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War - what is it good for?

JEREMY CORBYN says the West has taken a welcome step back from military action in recent weeks, but more needs to be done to find peaceful ways to solve problems

Last week I was invited to Frome, Somerset, for a public discussion - "War, what is it good for?"

The event, held in an imposing 18th-century chapel, was packed. Who says international affairs are a turn-off for the public?

Coming shortly after the historic parliamentary rejection of the Prime Minister's plans for military action in Syria the topic deserved deep examination.

Some have dismissed the Syria vote as an aberration or a mistake, or simply the consequence of a few MPs not getting to London in time for the vote.

Actually the issue goes much deeper.

Britain has obsessively stuck to its "global role," ignoring the reality of its abilities or funds, ever since the end of World War II.

The result is that we have the fourth-highest per capita arms spending in the world as governments seek a "global reach," meaning a determination to do whatever the United States requires us to do in furtherance of its own "global role."

This has given us nearly 60 years of nuclear weapons and numerous conflicts from Korea to Iraq, with all the consequent costs both in lives and to our economy.

The only slight deviation from this was that Britain didn't formally send troops to Vietnam - but the Harold Wilson government did give huge political support to US president Lyndon Johnson.

Aggressive US foreign policy was born out of post-war rivalry with the Soviet Union.

After 1990 that whole rationale had disappeared and a new role had to be found to satisfy the voracious appetites of the arms and aircraft manufacturers and the ambitions of strutting generals.

The events of September 11 2011 at the World Trade Centre in New York gave them their opportunity.

There was precious little logic in invading Afghanistan in response, but in a time of shock George W Bush got away with it.

At the same time Congress gave him unprecedented powers over domestic life via the Homeland Security Act.

Guantanamo Bay, Bagram and "extraordinary rendition" were the products of that time.

In Britain Tony Blair, not to be outdone, persuaded a more reluctant Parliament to pass similar curtailments of civil liberties which remain to this day, and to support the Afghan war. The entire British Establishment lined up behind this conflict and largely still backs it today.

Barack Obama's 2008 acceptance speech for the Democrat nomination for president referred to it as the "real" war, as opposed to Iraq.

But we should also be thankful for every demonstration, rally, meeting, march and leafleting session over the last 12 years that has shown there is an alternative - war is not inevitable or necessary.

All those events played their part in the Syria vote.


Just as the Iraq war really started in January 2002 with Bush's "axis of evil" speech, the government's defeat on Syria goes back several months.

When a group of Tory MPs with some Labour support called for arms to be supplied to the Syrian opposition they found a ready ear in the Foreign Secretary.

William Hague counselled them to wait until August, when the EU arms embargo would end and enable Britain and France to arm the Syrian National Council's forces.

How these weapons were to be delivered, and to whom, were weak spots in the plan. The obvious question - would we end up arming al-Qaida - was met with blank looks and assertions that this would not happen.

But the West's arming of the mojahedin in Afghanistan did provide weapons for the Taliban and later al-Qaida. History can and does repeat itself.

The parliamentary politics of this became more complicated over the summer, as frequent questions in the house showed deep opposition to arming either side.

Eventually there was a non-binding back-bench motion saying that the house would have to be recalled before any arms could be supplied.

The PM duly recalled the house in August and lost the vote on supporting a planned US attack on chemical weapons sites in Syria.

Nobody could ever support the use of chemical weapons, but it was not without irony that the US should propose this.

The effects of Agent Orange still devastate Vietnam. Depleted uranium residues still affect much of Iraq. The white phosphorus used in Gaza and Fallujah killed many people.

Britain's vote, and the subsequent refusal of Congress even to vote on Obama's plan, forced a recognition of the positive role Russia could play in resolving the crisis and the need to involve Iran.

The coalition of the EU, US and the Gulf states with their plans for a post-Assad Syria dominated by their allies fell apart and a process for eliminating the chemical weapons has been agreed.

That is to be welcomed, though it has not ended the war.

The conflict has already left 100,000 dead, created two million refugees and devastated Syria's infrastructure.

A political solution has to be found. "Geneva II" provides that possibility, but only if Russia and Iran are involved and social and religious identities are protected in Syria.

The diplomatic rather than military offensive needs to go much further, and quickly.

Diplomacy is also needed on other fronts.

Israel is the only state in the Middle East with nuclear weapons. And listening to the strident voice of Benjamin Netanyahu and his obsession with Iran it seems he has no wish for peace, either with Tehran or the Palestinians.

President Hassan Rouhani's speech to the UN was boycotted by Israel. Obviously it was alarmed at the peace proposals it contained and how they might affect the perceptions of that country.

But Britain's not much better. It's time to mend fences with Iran. Reopening our embassy there would be a good start - and allow us to more effectively raise human rights issues with Tehran.


We need movement on this. The last full nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference called for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, with a conference held outside the NPT so that non-signatory Israel could be involved.

Finland failed to hold the conference. Now no date is set for it by anyone.

This failure has already resulted in Egypt withdrawing from the NPT and other Arab states may follow.

There are real dangers of nuclear proliferation. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are capable of developing nuclear weapons.

The past few months have shown a marked shift away from war in Western policy. This is partly due to US and British money worries, but also down to a realisation that there is no appetite for war in the US any more.

But in 2016 there will be a vote on our spending £100 billion on Trident replacement to give us a whole new generation of nuclear weapons.

Are we seriously going to invest in weapons of mass destruction rather than real engineering jobs, health or education?

The argument that the arms industry creates jobs sounds powerful, but actually it's weak. These people could be productively employed.

Instead we host dictators and human rights abusers at the Defence Equipment Sales Convention - the arms fair, to you or I - and sell them arms.

Our moral right to object to abuses by foreign governments disappears when we have sold them the equipment used to kill protesters.

Frome was a great discussion between well-informed people. The issue is not just Syria, and not just the Middle East.

It's our whole view of the world and militarism from Congo to Afghanistan.

Wars for minerals and power kill millions and destroy liberties at both ends of the military chain.

Our protests have made a huge difference and give hope for peace. Join Stop the War Coalition's international anti-war conference at the end of next month to find out more.


Stop the War's international anti-war conference will be held on November 30 from 10am at the Emmanuel Centre on Marsham Street, London SW1. Find out more at


Jeremy Corbyn is Labour MP for Islington North.


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