The investigative journalist Matt Kennard has written an open letter to the new Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, asking five questions about his relationship to the national security establishment.
They involve meetings Starmer had with the head of the domestic security service, MI5; his membership of the intelligence-linked Trilateral Commission; his discussions with the US attorney general at a time when Starmer was handling the case of Julian Assange; his role in the Assange case as the public prosecutor; and his relationship with the neocon Times newspaper.
The suggestion is clear: Starmer has been very close to that establishment.
No doubt some will be shocked by the information Kennard has managed to unearth, but if we consider how UK ‘democracy’ is supposed to function, it is really not too surprising. Parties are allowed to argue about the details of domestic policy, but there is meant to be no real disagreement on matters pertaining to foreign policy and national security. In other words, UK politics should be just like America’s.
For a long time, that was indeed the case.
History of bombing
It was a Labour government which took Britain into Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, and a Republican administration that did the same for the US. It was a Conservative government which bombed Libya in 2011 – and a Democratic one in the US. A bi-partisan approach to bombing countries: a bi-partisan approach to ‘regime-change’ ops. Elections won’t disrupt this: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
But in 2013, there was a wobble. To the horror of the endless war lobby, Labour, under Ed Miliband, voted against bombing Syria. Two years later, even worse for Rupert Murdoch and the ‘Deep State,’ a veteran Stop the War activist called Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader.
Corbyn’s back catalogue was decidedly problematic. He had spoken out against every Western military intervention. He was very pro-Palestinian. He didn’t like nukes. He had praised Venezuela. Worse still, Corbyn appointed as his director of strategy and communications one Seumas Milne, a former Guardian journalist well-known for his fluent denunciations of Western foreign policy.
Operation Stop Corbyn was launched. Many Corbynistas believed it was Jezza’s economic policies which provoked the onslaught, but it was where he stood, or had stood, on foreign policy issues and ‘national security’ which meant he was in for the political equivalent of ‘Shock and Awe.’
The smart thing for Corbyn to have done would have been to go on the front foot and articulate how the national security establishment’s agenda of promoting ‘regime-change’ conflicts against secular Middle Eastern countries was actually endangering the security of British citizens.
When quizzed by Andrew Neil in 2017 about his earlier comments that NATO was a danger to world peace, the Labour leader could have mentioned how the bombardment of Libya had turned the country into a jihadist training camp on the shores of the Mediterranean – which had deadly consequences for British tourists holidaying in Tunisia in 2015.
Instead he muttered, rather tamely, that he wanted to work within NATO to ‘promote a human rights democracy.’
Short of dressing up in combat fatigues and calling for a full-scale military invasion of Syria, while waving a copy of the Times in one hand and John McCain’s memoirs in the other, Corbyn was never going to convince the national security establishment that he could be trusted to follow the neocon agenda.
His attempts to edge away from his previously espoused views didn’t work, and his acceptance of a second EU referendum policy – pushed on him by his opponents – proved disastrous.
Starmer brings relief
But as soon as he was replaced by Sir Keir Starmer, a man with a very different resume, the pressure on Labour relented.
To the consternation of many on the Left, Joe Biden formally secured the Democratic Party’s nomination yesterday. And if polling both nationally and in several key battleground states is accurate, he stands a reasonable chance of defeating Donald Trump to become the 46th president of the United States. As voters consider their options this fall, and as leftists prepare to navigate the next four years, it is reasonable to fast forward a bit to examine what a potential Biden administration might look like.
There is perhaps no more critical area in which to start strategizing for a future Biden administration than foreign policy. For one thing, the almost unchecked growth of the “imperial presidency” has left the executive branch unchallenged in its control over this arena. Even under Trump, a president whose foreign policy decisions routinely alarm his own political allies, congressional attempts to reclaim some role in foreign affairs have been feeble and easily defeated. If there is any part of a Biden agenda that is likely to be enacted, regardless of the makeup of Congress, it is this one.
For another thing, it is on the global front where the greatest challenges of the next presidency will lie. The COVID-19 pandemic has run rampant across Asia, Europe, and the Americas, and continues to pose a threat in places like sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Moreover, as in past pandemics the threat of a second wave — perhaps even deadlier than the first — will continue to loom unless and until scientists develop a safe and effective treatment and/or vaccine. Perhaps more seriously, recovering from the economic damage the pandemic has wrought will likely take years, and in the meantime that devastation will undoubtedly contribute to escalating instability around the world. This crisis has exposed weaknesses in international institutions and the global economy that must be addressed, lest the world go through it all again the next time it’s confronted with a new and virulent pathogen.
Lingering in the background of this crisis is the less immediate but more critical threat of climate change. A President Biden will have a profound opportunity either to help reshape global structures in ways that reduce injustice and prepare us for the massive challenges ahead, or to simply restore what has been shown to be a deeply inadequate status quo. In order to do that, he’ll have to rethink the two major driving forces behind US foreign policy: the presumption — whether justified or not — of a “great power competition” between the United States and China, and the never-ending — and increasingly unjustifiable — “war on terror.” Would Joe Biden, who often seems to have been drawn from Central Casting to play the role of “Generic Democrat,” really be willing to break with conventional DC wisdom to solve these international challenges?
In these roles, Biden built a substantial foreign policy record, and very little of it should offer hope to leftists. Hillary Clinton’s vote to authorize the Iraq War was rightly seen as a mark against her presidential candidacies in 2008 and 2016, but Biden not only voted to authorize that war, he was instrumental in helping to sell the conflict to his Democratic colleagues as well as to the American public. His proposal to impose a “soft partition” on Iraq is another mark against his judgment. As vice president, he was a key part of the Obama administration’s foreign policy team, which expanded the drone war, intensified the futile war in Afghanistan, and involved the United States in disastrous conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
To be fair, Biden reportedly opposed the 2009 “surge” into Afghanistan and the 2011 intervention in Libya’s civil war. Yet the different stances Biden took at different times do not suggest that his views evolved in a coherent direction; rather, he appears to lack an overarching vision for foreign policy, and to propose ad hoc solutions to problems as they arise. More often than not, his stances fit within the sort of “liberal interventionism” that has defined mainstream Democratic Party foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. His feel-good talk of adopting a more progressive approach and headlining an “FDR-size presidency” notwithstanding, it’s likely with such an established record on international affairs that he will prefer to keep his own counsel and to surround himself with familiar advisers on the subject.
Moreover, any attempt to predict how a Biden administration will approach foreign policy must contend with one overarching truth: foreign policy is as much reactive as it is proactive. We can predict a few challenges that Biden would encounter immediately; he’d likely push to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, for example, and would probably move to restore and/or renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. By the same token, we can imagine where he’d be likely to continue Trump policies — he’s already said he’ll maintain Trump’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, for example, a theme we return to below.
With this in mind, what might a Biden presidency foreign-policy agenda look like? Certainly, his campaign’s vague promises of “restoring dignified leadership” and “leading the democratic world” give us few meaningful clues, and various Biden foreign policy think pieces from the liberal establishment should be taken more as wish lists than as firm agendas.
There’s a frequently used saying in Washington that “personnel is policy.” That may not be entirely true in the Trump administration, where personnel are shuffled in and out subject to the capricious whims of an unstable president. But a glance at the names that filled important foreign policy positions under Barack Obama or George W. Bush does indeed speak powerfully to the foreign policy approaches those administrations took.
And so we can begin to approximate how a Biden-led foreign policy agenda might look, by looking at those people most likely to formulate and implement it. By this approach, those who are hoping for a new era in America’s approach toward the rest of the world are likely to be disappointed. Indeed, if anything it would appear that the DC foreign policy establishment — the “Blob,” as former Obama adviser Ben Rhodes once put it — would be poised to maintain or even strengthen its hold on power under a President Biden.
Bush’s declaration was greeted with thunderous applause by the usual suspects who portray him as the Virtuous Republican in contrast to Trump. A CNN headline proclaimed: “George W. Bush finally steps onto the right side of history.” The Washington Post chimed in with this headline: “George W. Bush calls out racial injustices and celebrates protestors.”
While the media portrays Bush’s pious piffle as visionary triumphs of principle, Americans need to vividly recall the lies and atrocities that permeated Bush’s eight years as president.
In an October 2017 speech in a “national forum on liberty” at the George W. Bush Institute in New York City, Bush bemoaned: “Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.” Coming from Bush, this had as much credibility as former president Bill Clinton bewailing the decline of chastity.
Most media coverage of Bush nowadays either ignores the falsehoods he used to take America to war in Iraq or portrays him as a good man who received incorrect information. But Bush was lying from the get-go on Iraq and was determined to drag the nation into another Middle East war. From January 2003 onwards, Bush constantly portrayed the U.S. as an innocent victim of Saddam Hussein’s imminent aggression and repeatedly claimed that war was being “forced upon us.” That was never the case. Bush made “232 false statements about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and another 28 false statements about Iraq’s links to Al Qaeda,” as the Center for Public Integrity reported. As the lies by which he sold the Iraq war unraveled, Bush resorted to vilifying critics as traitors in a 2006 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.