Bruce Anderson: David Cameron is no neo-con, but a realist – and a good, old-fashioned Tory sceptic

His critique goes deeper than the failures in Iraq; he does not think democracy is a universal antibiotic
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The Independent Online

On Friday, David Cameron went to Berlin to make an important speech on foreign policy. It was longer on work-in-progress than on firm conclusions, but none the worse for that. The world has rarely seemed more interesting, more complex, or more dangerous. So it is wise for a Prime Minister in waiting to deal in principles rather than in specifics.

That said, Mr Cameron did proclaim two important principles which would have specific consequences. In the first place, he declared that he was not a neo-conservative. True, he did not use that term. Instead, he rejected the doctrine of liberal interventionism, as propounded by Tony Blair. But when Mr Blair used that phrase, everyone knew that he was coming as close as he dared to admitting his neo-conservatism. When David Cameron states that he is a liberal conservative, not a liberal interventionist, he is distancing himself from the neo-cons, while trying not to cause too much pain to the half-dozen or so members of that beleaguered tribe who survive in British political and journalistic life, and who include two important members of his front-bench team, Liam Fox and Michael Gove. (I have always regarded myself as a fellow traveller with the neo-cons, not a full party member.)

To be fair to Mr Cameron, he never was a neo-conservative, any more than he believed in letting the budget deficit go hang in the pursuit of economic growth. He was persuaded of the case for invading Iraq, but he never believed that this would transform the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates into the Garden of Eden. By instinct and temperament as much as by intellect, David Cameron has always been a Kissingerian realist – and a good, old-fashioned Tory sceptic.

In countering his argument, the surviving neo-cons have a problem. Some of them might be tempted to emulate the equally small number of surviving Communists, and claim that neo-conservativism has not failed. It has simply never been tried properly in the right conditions. But that is unlikely to placate their critics, especially over Iraq.

For the indefinite future, we will be arguing about the Iraq war. We can only hope that these arguments will be conducted in newspaper columns, academic seminars or dinner parties, and that they will not take place among a few haunted survivors who can remember the last few decades before our civilisation destroyed itself. But it would probably take such a cataclysm to end the arguments over Iraq.

There are those who still defend the war. Many of us would argue that abolishing the Iraqi armed forces and de-Baathising the civil service were two of the stupidest decisions in the whole of history, that those responsible should be condemned to eternal execration, and that if someone had impeded their lunacy, Iraq might now have come right.

We would also point out that, despite those abominable blunders which have cost hundreds of Western lives plus at least 10,000 Iraqi ones, all is not lost. The surge may be working. There are signs that enough Iraqis now believe that their country has bled enough. Sunnis and Shias are moving out of their foxholes towards a wary rapprochement. If America does have the resolve to keep right on to the end of the road, those who died may not have died in vain.

Yet this does not vindicate neo-conservatism. It is true that without the intellectual muscle of the neo-cons, there might have been no war, and that instead of receiving retribution on the gallows, Saddam Hussein might still have been turning his country into a mass gallows. But without the intellectual naivety of the neo-cons, the post-war reconstruction would have been much less inept.

Highly intelligent men had persuaded themselves that it was only necessary to fling open the tailgate of the Jeep, and distribute candies to the kids and votes to the parents, for the population of Baghdad to start erecting statues of George Bush. The doubts of slightly less intelligent and much less eloquent men were over-ridden. As a result, there was a critical absence: the sceptical, worst-case-scenario thinking required to hammer out the post-war settlement.

Yet David Cameron's critique of neo-conservatism goes deeper than its failures in Iraq. The Tory leader does not accept that democracy is a universal antibiotic, guaranteed to cure any political ailment in any country at any stage of historical development. Mr Cameron argues that it is impossible to create stable and secure democracies without two pre-conditions: the rule of law, and a strong civil society. In this, he is drawing on the British historical experience. Before we became democratic, we enjoyed those two sound foundations, one reason why British constitutional evolution has been so benign.

Mr Cameron insists that there are lessons here for the Middle East. He proposes a "Partnership for Open Societies in the broader Middle East, helping to support political, economic and social reform. This explicitly recognises that this means building the institutions of civil society over time, not believing that democracy alone is a panacea."

In saying this, Mr Cameron acknowledged the contribution of the Middle Eastern monarchies. In their optimistic, indeed arrogant, heyday, some of the neo-cons would mock British interlocutors, who insisted that the best Middle Eastern monarchies of Oman, Jordan, Kuwait and the other Gulf states – Saudi is more complex – were not receiving enough credit for their skill in living in a dangerous neighbourhood. We Brits would be accused of nostalgia and romanticism. In truth, we were the realists, leaving romanticism to those who believed in off-the-shelf democracy.

There is one problem about delivering speeches in foreign countries. It is sometimes necessary to flatter one's hosts, almost to the point of mendacity. Mr Cameron told his audience that "there was no more important commitment than that being shown today by Nato in Afghanistan." Although that is true, it is a wholly inadequate commitment, and successive Supreme Allied Commanders have had to beg for penny packets of troops in order to sustain it. If Nato had twice as many men in Afghanistan, we might be winning the war outright, rather than just keeping the Taliban at bay.

That would assume, of course, that all the troops who were provided would be ready to fight. At present, this is not the case. Mr Cameron paid tribute to Angela Merkel's leadership in the Bundestag's recent decision to maintain Germany's role in Afghanistan. But that role is one which keeps German troops well away from heavy lifting. There is no use in having troops who are not prepared to fight.

But Mr Cameron's speech should not be judged by its undeserved compliments. It is a thoughtful attempt to explore troublesome questions. There will be an opportunity for quite a few more speeches between now and the election.

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