloquent as its admirers imagine. His delivery, what with its wooden gesticulations and equally forced diminuendos, did not threaten even once to match the oratorical power which Tony Benn was able to demonstrate time and time again. Indeed, in this respect and others, Benn the elder was worth at least ten of his son. Why, then, was the shadow foreign secretary’s speech so well received, both in the Commons and beyond?
The answer is simple, and Matt Carr struck upon it last week: MPs and journalists applauded Benn’s speech because they saw it as a ‘fatal blow’ to the authority of Jeremy Corbyn, who—possessed of a very strong mandate—opposes not only the bombardment of Syria, but also the Tories’ vicious programme of austerity.
We can say with some certainty, then, that last week’s parliamentary debate was not about degrading and destroying Daesh. If it had been, histrionic MPs who voted with the government would not afterwards have stolen the limelight by concocting death threats against themselves, as did the Tory Lucy Allan. Media outlets, like The Times and the BBC, would not have sought to undermine the case against air strikes by conflating death threats to MPs with legitimate objections like the ones put forth by Labour’s leader. Last Wednesday’s debate was not aimed at degrading and destroying Daesh; rather, its quite transparent objective was to degrade and destroy what is seen by Tories and Blairites alike as an even bigger threat: the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
N.B. – Benediction, of course, is that service in the Catholic Church during which the priest (in this case Benn) blesses his kneeling congregation (a part played obligingly last week by the House) with the Sacrament (here, the sick credo of Western imperialism consubstantiated with the flesh and blood of innocent Arabs).