by Kevin Meagher
It seems Labour is so full of policy ideas at the moment that it can afford to have not one but two foreign policies.
Backing President Trump’s missile attack on the Syrian airfield from which Bashir al-Assad’s warplanes bombed the town of Khan Sheikhoun with chemical weapons earlier this week, Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, described it as ‘a direct and proportionate response to a clear violation of international law by the Syrian regime.’
While agreeing this week’s attack was ‘a war crime’, Jeremy Corbyn instead emphasised that US military action ‘without legal authorisation or independent verification’ could make matters worse and risked intensifying ‘a multi-sided conflict that has already killed hundreds of thousands of people’.
This fault line between the leader and deputy leader of the Labour party is conspicuous.
And, so, the party is left suffering yet another damaging public bout of cognitive dissonance – holding two mutually exclusive opinions – while huddled in the political shop window rocking backwards and forwards, muttering to itself in front of the voters.
That’s the politics of it.
However, questions about military action – and whether or not to back it – obviously override domestic political concerns. Syria is not as straightforward as having ‘a line.’
And, so, in their way, both men are right, albeit for totally different reasons.
Watson spoke for many when he said that chemical weapons attacks on civilians ‘can never be tolerated and must have consequences.’
However it’s clear, that there are no quick fixes to be had. Trump’s one-off intervention will not end the Syrian war.
Corbyn’s point is slightly different. He is right that we must be cautious about military strikes and try to manage global disputes through international fora.
But the context to this flagrant act of barbarity is surely different, demanding, as it does, a clear response.
When war-war leaves children dead and maimed from a chemical attack, arguing for jaw-jaw and the niceties of empty protocols in the UN’s debating chamber seems a moral abdication. Justice delayed for the dead children of Syria is justice denied.
Corbyn may indeed be proved right in the fullness of time that the Syrian quagmire is indeed a three-dimensional dispute into which it is unwise to tread.
But thugs and despots around the world should be left in no doubt what happens when you breach the civilised world’s self-denying ordinance from using chemical and biological weapons.
A red line was crossed this week and we either respond to that infraction, or we do not. We saw in 2013 what happens when you choose not to. President Obama’s weakness in the face of Russian interference merely emboldened Putin to later annex Crimea.
Sensible, therefore, to try a fresh approach this time?
By meting out a swift and decisive punishment for this week’s chemical attack, the US has issued a clear warning to the Syrian regime about its future conduct. It is also timely to give the perfidious Russians something to ponder in terms of the west’s stiffened resolve.
Corbyn speaks for those on the left who instinctively disagree with this approach.
Too often, though, their reflexive refusal to side with ‘the west’ is maddeningly self-defeating. Help for the most wretched of this earth is usually led by Nato, the EU and the UN.
There can be no equivalence between western interventions – made, in this instance, from genuine humanitarian concerns – and despotic regimes that many on the left routinely fail to find fault with.
So is this a case of Watson calling it correctly in the short term, while Corbyn is proved right in the longer term? Possibly, but as John Maynard Keynes reminded us, in the long term we’re all dead.
Alas, for the victims of Assad’s chemical attack, some have their lives snuffed out in the short term and in response to that, Trump made the right call and Watson was entirely justified in backing it.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut