Oliver Kamm has made a brave attempt to reconcile left-wing idealism with US neoconservatism. But can non-Americans really be neocons?by David Clark / February 26, 2006 / Leave a comment
Anti-totalitarianism by Oliver Kamm (Social Affairs Unit, £13.99)
Click here to buy Anti-totalitarianism from amazon.co.uk It was perhaps inevitable that a book entitled Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconser-vative Foreign Policy would deal at length with the Iraq story, and Oliver Kamm is to be congratulated for offering a spirited defence of regime change. Unfortunately, the limitations of his position remain all too visible.
Kamm’s claim that the fall of Saddam has encouraged a democratic upsurge in the wider middle east already looks dated. The Ba’athist regime was not, as he suggests, a major state sponsor of terrorism. Indeed, like other neoconservatives, Kamm has difficulty comprehending a world in which the most serious threats are stateless in origin. His argument of last resort—that Saddam’s removal was necessary on the basis that he was likely to have become a threat at some unspecified point in the future—is feeble. The idea that without Saddam’s exit, “we should one day have woken to an ultimatum from him to transfer Kuwait’s oil revenues to a numbered bank account, or else see a nuclear device exploded over Kuwait City” is fanciful in the light of what we now know. Containment was far more effective than even its advocates imagined.
But to dwell on Iraq would be to do an injustice to a book that sets out to make a far bigger point about military intervention and its political significance. Kamm sees the row over Iraq as illustrative of a deeper ideological divide that has characterised foreign policy debate for 100 years. On one side stand the realists who take narrow national interest as their only guide. On the other side are the idealists who see the interests of humanity as indivisible and want to spread democracy and human rights. As the left proclaims the internationalism of this latter position, it follows that it should welcome a US government pledged to making it a reality. In Kamm’s conclusion, “the neoconservative stance accords with the historic values of the democratic left.”
The corollary of this position is that those on the left who oppose the Bush administration’s foreign policy are being untrue to themselves. It isn’t necessary to share Kamm’s neoconservatism to see some truth in this. For all the good arguments against the Iraq war, it is striking that the anti-war left chose to rely on so many bad ones. Chief among these was a realist willingness to put the inviolability of state sovereignty before the rights of the citizen. Kamm also reminds us that many of those who opposed regime change in Iraq also opposed it in Afghanistan, which was an open and shut case for intervention if ever there was one.
Kamm is right that the arguments of the anti-war left too often appeared to reflect conservative realism, anti-Americanism or a pacifist objection to the use of all force. The strong arguments against the Iraq war were not ideological but pragmatic. It was never going to achieve the results its architects expected. Instead of becoming a democratic exemplar, Iraq is splintering into an independent Kurdistan, a theocratic Shia state allied to Iran and a dysfunctional Sunni rump that will replace Afghanistan as a centre for the export of terrorism. You don’t have to be a realist to understand that it isn’t enough for a foreign policy to be right. It also has to work.
Where Kamm errs is in portraying the moderate left as the historic guardians of democratic idealism and the radical left as appeasers of totalitarianism. The reality has always been more complex. In Britain, the Labour right’s cold war Atlanticism was largely realist in motive while the Labour left was appalled by America’s tendency to overthrow elected governments and trample on human rights in the name of a larger freedom. It opposed, in other words, the realist cynicism of western policy. The Helsinki Final Act (1975), whose human rights clauses sowed the moral seeds of the Soviet bloc’s collapse, was championed by the same European left that Kamm accuses of being soft on totalitarianism. When the cold war was over, it was the Labour right that initially backed Douglas Hurd’s “moral quietism” by refusing to intervene in Bosnia. It was only when Robin Cook, with a background on the anti-nuclear left, took over the foreign affairs brief that Labour’s policy on the Balkans shifted to one of military intervention.
An extension of this error is Kamm’s tendency to identify Tony Blair as the standard-bearer for liberal idealism. In fact, Blair’s calculus of power has always made him more susceptible to the logic of realism than Kamm allows. His initial reaction to Cook’s announcement of an “ethical dimension” to foreign policy was instructive: “moral posturing” was the phrase conveyed to me by Peter Mandelson, when I was working as a political adviser to Cook. It was only later, during the Kosovo campaign, that Blair came to see some value in it. The reason he could slip so easily into the role of liberal idealist is that it chimed with his real objective of sticking as close as possible to Washington.
There are also good grounds to doubt Kamm’s belief that it is possible to be a neoconservative and remain on the left. It is true that the original American neoconservatives came from the liberal left, but they soon merged into the mainstream of Reagan’s Republican party. The logic of this was inescapable. It became increasingly difficult to maintain a belief in the moral superiority of US power while harbouring serious doubts about the structure of American society, so they simply abandoned the latter. How can neocons of the left square that circle now that America has moved so much further to the right?
Kamm chides the European left for its shift to a “reflexive anti-Americanism” in the 1970s but fails to consider the possibility that it was the US and not the European left that changed. Was it not the retreat from New Deal liberalism and the shift from containment to “rollback” that caused the breach? And what does this mean for those on the left who believe, rightly, that Europe and America should work together? Liberal hawks have failed to grapple with the problem of unipolar US power and its challenge to a progressive world vision. Indeed, you will search in vain to find any indication that they see it as a problem at all. Kamm argues that “we should support the current trajectory of US strategic doctrine.”
This begs a final question. Is it possible to be a neoconservative without actually being American? A strong belief in the superiority of your own country is somewhat chauvinistic. But a strong belief in the superiority of another country is positively dotty. The contradictions involved in being a left-wing British neoconservative are too great for the idea to endure. The only way to resolve them will be for Kamm and those who think like him to abandon their flirtation with neoconservatism or take it to its ultimate conclusion by following Christopher Hitchens in adopting US citizenship and backing a Republican for president.