July 17, 2003

The Empire Stops Striking
by Christopher Montgomery

It's good to go away for a month, because when you come back, you can see that little bit more clearly what hasn't happened (and as importantly, what's not going to happen). One thing that a lot of people were predicting in the immediate aftermath of the war against Iraq, either happily or unhappily, depending on their point of view, was that, Iran's next. This hasn't happened yet, and you know, I don't think that if Dubya has his way that it's going to happen at all. Which brings us to something that perhaps too few readers will appreciate me for saying: President Bush is the best chance we have of seeing a halt to American militarism. For to the right [sic] of him, are the neocons, the frothing alternative, and to the left of him are the Blairo-Clintonites, the mewling alternative. We know all too well what the neocons would do, if ever they gained control of the state, but equally we ought to remember what the all-weather humanitarian bombers of the Clinton/Albright era did do when they were in charge. Therefore what sensible Conservatives ought to be doing is trying to offer support to George Bush, and the policy of restraint that he clearly would like to follow.

The problem with American foreign policy is not that it is imperial in form (it most certainly is, and has been for three generations now) but that it runs the risk of being hideously inept imperialism. The problems this will entail for the United States herself, in terms of blowback, are already evident, but no one in the wider West should readily wish the US to come a cropper. That she will if people like Stanley Kurtz ever become representative Conservative ideologists is certain:

"The North Korean problem is the most serious issue facing our country right now. Thank goodness President Bush dispatched Saddam Hussein before he became an 'imminent danger.' Korea is an imminent danger right now, and that's exactly why it's so hard to do anything about it . . . [but] here is the bottom line. We need to at least consider a strike against North Korea, even if that puts Seoul at risk. A strike against North Korea may not be the right policy, but it has got to be openly debated. We have to understand that in very short order, we could lose the war against terror. In fact, we may be losing it right now. Korea has every reason to sell bombs to Iran and Al Qaeda. They may already have the capability to do so. If Saddam were still around, the North Koreans would be sell him a bomb as well. This country is wasting its time on a silly debate about Iraqi WMD and missing the point. There really is an axis of evil. Any part of it with nuclear capacity will sell bombs to all the rest. The end result will be the destruction of a major American city­possibly the decapitation of our government. After that, we face military rule and at least the temporary suspension of government as we know it. We are at great risk. Yet for the most part, the press is silent about this."

ll the usual loopy stuff there (the 'war against terror', the need to have wars to stop wars, the hysteria about the dark things in the night coming for America, all perfectly familiar, and all equally dangerous if this ever becomes what governing Conservatives end up doing in, to and for America. Not that in any individual aspect you can't make a case of sorts for these policies. Obviously, for instance, there are terrorists out there. Equally obviously, there's not much point to a state if it doesn't formulate policies for removing them as a threat (and surely still more obviously, this isn't always going to be possible to achieve by means of negotiation or shifts in whatever policy has got the terrorists' goat in first place: sometimes you do just have to kill them). But, as the 'war against terrorism' daily demonstrates, that's not what the American government is fighting. Irish terrorism, Chechen terrorism, even, God knows, Islamic terrorism inside Red China, all these provide murderous gangs for whom America has no intention at all of waging 'war' on. What this ludicrously misnamed 'war' is of course about is the maintenance, by force, of post-Cold War American primacy. And the predictably ironic truth is that, the people recently arrived inside the Republican party who want wars against North Korea and Iran, and everywhere at least as dangerous as oh so threatening Iraq was, aren't, as things stand, going to get them. And they're not going to get them in part because of the outcome of their war against Iraq.

If the recent war has done nothing else, it has made the electorates of Britain and America terminally suspicious of 'I can't tell you why, but unless we act right now, we're all doomed' statements from government ministers. Consciously or not, this suspicion arises at least as much from the fact that the war was a cakewalk (and hence Iraq plainly wasn't a clear and present danger), than it does to any great lack of WMD discoveries. The other thing the whole death-a-day business in Mesopotamia is doing is reminding our placid fellow countrymen (and remember, we, in the West come from what is, in truth, the least violent society in human history) what a nasty job of work telling foreign people what to do can be. There's only so much of that you want to see being done each night on your television screen, and there's certainly no way, other than for the tiny percentage of us inclined that way, that you'd want to have to end up doing any of that telling yourself. As Anglo-American society becomes ever less militarised in its values and personal experiences, the more and more alien doing what needs to be done in the desert must seem to most people.

Thus it is that realists, like the clever people clsutered round The National Interest (this quarter, go out and buy it, and read the first four essays to see what I mean about whose side they're really on, ours or Richard Perle's), and even some in the NR/NRO crowd know that the key thing for the maintenace of such American primacy as there is, lies not in attempts to extend it, but rather in efforts to display restraint, so as to conserve it.

This doctrine of restraint, pace Mr Kurtz earlier, shines out from William Perry's attitude to North Korea. President Clinton's former, and formerly Republican, Defense Secretary sees that this is an unstable regime, which is indeed a bad thing for a regime to be, but he has a much more sane way of dealing it. Never mind the specifics of what neocons will doubtless call the proposed 'appeasement' (so many degrees those people, yet so few words in their lexicon), the point is that Mr Perry knows that the end sought, North Korea being prevented from doing unspeakable things, is that bit more likely attained by not putting her in a place where lunacy is the only diplomatic option she has left. An awareness of the choices the other side faces is the essence of statecraft, and seemingly far beyond the appreciation of our silly Vulcan chums.

The only way in which Mr Perry would be advocating the 'wrong' policy would be if instead of the end of American statecraft being stability, it was instead the promotion of its imperium. Since the United States is already on top, and therefore has a vested interest in remaining there, it really should not be the hardest lesson to learn that her interests are best served by modest strategies designed to hold what she has, rather than immodest insanity designed to achieve what she's never going to end up with.

As ever, another column on spends it time attacking the neocons for their serried faults, albeit from the viewpoint that what's wrong with them is not their imperialism per se, but the fact that it's such inadequate imperialism. But we should not forgot that when this invaluable website first came into its own, it was in arguing against the liberal imperialism of Messrs Blair and Clinton in the 1990s. Now, there's a case to be made, similar to the one followed above, that Bill Clinton's imperialism suffered from being both dilatory and morally incontinent. Though he's history, Mr Blair's still here, and is without doubt having an impact on international affairs. It's not yet the impact he wants to have, but that it's all too possible to imagine this administration being won over to a form of it is something we need to think. With the thing we need to think about most of all being, does Liberal Imperialism really suit either the interests of Britain of the United States, provided that it is pursued as sensibly as possible? On the principle adhered throughout this article (that the less bad is better than worse) we should next time give serious consideration to whether Lib Imps are in fact the most congenial makers of foreign policy Conservatives are likely to get any time soon. It being, after all, impossible on either side of the Atlantic, to see where exactly a practical, in-office Tory or paleo-con foreign policy is going to come from.

– Christopher Montgomery

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Christopher Montgomery is an historian who is currently writing a book on the historiography of the Suez crisis, and is publisher of ERO. He recently took some time out to run the Iain Duncan Smith campaign office, and for a while was working in the private office of the Leader of the Opposition. A young representative of the diehard tradition, he believes that Enoch Powell was right on everything apart from immigration. His column appears here on Wednesdays.

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