The Labour party has always had a proud internationalist tradition. Yet in recent years we have allowed ourselves to be bullied into thinking that any attempt by the West to intervene in the affairs of another country, regardless of the reasons for intervention, is modern day colonialism.
This thinking is not the preserve of the Labour party – it plagues decision makers across the West. The price paid is the carpet-bombing of Aleppo and the existence and subsequent dismantling of the ‘jungle’ in Calais this week.
The link between these two tragedies stretches beyond the fact that many of the refugees in Europe are Syrian. What stands out most is that both problems are exacerbated by lack of political leadership being exhibited by western leaders, most of whom seem to have been reduced to wringing their hands, passing the buck, or worse, demonising those they should be trying to help. What Syria and the refugee crisis are crying out for are leaders willing to take responsibility and find a solution.
Post-Iraq there is caution in the air whenever the subject of foreign intervention rears its head, but to me all the wrong lessons have been learned from that conflict. We are instead indulging in an identity crisis about our role in the world. This indulgence has left a vacuum currently being filled by Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the Middle East – unashamedly committing atrocities far worse than any Western action (justified or unjustified) in recent years – and by isolationists across Europe. The West should be standing up to Putin, Bashar al-Assad and other leaders who are driving people to risk leaving their homes on the long journey to Europe.
In Britain, there seem to be two main schools of thought in foreign policy. The first is the centre-right idea that frames all intervention in terms of British national security. We saw this in the Syria debate last December and it is why we are in the bizarre situation now where we are taking out ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria and doing nothing about Russian and Assad bombings against innocent civilians down the road.
The second school of thought used to be centred on western humanitarian intervention and the idea that those in a position to help stop humanitarian disasters had a moral obligation to do so. Post-Iraq this has been usurped by the politics that says western intervention only makes a bad situation worse, and that every wrong in the world can be blamed on the West.
This ideology started life in the far left, but post-9/11 and the Iraq war has taken in much of the mainstream left, including the current leadership of the Labour party and, to a lesser extent, the previous leader.
This anti-western mentality has had an obvious impact in both Syria and Iraq, as well as a less obvious impact on Britain’s attitude to the refugee crisis. In Syria, the vote against intervention gave a green light to Assad to carry out his atrocities (despite contravening President Barack Obama’s declared ‘red-lines’) and has led to Russia exerting itself in the Middle East.
We see the horrific consequences of this vote in Aleppo today. In Iraq, the problem started earlier. The political pressure in the West to take troops out of Iraq quickly meant that western troops left prematurely – leading to sectarian politics taking a prominent role in Iraq and the alienation of many Sunni Iraqis. We saw the consequences of this in 2014 and the speed at which Daesh were able to take over vast swathes of land.
For the refugee crisis, I would argue that the success of the criticisms from the left about Britain’s foreign interventions has contributed to a broader discourse around Britain’s role in the world. To illustrate this with an example, many left critics of British foreign policy consistently make the argument that Britain’s actions with our US friends in the Middle East are the sole cause of rise in Islamist extremism.
They have been so successful at making this argument that we have rightwing governments across the West who are able to invert that argument and imply that any young man from the Middle East might be a terrorist, and thus we have a situation in Britain where there is minimal political will to take in refugees who are not girls under the age of 15.
The lesson for the Labour party is that the abdication of responsibility has just as many consequences as the taking of it. What the refugees and victims of war in the Middle East need is not grandstanding at rallies about the evils of western imperialism, but for political actors to take responsibility and seek solutions so they can have a place to call home again.
Grace Skelton is a former national secretary of Labour Students. She tweets at @graceskelton
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