The best that can be said for Jeremy Corbyn’s response to air strikes against the Assad regime is that he is at least consistent.
Why did he assert that the smart cuff meted out last night risked ‘escalating further… an already devastating conflict’? Because in Corbyn’s worldview, it is the felling of chemical weapons factories, not the extermination of children with the chemical weapons those factories produce, that escalates conflict.
Why did he echo Syrian state media in questioning the legality of military action? Because Corbyn is a cynic who calculates that feigning concern for the global rules-based order — something he believes in only intermittently — is useful for stalling, deflection and water-muddying.
Why did he accuse Theresa May of ‘taking instructions from Washington and putting British military personnel in harm’s way’? Because this former chair of Stop the War has never met a moral challenge he wouldn’t rather flunk than share a side with the United States. Grampa Wacky sees America as a global Machiavelli, the UK its dumb puppet, and British leaders more loyal to the White House than their country’s national interest. He calculates, probably correctly, that post-Iraq this canard has appeal to Middle England too.
Why did he insist on a joint Russian-US solution and agreed ceasefire? Because he knows Russia will frustrate any genuine attempt to hold Assad to account and he can live easier with that than with the idea of American fighter jets in a Middle Eastern sky. The only fire he wants to cease is ours.
‘Bombs won’t save lives or bring about peace,’ Corbyn simpers. His foreign policy is a half-remembered protest song and while the circumstances may change the lyrics never do. War is always good for absolutely nothing in Corbyn’s mind. This is a view he shares with much of the Left (but not only the Left) and yet it reflects a narrow, mean conservatism. Suffering at home cannot be tolerated and must be fought, immediately and whatever the cost. Suffering abroad? Well, that’s more complicated. You see, there are no good guys over there and there may be unintended consequences and let’s give it more time.
These and many other doubts are reasonable if you are a nationalist or an isolationist. However, this laissez-faire doctrine of human security is coming from people who loudly aver themselves to be internationalists and boast of their tradition’s history of taking up arms against fascism. No pasarán!* (*terms and conditions apply).
Like Corbyn, they are paralysed by antipathy to American strength and the only country they want the United States to interfere in is Israel. Internationalists on Palestine, they are isolationists everywhere else. Progressives who decry Victorian concepts like the deserving and undeserving poor quietly acquiesce in the division of the world’s children into those deserving of protection and those careless enough to have been born in the wrong country. We have not banished old prejudices, merely relocated them.
A Guardian columnist tweets: ‘Remember watching the BBC in horror as they screened British bombs raining down on Baghdad when I was 15. Now I get to do the same aged 30, with Damascus, on Twitter. Exactly the same sense of hopeless, futile despair.’ This is a more Private Eyeable rendering of that familiar slogan of right-on reaction, ‘Not in my name’. It’s all about us, you see. A sadist has turned his country into a nightmare playground and is brutalising innocent people but what matters is that our wokeness is not compromised.
This is far from a fringe view. Really, it’s just a ‘left-wing’ parallel of British public opinion on Syria. ‘I’m all right, Jack’ cloaked in a CND banner. The legacy of Iraq is why Brits oppose air strikes two-to-one but so too is our ambivalent attitude to globalisation. We want the cheap clothes, city breaks, and exotic food on Tesco’s shelves but none of the responsibility. We want globalised lifestyles and national borders for containing the consequences. This is a passive imperialism, where the poor and downtrodden still serve us but we no longer have to build them roads or sewage works.
There are 5.6 million externally displaced Syrians registered by the UNHCR. Since 2015, the UK has taken in only 11,000 and aims to reach 20,000 by 2020. Just as there are leftists who pledge solidarity with the oppressed but will not countenance meaningful action against their oppressors, there are right-wingers who find chemical weapons attacks on civilians repugnant but not repugnant enough to give civilians sanctuary from them. We cannot be the world’s policeman, social worker or homeless shelter. A military response is insufficient but humanitarian measures have their limitations too. This is not grounds for inaction, just a bleak fact of logistics, resources and imperfect human nature.
Nevertheless, we are compelled by moral duty and international standards to meet with blunt intolerance the mass murder of innocent men, women and children with weaponised compounds of blood-chilling barbarity. Revulsion is not enough; force must be brought to the causes of justice and decency. Force is not enough; the norms we seek to uphold — the norms that justify military action — impel us to do more than bomb and move on.
Jeremy Corbyn’s prevarications are pitiful but to be expected. Britain’s slender compassion for displaced Syrians is pitiful, too. Maybe he is the Prime Minister we deserve.