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Tuesday, September 12, 2006 

He's no neo-conservative!

David Cameron's speech on how a Conservative government would approach foreign policy, the first major lecture which Cameron has given on the subject, has been generally well received. The Guardian called it "genuinely refreshing, and a real reprimand to Labour." The Daily Mail, which has turned increasingly anti-war in the aftermath of the disaster of Iraq, despite also carrying the rent-a-rants of a certain Ms Philips, said it hoped it meant that he was distancing himself from the warmongers surrounding the Bush administration.

Some hope. For all Cameron's bluster and his very quotable soundbite about being a "liberal conservative, not a neo-conservative", he's still surrounded by those who think differently. Liam Fox, the shadow foreign secretary is a confirmed Atlanticist, an EU-hater who during his campaign for the leadership made the most crowd-pleasing speech at the Tory party conference, mainly because unlike all the others he sung the praises of the blue-rinse brigade and indulged in their prejudices. There's also William Hague, who for all his slight criticisms of the current war on terror and how the Iraq war was fought is still 100% behind whatever America would or wants to do in the future. Most of all, there's Michael Gove, a confirmed member of the "Notting Hill" set who defines himself as a neo-conservative. His recently published book, Celsius 7/7, is a companion piece to the aforementioned Philips' rant about how Britain is turning into a nation of limp-wristed nancies who won't dare to take on the unspeakable Muslims who want to kill us all. That Gove is utterly hopeless in debate doesn't seem to matter; he was destroyed on Question Time by Michael Winner of all people.

As for the speech itself, it covers most of the same clichés and reaffirms essentially everything that the Labour party is currently doing, except that Cameron promises they'd be more questioning, that there would be no more "unrealistic and simplistic" world views. Then he said the following:

"Fighting terrorism is the most consuming concern for modern government."

Is it? Should it be? The answer should be no to both questions. The threat from terrorism is far smaller than that from climate change, something that should be far further up the agenda than it currently is. The most consuming concern for modern government should be in creating a more equal society, in keeping unemployment down, in seeking to re-affirm and support our public services, both health and education, as well as being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. Then we should be thinking about restructuring our foreign policy, removing our dependence on America, opening up diplomatic channels between Iran and Syria, getting our troops out of Iraq and fighting the real causes of terrorism in the region, which is the issue of Israel-Palestine and unaccountable autocratic Western-supported regimes. This should be helped along by listening to the grievances of Muslims in this country, not dismissing them out of hand, but not giving into unreasonable demands either.

The terror threat is unprecedented: "This terrorist threat is clearly different from those we have faced before. We are dealing with people who are prepared to do anything, kill any number, and use suicide attacks to further their aims. These people include a number of our own citizens. They are driven by a wholly incorrect interpretation - an extreme distortion - of the Islamic faith, which holds that mass murder and terror are not only acceptable, but necessary."

It's not unprecedented at all. The threat faced from the Nazis was far far worse than that from Islamic extremism. Cameron is wholly correct that it's an incorrect interpretation and an extreme distortion, but he gives it far too much credit, like many other politicians. Islamic extremism and "al-Qaida" actually refers to a disparate grouping of extremists who are as much influenced by territorial and local disputes as they are by a fanatical hatred of the west and America.

"I believe that in the last five years we have suffered from the absence of two crucial qualities which should always condition foreign policy-making. Humility, and patience. These are not warlike words. They are not so glamorous and exciting as the easy sound-bites we have grown used to in recent years. But these sound-bites had the failing of all foreign policy designed to fit into a headline. They were unrealistic and simplistic. They represented a view which sees only light and darkness in the world – and which believes that one can be turned to the other as quickly as flicking a switch. I do not see things that way. I am a liberal conservative, rather than a neo-conservative. Liberal - because I support the aim of spreading freedom and democracy, and support humanitarian intervention. Conservative - because I recognise the complexities of human nature, and am sceptical of grand schemes to remake the world. A liberal conservative approach to foreign policy today is based on five propositions.

* First, that we should understand fully the threat we face.
* Second, that democracy cannot quickly be imposed from outside.
* Third, that our strategy needs to go far beyond military action.
* Fourth, that we need a new multilateralism to tackle the new global challenges we face.
* And fifth, that we must strive to act with moral authority."

Both Guido and the Times hack that's covering blogs have noticed that Cameron seems to have pilfered his five thoughts from Francis Fukuyama's book, After the Neo-Cons. Fukuyama, who wrote the infamous book the End of History, arguing that the end of the cold war meant that liberal democracy had triumphed and was now going to almost settle into a 1000 year reign, was for a while a signatory and member of the Project for a New American Century. He however became disillusioned with the way that his former friends decided that having a plan for the occupation other than privatising everything and taking the oil was a-kin to the sin of nation building. His main three thoughts of where the Bush administration has gone wrong are:

* The threat of radical islamism to the US was overestimated.
* The Bush administration didn't foresee the fierce negative reaction to its benevolent hegemony. From the very beginning it showed a negative attitude towards the United Nations and other international organisations and didn't see that this would increase anti-Americanism in other countries.
* The Bush administration misjudged what was needed to bring peace in Iraq and was overly optimistic about the success with which social engineering could be applied to Iraq and the Middle East in general.

On the first, Cameron disagrees. Terrorism is the main major concern to the government today, purely because of the way that it's being used in order to dilute civil liberties and opposition to government plans as a whole. The media, especially the Murdoch papers, are almost entirely complicit in this. Cameron agrees wholeheartedly with the second, repudiating the previous Tory approach of being even more gung-ho for war with Iraq than Labour were. The third point is also something Cameron concurs with.

On Cameron's own five points, the first is something which Cameron doesn't want to do despite his own eagerness to supposedly do so. The realisation that the threat has been massively over hyped isn't something he wants to touch; he's more than happy to inherit the culture of fear which Labour has helped establish. While the Tories have acknowledged more than Labour that the war on Iraq has in fact made us less safe and has led directly to our own citizens becoming radicalised, they're also unwilling to recognise that this is something that can't just be tackled by saying that terrorism is always wrong. His second point is on sturdier ground. We should have recognised from the beginning that democracy cannot be imposed down the barrel of a gun. Our efforts at doing so in Afghanistan have failed miserably, and Iraq continues to be on the brink of civil war, if it isn't already. This isn't to say that we should abandon our efforts; rather that we have to recognise that we're in for the long haul, that this cannot be achieved overnight. Conducting elections and then constantly harping about the matter as if it's a cure-all helps no one. We should also realise that there is no longer any reason for our troops to remain in Iraq. All they're doing now is just making the situation worse.

All of Cameron's final 3 points need fleshing out. What exactly does going beyond military action entail? Does this mean recognising that diplomacy between states such as Syria and Iran is both necessary and vital, something which Labour refuses to do through official channels, or is this just vacuous "hearts 'n' minds" nonsense? His fourth point that we need a new multilateralism is another a nice soundbite, but does this mean reforming the UN or recognising that the EU is not the enemy? Does it mean being prepared to put up with the necessary negotiations which are still carrying on over the Iranian nuclear programme? That Cameron still supports the Afghan and Iraq wars and believes that "pre-emptive" action still has a place in foreign policy rather undermines this. His fifth point, about moral authority, is just as vague. This seems to be his attempt to decry Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, but the Tory party has said next to nothing about the rendition scandal, the running on which was made by the media and Liberal Democrats. Where does Cameron stand on the secret prison gulags which President Bush admitted to last week? We don't know, because he didn't mention them, although he did rightly talk about rejecting excessive periods of detention without trial here at home.

You can see why the Guardian praised it, as any difference with the current Labour doctrine of being shoulder-to-shoulder with American foreign policy is to be welcomed. Cameron's speech though also falls at the final hurdle: you just can't believe that this is genuinely what the Tory party would put into practice if it was elected. Michael Howard made some rather mild criticisms of Bush and was sent to Coventry by the Republicans for his trouble. The exact same thing would happen to Cameron, unless he suddenly decided to be rather less critical than while in opposition. Even the slight criticism of Israel over the war in Lebanon resulted in a grassroots backlash, and dissent from donors. Such protests do not bode well for anything but the same sycophancy we've witnessed under Labour. When it comes down to it, the special relationship is far more important to the Tories than it has even be with Blair. Cameron can protest and suggest that he'd be a "liberal conservative" all he likes, but the evidence suggests the opposite.

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