According to the latest opinion polls, and with less than ten days to go until the general election, Britain’s prime minister Theresa May has seen a dramatic fall in her approval rating. How much impact has last week’s terrorist attack in Manchester had, and how its consequences play out? Which party will be seen as a liability in dealing with national security and terrorism, and which has the more credible rationale for how to prevent further attacks?
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The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has suggested that Britain’s foreign policy was one of the causes behind the Manchester suicide bombing, declaring his intention to ensure “our [UK] foreign policy reduces rather than increases the threat to this country.”
While Corbyn made it clear that terrorists carrying out attacks in the UK were entirely to blame for their own actions, his intervention raises a number of difficulties that have plagued British politics since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq following 9/11.
In particular, Britain’s left has developed an obsession with Western foreign policy, while exhibiting myopia when it comes to the actions of anti-Western forces in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the record of May’s Conservative Party is far from unblemished on this issue as well.
The ruinous costs of the 2003 U.S.-backed invasion in Iraq, in which Britain joined as a junior partner, are still being counted today. Conveniently for the Conservatives, the blame for that invasion can be laid squarely at the feet of Tony Blair, then Labour Prime Minister. Yet, the Conservatives cannot escape the role played by May’s predecessor, David Cameron, in the ill-conceived military intervention in Libya in 2011.
In an interview last Friday with British journalist Andrew Neil, Corbyn stated: “We should look at the sources of the [Manchester] attack. It is unwise of any government to ignore the instability which gives rise to the terrorists. Look at the situation in Libya.”
The Labour leader might have added that the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi had been overthrown some eight years after he had agreed to surrender his nuclear weapons program. That sequence has grave ramifications for efforts to stem nuclear proliferation. The regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang will surely have concluded that Gaddafi’s demise and that of his regime was in fact related to his willingness to give up his nuclear weapons, and will have drawn the appropriate conclusions.
Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, a leading Conservative politician, described Corbyn’s comments as “absolutely monstrous.” Yet Crispin Blunt MP, the Tory chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee investigating the Libya operation, said last year that the intervention was “very much Mr Cameron’s production”. He said: “The UK’s actions in Libya were part of an ill-conceived intervention, the results of which are still playing out today.” Indeed, the very same Boris Johnson wrote in 2005 that “the Iraq war did not create the problem of murderous Islamic fundamentalists, though the war has unquestionably sharpened the resentments felt by such people in this country, and given them a new pretext.”
The problem with Corbyn’s intervention is the timing and the deeply problematic message it sends out. His remarks were issued on the same day that Islamic State massacred 29 Coptic Christians in Egypt.
Does Corbyn and his associates really believe that a review in British Middle East policy will change anything, when Islamist groups are ready to massacre Coptic Christians at will in Egypt, Yazidis in Iraq and school girls in Nigeria? Surely, what unites the attacks on the Bataclan in Paris in November 2015, for example, and the attack on the Manchester Arena in May 2017, is hatred of Western culture and everything it stands for, rather than foreign policy? Indeed, the representatives of the Islamic State have admitted as much.
If London’s foreign policy plays a significant part in encouraging attacks on Britain, then one can only envy a country such as Russia which, allied with Iran and Hizballah, has played a leading role in perpetuating the butchery of the Assad regime in Syria, yet has remained relatively unscathed (notwithstanding the St. Petersburg attack earlier this year).
Even if the Manchester attack had not occurred during the election campaign, Corbyn’s views have been long known. The Labour leader is a far left extremist who has set his face against an intervention of any kind anywhere in the Middle East. For the record, he has also expressed hostility towards NATO, and in doing so, has demonstrated he has more in common with Donald Trump than his supporters would care to admit.
Yet where interventions have been carried out in the region by anti-Western or non-Western forces, Corbyn has been conspicuous by his silence. He has maintained his association with the far left Stop the War coalition in spite of its disgraceful failure to condemn Russian and Syrian war crimes. In his former career as a Guardian columnist, Corbyn’s director of communications, Seumas Milne, has consistently blamed terror attacks in the West on its interventions in the Middle East, yet has been strangely silent on the role played by Russia and Iran in the Middle East.
Corbyn cannot hide from his past support for the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah, and he has also voted consistently against anti-terror legislation in parliament, severely damaging his credibility as a leader who can protect the public. It is far from clear, though, whether May’s Conservative Party, with its own skeletons in the closet, will be able to capitalize on this.
Dr. Azriel Bermant is a lecturer in International Relations at Tel Aviv University. His latest book is Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Follow him on Twitter: @azrielb