After weeks of hysteria in Britain’s right-wing press, the latest smear campaign against Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has fallen apart in the most humiliating fashion. Allegations that Corbyn was a Czech spy gave way to shrill demands that he release a Stasi file which doesn’t exist before both collapsed into abject apologies from Tory members of parliament who fear a brush with the libel courts.
But like a cuttle-fish squirting ink to obscure its retreat, pundits have tried to shift the conversation onto more promising ground. Corbyn may not have been on the Czech payroll, they insist, but his supposed record of complicity with the Eastern Bloc is shameful enough in its own right, and should disqualify him from high office.
In a Times article with the headline “Jeremy Corbyn’s sickening support of Soviet empire,” Edward Lucas completely neglects to provide any evidence of that “support,” but works himself into a lather of indignation all the same: “His open, visceral anti-Westernism helped the Kremlin cause, as surely as if he had been secretly peddling Westminster tittle-tattle for money.”
Another Times columnist, Daniel Finkelstein, is more candid, accepting that Corbyn “was not, and is not, a Soviet-style communist,” since he came from a New Left tradition that rejected “the idea of everyone eating breakfast on Moscow time.” In the Telegraph, Robert Colvile agrees: “He was a socialist, not a Communist; Team Trotsky, not Team Stalin.” Trotskyist or not, what matters for Colvile is that the Labour leader was clearly not a follower of Team America: “Corbyn did not want the Soviet Union to win: he wanted America to lose. And he still does.”
This is the crux of the whole argument. Lucas, Finkelstein, and Colvile all see the Cold War as an uplifting morality tale that pitted right against wrong, democracy against dictatorship, and ended in a resounding victory for the good guys. From their perspective, Corbyn’s opposition to US foreign policy was “objectively” pro-Soviet, whatever he might have said about Moscow and its satellite states.
The Great Crusade
Debunking this fantasy feels almost like telling a child that Santa Claus isn’t real, but the job has to be done.
Even if we restrict our gaze to Europe, the picture is much less edifying than Atlanticist orthodoxy would suggest. Daniel Finkelstein is horrified by Corbyn’s description of NATO as an alliance that had never been “overly troubled by concepts of democracy or human rights.” How else can we describe an organization that welcomed Salazar’s Estado Novo as one of its founding members, and had no trouble accommodating far-right dictatorships in Greece and Turkey?
Of course, by far the greatest part of the action during the Cold War took place outside Europe, and that is where the comforting narrative really breaks down. From Suharto to Videla, Mobutu to Ríos Montt, the US and its allies supported some of the world’s most brutal regimes as they racked up a body count in the millions.
The claim that Washington had to deal with such unsavory characters because they were the only alternative to Soviet-style Communism cannot withstand a moment’s scrutiny. The US repeatedly engineered the overthrow of freely elected presidents and prime ministers, from Guatemala to the Congo, showing a clear preference for dictators who could be relied upon to do its bidding.
In his chapter on Latin America for the Cambridge History of the Cold War, historian John Coatsworth drew up a balance-sheet of the carnage inflicted by the two superpowers in their respective spheres of influence:
Between 1960, by which time the Soviets had dismantled Stalin’s gulags, and the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of non-violent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those in the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. In other words, from 1960 to 1990, the Soviet bloc as a whole was less repressive, measured in terms of human victims, than many individual Latin American countries.
The best way to deflect attention from these facts is to deny that any comparison between Washington and Moscow can even be made. In another red-baiting polemic against Corbyn, the Guardian’s Matthew d’Ancona chastised him for “subtly encouraging the myth of moral equivalence between the two sides in the Cold War.”
D’Ancona may not be aware of it, but the term “moral equivalence” was popularized by Reagan’s United Nations ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, as the “whataboutism” of its day. For anyone familiar with Kirkpatrick’s record, it is difficult to read her essay ‘The Myth of Moral Equivalence’ without feeling the need to take a shower.
Let’s consider some of the most salient aspects of that record. In 1980, four US churchwomen were abducted by government soldiers in El Salvador, raped, and shot in the head, their bodies dumped in a shallow grave.
For Kirkpatrick and her colleagues, the truth behind the killings was most inconvenient. They were determined to ramp up military aid to the Salvadorean junta as part of their dirty war against the Left in Central America. Nothing could be allowed to interfere with that plan.
Reagan’s secretary of state, Alexander Haig, demanded that the US ambassador to San Salvador, Robert White, lie about the junta’s investigation of the murders. When White refused, he was sacked.
Kirkpatrick’s “unequivocal” statement that the Salvadorean regime bore no responsibility for the death of four US citizens was a calculated falsehood. A more sophisticated apologist for the junta would have left it at that, issuing a few hollow words of condemnation while ensuring behind closed doors that nothing was done.
But such was the depth of Kirkpatrick’s malice that she couldn’t help blurting out her true feelings: “The nuns were not just nuns. They were political activists. We ought to be a little more clear about this.”
A year later, the army that was kept in the field by vast quantities of US military aid butchered eight hundred men, women, and children at El Mozote. The Reagan administration did its best to conceal the truth about the massacre so that aid would keep flowing. Eighty-five percent of all civilian deaths in the conflict were inflicted by the Salvadorean army and its death-squad allies.
Against that backdrop, Kirkpatrick’s essay on “moral equivalence” can only be seen as an exercise in gaslighting. While railing against “totalitarian ideologies” that are “anti-empirical” and “deny that there is any sort of objective truth,” she mocked “an earnest young man” who had told her that the regime in El Salvador was responsible for “gross violations of human rights” and therefore “unworthy of US support”: “The fact is, of course, that approximately 50,000 people have died in El Salvador as a consequence of a guerrilla war.”
This was another calculated lie. Declassified documents released in the early 1990s show that Kirkpatrick was fully aware of the regime’s criminality. As New Jersey congressman Robert Torricelli remarked: “It is now clear that while the Reagan administration was certifying human rights progress in El Salvador, they knew the terrible truth that the Salvadorean military was engaged in a widespread campaign of terror and torture.”
It’s easy to see why Kirkpatrick wanted the US and its allies to be judged by a different ethical standard. But Corbyn’s refusal to indulge such brazen hypocrisy is entirely to his credit.
Winners and Losers
Robert Colvile is scandalized that Corbyn could have “wanted America to lose” on any of the Cold War battlefields. And he quotes with evident disbelief Corbyn’s 1991 statement that “the Soviet Union supported the revolution in Nicaragua and it supported large numbers of anti-colonial struggles in Africa and other places.” Daniel Finkelstein refers to the same comments as proof of Corbyn’s moral bankruptcy.
It is hopefully safe to assume that both men would now accept that the struggle against white supremacy in South Africa was a just cause and its demise an outcome to be celebrated. But that was certainly not the view of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s. The two leaders were determined to prop up the apartheid regime and fully supported its efforts to crush the African National Congress.
A closer look at southern Africa reveals exactly what it meant for “America to lose” in the twilight years of the Cold War. The struggle against white supremacy engulfed the whole region, and Angola was one of its main flash-points. P. W. Botha’s racist government was determined to overthrow the left-wing nationalists of the MPLA, who supported the resistance to apartheid in South Africa and Namibia.
Reagan gave his wholehearted backing to this policy, sending money and weapons to sustain the forces of Jonas Savimbi, a brutal warlord who laid waste to the country and had his own men burnt for witchcraft along with their families when they dissented. Savimbi was honored as a guest in the White House. In 1987, Reagan sent him a warm letter of support, offering “my best wishes once again to you and to the proud forces of UNITA as you struggle to bring freedom to Angola.”
Between 1986 and 1991, Savimbi’s UNITA received $250 million in assistance from the US, including high-tech anti-aircraft missiles. When Mikhail Gorbachev suggested that Washington and Moscow should both withdraw support from their respective allies in Angola, Reagan refused to consider it.
In 1987–88, Botha’s regime stepped up its intervention in support of Savimbi in a bid to destroy the MPLA — and by extension, the whole anti-apartheid struggle — for good. The only country standing in their way was Cuba.
Jeremy Harding, who witnessed the conflict at close hand as a war correspondent, later described his feelings as he watched Cuban MiGs take off on a mission to pound Africa’s most formidable war machine into scrap iron:
These terrifying engines of harm taking to the wing produced a strong, partisan sensation that I wouldn’t care to examine now. For years Angola had been put to the sword, as Pretoria rode into battle wearing Washington’s favours, with superior air power and Savimbi’s foot soldiers running before the horse. Here, at last, was a sign that the war was becoming an even contest.
The humiliating defeat inflicted on the apartheid regime at Cuito Cuanavale was a watershed in the struggle against white supremacy throughout the region. Conservative pundits who never lifted a finger in support of that struggle while it was in progress now like to pretend it was a largely peaceful affair, a feel-good remake of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi biopic with Morgan Freeman in the lead role.
Nelson Mandela had no time for such self-serving cant. On a visit to Cuba in 1991, he told his audience that “the defeat of the apartheid army served as an inspiration to the struggling people of South Africa. Without the defeat of Cuito Cuanavale our organizations would not have been legalized.”
Since Corbyn is often denounced for his amicable relations with Sinn Féin, it is also worth recalling that Gerry Adams was the only politician in any part of the United Kingdom who gave direct military assistance to the ANC.
This is what Corbyn had in mind when he defended “the principle of anti-imperialism, internationalism, and solidarity” soon after the Soviet Union’s collapse. It explains why those left-wingers who deplored the lack of political freedom in the Eastern Bloc could still harbor mixed feelings about its demise, knowing what the lack of a countervailing force in world politics would mean for those at the sharp end of US aggression in Africa or Latin America.
The attacks on Corbyn’s foreign-policy outlook aren’t simply motivated by a search for historical mud that can be thrown at the Labour Party. There is real anxiety that a man who doesn’t share the Atlanticist instincts of the British ruling class could become the country’s prime minister.
That anxiety comes across very clearly in another recent column by Daniel Finkelstein. With palpable distaste, he notes that for Corbyn, “the problems of countries outside the Western global elite have been caused, and are still caused, by imperialist domination.” Finkelstein is worried that Corbyn may inspire “a shift to an anti-imperialist stance in which we no longer consider ourselves the good guys and no longer assume we know who the ‘white hats’ are”; after all, “the argument for Atlanticism won’t make itself, any more than the argument for capitalism will.”
Of course, Britain’s foreign-policy consensus doesn’t just rely on intellectual firepower. The bloc of interests standing behind it is formidable, and Corbyn will struggle to transform the policy of his own party, let alone that of the British state. Well beyond the ranks of the anti-Corbyn Labour right, there are those in the party who would prefer him to concentrate on domestic policy and steer clear of “divisive” issues — a dismal attitude that would open the way for capitulation to conservative pressure right across the board.
But Finkelstein is right to worry about the dangers that may arise if senior politicians start questioning the basic tenets of British foreign policy. He hints at the nature of the problem by acknowledging that it could be difficult “to argue that while we should oppose the ayatollahs in Iran, we should consider Saudi Arabia our ally.”
Needless to say, there is no way anyone can justify the double standards applied to Saudi Arabia and Iran by appealing to transcendent moral principles. Cynical great-power interests are the only thing at stake. So the best way to defend the Saudi alliance is to place it beyond debate altogether.
Belief in the west’s moral superiority is not something that can be defended on rational grounds; it is an article of faith. And there is nothing true believers hate more than somebody who asks the fatal question: “Why?”