Monday, September 14, 2015

Corbyn's ascension is no accident

By David Hearst


By examining what passes for reality, credibility, and security in Middle East policy, it is easy to see how Corbyn became Labour's leader
Poison did not so much trickle out of the mouths of the commentariat this weekend. It gushed. Within hours of his victory in the Labour Party leadership contest, Jeremy Corbyn had been branded a "leftist Utopian, not fit for the real world" (Die Welt), a "bearded North London socialist" (Sydney Morning Herald), a "white-bearded vegetarian (Wall Street Journal), and "a populist" (Washington Post).
If Corbyn could capture the Labour Party, could Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist senator from Vermont, do the same to the Democrats, Dan Balz mused. For the Washington Examiner the truth was obvious. Corbyn was a red under (indeed now on) the bed. He was a columnist for the Morning Star, "a newspaper that was originally an organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain". So that proves it.
Corbyn fared little better at home. The Daily Mail pronounced him a toff and a traitor:
"Born into comfortable middle-class wealth and raised in a £1million manor, privately educated Jeremy Bernard Corbyn could have been forgiven for being a Tory."
Despite all the talk of social mobility, class in Britain still lurks just the below the surface. The Observer slid the knife into Corbyn's back silently, but just as surely. The paper's chief political columnist Andrew Rawnsley wrote:
"The ecstasy of the Corbynistas was agony for one significant body of party opinion: Labour MPs. One of them, not a man usually given to hyperbole, grieved: 'My party has just hurled itself off a cliff.' He clearly speaks for more than himself. No more than 20 Labour MPs - less than 10 percent of the parliamentary party - wanted this result."
So Corbyn is a Sandinista as well. Put to one side the issue of Corbyn the man and the fierce heat he generates inside his party. He himself remains agnostic about his qualities as a leader. He ran in the contest to put the issues on the agenda and never expected to win, let alone by a landslide. On the first day in his new job, he struggled to assemble a front bench team in Parliament. His thoughts must have been far from thinking about a future cabinet.
It is indeed easier to be true to your conscience on the margins of power than it is when building the coalitions necessary to govern. As a backbencher, Gordon Brown was the antithesis of what he became as prime minister. Out of power, Brown was good humoured, a team player and popular. In it, he became distrustful, prone to temper tantrums (he was known at the Treasury for throwing telephones out of windows). He ended up very much alone.
Concentrate instead on what this outpouring of spleen tells us about those who dish it out - the centre ground of political opinion, the so-called mainstream. If Corbyn is considered unelectable, who is considered electable and how do they behave? Stripped of invective, their charges are that the new Labour leader is out of touch with reality, lacks credibility and would be a danger to Britain's security. It is interesting to examine these claims in the light of what currently passes for reality, credibility and security in Middle East policy, an issue in which Corbyn has been deeply involved.
Here's the reality: Reality is four civil wars, four fires raging out of control which are consuming Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. Possibly five if security in Egypt deteriorates further. Reality is the strategic failure of every intervention since the First Gulf War. Reality is 432,761 refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean so far this year, already double last year's total. Reality is the loss of power and influence of the US, Britain and France - not least over their traditional allies - Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt - who are taking decisions on their own. What is it about this reality that is worth preserving? The fact that it could get a lot worse? It already is.
Credibility: the accolade is awarded to every leader who makes a "brave and principled stand," but who subsequently does everything in his power to avoid accountability for his actions. David Cameron wants to force a vote in parliament which would allow the RAF to bomb IS in Syria, despite his defeat on a similar vote to bomb Bashar Assad after the chemical attack in Damascus. British pilots have already been caught using US planes, and now RAF drones have been involved. This, despite any recall of parliament.
Credibility or consistency is not a word often applied to policy. British government policy on Syria has lurched one way and then another. It started by encouraging the rebels to believe that Bashar Assad's overthrow was imminent at both Geneva conferences. It has now morphed into one in which Assad could stay in a transitional government. Cameron's policy on Egypt is to engage the dictator in power, without having any traction over him or any hope of moderating his rule. Abdel Fatah el Sisi is going to be Cameron's next guest in Downing Street.
Security: the word entails its opposite - a permanent collective feeling of insecurity and fear. Drone strikes on British jihadis in Iraq will, as night follows day, lead to IS attempts to stage a shootout spectacular in Britain, similar to the ones France endured. The planning for this is difficult to detect and thwart. It is made even more difficult for the intelligence services when other branches of the state seem hell bent on alienating British Muslims whom they simultaneously need as their eyes and ears.
The latest example is the Home Office's "prevent" strategy in schools. Under new laws requiring teachers to monitor students for extremism, one schoolboy told Al Jazeera he was accused of holding "terrorist-like" views by a police officer who questioned him for taking leaflets into school promoting a boycott of Israel.
The security state is forever being overtaken by events - surprised by the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul in June 2014, the army on which the US spent $25bn; surprised by the rise of IS; surprised by the refugee flows into Europe. After each failure, the security state steals its citizens to gear themselves up for another challenge, a longer war. Wars themselves are framed in existential terms. Islamist extremism, we are told, is a threat not just to governments and societies but to democracy itself. To this end, IS is given much the same characteristics as communism had at the the height of the Cold War - an irrational enemy, one that threatens your way of life, and a global menace. It is difficult to say where one war starts and another one ends. We have grown used to living in a state of perpetual war.
The balance sheet is not exhaustive, but the results are difficult to defend irrespective of where you stand on the political spectrum. After the fabrications of the Blair and Bush era, over the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam's Iraq, intelligence is no longer viewed with the awe it once was on either side of the Atlantic. The security state has lost its authority.
After the serial failure of intervention, state building is little more than a conceit of the past. The most charitable way of describing this failure is to invoke the law of unintended consequences. The judgment of history will surely be harsher. What Blair and Bush did by invading Iraq was to set off a chain of events that compromised the integrity of two countries, unleashed sectarian conflict throughout the Arab world and sucked both US and Britain back into war, under two different leaders, 12 years later. Hundreds of thousands have died in between.
To invade Iraq, Blair ignored the largest demonstration London had seen in its history. Three million attended on February 15, 2003 according to its organisers of which Corbyn was one. He later became chair of the Stop the War Coalition. Corbyn was then at the periphery of politics and Blair at its very center. On Saturday, Liz Kendall, the candidate regarded as closest to Blair, ("I am not a Blairite candidate, I am my own candidate", she told The Guardian) came last on 4.5 percent of the vote.
It's a notable reversal of roles and a sign that the voice of those three million protesters never went away. Corbyn is also the first Labour leader to be a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Predecessors were signed up members of Labour Friends of Israel. Today, its chair Joan Ryan urged supporters to choose any candidate other than Corbyn - who by implication could not "play a role in the Middle East peace process". This again is another shorthand. The peace process does not exist. Israeli settlements, however, do.
Corbyn is a first in the Labour Party, which in 1948 presided over the creation of Israel. He will bring the Palestinian voice and narrative back into that debate. Of the four candidates in the election, Corbyn alone called for a ban on weapons sales to Israel at a hustings in North London.
Corbyn's victory is no accident. It has been brewing for 12 years since that rally in London. He has drawn support from a new and younger generation of voter who no longer looks to machine politicians for leadership. The Corbyn voter does not care about charisma, staying on message, or sound bites. They look instead for a leader who can change things. They look for plain talking, commitment, honesty and integrity. Corbyn has those qualities in abundance.
Whether he ever gets to use them is another matter. For the moment, his arrival as leader of the opposition will galvanise and re-orient what is considered mainstream opinion. That in itself is a plus, in or out of power.
David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.

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