The foreign policy debate at the Labour Party conference

“And then there’s Iraq” is a phrase often used by critics of the Blair years who have been boosted by the re-election as leader of the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn, whose apology for invading Iraq easily won the biggest applause at this week’s conference in Liverpool.

This four word phrase or just the four letter word, Iraq, usually suffices as shorthand for all that angered many party members with Blair and underpins Corbyn’s second and larger victory. But hard questions about security and intervention cannot be shirked by a party that could form a government and whose actions in opposition can set limits on current government action.

We saw the results of this when Labour MPs refused to back a relatively minor military action to punish Syrian President Assad for using chemical weapons in August 2013. This failure to act prolonged the war and enabled Russia to flex its muscles in the Middle East. Corbyn himself opposed airstrikes in Iraq and in Syria, as a backbencher and then leader in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Unpacking and understanding the invasion of Iraq and detailed critiques of how it was done is not an academic exercise but essential to retrieving the principle of using British political, economic, diplomatic, moral, cultural and military power for the good of humanity.

Labour’s divisions on intervention were on display at the conference. Former shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn told supporters that “when people who are fascists – and I use that word deliberately – are committing genocide, as the UN has now said, against Yazidis and other minorities in Iraq and elsewhere, I think it is the duty of an internationalist Labour party to say we are prepared to help against the fascists … We have got to be, and remain, an internationalist, outward-looking party that will play its part.’

His successor, Emily Thornberry argued in her conference speech for an ethical foreign policy where war is always the last resort but where “peace is never achieved by dropping bombs from 30,000 feet.”

On the eve of his keynote conference speech Corbyn was asked if he would support bombing against Daesh in Iraq and Syria if he were Prime Minister. His answer focused on Syria but he said he didn’t think the bombing was working although, I would say, it saved the Kurds, continues to protect them, and is essential to liberating Mosul.

He said that conflicts always end in political settlement so why not start there although he excluded Daesh from a place at the negotiating table. This worthy but unworldly aspiration was impossible in this case given that there was no avoiding military force against an aggressive fascism that commits genocide and rape as a theocratic duty.

Corbyn’s pitch on foreign policy principles was that Europe faces the impact of a refugee crisis fuelled by wars across the Middle East, that “we have to face the role that repeated military interventions by British governments have played in that crisis,” and that the catastrophic consequences of western wars “have been the spread of terrorism, sectarianism and violence across an arc of conflict that has displaced millions of people forcing them from their countries.” He urged “a foreign policy based on peace, justice and human rights” and apart from the apology for Blair’s invasion majored on banning arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

To be fair, the foreign policy section of Corbyn’s speech was brief, and these homilies contain enough caveats to avoid being a simplistic reiteration of the antiwar movement’s line that the west is mostly to blame. But it rejects an anti-fascist narrative and avoids the autonomous agency of Baathism, Al Qaeda and Daesh as well as the needs of their victims.

Conference delegates cheered his apology for Iraq and his hope that lessons will be learnt from the Chilcot report. But if the lesson is taken as never or perhaps rarely accepting the use of British military force, especially when it is allied to baseless scepticism about the efficacy of limited bombing in Iraq and Syria, then those seeking British military intervention in an emergency from a Corbyn government will be disappointed.

The anger over Iraq 2003 clearly continues to feed a popular desire to avoid using British military force and encourages at best a stress on development, diplomacy and deterrence, which are fine as far as they go but they can and do fail. Thornberry is right that war is the last resort but Benn is also right in urging anti-fascism and Britain pulling its weight in helping protect victims.

This is a personal view by Gary Kent

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