Hilary Benn’s speech – The media’s war footing on Corbyn and Syria

Outside of North Korea, speeches by political figures are rarely universally showered with adulation. So the mainstream media’s ravings in reaction to Hilary Benn’s speech to parliament on Syria are especially noticeable. Across the spectrum, the speech has been reported as ‘riveting’ (Guardian), ‘extraordinary’ (Mirror), ‘great’ (BBC News at 6, 3 December) and that of a ‘true leader’ (Telegraph).

The reason for such lauding is obvious. Britain’s media is on a double-war footing. The first war is against Jeremy Corbyn, and is countering the threat that Corbyn’s more popular policies may gain even wider support (see my previous blog). The second war is for Britain’s ongoing right to bomb somewhere whenever elites want. The two agendas came together in Benn’s speech – in a single stroke, Benn achieved both the elite’s war aims: undermining Corbyn and helping to win the vote for bombing Syria.

I’ve been monitoring the mainstream media for 30 years and cannot remember a time like this: literally everything is being thrown at Corbyn. The BBC has simply become an attack dog, its reporting so extreme and so full of vilification that it does not even have a pretence of providing the balance that is required of it as a ‘public service broadcaster’. The people who pay for the ‘news’ service the BBC provides (us, of course) are its precise enemy, the target of its disinformation.

Reading the text of Benn’s speech, it is mainly notable for being so predictable. Whenever elites are set on military intervention, they tend to make fancy speeches that will make their actions seem noble (Blair’s Chicago speech in 1999 to justify bombing Yugoslavia is an obvious example; George Bush Senior prattled on about a ‘new world order’ as he gave the order to bomb Iraq back to the stone age in 1990). Hilary Benn’s key point was that Britain has a ‘moral and practical duty’ to bomb Syria and that the UN ‘is asking us to do something’. Thus he was seriously suggesting that Britain would be acting immorally it we didn’t bomb, a position even more extreme than the usual recourse to moralism.

Actually, UN Security Council Resolution 2249, to which Benn was referring, does not simply give Britain a licence to bomb. The text authorises ‘all necessary measures’ to ‘eradicate the safe haven’ that IS has established in Iraq and Syria and to ‘prevent and suppress terrorist acts’. But it does not explicitly authorise force (as in a chapter VII resolution) and also requires ‘compliance with international law’, meaning that countries must act in self-defence. How is bombing IS in Syria acting in self-defence? Given that the Paris attacks were organised in Belgium, maybe Mollenbeek would be a better military target. The likelihood is that if terror attacks are to occur in Britain – as they did after the bombing of Iraq – they may well be conducted by fanatical British Muslims living in Britain not in Syria.

Benn then immediately contradicted his professed moralism by saying that although he had ‘concerns’ about the ‘potential civilian casualties’, ‘unlike Daesh, none of us today act with the intent to harm civilians’. This view will come as great comfort to the mothers and fathers of British-bombed children in the region – “sorry we killed your kids, but we didn’t mean to”. Is Benn’s reference to simply ‘potential’ civilian casualties not a disgrace in itself?

Benn even had the audacity to quote in his speech a Kurdish leader apparently supporting British airstrikes. These are the same Kurds who have been nearly wiped out in the region in recent decades by Iraqi and Turkish governments being constantly armed and otherwise supported by Whitehall. The Kurds are once again being used as pawns, and will surely be dumped again when their present utility has run out.

‘Our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and justice’, Benn also said, apparently with a straight face, in an appeal to fellow Labour MPs. He also said that ‘We believe we have a responsibility to one to another. We never have – and we never should – walk by on the other side of the road’. These claims are not just amusing for anyone with the remotest knowledge of Labour’s postwar and recent foreign policy. They are also tragic – given what Britain is currently doing in relation to Yemen (supporting slaughter), Egypt (supporting a dictator) Bahrain (supporting repression), and Saudi Arabia, to mention just some of the policies that Benn’s wing of the party are not seriously challenging, but could actually do so if they were seriously concerned about human rights. This is not to mention 50 or so other episodes in Labour’s postwar history where it has been on the side of human rights abusers.

The media adulating Benn chose not to ridicule such nonsense despite several other opportunities in the speech. Benn also evoked, for example, the need for ‘solidarity’ with Iraq – a country to which Labour has demonstrated its moral commitments so well these past few years – and even invoked solidarity with ‘our ally, France’ – something which again did not seem to trouble the media xenophobes now praising Benn who are otherwise pouring out malicious anti-European sentiment day in day out.

At the end of his speech, Benn termed IS fascists and called on Britain to stand up to it just like it did against Mussolini and Hitler (he also mentioned Franco, but I will pass by the myth that Labour stood up to Franco because it’s too much a deviation). I think IS are inhuman and monstrous, and are certainly out-an-out terrorists; they clearly have to be countered, but the issue is how. I am not a pacifist and there are times when, in extreme circumstances, military force can be justified as a last resort, in my view. 1939 was such a time. But the invocation of this now, and the idea that IS poses an existential threat is just self-serving war-mongering done to give a moral pretext to yet another unjustified British policy. Desperate British elites have since VE Day wheeled out the fascist threat every time they want to do something drastic that they know may well be unpopular (invading Iraq 2003, invading Egypt 1956 etc).

I have a view that the British people (and indeed, the people of the Middle East) are now sandwiched between two big, real threats – one is posed by actors like IS, who really are contemptuous of human life and much modern civilisation, but the other is the danger represented by the reaction to such threats, by those posing as our defenders. President Hollande’s declaration of ‘war’ against IS is something which fanatical terrorists will surely have appreciated, since it elevates their own cause. Britain’s bombing of Syria may also help IS in drawing Britain and others even further into the region (eventually sucking in more ground troops), to increase the cycle of violence and also help IS recruit more people, and indeed help them claim they are defending their lands from the crusaders. A stronger, more clever strategy is surely to downplay not elevate the IS threat and to pursue a range of ‘normal’ but strengthened economic, legal, political and other measures to combat it. It would also help if we did not support the forces in the region which have helped nurture IS in the first place.

Very sadly, we should fear terrorist attacks in Britain. But it is also the case that British leaders are not genuinely committed to stopping terrorism. They have special relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for example, which have been the two major state sponsors of global terrorism for the past 40 years (see Secret Affairs) whose money and support have spawned a variety of groups, not least al-Qaida. British elites have no moral consistency and are selective in their choice of enemies, just like Benn was selective in his choice of countering one human rights abuser (IS) but not others (Yemen? Saudi? Bahrain? Egypt? Not to mention Israel). By countering only one threat, others can arise. By allying with some forces to defeat one threat, we can empower others.

The Middle East is on fire and British policies can influence the situation for good or bad. History shows that British and Western policy in the Middle East is not about promoting democracy or human rights, or even peace, but is rather a set of ad hoc, short-termist and often violent reactions to the threat of the day or the ally of the moment- it is partly this lack of any moral consistency that contributes to the mess in the region. Little heed is being given to a broader, long term picture – basically because elites don’t much care about ‘our’ (national) interests, only theirs.

Britain’s air force began bombing the Middle East 100 years ago, soon after airplanes were invented. Whitehall basically invented aerial bombing and we have the longest track history of not only launching the weapons but managing the propaganda. We’re in another terrible cycle.


Originally published: (markcurtis.wordpress.com) 

Mark Curtis is an author and consultant. He is a former Research Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and has been an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Strathclyde and Visiting Research Fellow at the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, Paris and the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Auswartige Politik, Bonn.

Mark has written six books on British foreign policies and international development:

Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam (Serpent’s Tail, 2012)
Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses
(Vintage, 2004)
Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World
, (Vintage, 2003)
Trade for Life: Making Trade Work for Poor People
(Christian Aid, 2001)
The Great Deception: Anglo-American Power and World Order
(Pluto, 1998)
The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy since 1945
(Zed, 1995).

Mark has also worked on international development issues for over 20 years and manages a consultancy that works with and supports progressive NGOs – Curtis Research. This work focuses on developing countries, especially in Africa, on issues such as food/agriculture, mining, tax, corporations and trade.

Mark is a former Director of the World Development Movement (now called Global Justice Now), Head of Global Advocacy and Policy at Christian Aid and Head of Policy at ActionAid.  He is a graduate of Goldsmiths’ College, University of London and the London School of Economics and Political Science.

To contact Mark, email: [email protected]

 twitter: @markcur29245479

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