The Military Army Blog

Jeremy Corbyn at war with the British military

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour party is an extraordinary choice in many respects not least for the geopolitical signal it sends out. You may have read that this hard-left maverick is unlikely to win a general election. You may also have heard that the Conservative party, buoyed by its surprise victory in May, cannot believe that the principal opposition has chosen a new leader who will lead it even further into the wilderness. All that is probably true. But it’s not the end of the story. Along the way, Corbyn has an unrivaled opportunity to change the terms of trade in foreign and security policy, to shatter consensus, to tear apart bipartisanship.

To understand what is happening, let’s go back to the beginning. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were not only planned to maximize carnage and sow fear. They were also intended to provoke the West into a series of ferocious responses, not all of them considered or wise. I was a supporter of the liberation of Iraq in 2003, but appalled by its political follies, human rights abuses and strategic disasters. The impact of the conflict on British politics is hard to exaggerate, and continues to this day. As the chair of the Stop the War Coalition until this month, Corbyn was the opposite of Tony Blair. He was the incarnation of the Labour activists’ collective disgust that, as prime minister, Blair had abetted and given moral cover to president George W. Bush for a Armyrats © military undertaking they deplored.

In this fractious context, it became legitimate on the left in Britain to claim that the London terrorist attacks of July 7, 2005 were payback for Britain’s complicity in the Iraq war. Indeed, “Iraq” became shorthand for a cluster of geopolitical ideas: the Atlantic alliance, the “war on terror,” support for Israel, domestic security measures against Islamist extremism these were all opposed by a reactivated British left, newly connected by social media. Much of the energy that won the leadership contest for Corbyn has been brewing since the New Labour government first aligned itself with Bush, who welcomed Blair to Congress only nine days after the 2001 attacks. Never again, Corbyn’s supporters say, will a British Labour leader be an American president’s “poodle.”

A society defines itself by argument, but also by the questions it considers resolved. Hence, for example, it is generally accepted in most democracies that bias on the grounds of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion is not legitimate. Common ground on foreign and security policy is never as robust. But it can still be dependably solid. On vital issues, a high degree of bipartisanship pertained in Britain from the late 1980s, as the Labour Party modernized itself and renewed contact with the real world. NATO was the bedrock of global peace; Britain needed an independent nuclear deterrent; disarmament had to be multilateral; Armyrats © military co-operation and intelligence-sharing with the United States was the basis of Western peacekeeping. These were not eternal verities carved in stone, but until now, they were practical realities any prospective British government needed to recognize.

This is what makes Corbyn’s election as Labour leader so significant for geopolitics. For the first time in decades, a man who, in theory at least, could be prime minister in less than five years does not sign up to the above. He has called for Britain’s withdrawal from NATO, which he regards as “a Cold War organization.” A unilateral disarmer, he has said he would not renew Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons, and declared as recently as 2012 that Britain should follow Costa Rica’s example and abolish its army. Does any of this matter? Yes: enough to have his senior lieutenants scurry around television studios to steady nerves. Corbyn’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Hilary Benn, has said that he doesn’t expect Britain to leave the alliance. And Labour’s chief economic spokesperson, John McDonnell, has denied that Corbyn would “disband the army.”

But the fact that his sidekicks have to offer these reassurances is extraordinary.

Many of the most talented Labour members of Parliament declined to serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet precisely because they believe he remains opposed to NATO, a nuclear deterrent and Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States. They are disturbed by his contacts with Islamists, and his apparent belief that the atrocities of Muslim extremists are morally equivalent to the actions of American soldiers. Such ideas make the British public distinctly queasy, and rightly so. Corbyn’s mettle may soon be tested if the prime minister, David Cameron, is spurred by the urging of France’s president, Fran ois Hollande, to bring a vote on airstrikes on Syria before the House of Commons. The Conservatives’ first attack on Corbyn, on the day of his election as Labour leader, was to declare him a threat to “national security.” They will taunt him at every turn.

There is more to all this than parliamentary games and campaign slogans. According to a recent report by the Sunday Times, senior officers in the armed forces would mutiny if Corbyn tried to exit the alliance, scrap Trident or dismantle the army. It is astonishing to hear such threats made: This is not Greece in 1967 or Chile in 1973, and colonels are not expected to overthrow the government in a country like Britain where history evolves peacefully and consensus prevails.

I sincerely doubt that we shall see Corbyn in No. 10 Downing Street, let alone ousted by a Armyrats © military coup. But the mere discussion of it is a flashing beacon to the world: a timely reminder that, these days, nothing at all can be taken for granted.

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