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What Corbyn got wrong in his speech on terrorism


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On October 7th 2001, George W. Bush declared war on an abstract noun. In fact, and to no one’s surprise I’m sure, he was entirely wrong; he should not have declared a new War on Terror, for that war was already begun. 2001 marked the bicentenary of its declaration.

May 1st, 1801 saw the first deployment of the armed forces of the United States against a foreign adversary. It also marked the first intervention by the United States in the Near East and North Africa, and the first confrontation with those who cited the Koran to excuse their actions.

These conflicts, collectively known as the Barbary Wars, were an act of self-defence by the United States. Between 1530 and 1780 some 1.5 million Europeans and Americans had been taken as slaves by Corsair raiders from the Barbary States, those quasi-Sultanates with territories now covered by Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams travelled to London for a meeting with Tripoli’s ambassador to petition for a cessation of hostilities. By what right, they asked the ambassador, did the Barbary States take Americans as slaves?

This is how ambassador al-Rahman responded.

‘It was written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.’

So, in 1801, Thomas Jefferson took the United States into its first war.

I mention all of this because it is particularly relevant today. Jeremy Corbyn has delivered his speech on terrorism and foreign policy, and I happened to think it rather good. But he made one or two elementary mistakes, and declined to consider one or two important facts, and these things combine to undermine his message, and the basis of his decisions and prospective policies.

He was right, of course, to suggest that British foreign policy over the last two decades and more has been incoherent and invariably Pyrrhic. I will continue to claim that the decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right one, but no sane advocate of that position can claim that the subsequent occupation was anything other than farcical.

The intervention in Afghanistan, which nearly succeeded in destroying the Taliban, was undermined by the diversion of resources to Iraq, and now the Taliban has taken back vast swathes of territory. Still we give unquestioning support to Pakistan, which actually created the Taliban.

Our support for ludicrous figures like Hamid Karzai and Nouri al-Maliki did much to undermine public support for Western interventions, and the cowardly and cynical decision of the Obama regime to abandon efforts to renew the Status of Forces Agreement and remove Coalition troops from Iraq is almost the sole reason for the emergence and success of Islamic State.

I could go on. The ‘War on Terror’ made al-Qaeda its prime target, and yet the ‘rebels’ in Libya and Syria, whom we have funded and encouraged, include a large number of groups affiliated to al-Qaeda, like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

We supported Muammar Qaddafi against al-Qaeda, then backed the al-Qaeda linked rebels in their efforts to overthrow him.

And all the while we maintain indecently close relations with Saudi Arabia, even supporting them as they prosecute a punitive war in Yemen. This despite the fact that it is Saudi Arabia which is most responsible for the emergence and the growth of Sunni fanaticism as manifested in both Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

So it is quite easy to see how our foreign policy has bred chaos and despondency. It is also true to say that the number of terrorist atrocities seems to have increased dramatically since Bush declared his war on terror, and so Corbyn’s assertion, that ‘the War on Terror isn’t working’, has more than superficial appeal.

And yet…

That overlooked episode of history with which I began proves that Islamist violence has always been justified on its own terms, and long predates the escapades to which Corbyn has alluded. The Islamic State’s devotees have been quite clear on this point; an article, published in Dabiq under the title ‘Why We Hate You and Want to Fight You’, states it plainly. Beginning by praising the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando (a ‘blessed attack on a sodomite, Crusader nightclub by the mujahid Omar Mateen’), it includes the following statement:

‘What’s important to understand here is that although some might argue that your foreign policies are the extent of what drives our hatred, this particular reason for hating you is secondary… The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam.’

This sentiment differs in no meaningful way from the prospectus offered by almost every Salafist militant group one cares to mention. Al-Qaeda explicitly called for the creation of a caliphate. It was motivated not by the injustices of Western imperialism but by a theocratic imperialism of its own. Abu Sayyaf, the Salafist group formed in the Philippines and which has sworn allegiance to Islamic State, has long sought to carve out territory for its own theocracy. (They were once funded by Saddam Hussein, he who was famously never involved with terrorists.) Jemaah Islamiyah, another IS affiliate based in Indonesia, has always been dedicated to carving out an Islamic state of its own in South-East Asia. I could go on.

To suggest that these people are the product of injustices committed by us is not and has never been true. One can accept that our actions have motivated people to join such groups, but that would always have happened; al-Qaeda blew up the UN office in Baghdad and justified its actions on the grounds that the UN Special Envoy, the admirable Sérgio Vieira de Mello, had assisted in the liberation of East Timor from the genocidal oppression of Indonesia.

In other words, doing the right thing causes these people to hate us. The brutal rape and mass murder of Yazidi women, who have no foreign policy of their own, is a strange manifestation of their objections to foreign policy. So too the attacks in Belgium and Sweden and Germany, countries not known for their role in the War on Terror. I suggest that no one in the least bit inclined to join these groups deserves to be defended by our masochism, and we cannot be held responsible for the deprivations of their religious fanaticism.

Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence on UN support for all military action is nothing but a mandate for inaction. The UN is uniquely unsuited to the role he would have it play, populated as it is by corrupt figures pursuing competing and sinister interests. If we had taken the Corbyn line, we could not have intervened to halt genocide in Bosnia. It is unlikely we could have done so in Sierra Leone.

We could not have intervened in Iraq, and doubtless this knowledge appeals to people. But the reason would have been somewhat less than menschlich; opponents in the UN, such as France, have no principled objection to the use of military force. France objected to the Iraq war because President Chirac was Saddam Hussein’s business partner, having once given him a nuclear reactor which the Israelis then had to destroy, in Operation Opera, because the reactor had been co-opted into Saddam’s weapons programme. Saudi Arabia objected to it because Iraq served as its buffer state against Iran, and the stultifying effect of the UN sanctions programme allowed the Saudis to maintain their near-monopoly on the oil trade. Do we really want our foreign policy ceded to shady crooks of this sort?

Our enemies may hate what we do. But our actions are not the cause of their animus. Jeremy Corbyn was right to raise the issue, but wrong in his assumptions. We should want a sensible and effective foreign policy for its own sake and not pretend that our enemies would be nice to us if only we left them alone.

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