Why I am not a neo-con

I’ve always been a lefty. Even at school and too young to vote, I Sellotaped the NME front cover featuring Neil Kinnock to my English folder in the vague hope it would encourage a Labour victory. My socialist ideals have in part led to my choice of a council-run gym rather than a private one, and my bookshelves groan with histories of the Labour party, tracts by Naomi Klein and Michael Moore, and the collected works of George Orwell.

How, then, could a liberal-Socialist (with a small “l”) of the old school like me end up co-writing an account of a criminally underreported protest outside Downing Street, calling for intervention in Darfur, which was then published on the website of the supposedly neo-conservative Henry Jackson Society?

The nascent Henry Jackson Society’s stated wish is that liberal democracies like the US and the UK should strive to “shape the world more actively by intervention and example”. One of the shaping tools should be military strength – in other words, military intervention of the sort seen in Iraq. This would be best used as a way of backing up more peaceful means, such as strong political pressure, lobbying and sending observers and inspectors into certain areas to ensure compliance. However, it cannot be an empty threat.

The HJS reasons that liberal democracies are a global good, and the set-up of such democracies should be encouraged throughout the world both in the interests of human rights and global stability. It’s hardly a coincidence that all the nations in Bush’s so-called Axis of Evil are totalitarian dictatorships or repressive theocracies, nor is it by accident that the vast majority of UK asylum seekers come from unpleasant regimes like these.

Such thinking has led the HJS to be labelled as a neo-conservative, founded with the intention of manipulating UK and US foreign policy behind the scenes with sinister aims. The HJS has never shied away from nailing its party colours to the mast: it is defiantly non-partisan, as anyone who saw the guest list at Tuesday night’s launch could attest. Belief that liberal democracies are the best way of governing people in this imperfect world is shared by many people of many shades of red, green, orange and Peterhouse blue.

I cannot think of one pragmatic reason why the West doesn’t intervene in Darfur and other countries like Zimbabwe. We sat on our hands for far too long in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the UN peacekeepers literally stood by and watched the genocide in Rwanda happen around them. It’s all very well to agonise about what could have been done to prevent the Rwandan genocide from happening, make films about it, commemorate the 10th anniversary or build monuments, but the uncomfortable fact is that the West has the intelligence network, the political power and the hardware to have stopped it from happening in the first place.

I consider this belief to be liberal – I know I am fortunate to live in the UK and feel intense sympathy for anyone living in an oppressive, dangerous society. The growing popularity of Harry’s Place and its staunchly non-partisan stand on modern politics shows that I am not alone.

It seems easier to watch people die on the news than to try and prevent their deaths with anything more powerful than strongly worded letters to whatever tinpot junta is running the place. Economic pressures can work well, but they have to sting, which isn’t going to happen if the country barely has an economy in the first place. Stoppers (the neo-con’s favoured term for those who opposed the Iraq war due to a blinkered outlook on foreign policy) sometimes like to think sanctions are some sort of magic bullet, but what does Sudan produce that we could all boycott? Oil… and we all know how well the sanctions and food-for-oil scheme worked in Iraq. Waiting for the UN to approve any action seems anachronistic, pointless (since the myriad national interests have crippled the organisation) and ignorable, as the US has showed.

Stoppers favour the tactic of hand-wringing and blaming ourselves in some way, saying that we have no right to intervene when the whole thing is our fault. I have no problem in accepting that certain actions the UK undertook in the past, such as colonialism, have influenced what is happening at the moment. I do have a problem with this attitude. I think the proper reaction is quite the opposite: it’s our mess and we should try and sort it out.

Stoppers also claim that “our” ideal of democracy is no better, and that people are happy enough as they are. This is simply not true. Nobody could argue, with a straight face, that life in Iran is preferable to that in Belgium, for example. An Iranian colleague tells me that dissatisfaction with the current “elected” government is widespread, with most Iranians hankering after just a taste of the freedom we treat with such disdain over here.

It *might* be true to claim that ordinary people can muddle along OK in almost all of the most unpleasant regimes in the world, as long as they’re of the right race or faith, don’t speak out, try to think for themselves or question why their neighbours disappeared. But this is not an argument against interventionism, merely an observation. If it weren’t possible to live like this, totalitarian dictatorships would never survive.

Some stoppers might say that intervention makes things worse – this is why we need organisations like the HJS. However, I think the US’s blundering in Iraq is a prime example of how the HJS could have helped. I don’t think the US were able to predict what would happen once Saddam Hussein was toppled – additional, neutral research and thinking on the current and future climate of the country might have prevented some of the current chaos.

It is an undeniable truth that preventable death should be avoided at all costs. One can walk down the street and see at least five things* that are put there by the government to prevent you from being hit by a car. Why not intervene internationally if one has the means to do so, and it will save lives?

*namely: street lights, road markings, pavements, speed bumps, crossing barriers…

4 thoughts on “Why I am not a neo-con”

  1. Freedland at the Guardian wrote about Darfur, but if you look at the column inches devoted to Sudan in the Guardian and Indy the imbalance of reporting (compared to, say, a skirmish at the “wall” in Palestine) is at once pathetic and worrying. Why not send your piece to Milne at the Guardian? The new “Berliner” has made much of its commitment to devote space to differing opinions (even ‘Mad Mel’ got in there the other day) and has op-ed space reserved for critical or response pieces.

    On neoconservatism:


    The Michael Gove essay in there sets “neoconservativism” in its true liberal (and historically British) context. The volume contains several pieces which make ever clearer how ashamed the Guardian, and the wider milieu it manifests, ought to be for their appeasement of terror and fascism. The “left” has got it wrong again. I am disquieted that the good values of Wilsonian diplomacy seem only in favour among big, nasty Republicans. Time to fight for the soul of the left? :) I see even Clinton is now saying the invasion of Iraq has not only been maladministered (which it has) but may have been misconceived.


    is new from the Social Affairs Unit, and may be worth a look.

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