Labour’s cognitive dissonance over Syria

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

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14 Responses to “Labour’s cognitive dissonance over Syria”

  1. paul barker says:

    Slightly off-topic, its not just on Syria that Labour speaks in tongues.
    The question is – “how many Parties would Labour have to become in order to speak coherently” ? My guess would be 5 or 6 but that number could be reduced by one if if Pro-European Centrists were to join The Libdems.

  2. Martin says:

    Ironically, it is possible that Trump’s own mixed messages had encouraged Assad’s regime to try this on.

    We cannot be sure that it would have prevented the attack, but if Hilary Clinton had been president, the Syrian government would have more clearly known what to expect.

  3. buttley says:

    lots of chicken hawk words here, so very righteous & noble.

    except you have glossed over that proof threshold thingy, which is a bit piss poor. even bu your own low standards.

    “The former UK ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, implied that the chemical attack in Syria was a ‘false flag’ operation. Speaking on BBC Radio, Ford said there is “no proof that the cause of the explosion was what they said it was” and that it simply wouldn’t make sense for Assad to launch such an attack as it would be “totally self-defeating.”

    It was also nice to see Sweden showing the world how to behave over the weekend, by not summary shooting their terrorist, which seems to have become the new adopted norm, in Europe.

    Is due process so hard to do?

  4. Tony says:

    People like Tom Watson and co did not challenge Theresa May when she expressed a willingness to use nuclear weapons. Indeed, they lined up with her to back Trident replacement.

    And in last year’s Labour leadership election, they supported Owen Smith despite his expressed willingness to use nuclear weapons to kill millions of people.

    Andrew Marr: The nuclear deterrent (sic) only works of course if the Prime
    Minister of the day is prepared to press the button and annihilate
    possibly millions of people. As Prime Minister, would you press the
    button under certain circumstances?

    Owen Smith: You’ve got to be prepared to say yes to that, Andrew.


    We are right to be concerned about chemical weapons. But why do Tom Watson and co support those who would use nuclear weapons?

  5. madasafish says:


    It was also nice to see Sweden showing the world how to behave over the weekend, by not summary shooting their terrorist, which seems to have become the new adopted norm, in Europe.”

    So you expect police to deal with a man armed with a knife to ask him nicely to stop killing their colleague?

    DO you always try to present yourself as unpleasant and unthinking of the dead?

  6. buttley says:


    why do you present a binary option, “ask nicely to stop Vs shoot to kill” both of which are extremes,

    why is incapacitating, apprehending and giving due process, such an unreasonable request?

    DO you always try to present yourself as unpleasant ………how i am perceived, is subjective, i have no control over.

    unthinking of the dead….now you project upon me

  7. Tafia says:

    It is not only pointless but highly corrosive and extremely dangerous to get involved in Middle Eastern conflicts unless you have a solution that is acceptable to the people that live there whether you like that solution or not.

    To get involved and try to put something in place that you like is not only inviting trouble, but you deserve what you get.

    And if you do get involved then you must stay and see it through no matter what the cost in blood and materials and money.

    Unless you are wiling to accept that you will ALWAYS fail and ALWAYS make a bad situation worse.

    What seems to be happening is politicians in the west on all sides are doing things purely for the sake of being seen to be doing something even if they have no idea why.

  8. Tafia says:

    Buttley, the only good terrorist is a dead one. Preferably long before old age.

  9. buttley says:


    I am not an advocate of violence, or retribution.

  10. Anne says:

    I think that Trump was right in using military action on this occasion – Assad crossed a red line in his use of chemical weapons. If action is not taken when a red line is crossed what is the point of setting them. In this unstable world it will make aggressors think twice. However Corbyn is right a long term plan is required with collaboration with allies. For example if Assad is removed who will replace him – surely not ISIS.

  11. John P Reid says:

    Butley, shoot to kil was introduced duwbto the arrival of suicide bombers,shooting in th head, meant that hitting the optic nerve sees a hand not clinch and if a trigger switch is in th hand ,it’s hoped the terrorist won’t be able to detonate, police are trained to shoot in the torso,the maximum area that will see a bullet hopefully impact and unlike a arm, not go straight through,and hit something behind it, the only person who can shoot a knife or gun out of a terrorists hand was James Bond who’s fictional

    In th case of Mark Duggan say,the police wouldn’t have had to chance to incapacititate if they felt their live in danger,they had no option to shoot,and the due process was arguing their actions were self defence

    As for suicide bombers they dint want due process,even lee rigbys killers felt they would be shot dead, go to heaven for their 73 virgins

    I agree with madasafish, your arrogance that a dead unarmed police officer who ran at a terrrist with ,two machetes,rather than running away,to protect, the public, was bravery, if things were different and the was a armed cop there shooting the terrorist dead PC Palmer would be alive now

  12. madasafish says:

    > buttley

    I am not an advocate of violence, or retribution.

    So no doubt you disapprove of officers being armed, shooting to kill a terrorist who may very well be armed with a suicide vest and who has proven his intentions by stabbing someone.
    Bearing in mind the same police officer who shot the offender was protecting hundreds of high value targets – MPs, etc- you would therefore prefer him to succeed in his task of killing more.

  13. Tafia says:

    buttley I am not an advocate of violence, or retribution.

    Unfortunately for you, violence is real and just because you don’t advocate it doesn’t mean you aren’t a target. In fact you’re an easier target – and the only people who can protect you do it by the application of violence.

    If you aren’t willing to fight to save yourself you jave no right to expect anyone else to do it for you.

    The pen is mightier than the sword – until someone presses a sword to your throat.

  14. Tafia says:

    In this unstable world it will make aggressors think twice.

    Actually under international law Assad isn’t the aggressor – he hasn’t invaded anyone and isn’t operating outside his borders. He is fighting mutiple insurrectionist groupings consisting in the main of foreign fighters equipped and paid for with foreign money (and that includes the last remants of the now largely ineffective FSA).

    Do you believe in international law? Assads government is the legitimate government of Syria, recognised by the UN. It’s his appointee that occupies the Syria seat in New York. It’s his appointed ambassadors in every Syrian embassy across the west. And under international law, any foreign armed force operating inside the borders of another country without that country’s government’s permission, is classed as the aggressor. The only foreign armed force in Syria that is there legally is Russia and Iran, and theonly militia operating there legally are the Iraqi Shias and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

    But that’s law for you ROFL.

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