Will Jeremy Corbyn be able to transform Britain's Middle East policies?

#Analysis

Only an extensive public movement of grassroots support will be able to bring about a UK foreign policy that genuinely promotes human rights

Mark Curtis's picture
Wednesday 2 January 2019 12:48 UTC
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Britain's political uncertainty over Brexit means that all bets are off for what might happen in the first three months of 2019. But one distinct possibility is a general election, which the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn may be in a prime place to win. 

A key question is: will Corbyn transform British foreign policy in the Middle East away from supporting repressive regimes and selling them arms, and challenge the London establishment that has prioritised these concerns over all others for decades?

There are four areas where Labour's declared foreign policy is seriously worrying the British elite. 

Ambivalence on Israel

Firstly, Labour has pledged to allow the Chagos islanders to return to their homeland in the Indian Ocean after being removed in the 1970s. Their largest island - Diego Garcia - is used as a key US military intervention platform for the Middle East. Labour's policy will be bitterly fought in Whitehall, which is shamefully continuing to fight the Chagossians in court, having recently agreed with the US to allow its use of the base until 2036.

Secondly, Labour has committed to "immediately recognise the state of Palestine" if elected, while its last election manifesto also called for "an end to the blockade, occupation and settlements". However, the specifics of Labour's policy towards Israel remain unclear. Corbyn has said in the past that he would halt arms exports to Israel if he became prime minister, adding that he also supported the right to return of Palestinian refugees.

While Corbyn has intimated that he backs a targeted boycott of trade with illegal Israeli settlements, Thornberry rejects this, noting only that settlement goods should be 'clearly labelled' 

Yet, Labour has recently been silent on these policies, and there are differences between Corbyn and his shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry. While Corbyn has intimated that he backs a targeted boycott of trade with illegal Israeli settlements, Thornberry rejects this, noting only that settlement goods should be "clearly labelled" so "it would be up to individuals" whether to buy them.

Thornberry's position is itself ambivalent. In November 2017, she told a conference for Bicom, a UK Israeli lobby group, that Israel is "a beacon of freedom, equality and democracy". At the Labour Party conference in September, however, she condemned the Netanyahu government "for its racist policies and its criminal actions against the Palestinian people".

Wars for regime change

A third policy that the British establishment will resist is Corbyn's opposition to regime-change wars. Corbyn opposed UK military involvement in Kosovo in 1999, Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2015. He has spoken of the "disastrous invasions and occupations of recent years" which "have failed on their own terms, devastated the countries and regions and made Britain and the world a more dangerous place". He has also, correctly, drawn a connection between these wars and terrorism at home.

Two specific Labour policies flow from this. One is that Labour will create a minister for peace, who will work across the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office to promote UN efforts to resolve conflicts. Another is that Labour wants to enshrine into law a "War Powers Act" for the UK, by which a government must seek parliamentary approval before committing to military action.



Tony Blair and late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi are pictured on the outskirts of Tripoli in March 2004 (AFP)

There is a fourth issue that Whitehall will bitterly fight, surely with all its might. Although it is not formal Labour policy, Corbyn has intimated that he wants to hold former Labour leader and prime minister Tony Blair, and possibly other figures, accountable for the Iraq War. This is a red line for the British elite, which will simply not allow such accountability at the heart of UK foreign policy. Traditionally, British ministers are permitted to literally get away with murder.

But there Labour's challenge to the elite may largely end, since, as things stand, few of the party's other declared foreign policies are likely to represent a strong break with the current government. Labour's position on arms exports to Saudi Arabia, for example, is not to halt them completely, but simply to "suspend" them pending a UN-led investigation into violations of international law in Yemen. 

Business as usual

In fact, Labour's stance on arms exports is virtually identical to the government's. It says it will only stop arms exports "where there is concern that they will be used to violate international humanitarian law" - a position that allows exports to repressive regimes if they do not use British weapons. There would be no blacklist of countries that would never receive UK arms. 

The shadow minister for peace, Fabian Hamilton, told Middle East Eye in 2017 that arms exports would go only to "states with a long history of using weapons solely for defensive purposes" and that exports to countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Egypt would be embargoed. This would be different, but it is not clear whether this is formal policy. He also said that all arms exports would have to be pre-approved by a parliamentary committee.

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Labour has also promised to "review all training and equipment contracts with repressive regimes, to ensure that Britain never colludes in the mistreatment of civilians". This is welcome, but it is again unclear whether such a "review" would result in any real shift in overall British support for repressive regimes. Labour's promise to reintroduce human rights advisers into British embassies around the world might herald some policy shifts but could, by contrast, simply put a gloss on business as usual.    

Worse is Labour's position on the military industry, which it says is "world-leading" and in which "Labour will continue to support development and innovation". Since this includes the production of arms for export, the UK, already the world's second-largest arms exporter, will continually be seeking new markets. In this light, it is unclear how far Labour's commitment to promoting defence diversification will actually go.

Will Corbyn be worn down?

Labour's shadow defence secretary, Nia Griffith, has been just as supportive of the military industry as the Conservative government. Meanwhile, Labour has even tried to outdo the government on military expenditures, saying that it is committed to spending at least two per cent of GDP on the military, and that "Conservative spending cuts have put Britain's security at risk".

If elected, Corbyn would be the first anti-imperialist to win power in a major Western country. Whitehall will be hoping that his view that "we have to rethink our role in the world" will remain rhetoric. But he might be serious.

The real issue is the extent to which Corbyn's genuine personal commitment to internationalism and human rights will be worn down by a British establishment determined to stop him. This can already be seen in the British media smear campaigns over the past two years, and even a warning of a coup against Corbyn by a senior serving general if he failed to support current UK military policy.

His own party, lined with Blairites who supported the Iraq and Libya wars, has traditionally backed repressive regimes, arms exports and US foreign policy in ways similar to the Conservatives

But Corbyn is not just up against the mainstream media and the "permanent government" of officials in Whitehall. His own party, lined with Blairites who supported the Iraq and Libya wars, has traditionally backed repressive regimes, arms exports and US foreign policy in ways similar to the Conservatives, despite the party's high-sounding rhetoric about "internationalism". 

If elected, Corbyn will face this triple attack. Only an extensive public movement of grassroots support - making full use of alternative media and international solidarity, and challenging the British establishment more effectively - will be able to bring about a UK foreign policy that genuinely promotes human rights.   

Mark Curtis is a historian and analyst of UK foreign policy and international development and the author of six books, the latest being an updated edition of  Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn may be in a prime position to win the next general election (AFP)