Whatever happened to neoconservatism?

hussein-flag1.jpgBy Ed West Politics
Neoconservatives argued for the removal of Saddam Hussein
In yesterday’s Observer Nick Cohen made an admirably un-crowd-pleasing call for intervention in Syria, citing my colleague Michael Weiss’s proposal for helping opposition forces in that country. He wrote:

Intervention to stop a regional war carries vast risks. But we should be honest about the consequences of acquiescing to Assad. A failed state and nest for terrorism will sit on the edge of the Mediterranean. Foreign mercenaries and Alawite paramilitaries will continue to massacre a largely defenceless population and the conflict may spread into Iraq, Israel, Turkey and Jordan. As the news that escapes the control of the Syrian censors reminds us every day, those who say we should do nothing also have blood on their hands.

I can just imagine the reaction of many readers choking over their [insert unmanly, organic foodstuff popular in N16 here]: “Neoconservatism!”

It’s rather funny that in the popular imagination, and in the adolescent protest movement, neoconservatives are characterised as these evil, warmongering, American imperialists, who sit around in smoky rooms with a map of the Middle East with little oil field figurines, and a hotline to Jerusalem. (They are also disliked by some Right-wingers, who talk about “neo-cons” in the same way they might have once used terms such as “cosmopolitans” or “international finance”; or as one Egyptian “moderate” pundit once explained to me about the “forces” that controlled America, his eyes squinting – “these people, you know of whom I speak”.)

The opposite is in fact true. As the very title suggests, neoconservatives are not conservatives as such but liberals who have fallen out with other liberals because they think non-Europeans should be held up to the same standards as everyone else; alongside Christopher Hitchens, the impeccably liberal Cohen was the finest British writer to advocate the removal of Saddam Hussein on the very decent grounds that he was an evil, sadistic mass-murderer who continued to cause misery for millions. Neocons take the Holocaust mantra “never again” seriously, whereas most on the Left mean “never again by whites”. They are the good guys, and just want the Arab world to be more like them; wealthy, free and slightly less weird about the opposite sex.

Operation Iraqi Freedom failed for the same reason that a-thousand-and-one liberal schemes fail; they’re right in theory, but suffer too many unintended consequences in practice. So while liberal welfare schemes can end up creating more poverty, and liberal sex education results in more impregnated teenagers, liberal imperialism suffers from the same law – except that in war unintended consequences are magnified ten-fold (liberal warfare is also difficult because war can only be won by sacrificing liberal principles – it’s very hard to wage without the use of torture, terror and internment.)

Neoconservatism also suffers the un-conservative weaknesses of utopianism and sidelining historical experience. I recall one liberal pundit writing five years back that our victory in Afghanistan proved that history, which teaches us to never go near that country, should not be considered a necessary subject anymore.

But unpopular though it is, interventionism is not going away, for there is one issue that becomes more and more pressing with each week – the parlous state of the Middle East’s Christian (and other) minorities. The ethnic cleansing of Iraq’s Assyrians and Chaldeans was the great, ignored tragedy of this century so far; Egypt and Syria’s Christian populations are substantially larger, and if the former slides into an Islamic theocracy and the latter into civil war life will become unbearable.

The West is then left with the decision: whether to open its borders to save them, and so enable religious cleansing, or to take action.

Already, as Andrew Brown of the Guardian noted last month, there is growing concern among western Christians, and a willingness to do something about it. What is only missing is an organisation. Up until now the fear has always been that any sort of help will be presented as a crusade and will only incite further violence, but a point might come when there is nothing to lose anymore.

Having said that, there may be nothing we can do anyway. The Middle East is going through the same transition that Europe underwent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where democratisation and national consciousness led to minorities everywhere being driven out, starting in the Balkans (where Turkish Muslims were often the victims) and culminating in the events of 1939-1945, with the worst genocide in history and subsequently the worst mass expulsion, of 12 million Germans. Where religious and ethnic minorities lack defensible territories, they tend to end up far away from home or dead, and, with the possible exception of the Lebanese Maronites and the tiny Assyrian Nineveh Plains region of Iraq, minorities in the Middle East have no such territory. Of course all this goes to show that the establishment of a separate Jewish state was a good thing for Mizrahi Jews, who almost certainly would have ended up suffering a sad fate even without the establishment of Israel.

Unless, of course, you believe that without Zionism none of the Middle East’s current problems would have come about. In which case you’re an idiot.