A couple of months ago, I sat with a young Libyan gentleman in a coffee shop in London. In 2011, he had travelled to Libya to help bring down Muammar Gaddafi. He had volunteered in a makeshift press office, disseminating news to the Western media about the government’s latest atrocities.
He admitted to me that he and his team had, on occasion, exaggerated the numbers of protesters killed by Gaddafi, to get more support from the West. He said that during a certain episode, they decided to exaggerate the number of dead by a factor of 10. The incident, which he would not specify, was reported widely in the UK.
In the following years, seeing the country he had tried to save collapse around him, the man had grown disillusioned and left Libya. He admitted he wished Gaddafi had never fallen.
His story felt far detached from the simplistic narrative of “good versus evil” David Cameron had used to justify the NATO incursion into Libya in 2011.
Vilification of Corbyn
Later this month, a grey-haired backbencher, previously unknown to the British public – will likely become the new leader of the Labour Party. Though he is extremely interested in foreign affairs, it is Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist pitch that has attracted new members into the party, excited at a break from “Blairite” economic liberalism.
If Corbyn does win, Labour may not survive much longer in its current form. Blair’s “middle way” adherents will be mortified, indignant, or worse.
With the stakes so high – his detractors have been striking below the belt. Corbyn’s willingness to talk to Hamas or Hezbollah has been twisted into accusations he is an anti-Semite.
His observation that some Iraqi Sunnis see living under the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as comparable to living under US occupation – was contorted and reported as “Corbyn compares Islamic State fighters to American troops”.
When he pointed out that the US had an interest in Euromaidan, as leaked recordings of senior US state department officials and numerous publicly available government documents attest to – he was accused of wanting to build “a global alliance” with dictators like Russian President Vladimir Putin.
When he pointed out that Libya’s economy under Gaddafi was performing well – he was accused of approving of the regime’s human rights abuses.
Talking to people
Corbyn’s opponents have distanced themselves from possible libel cases. They stress that he is not an anti-Semite himself, for example. It’s just that he’s met people who are, or might be.
Certainly, some of the people Corbyn has shared a platform with aren’t very nice. One later turned out to be a Holocaust denier– though when Corbyn met him, it was at a memorial event for the Deir Yassin massacre.
What Corbyn understands, more than any candidate in the leadership race and arguably across the whole of Westminster, is that those historical conflicts could be rarely considered within the ‘good versus evil’ discourse.
Corbyn has also shared tea with hardliner Iranian, Palestinian and Lebanese Islamists – some of whom have no problem killing civilians. Some of the activists he has met are accused of anti-Semitism, but have fought their case in the courts and won, others he has been criticised for associating with have been seriously misrepresented.
Still, Corbyn explains, to find peace “you have to talk to people with whom you may profoundly disagree. Even Tony Blair is now talking to Hamas”.
Corbyn’s rejection of a “good versus evil” view in foreign affairs is a refreshing change of direction. He refuses to see wars like Iraq or Libya in “black and white”, or “heroic West versus nasty regimes” – instead understanding the UK’s history in shades of grey.
He applies the same logic to conflicts like Northern Ireland, eastern Ukraine or Palestine, and accepts fault where it is due.
Corbyn has threatened to throw his predecessor, Blair, in front of a war crimes tribunal if he ever comes to power, and said he will apologise to the Iraqi people for the deceit that led to the 2003 invasion.
For decades, however, Corbyn has operated at the fringe of British foreign policy, an obscure parliamentarian with no ministerial brief.
If he becomes leader of “Her Majesty’s Opposition” – an early task for a confident post-victory Corbyn will be opposing Cameron’s new plan to bomb ISIL-held parts of Syria.
Misrepresentations from history
Corbyn is an expert on Middle Eastern politics. Syria is an immensely complex conflict with few good options, which is why Corbyn opposes military action to resolve it. The approach of the Conservatives, whose march to war he would have to thwart, is far less mature. They adhere religiously to the stale “good versus evil” narrative.
The defence secretary, Michael Fallon, has even controversially compared the current air war above Iraq to the Battle of Britain. Radical Islamism has likewise been compared to German Nazism.
Resurrection of Adolf Hitler’s memory is a rhetorical tool Cameron abuses often, either in speeches about domestic “extremism” or foreign affairs.
He has compared Putin’s actions in Crimea to Hitler also. He is not alone among wannabe statesmen.
Former US President Bill Clinton compared Slobodan Milosevic to Hitler once. US Secretary of State John Kerry did a similar comparison to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad – albeit for their use of chemical weapons.
Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld compared George W Bush to Winston Churchill on the eve of the 2003 invasion.
These are mighty comparisons to make of incredibly complex situations very dissimilar to Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
What Corbyn understands, more than any candidate in the leadership race and arguably across the whole of Westminster, is that conflicts rarely conform to a good versus evil narrative – even that of Winston Churchill versus Hitler (anyone remember Josef Stalin?)
If the world were ever to face a threat as serious as Adolf Hitler again – it might not be a good idea to have Jeremy Corbyn in the driving seat.
In the meantime, the outlier could be a very handy statesman for peace-minded Britons, in a war-hungry Westminster that seems to have learned few lessons from the Iraq debacle, defeat in Afghanistan, chaos in Libya and the very real legacy of colonial projects in the Middle East.
I’m not a Labour member or even a Labour voter, but if I could throw my vote into the contest – Corybn would certainly get it.
Alastair Sloan is a London-based journalist. He focuses on injustice and human rights in the UK and international affairs, including human rights, the arms trade, censorship, political unrest and dictatorships.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.