The Blog

Policies On Terrorism

A balance has to be struck each time. What cannot be right is that we should regard our short term safety at home as paramount and judge our foreign policy solely by reference to whether it increase or decreases it. It is a much larger game than that.

A still, small voice of calm.

Election campaigns are all about drama. The accusations, self-justification and traducing of the other candidates are the political equivalent of the earthquake, wind and fire which surrounded Elijah on Mount Horeb in chapter 19 of the first book of Kings. But as the hymn "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind" reminds us, the Lord did not speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, but rather in the "still, small voice of calm" which followed them.

So let's try to apply the still small voice of calm to what has become one of the major issues of the campaign, Mr Corbyn's stance on terrorism. The first step, of course, is to cut through some of the nonsense.

First must be the suggestion that Mr Corbyn had any sympathy whatever for those who carried out the Manchester bombing. Plainly he had not and he has said that clearly. Also it isn't fair to suggest that he has tried to politicise it. Of course politicians have views as to cause, effect and what needs to be done. That is what they are there for and if they suppressed those views for fear of giving offence then they would be failing in their duty. The suppression of views in the name of not giving offence was one of the things which stopped the process of radicalisation being confronted earlier than it was. Provided that he genuinely believes what he says, and there is no reason to doubt that, Mr Corbyn is right to say it.

What then of his past attendance at rallies and meetings with terrorists? It seems fairly obvious from what has been said by Diane Abbott and Sean O'Callaghan that these meetings took place and the suggestion that terrorists were there in their capacity as politicians is a fairly ragged fig leaf. Still, people do change and, since the full resources of the press are already focused on the extent of the meetings and on whether or not there is a strand to connect them with Mr Corbyn's current thinking, there is no point in trying to contribute to that debate here. Let's move on.

It is only now that we get to what Mr Corbyn is actually saying, that British foreign policy has helped create lawless areas of the world where jihadis can fester and that this has put the British public at risk. Change the foreign policy and things will get safer. More jaw: less war; less damage: more safety. There are two things to say about that. One is factual and the other is philosophic. Because the second is the more interesting, I will get the factual point out of the way first.

It cannot be the case that the exporting of Islamic terrorism to the West is solely the result of British and American foreign policy. The attack on the Twin Towers, itself the harbinger of Western intervention in Afghanistan, took place in September 2001 and, although that was six months or so after the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein was still in place in Iraq and the meltdown of that country, Syria and Libya had not even begun. No doubt resentment of Western intervention does contribute to the wave of jihadism but there are other important factors, most notably the threat to the Islamic way of life posed by Western values - and particularly values relating to women - now pushed down the throats of young people by the internet and social media. As a general rule the key to international relations lies in domestic politics and one can just imagine how pleased deeply religious tribal elders must be when they discover that their children have been looking at porn on the Internet. It is likely, as one professional commentator has said, that the lawless spaces contribute to the threat of violence British streets but are not the main cause.

Suppose that this is wrong, though. Suppose that by withdrawing publicly from the Middle East, save to urge the protagonists towards a peace process, we could remove the threat of attacks here overnight. Would it be right to withdraw and drop our support for our allies? It is here that some of Labour's thinking seems to have got confused. Their argument, at least if you accept the approach taken by Mr Corbyn in his interview with Andrew Neil, is that the first duty is to keep the streets safe and that we need to review our foreign policy in order to meet that objective. That is to see it back to front.

The basis of our foreign policy should be how best to serve our interests, and those of the world at large, at a cost which we can afford. Part of that cost may be, at least in the short term, an increased exposure to terrorism. Whether that exposure, and the other costs, are acceptable depends upon what we believe the foreign policy will achieve.

The foreign policy of the West has many strands. Much of it was originally designed to counter attempts by the Soviet Union to increase its hegemony after the Second World War. We all thought that that had gone away with the removal of the Berlin Wall, but events in the Ukraine have proved us wrong. Then there has been the need to secure oil supplies from the Middle East. That has meant uncomfortable accommodation with a number of regimes whose values are very different from our own, but no government could accept the destruction of our economy that was the alternative. Then there was the expulsion of the Taliban from Afghanistan to combat the export of terrorism from bases in that country. It may or may not have worked but we clearly had an interest in it.

There are many other strands besides, some safeguarding our own interests and some more altruistic. Each of them has a price. Perhaps we could relax our international presence and rely on the US to cover us for a bit, but if other European nations took the same line we would become more and more at the mercy of the next threat to come along and increasingly unable to help our friends. Goodbye Ukraine; goodbye Baltic States; one day, goodbye us. It is to avoid getting into this position that we take our place in the defence of the West, including military intervention in other countries' affairs. Sometimes that is well judged and sometimes, as in Libya, it is disastrous, but that is why we do it and that is why we should see an increase in terrorism as part of the price we pay for a wider freedom and for the deployments we believe necessary to support it. Sometimes that price will be too high for the advantage being pursued, sometimes acceptable. A balance has to be struck each time. What cannot be right is that we should regard our short term safety at home as paramount and judge our foreign policy solely by reference to whether it increase or decreases it. It is a much larger game than that.

First published in the Shaw Sheet

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