Open Letter to Hilary Benn on the Syrian Bombing
The Western powers sowed the wind in 1991, by needless violence against Iraq. Sowed the wind with a double dose by the total destruction of Iraq’s only viable secular authorities in 2003. Then gave the Middle East a triple whammy by encouraging Syrian protestors to make the impossible demand that President Assad resign before any multi-party election, when he seemed ready to compromise. (And might plausibly have won such elections without trickery, which the West decided was much more than he deserved.)
British governments. including the one you were part of. have sowed the wind. And now we all reap the whirlwind in the shape of Daesh, ISIS, the so-called Islamic state. Much more seriously, since Daesh are aggressive but a small minority, we reap the whirlwind with growing hostility between the West and Islam as a whole. But your best idea is to sow the wind yet again – bombing Syria with no clear aim in mind.
Sadly, you prefer comfortable fantasies to facts that you as a former Minister and current Shadow Foreign Secretary ought to be familiar with. You say of the Islamists:
“They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy—the means by which we will make our decision tonight—in contempt.”[A]
It’s not something to do with the West’s bombings? The not-always-accurate drone strikes? The massive sales of modern weapons to various Arab authoritarians, including Iraq for as long as Saddam was seen as useful? Or with the earlier policy, carried out from 1991 to 2003, of making ordinary Iraqis suffer in the hope this would get rid of Saddam? Or with the betrayal of Arabs after World War One, when they were led to believe that Britain wanted an independent Arab state? Or the whole matter of Israel?
Did you bother to study what bin Laden said back in 2004? He said:
“I say to you that security is an indispensable pillar of human life and that free men do not forfeit their security, contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom.
“If so, then let him explain to us why we don’t strike for example – Sweden? And we know that freedom-haters don’t possess defiant spirits like those of the 19 – may Allah have mercy on them.
“No, we fight because we are free men who don’t sleep under oppression. We want to restore freedom to our nation, just as you lay waste to our nation. So shall we lay waste to yours.
“No one except a dumb thief plays with the security of others and then makes himself believe he will be secure. Whereas thinking people, when disaster strikes, make it their priority to look for its causes, in order to prevent it happening again.”[B]
Al-Qaeda and similar don’t attack Sweden, because Sweden hasn’t waged war on Muslims. They probably expect most Swedes to go to hell, but also consider this to be Allah’s Business.
Britain and the USA have repeatedly meddled in Arab and Muslim affairs, and it has never been to support democracy as such. Democracy in the sense of multi-party elections is demanded sometimes, to get at hostile regimes. But just as often it has been ignored or attacked. Cases in point include:
- Inaction amounting to support in 2013 when the Egyptian army removed the democratically elected President, who was a moderate Islamist.
- Inaction amounting to support for the suppression of an ‘Arab Spring’ by the Shia majority in Bahrain in 2011. Shia are at least two thirds of the population, but Sunni grouped around the monarchy are in charge.
- Inaction amounting to support in 1992 in Algeria, where Islamists looked likely to win honest multi-party elections.
- Compliance with the US-organised coup in Indonesia in 1965, which replaced an imperfect democracy with nearly 35 years of corrupt military dictatorship.
- A highly active role in the overthrow of democratically-elected Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953.
No, Mr Benn, Britain and the USA have never supported democracy among Muslims or anyone else when it might produce the ‘wrong’ result. Two more instances:
- A back-up role in the USA’s abuse of United Nations power to overthrow in 1960 the democratically elected government of Patrice Lumumba in Congo, formerly Belgian Congo and for a time Zaire. And still an appalling mess. This brutal trickery ended the possibility that the United Nations might be trusted as an impartial body that would uphold democracy.
- Helping cause the entire tragic Vietnam War (better viewed as Vietnam’s American war[C]). The USA chose an anti-Communist to rule South Vietnam and break the promise of nation-wide elections that Ho Chi Minh was likely to win. President Diem supposedly won a 1955 referendum with 98.2% of the vote, including 605,025 out of 450,000 registered voters in Saigon.[D]
This same Diem was also overthrown with US approval in 1963, though his subsequent murder may have been against US wishes. Many experts saw it as disastrous, removing the only anti-Communist with significant nationalist credentials.
If the aim of Britain and the USA is seen as hegemony, it all makes sense. But are you surprised that Muslims don’t like it? Or that with Arab Socialism now largely marginalised, they turn to Islamists, the only powerful group opposing this bungling hegemony?
And it is a real bungle. The Anglo hegemony has been far from competent. Restoring the autocratic Shah of Iran in 1953 helped secure many years of cheap oil, but also paved the way for the 1979 take-over by Shia Islamists and the reversal of decades of secularisation and Westernisation. Those were also the first Islamists who were well-adapted to modern technology and mass communication, and to have borrowed many ideas and methods from secular leftists.[E] Many more have learned from them, including sectarian Sunni hostile to Iran.
Even in 1979, something like al-Qaeda or Daesh seemed most improbable. The Iranian clerics and their overseas supporters did not approve of terrorist attacks outside of their own territory, except possibly the Lockerbie bombings for which Libya was blamed. Secular Palestinians had earlier waged a long campaign and utterly failed. The global terrorist version of Islam has its roots in the US-supported war against the pro-Soviet governments in Afghanistan. But it need not have lasted after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, or it might have stayed just anti-Russian. The deciding factor was the vast suffering inflicted on Iraq between the First Gulf War in 1991 and the invasion of 2003. The West wanted to remove Saddam, but didn’t want him replaced by either Islamists or Kurds, the two main forces. Rather than make some sensible decision based on hard facts, they continued to sponsor acceptable Iraqi oppositionists whose total unimportance was demonstrated after 2003. Saddam was open to some sort of deal, but the Anglo hegemony had unrealistic expectations that reached their height with the 2003 invasion. These were shown up by subsequent failed attempts to remake Iraq as an obedient little follower of Western values.
And that’s a bungle you were very much involved in, Mr Benn. You suggest that “Labour must emerge from Iraq’s long shadow”[F], but what does that amount to? Your sudden switch from opposing the bombing of Syria to supporting it against the majority of your own party suggests that you have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. That you fail to understand that the West cannot manufacture new pro-Western forces where they are marginal or a small minority. That you fail to understand that the West sending in its armies simply makes such people look like traitors.
What Labour needs to do is to condemn the whole of British foreign policy from 1991 as a total bungle. Not moral, and not advancing Western interests even from the most selfish point of view. But instead you say:
“What we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. It is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists, trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It is why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini.”[G]
Now that’s being very soft on the Tories. Many Tories admired Hitler until he became the open foe of the Anglo hegemony, with the Daily Mail a noted enthusiast. Rather more admired Mussolini, including Churchill, though this has been well-hidden by biographers including Roy Jenkins and I doubt you’d know that.[H] But you must be aware that most Tories supported the semi-fascist Spanish military rebels, and the West backed Franco for decades afterwards. And he was succeeded by a normal Western democracy, so perhaps he was best left alone once the Civil War was over. But it is possible that if Fascism had lost in Spain, there would have been no Second World War.
Have you forgotten how Chamberlain helped the military rebels by stopping the legal and democratically elected government of Spain from buying weapons for its volunteer forces? Or did you never know? Chamberlain stood up and said that he had ‘no knowledge’ of the massive intervention by German and Italian troops, even though it was repeatedly reported through neutral and reliable news-channels. Someone should have defied Parliamentary convention and called him a bare-faced liar, which he was.
However sketchy your knowledge of history, you must know that Chamberlain made life easy for Hitler at a time when Germany still had a small weak army. When he re-militarised the Rhineland, he had almost nothing. Britain and France mysteriously did nothing.
Or you might look at the ‘Hitler Games’, the celebration of Nazi values that was the 1936 Berlin Olympics, attended by all the usual participants apart from Republican Spain. (Including even Harold Abrahams, Jewish hero of the film Chariots of Fire.[I])
The Anglo hegemony has always been very willing to accommodate fascism. Semi-fascist Portugal was a NATO ally and allowed to oppress its African colonies until its own revolution. Saddam’s semi-fascist Baath regime was quite free to rule, slaughter, and torture and to gas its Kurdish rebels for as long as Iraq was seen as useful to the Anglo hegemony. And recently in Ukraine, the West was happy to underwrite the unconstitutional removal of an elected President.[J] Happy to back people who celebrated the memory of self-declared fascist Stepan Bandera and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, people who both started and ended the war in alliance with Nazi Germany, while fighting them between-times after the Nazis suppressed their Declaration of Independence.[K] (And who made a pragmatic alliance with Jews despite disliking them, but killed many Poles, ethnic rivals in territory once part of Greater Poland.)
But at least the Anglo hegemony won the Cold War? Moot. The Cold War was won because the Soviet Union’s attempt at hegemony were widely seen as even worse – especially after the suicidal crushing of internal reform that had the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia as its central act. And then the equally half-baked decision in 1979 to shove aside home-grown Afghan radicals, very similar to how the USA removed Diem in Vietnam. Or waged war to remove Saddam.
In the modern world, people will not be ruled by a government that they see as alien. That was the problem with the Arab Spring – protests began with pro-Western elements, but outside of Tunisia they were very much a minority. The only free election Egypt ever had gave 37.5% to moderate Islamists, another 27.8% to harder-line Islamists: nearly two thirds of the electorate. Just 9.2% to the New Wafd Party, the nearest thing to a democratic pro-Western force.[L] Another 8.9% went to a peculiar alliance of secular leftists and Sufi suspicious of mainstream Islamists, but it was clear who won. And since this was intolerable to the Anglo hegemony, the army was given the green light to restore the previously-scorned dictatorship.
Your basic error is supposing that our current comfortable British social order is somehow ‘the norm’ which people will somehow automatically achieve if not prevented by dictators and other wicked people. You need look no further than Ireland to see that this is not so. 19th century Britain wholly failed to integrate the Irish once it dropped formal discrimination. There, the major failure was the monstrous shirking of normal governmental responsibilities by a British government obsessed with Free Market dogma during the Irish Potato Famine. It enforced the export of vast amounts of food other than potatoes, food that could easily have fed all of those who had raised it. (A decision praised by Ruth Dudley Edwards in her history of the Economist magazine.[M]) Ireland actually developed itself under de Valera, a man who had a leading role in two separate insurgencies against regular parliamentary governments, the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish Civil War. (But was impeccably democratic in the Irish War of Independence, which happened after Sinn Fein won a large majority in the 1918 election.) Also a man who later led a strong assertion of hard-line Catholic values and moderate Corporatism. Who stood neutral in World War Two, when Ireland helping the Allied cause in the Battle of the Atlantic would have been enormously useful. But looking at how Ireland turned out, we can be glad that the Irish Free State was left free to become the Irish Republic and develop in its own way. It’s British-ruled Northern Ireland that remains a mess.
The Anglo hegemony – now supported sycophantically by the Irish Republic – might have worked had the West followed the advice of a wise minority who called for a Marshall Plan for Russia and the other components of the fallen Soviet Union after its 1991 collapse. (Including George Soros, at that time little-known, though his later remarks on Russia have mostly been foolish.) In the 1990s, Russia was keen to reject its own Leninist heritage and copy the West. China was still wobbly after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. The Anglo hegemony might have got two of the world’s biggest armies on its side, had it understood the underlying realities. But most of the rich and influential don’t know their arse from their elbow outside of the limited and highly artificial world of Western High Finance and the various tricks by which they bias Western electoral politics to serve themselves. They believed that the Marshall Plan and similar were near-disasters that just happened to win over former foes in West Germany, Italy and Japan as highly useful and reliable friends. They thought that US bombing and a slew of dirtwater mercenaries could do the job in Iraq. And it seems that many of them still believe that they very nearly had a brilliant success, except that someone conveniently far removed from their own friends caused it all to go wrong. (Surprisingly, the appalling Donald Trump talks more sense on this than rival Republicans or than Hillary Clinton.)
That’s the company you’re keeping. Nor moral, and not very competent or successful either. They remind me of the old joke about the one sure way to go gambling in Las Vegas and return with a small fortune – you go there with a large fortune!
They had a large fortune in 1991, a small fortune now. Do you and your New Labour colleagues really want to remain part of it?
[B] Full transcript of bin Ladin’s speech, published by al-Jazeera in November 2004, http://www.aljazeera.com/archive/2004/11/200849163336457223.html
[C] Following those fought against Imperial Japan and restored French colonialism.
[D] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_of_Vietnam_referendum,_1955 as at 14th January 2016.
[I] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Abrahams#Life_after_running as at 19/1/2016