In his Independent column yesterday, Johann Hari indicted a small group for "catastophic misjudgement":
The pro-invasion left was always a small battallion, comprised almost entirely of journalists and intellectuals who believed that toppling the Taliban and Saddam Hussein was a good idea - even if the only President available to lead the charge was George Bush. Yet almost since the first statue of Saddam was smashed to the ground, it has been losing troops - to the anti-war side, or to a sullen AWOL silence, or to despair.
It's now a year since the Euston Manifesto, an attempt by the pro-war left to hone its position into a coherent set of principles, was issued. So this is a good time to ask: did this strange niche in Anglo-American politics - of which I was a part, for a time - produce any enduring insights?
Johann's answer is clear:
It is clear that the invasion of Iraq was motivated not by Enlightenment values, but by a desire to achieve US control over Middle East oil. Yet the only time people like [Nick] Cohen mention oil is to mock the madness of the left for bringing it up. Is his explanation - that Rumsfeld and Cheney were suddenly gripped by Wilsonian idealism - more plausible?
I have a lot of respect for Johann, but this article is conceptually chaotic from the first sentence. (There is, Johann, no construction of the form "to be comprised of" in English: a quantity comprises its parts, or is composed of them; the parts do not comprise the whole. I know it will appear pedantic to raise the point, but as I criticise you for not examining the intellectual case that you're depicting, it's relevant that you weren't visualising clearly your target before attempting to characterise it.) Having written a short book two years ago to expound the case for the "strange niche" that Johann castigates, I can confirm that I never once raised the possibility that military intervention in Iraq might have been prompted by a desire to achieve US control of Middle East oil. I regret that omission only in the sense that Saddam's control of Iraq's oil reserves and his threat to neighbouring countries' oil reserves were also justifiable grounds for removing him from power. They merely were not my reasons for favouring military intervention, on which my views - set out here, among other places - have not changed, unlike Johann's.
But my objection to Johann's argument is not that he has changed his position on the Iraq War: it is that he accuses us, his targets, of a "shallow and ahistorical reading of neoconservativism. The notion that neoconservatism is a vehicle for a global democratic revolution is a 1990s rhetorical creation. On the contrary, for most of its short intellectual life neoconservatism has defended autocracy."
The shallow and ahistorical reading is Johann's alone; I once noted an earlier case where, in choosing his enemies (many of whom I share), he caricatured and seriously misrepresented them as a monolithic force. He's done the same here. I'm not a neoconservative: on issues as various as welfare policy, race, homosexual equality, separation of church and state, and numerous others, I'm very much out of sympathy with the neoconservative case. But I don't regard it as an insult to be termed a neoconservative, and there is a particular type of neoconservative stance in foreign affairs that I regard as the natural ally of the Left. Johann's insistence that this stance is a "1990s rhetorical creation" shows that he hasn't been following the intellectual debate within and about an important influence in foreign policy.
The villain of Johann's piece, whom he takes to be the representative neoconservative, is the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, who served as President Reagan's first ambassador to the UN. I have scant sympathy with Ambassador Kirkpatrick's political views, but Johann manages both to misrepresent those views and then illegitimately to elide any distinction between them and other currents among neoconservatives.
I gave my views on Jeane Kirkpatrick's political legacy here, on her death last December. The main point I would make in her favour is that she was far from being the realist in foreign policy that Johann imagines: there is nothing in her academic analysis that corresponds to the pessimism about democracy that one finds in, for example, the work of the late George Kennan. She was a liberal Democrat who favoured democratic change but who believed in working with authoritarian regimes in order to contain a larger threat. Where she was fundamentally in error was in holding to that principle while having no means of assessing democratic potential in particular countries. This omission was particularly clear in policy towards Latin America, which ironically was her area of academic specialism. She had no conception of the fragility of military rule in Argentina, or of the coherence of democratic forces in Chile. Accordingly, she failed to see the issues at stake in the Falklands conflict, gave unjustified succour to the vile military regime that launched the invasion of British territory, and spurned the movement for human rights and constitutional government in Chile.
But - and this is the point Johann doesn't appear to understand - Ambassador Kirkpatrick's views were an impermanent feature of US policy. When she left government service, US policy shifted; and those who effected that shift were no less neoconservative in their inspiration. Elliot Abrams, who is literally part of the family of neoconservatism (he is the son-in-law of Norman Podhoretz, Editor-in-Chief of Commentary), had been appointed assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, and was a strong proponent of siding with democratic political movements in Chile. Tony Smith, of Tufts University, in America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century, 1994, p. 290, notes: "From March 1986 to March 1988, the United States endorsed five UN resolutions critical of human rights in Chile and abstained on three others, while voting against only one." This was a distinct shift in US policy.
Johann is free to say that this was merely declaratory policy, and that the Reagan administration was scarcely at the forefront of democratic change in Latin America - and of course he would be right. But he would still thereby undermine his argument. It is demonstrably false that the neoconservative stress on democracy was merely a rhetorical creation of the 1990s: it has a clear lineage in theory and practice. It became clearer still when Ambassador Kirkpatrick's taxonomy of regimes failed to anticipate the real choice in the Philippines in 1986: between a corrupt autocrat, Ferdinand Marcos, and popular democratic change. Some neoconservatives did see the issue clearly. Paul Wolfowitz, then assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, wrote some years later (in Present Dangers, eds. Robert Kagan and William Kristol, 2000, p. 320): "Although political change might jeopardize military bases in the Philippines, it was more important to have a healthy ally without American bases than a sick ally with them."
What is most flawed in Johann's argument is not, however, his indifference to history so much as his reliance on what Richard Dawkins, in quite another context, has termed the argument from personal incredulity. There is no connection between Johann's incredulity that neoconservatives genuinely favour the promotion of democracy and his inference that the Iraq intervention was about oil. And - I repeat - the shallow reading here is Johann's alone. Jeane Kirkpatrick's last and posthumous book, Making War to Keep Peace, has recently been published. It is, as you would expect, a thoughtful discussion of international affairs, in which there is much valuable detail. (There are particularly good chapters on the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts, where Ambassador Kirkpatrick understood well the issues at stake in rebuffing the genocidal aggression of Slobodan Milosevic.) But the issue of particular relevance to this discussion is that Ambassador Kirkpatrick's insistence that security was the prerequisite of democracy caused her to be sceptical of the arguments for military intervention in Iraq (p. 281): "I had grave reservations when George W. Bush made the decision to invade Iraq, and I was privately critical of the Bush administration's argument for the use of military force for pre-emptive self-defense."
There is no question but that Ambassador Kirkpatrick is giving a truthful account of her views here. She was at the time of the invasion the US delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission, having been called out of retirement by President Bush. If she had argued different views privately, then these would be recalled by members of the administration, and she would have anticipated this when writing her book. More to the point, her reservations were perfectly consistent with her overall philosophy and with what came to be known as the Reagan Doctrine, in contrast to a belief in direct intervention. The position that came to prevail over her scepticism was another variant of neoconservatism, most obviously associated with Paul Wolfowitz, which does favour intervention to promote democracy.
Now, we can have a vigorous debate about the wisdom and morality of the Wolfowitz position. I support that stance, despite the failures of the Iraq occupation and the clearly flawed judgement by the administration about the ease of establishing a constitutional order. My reason is that the distinction between security and democracy is a false dichotomy. Ultimately, our security requires the spread of democratic values, as democracies are less belligerent than autocracies. (This is a big argument, but I have my reasons for advancing it.) Of all people, certain neoconservatives understand that better than anyone apart from the small group of left-wingers and liberals that Johann castigates: Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen and, by extension, a few others of us. We can have that argument, Johann; but one thing I will insist on, if you accuse us of an ahistorical reading of US foreign policy, is that you exhibit greater standards of accuracy yourself in recounting those debates.
UPDATE: I hadn't noticed this when I wrote the post, but Johann's column is extracted from a longer review-article he has written for the American magazine Dissent. You can read the article in full on Johann's site here. Johann is primarily addressing Nick Cohen's book What's Left?, which I reviewed here.
UPDATE II: The autumn issue of Dissent will carry Nick's extremely telling response to the review.