Mr Benn Goes Bombing

The government predictably won its debate over whether to extend British air strikes into Syria last night.  Unlike 2013, there was never really any doubt about the outcome. Cameron had his party behind him, in addition to the Liberal Democrats, the DUP and a large enough number of Labour MPs to ensure that the government’s position was always going to prevail.

So once again, the British political class has opted to wage an open-ended war without any coherent military or strategic goals, beyond vague talk of ‘degrading’ Daesh.  In the short term, British airstrikes in Syria will have little impact on Daesh itself, and are not even intended to.   Their real purpose is restore Britain’s ‘credibility’ as a ‘major player’ on the world stage, fulfill promises that Cameron made to the United States long before the Paris massacre, and put Britain in a position from which it will be able to extend and expand its military operations when the inevitable ‘mission creep’ kicks in.

As is always the case in British parliamentary debates about whether or not to ‘go to war’, the latest intervention was justified in numerous speeches yesterday on moral and humanitarian grounds, because it is an essential rhetorical component of all British wars – at least in recent years – that they are always waged for a high moral purpose.

And so the commons echoed with the cant words and phrases that we have become depressingly familiar with these last years.  There was much talk of ‘our values’, ‘evil’, ‘our way of life’, ‘national security’ and the need to ‘keep our country safe.’  Many of these speeches came from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour opponents, including politicians who had once supported the wars in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo on very similar grounds.

Many of these speeches had a horrible element of Groundhog Day about them.  Watching Beckett, Johnson and co. wrestle with their consciences yet again about the moral quandaries of ‘intervention’, the ‘difficult’ decision about whether to bomb or not to bomb, and their concern over the prospect of civilian deaths,  was a reminder of how effortless these struggles actually are for politicians who are incapable of acknowledging the catastrophic consequences of similar decisions they have taken in the past, and will never bear the consequences of the wars they currently advocate.

At times it was possible to close your eyes and imagine that you were not listening to a debate about Syria, but about Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan.   As in those wars there was the same absence of strategic or critical thinking, the same fake and misleading historical parallels, the same phony internationalism.

Pride of place in this regard must go to Hilary Benn, whose closing speech received a standing ovation – from both sides of the House.   Benn’s ‘extraordinary’ speech has been much praised.  Philip Hammond called it ‘ one of the truly great speeches made in this House of Commons.’

Today Dan Hodges described it as the speech of a future prime minister in the Telegraph this morning, and gleefully claimed that Corbyn and his supporters were ‘ destroyed in an instant. Crushed by Hilary Benn and 100 years of the Labour party’s accumulated moral authority.’

Personally, I don’t think Corbyn was very good yesterday.  He came across as pedantic, fussy and nitpicking, rather than impassioned – not that it would have made much difference to the result.   But Hodge’s eulogy is overblown – no surprises there, and so is much of the praise heaped on a speech  that belonged firmly to the Churchillian tradition of grandstanding oratorical flourishes that British politicians have often drawn upon in reference to their latest enemies du jour. .

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Egeus accuses Lysander of having wooed his daughter:’With feigning voice verses of feigning love/And stol’n the impression of her fantasy/With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gauds, conceits.’

In political terms this is what Benn did last night.  His speech was intended, like so many of Blair’s pro-war speeches before him,  to steal the impression of the British elite’s fantasy about its wars, the better to undermine his own leader and recast British militarism as an act of socialist internationalism.    So once again, the fight against Daesh was a fight against  fascism.  Why is Daesh fascist?   The answer, according to Benn, lies:

‘Not just their calculating brutality but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this Chamber tonight and all of the people that we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt, they hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt, they hold our democracy – the rules by which we will make our decision tonight – in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated.’

Do fascists need to be defeated?  Goodness, who’d have thought it? Benn’s description of Daesh could easily be applied to Saudi Arabia – an ally in the anti-Daesh coalition.   Cruelty,intolerance and a sense of superiority are not defining characteristics of fascism, though fascists are certainly likely to exhibit them.  But fascism was an extreme manifestation of nationalism, racism, and imperialism, a violent response to socialism and communism that emerged from the crisis of liberal democracy, and which liberal democratic states did not fight – and which lived with fairly comfortably – until it threatened them directly.

The wars against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein were also described as wars against fascism, – in order to justify dubious, dangerous, ill-thought-out and sometimes illegal military adventures, and Benn’s description belongs to the same tradition.

Whether Daesh is fascist or not, it is certainly a savage and dangerous movement which needs to be defeated.  But Benn’s fascism comparisons simply take it for granted that bombing will achieve this objective.  They entirely ignore the political context in which Daesh has emerged, the way in which it feeds off weak, wrecked, and wartorn societies which have imploded as a result of some of the same wars that ‘anti-fascists’ like Benn once supported.

Benn even had the unbelievable gall to say this:

‘And it is why as we have heard tonight socialists and trade unionists and others joined the international brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. And my view is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria and that is why I ask my colleagues to vote for this motion tonight.’

To call this playing fast and loose with the facts does not even begin to describe what Benn has done here.  The ‘socialists and trade unionists and others’ who crossed the Pyrenees put their own lives on the line, something that today’s armchair bombardiers would never dream of doing.

It is a very different matter to go unarmed to fight for a country and a people you have never seen, knowing that you may never come back, than it is to stand up in parliament and describe a bombing campaign as an act of socialist internationalism. .

Some brigaders fought in defense of the Spanish Republic because they supported the Spanish revolution; others did so because they regarded Spain as a frontline in the coming war against fascism.  But their efforts were actively undermined by the British and French governments, who used the Non-Intervention Pact to cut off military support to the Republic even when they knew that Franco was being armed to the teeth by Italy and Germany.

To evoke the international brigades in support of Cameron’s bombing campaign requires real audacity, bad faith, and an indifference to history or the political realities of the 21st century.   Benn does not even seem to realize that the jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh is far closer to the spirit  of internationalism and solidarity that drove the International Brigades than Cameron’s bombing campaign – except that the international jihad takes the form of solidarity with oppressed Muslims, rather than the working class or the socialist revolution.

It is obvious that not all Muslims who have gone to fight in Iraq, Syria, Chechnya and other places have gone to these countries to obtain sexual slaves and throw homosexuals off balconies.   Understanding these distinctions would make it a lot easier to understand the wellsprings of ‘radicalization’ than the fatuous inanities emanating from Cameron and his ministers.

Clearly, the Tories did not applaud Benn’s speech yesterday because they wanted to celebrate the role of their International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War.  They did so because Benn gave them a better ‘moral’ case for bombing than the one they had put forward themselves, and because they recognized that Tony Benn’s son had successfully appealed to the same political traditions that Jeremy Corbyn – and Tony Benn himself – has so often evoked to oppose war, in order to justify it.

They clapped because, like Hodges, they saw Benn’s speech as a fatal blow to Corbyn’s authority, and because they would like to replace him with Benn himself.  Of course Benn knew exactly what he was doing, and that speech will now almost certainly make him the Labour rightwing’s preferred replacement for Corbyn in any future palace coup.

In that sense it really was a ‘great speech’, though its grandeur is really pretty cheap and tawdry, and so are the plaudits it has received.

 

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Who’s afraid of Jeremy Corbyn?

With Jeremy Corbyn now the clear frontrunner in the Labour leadership contest, the uneasy and incredulous mutterings that have been spreading through the Labour Party establishment and the commentariat in recent weeks have risen to an increasingly strident and hysterical chorus.   Tony Blair has crawled out from his gilded swamp to declare that he would prefer to lose an election than win on a ‘traditional leftist platform’ and told Labour supporters who say their heart is with Corbyn to ‘get a transplant.’

Alan Milburn – one of the most egregious Labour troughers who has profited so handsomely from the NHS ‘reforms’ that he promoted in office – has accused Corbyn supporters of a political ‘death wish.’  The entrepreneur John Mills, Labour’s richest donor and a contributor to Liz Kendall’s campaign, has warned that a Corbyn victory might trigger the formation of a new ‘SDP-type party’ if Labour becomes a ‘party of the far left.’   And now Labour MP John Mann, an Yvette Cooper supporter, has accused Corbyn of inaction over paedophile allegations in his Islington constituency in the 1970s and 80s.

Facing defeat, the other contenders are now talking about transforming the robotic Andy Burnham into a ‘Stop Corbyn candidate’.     It’s all getting rather nasty and unseemly, and it’s not just the politicians.  At the Telegraph, the gruesome Blairite Dan Hodges has described the Corbyn surge as an ’emotional spasm’ which might presage a ‘full-blown nervous breakdown.’ The liberal commentariat is equally scornful and dismissive.  Opinion pieces and news reports in the Guardian, the Observer and the Independent routinely refer to Corbyn as a ‘far left’ or ‘hard right’ dinosaur who has mysteriously broken into the political theme park.

None of these papers support him, and the language they use to condemn him says a great deal about the dismal rightwing bubble that British politics have been trapped in for such a long time. For one thing Corbyn is not on the ‘far left’ or the ‘hard left’ .  On the contrary, he is an MP on the leftwing of the Labour Party, and the endlessly snide Citizen Smith-type cracks about his beard and ‘Lenin cap’ ignore the fact that he is a social democrat not a Bolshevik or a Trotskyist.

His economic proposals are a Keynsian social democratic redistributive alternative to austerity, which contain many ideas that already have widespread public support.  But both the Labour Party and the majority of the British commentariat appear to regard even the concept of progressive taxation as a revolutionary gesture akin to the storming of the Winter Palace and the establishment of soviets.

Criticisms of Corbyn in the liberal press are sprinkled with Thatcherite warnings of the dangers of ‘tax-and-spend’ or the ‘big state’ and the dangers of turning away from ‘reform’, which only reveal how much even the supposedly left-of-centre media has come to take Tory nostrums for granted.

Consider this analysis of Yvette Cooper by Ian Dunt, the editor of Politics.co.uk.  Dunt has been an astute critic of Tory policies on prisons and immigration, among other things, and his piece is a lament at Cooper’s failure to bear out his own tendentious assertion that she is ‘the most intellectually impressive of the candidates.’

To bear out Cooper’s supposed intellectual prowess, Dunt cites her response to George Osborne’s plans to cut tax credits in a recent interview:

‘They are actually discouraging parents from working harder,” she said. This was exactly the right response. Cooper understood that the most effective argument against a Tory policy is based on Tory premises. Instead of talking solely about fairness, it was best to focus on the argument that a cut to tax credits would be a disincentive to getting people into work.’

Why should Labour adopt ‘Tory premises’ to refute a policy that is so blatantly unjust and vindictively targeted at the marginalized poor?   It is precisely because Labour has done this kind of thing for so long that it cannot articulate a genuinely progressive alternative to Tory economic brutalism.  It is the reason why Labour politicians sound so hollow, why their language is so convoluted and evasive and so pathetically designed to please all of the people all of the time.

Dunt accuses Cooper of selling herself short and offering nothing but a ‘string of platitudes’ in a recent interview, but this is what inevitably happens to politicians who ape their opponents and try to appropriate their language and concepts simply in order to win elections.   It’s what happens when you are determined to avoid saying anything controversial, challenging, or which might open you up to accusations from the tabloid press that you are ‘soft on immigration’, ‘soft on welfare’ or ‘anti-business’.

One of the reasons why Corbyn appears so fresh to his supporters and so shocking to the politicians and the commentariat is precisely because he doesn’t do this.   Unlike any Labour politician in years, he has offered an alternative to austerity which is attractive and appealing to a constituency that is not limited to the ‘far left.’   As the Guardian notes Corbyn’s ‘uncompromising anti-austerity stance seems to be particularly inspiring to the tens of thousands of recently joined Labour members and to trade unionists’.

Like the rightwing politicians who dominate the Labour establishment, the Guardian clearly doesn’t approve of this unwelcome development, and would rather a ‘modernizing’ candidate who is prepared to compromise with a government that ought to be fought on every single front, rather than appeased.

This week all the Labour leadership contenders except Corbyn abstained from a bill that they should and could have opposed,  while still claiming to oppose it.  They and their supporters would like to believe that this strategy represents mature, adult politics.

Others will interpret it as gutless opportunism, and conclude that these are not the politicians to lead the opposition to the massive cuts that are now looming, or fight the battles that must be fought in order to prevent the Tory dystopia from becoming even more nightmarish than it already is.

It is now clear that many Labour members who think this way are turning to Corbyn, and if the Labour leadership succeeds in destroying him and imposing yet another political hologram in his place,  it may find that they are the ones who are leading the party to political destruction.

 

Dan Hodges Wins the Afghan War

Proving once again that laziness, ignorance, and sloppy, half-baked analysis will never be an obstacle to churning 1,000-word copy, the Telegraph‘s Dan Hodges has offered his readers some spectacularly dumb thoughts about the British contribution to the Afghan war.

It would probably be more accurate to describe  Hodges’s column as a collection of words thrown together and arranged into sentences rather than thoughts, since there is little evidence of thinking at all in this crass piece of Britwar propaganda from the New Statesman’s former ‘Blairite cuckoo in the Miliband nest.’

The good news, from the point of view of those who sent British troops into Helmand province in 2006, and those who want to see more ‘adventures’ like this is that the withdrawal of British troops this year doesn’t mean that the Afghan War was a failure.  In fact,  Hodges happily informs his readers, it was a spectacular success!

The bad news is that there is certain to be a lot more of this kind of fact-free, parallel-world wishful thinking as the troops come home, by a British establishment that never admits that its wars have failed and cannot stop plotting new ones.   For these reasons it’s worth looking at Hodges’ reasoning, such as it is, in a little more detail.

Hodges rejects the suggestion that Afghanistan has ‘been now seen as a failure. Militarily. Morally. Politically’ and accompanies this assertion with the usual Cohen-ite/Aaronovichian dig at the ‘pacifist Left and isolationist Right‘ that supposedly share this view.  After dismissing the nation-building/democracy building/women’s rights justifications for the war, he reminds viewers that:

We were there because Afghanistan attacked us. Or at least, because Afghanistan was used as a staging base for an attack on us. Three thousand dead in a single morning. The citizens of 60 countries; men, women and children. Murdered in cold blood. Crushed. Burnt. Stabbed. Suffocated. Forced to jump to their deaths while we watched them die live on television. They are why we went to Afghanistan.

 

They are why we went to Afghanistan. We went because, long before Fallujah and Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, Afghanistan had become a sanctuary for people who wanted to murder each and every one of us in our beds. And who under the benign eye of their Taliban protectors were acquiring the means and methods to do so.

As a result of the NATO invasion and occupation:

And now they can’t. Bin Laden is dead. His network has been smashed. The umbilical chord between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda has been severed. Unfashionable though it may be to point it out, these are also the products of our Afghanistan “failure”.

There is a lot wrong with this.   First of all, ‘ Afghanistan’ did not attack ‘us.’   19 hijackers carried out the 9/11 attacks, who were as connected to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as they were to Afghanistan.  Most of the hijackers were Saudis, some of whose origins have never been fully clarified or investigated, because the Bush administration refused to investigate them.

According to Hodges’ logic, ‘we’ should have attacked those countries too.  Secondly, there is no credible evidence that the Taliban were acting as the ‘protectors’ of the Bin Laden network, let alone that they were aware of the planning for the attacks – most of which was done in Europe and the United States anyway.

Alex Strick von Linschoten and Felix Kuehn’s An Enemy We Created: the Myth of the Taliban/Al Qaeda Merger in Afghjanistan, 1970-2010, remorselessly and brilliantly examines the mutually problematic relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda, and completely demolishes the fantasy that Hodges so uncritically subscribes to.

Had the US taken the trouble to analyse that relationship, and shown a little more patience, and a lot less arrogance, the US might conceivably have induced the Taliban to give up Bin Laden and close down the jihadist camps in Afghanistan – camps, it should not be forgotten, that were largely filled not with al-Qaeda members, but with members of an international jihadist movement that ‘we’ had once supported.

Had that happened, then some 20,000 Afghan civilians would not have died, and nor would the British, American, and multinational soldiers who invaded and occupied the country and helped install a warlord/puppet government that has so little credibility with the Afghan people that it is only in power through rigged elections.

Applying Hodges’ logic to other similar situations, then ‘we’ should have bombed Dublin and invaded Ireland when the IRA started carrying out attacks on the British mainland, and Spain should have attacked France because ETA used the French Basque Country as a refuge/rearguard weapons depot.

As far as the removal  of the Bin Laden network was concerned, that objective was already achieved by the spring of 2002 – even though it was undermined by the collusion of Pakistan – a nominal US ally – in  allowing Bin Laden and many key AQ members to escape Afghanistan.

The British deployment in Helmand in 2006 had very little to do with al Qaeda, and was essentially directed against the Taliban.  Supposedly intended to deliver reconstruction, governance and security, as part of Nato’s ‘nation-building’ program, it has been, according to a senior British intelligence officer in 2009, been a bloody failure, whose  ‘hearts and minds’ efforts have generated the ‘opposite effect’ and resulted in a massive boom in opium production in the province.

In 2012, the US army officer Colonel Daniel Davis made very similar observations in his searing indictment of the US military performance in Afghanistan Dereliction of Duty.  None of this stops Hodges from promoting a delusional happy ending to allow the public to leave the Afghan war movie with a warm glowing feeling, but it won’t wash, and not only in regard to Afghanistan itself.

Like others who have made similar arguments about al Qaeda’s ‘command posts’ in Afghanistan, Hodges entirely fails to appreciate that a network/movement like al Qaeda does not, and never has, needed Afghanistan to further its agenda.

It doesn’t even need Bin Laden – despite his undoubted skills as a propagandist.  Such movements draw their strength – and their ’cause’  from the overreaction and mistakes of their enemies, and the US has overreacted and made mistakes so often in the last thirteen years that it is really difficult not to conclude that it has needed al Qaeda just as much as al Qaeda needed it.

The war in Afghanistan was one example of such overkill,  shown by the US and its allies, which has helped AQ to grow and expand and find its way into countries where it previously had no presence.

As Patrick Cockburn argued in the Independent yesterday, ‘The US has spent billions of dollars on its ‘war on terror’ to counter the threat and succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden three years ago. And yet al-Qa’ida-type groups are arguably stronger than ever now, especially in Syria and Iraq where they control an area the size of Britain, but also in Libya, Lebanon, Egypt and beyond.’

Cockburn, unlike Hodges, is a real journalist who actually goes to places and knows things.  It can only be hoped that his views, and not those of the ‘Blairite cuckoo’ are taken on board. Because it’s often been said that those who cannot learn from the mistake of history are doomed to repeat them, and on the strength of this outing, Hodges shows no evidence that he is capable of understanding them at all.

 

Say goodbye to Luke and Dan

If ever I forget why New Labour was such a hollow and amoral rightwing project, there is always someone out there to remind me.   It might be the Great Man himself, still effortlessly serving God and Mammon and raking in the millions while bringing  peace to the Middle East.   Or his equally grasping wife,   currently involved in a £65 million project to open a chain of private health clinics in UK supermarkets, which according to the Follow Health blog ‘is taking advantage of the coalition Government’s plans to open up the health market to private competition.’

You have to admire the chutzpah, even if you can’t exactly imagine Nye Bevan giving her a high five.   Then there is Alastair Campbell the Moralist, pontificating on the decline of journalistic standards and the absence of compassion in the tabloid press to the Leveson Inquiry.    And apart from such luminaries, there the lesser moths who once hovered in the Blairite flame, some of whom have taken advantage of the Miliband Sucks bandwagon to raise New Labour’s tattered flag or leave the party altogether.

One of them is Luke Bozier,  political consultant, entrepreneur and former e-Campaigns Manager for the Labour Party, who has just announced his decision to join the Conservatives.  In  a blog post Bozier explains that he joined the Labour Party five years ago because he was attracted by Blair’s ‘pro-business attitude and a commitment to reforming our creaking public services‘.

Now unfortunately, Blair’s successors have turned their backs on this noble vision, and Bozier can no longer remain amongst them:

I despair, because I love this country and I care deeply about making public services better. About dismantling the traps in our bloated welfare system. About projecting confidence on the world stage. About the deficit and debt. I no longer wish to be associated with Labour’s ludicrous attitudes to education reform or its dire mismanagement of the economy.

Luckily our patriot has found a government that loves his country  as much as he does:

It’s Cameron’s Conservatives who are being fiscally responsible, doing the hard work needed to put the economy back on track. His party is taking the steps needed to improve our schools, our welfare system and to invest in new infrastructure like HS2. His party is instituting the regulatory reforms so desperately needed to allow private enterprise, the engine of the recovery, to flourish.  Those reforms are social justice. And social justice is why I entered politics.

I don’t know much about Luke Bozier, but somehow I doubt that someone who joined Labour after the Iraq war and who equates Cameronism with ‘social justice’ really cared too much about it himself.  In fact virtually every word of this cri de coeur rings hollow, from its outrage at the UK’s  ‘bloated’ public services or that priceless goal of ‘projecting confidence on the world stage’- an objective which to both Blair and Cameron usually means waging war somewhere.

Bozier’s volte face appears to be relatively recent, unless he was already contemplating it last November when he co-authored a piece for Labour List to launch the Labour’s Business website, whose aim is to place ‘enterprise at the heart of Labour politics in the 21st century’ .   Flushed with can-do spirit, Bozier and his fellow-author argued that ‘we don’t believe that the Tories are the natural party of enterprise & business; in fact, it’s in Labour’s interest – and it should be at the heart of Labour values in this century – to promote and support self-employment and entrepreneurship.’

The post went on to argue that:

Our century puts the “means of production” in the hands of individuals – what could be more progressive, more empowering, more Labour than the opportunity to take control of one’s own economic future.

So the ‘means of production’ are to be placed in the ‘hands of individuals’ and that’s ‘progressive’?   Well bless my soul, what unadulterated vacuous drivel.   Unfortunately there were – and are – many Luke Boziers in the Labour Party and the Conservatives, who have transformed words like ‘progressive’, ’empowering’ or ‘reform’ into empty catchphrases and cool brand names to promote a political agenda that is essentially neoliberal, pro-City, pro-privatisation and pro-war.

Such men – and women – are so similar to each other that they are easily able to jump ship and reinvent themselves with a minimum of discomfort.  Take Dan Hodges, another exiled disciple from the temple of Blair, who has made a seamless journey from the New Statesman to the Daily Telegraph, where he can now be found writing blogs with titles like ‘everyone’s laughing at the left‘ and ‘Iran: Why we need a Start the War coalition’.

You’re not going to find too many Telegraph readers who are going to disagree with such sentiments.    But what the hell was someone with views like this doing in the Labour Party in the first place?    It isn’t surprising that Hodges and Bozier were friends, and now Hodges has defended his mate in the Telegraph on the grounds that:

Those who criticise leaders or policies or political positions that are clearly leading their party to ruin aren’t traitors. I actually think they are the real heroes. Turning against the tribe takes greater courage than marching silently alongside it. What Luke did was wrong. But it certainly wasn’t cowardly.

Hodges clearly would like his readers to admire such bravery as much as he does himself, but I really can’t join in the admiration.  And I can’t help thinking that it doesn’t take much courage to turn against a party that you regarded as  a political hotel or a career move.

Such men might be opportunists, but that doesn’t make them traitors either.  For the fact that they believe that Gordon Brown represented ‘the left’ or that Ed Miliband’s tepidly left-of-centre agenda is ‘leading their party to ruin’  merely demonstrates to me that are Thatcherites in social-democratic drag who have returned to their natural home.

So let’s give two cheers for Lucky Luke and Dissident Dan, hollow heroes in a party they helped to hollow out,  cardboard iconoclasts who stood out against the unquestioning tribe, and then hope that the Labour Party can one day attract people who really are worthy of respect.