It has come as no surprise to observers of the Cameron government in Britain that once again the neocons who helped put him in Downing Street have got their way on a foreign policy matter that could turn out to be even more disastrous than the war in Iraq, if such a thing was possible.
Last week, on the urging of Cameron and French President Fancois Hollande the EU let drop its arms embargo on Syria, which means that European powers can start supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels.
When Cameron began urging this course it was at the start of the uprising against Assad’s government and the rationale was simple: arm the pro-Western rebels so that the jihadists, who have been receiving truckloads of weapons from Gulf states, don’t get the credit for overthrowing Assad or become a major player in whatever emerges from the political ruins afterwards.
At the time it made a certain amount of sense but that was then and this is now. The war against Assad is not going well but even so the gains that have been made by the rebels have been won primarily by the jihadists. In contrast their pro-Western, moderate allies have little profile and less credibility.
In other words it is probably too late to alter the balance of power in the rebel camp in a decisive way while assisting Assad’s downfall at this stage can only be to the benefit of the jihadists. As in Libya, the impact of Western intervention and meddling in Syria will likely be not to buttress an “emerging democracy” but to strengthen the forces that the West most fears, that is militant Islam.
None of this has, of course, deterred the neocons who cluster around Cameron, both inside and outside his Cabinet. As a breed and species the neocons are fiercely resistant to common sense and rather like the ‘carved in stone’ Marxists that they came into being to banish, they are prisoners of their own rigid ideology. More on that further down but first a brief primer on the neocons in the Tory bit of the coalition government that is currently blighting Britain.
This rundown on neocon influence is from that sometimes excellent, sometimes infuriating conventional online daily, theweek.co.uk (the Henry Jackson Society is the British version of American neoconservatism):
Cameron’s campaign (to win the leadership of the Tory party) was masterminded by a triumvirate of MPs: Michael Gove, Ed Vaizey and George Osborne.
Gove, who believes the invasion of Iraq was a “proper British foreign policy success”, is the author of the polemic Celsius 7/7, which has been described as a “neo-con rallying cry” for its attacks on Islamism, which he describes as a “totalitarian ideology” on a par with Nazism and Communism, and says must be fiercely opposed.
He, along with Vaizey, is a signatory to the principles of the ultra-hawkish Henry Jackson Society, an organisation founded at Peterhouse College Cambridge in 2005 and named after a warmongering US Senator who opposed détente with the Soviet Union.
The Society supports the ‘maintenance of a strong military’ with a ‘global reach’; among its international patrons are the serial warmonger Richard ‘Prince of Darkness’ Perle, a former staffer of Henry Jackson who was considered one of the leading architects of the Iraq war, and Bill Kristol, the influential American journalist, formerly with the New York Times, who called for military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities in 2006.
As for Osborne, Cameron’s Shadow Chancellor and right-hand man; he praised the “excellent neoconservative case” for war against Iraq. There are other strong neocon influences on Cameron. Policy Exchange, which has been described as the Tory leader’s ‘favourite think-tank’, and which will have an open door to Number 10, was set up in 2002 by Michael Gove and fellow hawk Nicholas Boles, a member of the Notting Hill set who the Tories plan to parachute into the safe seat of Grantham and Stamford at the next election. Dean Godson, the group’s research director and adviser on security issues, has been described as “one of the best connected neoconservatives in Britain”.
When Godson, a former special assistant to the disgraced publisher Conrad Black, was dismissed by the Daily Telegraph, the newspaper’s editor Martin Newland said of him (and Black’s wife, fellow neocon Barbara Amiel, who also wrote for the paper): “It’s OK to be pro-Israel, but not to be unbelievably pro-Likud Israel. It’s OK to be pro-American but not look as if you’re taking instructions from Washington.”
In 2007, Policy Exchange was accused of deliberately stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain after a controversy over the veracity of some of the evidence it used in its report ‘The Hijacking of British Islam’.
The rigid ideology of neoconservatism of which I wrote above is nowhere more visibly cretinous and laughable than when its proponents are, or rather were, dealing with the peace process in Northern Ireland. I say ‘were’ because their interpretation of key aspects of the process were rendered so imbecilic by events that they have, rather sensibly, stopped talking about them.
The neocons have a way of dealing with and explaining situations like Northern Ireland which are both utterly simplistic but innately appealing, especially to those of an imperialist bent of mind. Terrorists are terrorists, they say, and can never be anything else so any effort by the terrorists to present themselves in a different light or to take a course that is not violent is just trickery and should be dismissed out of hand. The only way to treat terrorists is harshly and with a gun.
It is, of course, no accident or chance that American and British neoconservatives are amongst the stoutest supporters of Likud-style Zionism in Israel where politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu have made an art form out of their implacable refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians. And just as the PLO can never change its spots then neither can the IRA.
Except in the case of Ireland the neocon theory is demonstrably and, if it wasn’t so serious, hilariously wrong.
I cite as an example of how wrong, this article by David Frum from a June 21st, 2004 issue of the online version the conservative magazine National Review. David Frum was one of George W Bush’s inner circle and famously helped write Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ State of the Union speech on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. This article should be flourished in the face of every neoconservative who ever again proposes military action on foreign soil and it especially should be flung in the faces of Cameron’s neocon coterie:
The 1990s were an era of seeming peacemaking. In Israel, in Colombia, in Northern Ireland, enduring quarrels were being negotiated to apparent compromise. Nobel Prizes were awarded the Arab and Israeli peacemakers in 1994, and then the Irish peacemakers in 1998. We seemed decisively moving toward a better world—in my opinion, for what it is worth, one reason that the stock market managed to rise so high and fast in the mid-1990s despite the Bill Clinton tax increases of 1993.
I must confess that I was as caught up in the enthusiasm of those times too. Yet through it all, my phone kept ringing—and there on the other end was my friend Dean Godson, for many years the chief editorial writer of Britain’s Daily Telegraph, and as thoroughly unillusioned an observer of politics as exists on either side of the Atlantic.
Dean kept pointing out that the Israeli, Colombian, and Irish processes all shared a dangerous defect: They were attempts to make peace with terrorist adversaries who were not sincerely committed to peace. As US President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair lavished their patience and ingenuity to bring the two sides together, Dean kept perceiving that Clinton and Blair were engaging in a massive self-deception—refusing to see facts as they were, because those facts were too ugly and depressing.
Dean was an editorialist, so you might have expected him to ventilate this insight through fierce little polemics of 600 words or so. His father was an American Jew born in Russia, so you might have expected him to concentrate his attention on the Arab-Israeli dispute. Instead, for no reason that any outsider could easily discern, Dean became profoundly concerned with the Irish quarrel—and passionately committed to the lonely struggle of what may qualify as the world’s least popular political constituency, the predominantly Protestant Unionists of northern Ireland. He has devoted the past five years to a colossal biography of the Unionist leader, David Trimble, co-winner of the 1998 prize. The book was published last week to almost unanimous acclaim in Britain and Ireland. It may be the only book ever to win glowing reviews from the leading papers of both northern and southern Ireland, the Belfast Telegraph and the Irish Times.
“Himself Alone”—the title is a punning reference to the Irish Republican group Sinn Fein, “ourselves alone”—is much more than just the story of one politician’s career. It is an attempt through very close study of day-by-day events to show how democratic politicians can be sucked into a process of concession-making to those who intend to destroy democracy.
Like Yasser Arafat’s PLO and the Colombian Marxist insurgents, the Irish republican negotiaters won concession after concession with promise after promise—only to pocket the concessions and break the promises.
The longer the process lasted, the further the democratic politicians drifted from their original intentions.
British politicians who entered the process intending to protect the union between northern Ireland and mainland Britain—a union cherished by a large majority of the population of northern Ireland—ended by inventing a new kind of multinational structure in which northern Ireland would somehow be jointly governed by Britain and the Republic of Ireland together.
Northern Irish politicians who entered the process to defend the union found themselves contemplating independence for northern Ireland—and estrangement from Britain—in order to protect themselves and their interests.
The elected politicians of southern Ireland—who privately recognized that northern Ireland could never be democratically united with the South—found themselves deputized to provide democratic legitimacy for terrorists they despised.
Well, I needn’t tell regular readers of this blog that since that Frum piece appeared, the IRA gave up all its weapons and de facto Sinn Fein has accepted the principle of consent, that there cannot be Irish unity without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. They have also accepted the police forces and state institutions of both sides of the Border and have begun to describe the IRA’s campaign as ‘murder’.
Its senior personnel help to govern the state which a few years before they were pledged to destroy. A party which once defended throwing mortars into the back garden of 10 Downing Street now proudly boasts about persuading colleagues in the power-sharing Assembly to impose a five pence levy on supermarket plastic bags.
Now for my money you can’t really get more constitutional in your politics than that. And you can’t be more wrong than David Frum, Dean Godson and the Cameron allies who shared their analysis of Northern Ireland. The only remaining question is, why do such people still have influence over decisions that could cost lives?