Writing in The Mail, Peter Oborne makes it clear that he has no time for the neoconservatives, which shows his heart is in the right place.
And even if it isn’t, far be it from me to argue. After all, I wrote a whole book about this political perversion (Democracy as a Neocon Trick), in which I described it thus:
“Neoconservatism is an eerie mishmash of Trotskyist temperament, infantile bellicosity, American chauvinism (not exclusively on the part of Americans), expansionism masked by pseudo-messianic verbiage on exporting democracy to every tribal society on earth, Keynesian economics, Fabian socialism, welfarism and statism run riot – all mixed together with a spoonful of vaguely conservative phrases purloined from the rightful owners to trick the neocons’ way to broader electoral support.”
Mr Oborne rightly blames the neocons for inspiring the criminally stupid 2003 invasion of Iraq, which he regards as “the most morally shameful international disaster of recent times”.
I’m not sure about the superlative, but I have no doubt about the general sentiment. Obsessed with what they see as the absolute good of American-style democracy, the neocons – and, more important, the governments they form or inspire – refuse to acknowledge that trying to export it by force is guaranteed to replace nasty regimes with evil ones.
Anyone with elementary knowledge of modern history and half a brain not overridden by a pernicious ideology will realise that an Ayatollah is the only realistic alternative to the Shah, the Muslim Brotherhood to Mubarak, tribal ISIS cannibals to the Ba’athist regimes in Iraq and Syria, Erdoğan to a secular government beholden to the army. A George Washington isn’t an option on the menu in any of those places.
Mr Oborne’s analysis of the criminal folly of the 2003 invasion is hard to fault, as is his heart-felt regret that those directly responsible for it, Messrs Bush and Blair, haven’t been shamed and ostracised. My preference would be tried and convicted, but again this is a difference of detail, not principle.
Where Mr Oborne goes terribly wrong is in the conclusions he draws from his correct analysis. He seems to see a definite parallel between Iraq c. 2003 and Syria c. 2018. Yet these parallel lines vindicate Euclid by refusing to converge.
That the invasion of Iraq was criminally stupid doesn’t ipso facto make the on-going action against Assad’s chemical installations ill-advised. Failure to see the vital differences between the two is neither grown-up nor clever, and here Mr Oborne comes close to expunging himself from my good books.
A more appropriate parallel could be drawn with the devastation of Belgium in the First World War. I don’t think any of the warring parties had much against Belgium qua Belgium. It just so happened that they sorted out their differences using Belgium as a battlefield.
Granted, the parallel isn’t impeccably accurate. For the regime of Assad’s Syria is malevolent in ways that the regime of Albert I wasn’t. Specifically, Albert I didn’t use chemical weapons against his own people, and Assad has.
That action is in clear violation of every international law, specifically one of 1997 that bans not just the use but even the possession of such weapons. Laws mean nothing if they can’t be enforced, and the cruise missiles fired by the US, Britain and France may be seen as an equivalent of police truncheons and handcuffs.
Yet, at the risk of sounding like a cynical champion of realpolitik, I’d suggest it’s reasonably clear that the punitive action springs not from moral outrage, but from a clear strategic objective, one that Mr Oborne seems to think is lacking (“Western governments seem to have little idea of the long-term purpose of any intervention in Syria.”)
The objective. Mr Oborne, is to check Putin’s steady escalation of aggression against the West. There are risks involved, and Mr Oborne is alert to them: “… there is a genuine danger of an escalation to military confrontation between the United States and Russia.”
Moral equivalence strikes again. That’s like saying that there was a genuine danger of an escalation to military confrontation between Nazi Germany and Britain in 1940. While Putin isn’t exactly Hitler, not yet anyway, he’s the active agent in this escalation. Just like in Britain c. 1940, a refusal to confront the escalation would be tantamount to surrender.
Anyone blessed with elementary analytical ability will see that Putin is probing the West with a bayonet (Lenin’s phrase, by the way), just grazing the skin for the time being. Emboldened by the West’s nonexistent or feeble responses to a series of monstrosities he committed in Chechnya, Georgia, the Crimea, the Ukraine, London and Salisbury, the KGB colonel is on the lookout for other potential beneficiaries of Russia’s unmatched spirituality.
Just like his attacks with nuclear and chemical weapons launched on British soil, the good colonel is sending messages, gauging the replies. Egging Assad on to drop poison gas (kindly provided by Russia) on Douma is one such message. The cruise missiles hitting Syrian targets even as we speak is one such reply.
Our message seems to be “thus far but no further”. If we react this way to the gassing of 40 Syrians, Vlad, how do you suppose we’ll react to an attack on NATO members or for that matter the rest of the Ukraine?
Unlike the folly of 2003, our stance is reactive and defensive, while Putin’s is consistently aggressive. He himself described his life’s philosophy in the nostalgic recollections of his Petersburg youth, when he self-admittedly was ‘a common street thug’: “I learned always to hit first.”
That he has done, and not only first, but also second, third and fourth. But I do hope he gets the message – and that the message isn’t just a bluff: it has taken a while, but Western allies are now prepared to fight back.
But if Mr Oborne wishes to entertain us with stories about the neocons, I’m happy to listen. Why, I can even add a few of my own. But today’s situation isn’t about neocons, and nor is it about Syria.
It’s about the West trying to prevent a major war, not provoke it, as Mr Oborne (and many Putinistas on both the left and the right) seems to think.