Hilary Benn made a powerful case for attacking Isis by bombing Syria to conclude the marathon Commons debate on Wednesday.
According to most parliamentarians, it was one of the great speeches of recent times. The shadow foreign secretary has been duly lauded by commentators across the political spectrum, but particularly in the right-wing press.
And his evocation of Labour’s internationalist traditions in support of defeating Isis “fascism” marked him out by some as the party’s leader in waiting.
But for all his craft, the drama and his obvious betrayal of current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, his speech failed to answer some pretty basic questions.
Benn failed to give any idea as to what would happen after the bombing stops. He didn’t give us a clue as to what the bombing would actually achieve, other than hinder the free movement of Isis fighters.
He didn’t acknowledge any misjudgement in supporting Tony Blair’s ill-conceived war in Iraq. Remember, that war helped create the conditions under which Isis would eventually thrive.
Style over substance
This illustrated how easily the British political establishment can be mesmerised by style over substance.
Of course, the right-wing press lapped it up, particularly Dan Hodges in The Daily Terrorist – sorry, Telegraph. He described Benn as not only a real Labour leader, but as a future prime minister. Such hyperbole is par for the course. The Terrorist will take any and every opportunity to undermine Corbyn.
But even some on the Left praised it as a powerful, impassioned and intellectually rigorous performance akin to Robin Cook’s speech in opposition to the Iraq war in 2003.
However, alluding to Britain’s distant victory over the Nazis and ignoring its recent role in the Middle East was a convenient wheeze. Benn used it to claim moral ownership of Labour’s democratic traditions and joined the media’s routine rubbishing of Corbyn.
In doing so, Benn junior turned his back on the political inheritance from his own father. An active anti-war campaigner, Tony Benn believed those who do not understand their mistakes are fated to repeat them.
By voting with David Cameron, Benn junior ignored the failure of post-war reconstruction and state-building in Iraq. And it was this that created the power vacuum into which Isis poured. Put in those terms, his talk of humanitarianism and international solidarity seems horribly naïve. This backstory damns his analysis.
No one disagrees that Isis is a murderous blot on the face of humanity. But Hilary Benn avoided any reflection on how it came into being and wider Western involvement in the Middle East.
It can easily be argued, for instance, that Isis is a product of Western policy. And by Western, I primarily mean the US and its closest allies, such as the UK. Hilary Benn has a track record of supporting military action since Blair’s war in Iraq.
Rarely does the West take military action where it has no underlying strategic interest. But the suspicion is the US has not sought to destroy Isis because it wanted an insurgency to destroy the Assad regime.
The West does not condone Daesh’s enforcement of sex slavery. Or the dumping of older, less sexually-interesting women in mass graves. Or the savage murder of anyone that isn’t as mad as it is. But the terror and disruption Isis has spread across Syria might have served a ‘useful’ purpose.
Israel and the Middle East
It is obvious that Isis had acquired American munitions and equipment left behind by its forces once their mission in Iraq had ended.
In addition, the US funded, trained and armed the anti-Assed Free Syrian Army. But most of that money and weaponry has also ended up in Isis’ hands, along with the fighters who defected.
So what is the West’s underlying purpose in bombing Syria?
Well, cynics might put it this way. Which Middle Eastern nation has the largest unexploited oilfield? Answer: Iraq. Which Middle Eastern nation has the second-largest unexploited oilfield? Answer: Syria. What links these two nations, other than a common border? Answer: the West has destabilised both.
Assad is a brutal dictator – no one disputes that. But the West tends to ignore grotesque human rights abuses of its strategic partners, a point that Robin Cook made in his resignation speech.
Saudi Arabia and Israel are given a relatively free ride. In fact, Hilary Benn recently criticised the BDS movement against Israel’s theft and genocide. So much for internationalism and the fight against fascism.
Another morally-dubious war
So, it would appear Hilary Benn is happy for Britain to wage another ill-defined, morally-dubious war. Bombing Syria has at its root the Western need for oil, a topic that his father was often very exercised about, and protecting the petrodollar.
Western oil interests – and especially US oil interests – have long wanted a pliant Syrian government, but Assad wouldn’t play ball. Those interests want to construct oil pipelines across Syria to the Mediterranean coast. A regime-change agenda has helped create the conditions that allowed Isis to thrive. Now the citizens of Raqqa are paying the price.
Isis must be destroyed, but Britain’s involvement as currently defined by David Cameron is unlikely to achieve this.
Those who voted against the government on Wednesday are right to argue that beating Isis requires a truly international effort. And that probably includes significant ground forces from its neighbours to work and be seen to be legitimate.
Until that happens, those like Hilary Benn who plant their flag on the moral high ground should be treated with suspicion.
If human rights were worth fighting for, the West would call out Saudi Arabia for beheading dissidents and bombing Yemen.
Instead, Britain has chosen another murky theatre dominated by oil and warring factions. Bombing Syria will achieve little of good for the UK. Don’t let Hilary Benn’s fine words about democratic values and internationalism persuade you otherwise.