November 6, 2002

David Frum's Guide to Mythology, Part II

Last week we looked at Mr David Frum, and we found him so incredible and fantastic that we felt we'd have to come back and look at him some more this week. Our initial interest in him was excited by this stray Canuck being inflicted on right wing British newspaper-readers as a guide to all things relating to US foreign policy. We were suspicious; we had a good long stare at his terribly naughty fib Britain and Europe think the United States is in the grip of some phantom 'Jewish lobby'. There were three other 'myths' that Mr Frum affected to believe we on this side of the Atlantic are prey to: that the war is 'about oil'; that it is a 'Bush family vendetta'; and that, the US is a 'rogue state'. And then, ever so daringly, Mr Frum produced a neocon rabbit out his mooseskin hat: 'America is subverting the Middle East'. Paper tigers, each and very one of his myths, but the rhetoric that handles them out into public view is worth examining, and, most importantly, we have to see what David Frum is boasting about as regards current US foreign policy. Whether his crowing is more wish-fulfilment than accurate summary remains to be determined.

As I write those of you living in the United States are fortunate enough to be enjoying the fruits of participatory democracy. On a very low level of interest, I suppose I hope you're sensible enough to elect conservative Republicans – at root, I'm a hopeless party flack, and always hope to see the sister teams overseas do well. One American friend in London can't see much to excite her in her home state of North Carolina, where Liddy Dole vs. Erskine Bowles is hardly compensation for the outgoing Jesse Helms. Now, let's face it, even before the Democrats nabbed the Senate, Jesse had rather faded towards the end. But if he wasn't the man he had been, he was still a useful thorn in the side of internationalist, police-the-world idiots of every party stripe and he's not liable to be improved upon. He certainly won't be improved upon if the sort of people who come to predominate in the Republican party owe substantially more to the likes of David Frum that they do to, oh, The American Conservative.

One of the most depressing things about a Frum is their habitual sloppiness: and I, for one, don't think it's an inelegant cover for mendacity. It really does seem to be a defining part of the beast. Let's take a queasy po-mo dekko then at Mr Frum sketching Brits peering vaguely at Americans and see what I mean. It turns out that, 'the most immediately startling thing about British political and media life is this: everybody knows each other'. This is indeed startling, not least because it's demonstrably false, but what makes it screamingly bogus is that of all the hackneyed lies to tell about Britain, this is the laziest on offer. Accept no substitutes: this is it for foreign bores cutting and pasting their copy for back home. Except, err, this is what Mr Frum was telling us about ourselves. No doubt he raises his game when writing for a home [sic] audience, as, unlike the incestuous complicity of the mother country, the atomised nature of American public life 'helps to reduce the spread of clichés'. Dear God . . .

For you see, whilst we here in London are chatting away to each other in one great big, old school conspiracy, poor David, well, when he

was an editor at the Wall Street Journal, America's most important conservative paper, for three years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I can count on two hands the number of times I met a politician in an informal setting – that is, something other than an editorial board meeting or an interview.

So different to London, not least, um, the bit about him being a hack based in New York, while, as far as I know, the federal government remains stubbornly based in Washington. Maybe people are having him to dinner now? Is there a PayPal button I can hit?

The point of all this self-pity was to illustrate and explode one 'myth' about the modern United States we are supposed to subscribe to i.e. that American politics are determined over Georgetown dinner tables, in order that he might go on and rebut a still wilder one – that this coming war with Iraq will be 'about oil'. If only it was. No, this war's going to be about something simpler and more complex: it's about, as David Frum doesn't – can't – explicitly spell out, American pre-eminence. That's a simple goal to state, but a tough one to account for. Now of course on one level, this is ineluctably going to be a war 'about oil'. If Saddam didn't have the plentiful oil revenues he patently has, he'd be in even less of a position than the North Koreans to acquire the WMD Mr Frum and his ilk enjoy fretting about. Yet what he is at pains to do here is to stress why his brand of interventionism is good (because it's not about oil), in comparison to those conservatives who support stability in the Middle East. These are chaps in the pay of Big Oil, and showing some lingering Trot roots, this is bad.

It's ground I keep coming back to, but one of the chief reasons why, even if the US should continue on its present imperial course, neocons certainly shouldn't be the ideologues of empire comes from takes on the world like this:

The modern Middle East was, of course, a British and French invention, but America long ago took responsibility for policing and protecting it.

Just how much longer can neocons go on, covertly or otherwise (the most extreme, and intentional advocate of this line is 'mad' Michael Leeden), blaming her current geopolitical discontents on 'situations not of her own making'? Anglophobia's all very well and good, but, ahem, we've not been running things pretty much anywhere for forty years. Such international problems as there are are surely those left to us by the great hegemon? After all, are we not constantly instructed that such fruits as we enjoy today are equally the consequence of America's benevolent pre-eminence? However, don't you worry, we'll come back to that sly little 'took responsibility' quoted above – took, it sounds ever so nice and generous and downright humble of the neocons, doesn't it? Gawd bless them, each and every one.

Moving on from oil, the next 'myth' Mr Frum rugby tackles to the ground, and impresses a few studs in the skull of, is the idea that [look away now – even I'm embarrassed] the whole wide world believes that the war with Iraq is a Bush family vendetta. Even though, you know, it was, uhhh, a Bush who didn't 'finish' the thing off in the first place. As we have noted before, this is another frequent neocon vice, that of projection. In truth the main body of folk bothered by the fact that the killrate was moved up into a decent percentile in 1991 are our friends like Mr Frum, they're the ones who lament that things weren't 'taken care of' last time round.

To point up to us how awful and sneering such an attitude to the United States is, Mr Frum turns to that famed bastion of the curled lip, the British civil service (think France, but without the running away from Germans jokes). Sadly his unnamed civil servants simply didn't give him the Dubya-knocking quotes, so . . . so, he makes some up? No, obviously not, he instead engages in some mild phrenology and interprets their smiles . . .

When you ask certain senior British Civil Servants what they think of President Bush, they respond with a smile. It took me a while to learn how to translate that smile, but I think I understand it now. It says: 'I am a professional and, while that notebook of yours is open, nothing you can say could possibly induce me to reveal my true opinion of that moron the Americans call their president'.

Mind you, that would be pretty much my advice to you too if you happen to bump into David Frum in a dark alleyway: maintain eye contact, keep smiling, nod a lot, back away slowly.

There's not much doubt that the neocon method is rotten, but it is, too often, dishonest as well. David Frum is not a stupid fellow, but when he, for example, argues that a cabinet resignation in a parliamentary system would be a one day wonder, whereas if, say, 'Colin Powell or Donald Rumsfeld resigned . . . they would tear the Bush Administration apart'. What nonsense! In the American system, cabinet members enjoy office at the pleasure of the President. In contrast, in a parliamentary system like ours Prime Ministers enjoy office at the pleasure of their cabinet colleagues. This was an odd mistake for a Canadian to make. You begin to suspect that this is reality twisted so as to fit the destination Mr Frum wishes to end up at.

The reason, one imagines, why we went down this imaginative route, is that David Frum wants to unbalance us before he unleashes the fancy that, unlike a British Prime Minister, able, apparently, to declare war at will, 'a president cannot take America into a major war all by himself'. Maybe I'm listening to different neocons to you, but how long ago was it when they were telling us that, 'of course a President doesn't need congressional authorisation before he commits forces to warzones'? As I recall, their main constitutional point about the chief magistrate was that there wasn't much point to him and his office if he couldn't toss jets and bombs and troops round the world at will.

On and on this paper tiger hunt goes, with it culminating in the demolition of the idea that the US is a 'rogue state', heedless of international opinion. All you need as a representative flavour of the tendentious deceit on offer here is this opening for the defence:

It may be irritating when Americans apply their laws on Cuban property or banking privacy extra-territorially. It's irritating when the Europeans do the same, by refusing to extradite accused criminals to face the death penalty. In neither case is it a violation of some law: it is a diplomatic problem that friends must resolve together.

Got that? When the American government tries to tell a British firm to desist from trading in Cuba (fortunately complying with this is illegal under British law) this is, plain and simply, the American state arrogating to itself the impractical right to tell one foreign entity (the British company) what it can do in another foreign jurisdiction (to wit, Cuba). You'll look through his writings long and hard before you find an instance where Mr Frum stands up for the equally noxious extra-territorial laws on trade with Israel that many Arab regimes try to enforce (with a comparable lack of success, it has to be said, to America's efforts to enforce her absurd extra-territorial laws relating to Cuba). Anyway, the real shocker here is that Mr Frum somehow thinks that this is somehow meaningfully related to one sovereign state declining to extradite an individual resident in it to another. Honestly, I can't believe that divorced from the prism of neoconservatism a bright cove like this could credit such a thing. In many ways the strongest argument against this creed is medicinal: it appears to be driving most of its adherents stark, staring bonkers. It would be a kindness to put them on Ritalin and prescribe 6 months of Chronicles-reading for them all.

What all of this series was building up to, and what a damp squib it turned out to be, was that, actually, forget all my talk about how reasonable the US is, and how much it listens to the rest of the world and how, well, all those other things you believe about it just ain't true neither mister: the US is intent upon subverting the Middle East. I don't actually think it is; like most empires I strongly suspect that Washington aims to, sensibly, follow the line of least resistance whereever possible and that, every now and again, shouting very loudly and glaring an awful lot at one regime may well have to be a tactic that's employed. However, what's self-evident is that David Frum, and a horde like him, ardently wish that it were.

Remember that guff about America 'taking responsibility for policing and protecting' the Middle East? That's the world as David Frum would like you to see it, for if he held up an accurate mirror to the past, his contemporary delusions would become all the harder to sustain. It's exactly by being so wrong about the past that he can say – sincerely, I think – loopy, ahistorical things like, 'America, operating in its own name and under its own flag, cannot replace one dictator with another'. That's one of those 'iron laws' more observed in text books than in real life. The entire history of the post-war period is just so: how the hell can anyone think, for instance, that 'democracy' plays much of a part in the regime put in place in Afghanistan? Or Kosovo? Or Bosnia? Or . . . the list is a jolly long one, so I'll sigh and give up. It's what propagandists like David Frum are counting on us doing.

An epitaph for Mr Frum and his worldview lies in his line that:

The full cost of maintaining the old order in the Middle East did not, however, become apparent until September 11.

Now that it has, now that the first bloody installment has been collected, can anyone tell me why this commodity, the maintenance by the United States of any sort of order in the Middle East, is a price worth her paying?

– 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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