Neo-Conservatism: the Michael Myers of Political Ideology

You just can’t them down, can you? Just when you thought the advocates of war with Iraq had lost the intellectual battle, it turns out that the UK’s Education, Culture and Universities secretaries are signatories to an organisation which denied the legitimacy of the UN, and called for the forcible imposition of democracy on foreign countries.

Of all of the varities of democratic political thought to emerge over the last 50 years, perhaps none has been as controversial as neo-Conservatism.  Seen by some as a world-wide conspiracy to enslave the world in an American empire, and by others as the only honest manifestation of the liberal commitment to democracy, over the last ten years in particular, the neo-Conservatives have been the focus of raging argument. But in general, it would appear that, in the aftermath of the disastrous attempt to bring democracy to Iraq via tank tracks, neo-Conservatism is in retreat.

If you were to think that, you’d be wrong. Just take a look at the Henry Jackson Society.

The academic surroundings of Peterhouse, Cambridge (as in UK Cambridge) might seem like an unlikely HQ for the latest manifestation of the neo-Conservative project. But what has occurred here is nothing less than the transmigration of large sections of the staff of that most infamous of neo-Conservative think-tanks, the Project for the New American Century.

Now, just to make it clear, I do not think that the PNAC was part of some grand conspiracy to control the US government and the world, and set up an American empire (although that term is not mine, but that of one of the HJS’ patrons) . Essentially, the principles behind neo-Conservatism, in my opinion, are naive, callous of human life, and are largely detached from the realities of the real world- but I do at least consider most of their proponents honest. Neo-Conservatism, at its heart, considers that democracy is the best form of government, as it allows individual freedom to a far greater extent than any other. This is a statement most liberals would agree with.

Where Neo-Conservatives are different, however, is their insistence that a free-market democracy is the best form of government, right now, for all places, and without regard to pre-existing conditions. Moreover, it is not only the right, but the duty, of democratic nations, notably the USA, to bring democracy, by force if necessary, to others.

It is this combustible mix of willingness to use military force, and ideological rigidity, which has led to the catastrophe of Iraq. Essentially, the best description I can come up with for neo-Conservatives, is ‘democratic extremists’- those who shape the facts of the world around this ideology, rather than the other way round.

So what of the Henry Jackson Society? Well, suffice to say that its list of international patrons is a rogue’s gallery of who’s who in neo-Conservatism. Prominent members include:

Richard Perle: The grandaddy of the neo-Conservatives. One of the chief members of the PNAC, Perle’s career has embraced calling for pre-emptive war with Iraq, working to undermine nuclear arms reduction talks with the Soviet Union, calling for the abandonment of all Israel-Palestine peace processes, and the erection of a domestic surveillance state in the US in order to “win the war on terror”, as he puts it.

William Kristol: Editor of the Weekly Standard, the most neo-Conservative of all major US newspapers, and co-founder of the PNAC. Another longstanding member of the hard core of neo-Conservatives, Kristol co-signed with Perle a 1998 letter calling for regime change in Iraq, and calls for pre-emptive military action against Iran.

Clifford May: A former senior member of the Committee on the Present Danger, a lobby organisation set up to talk up the threat from the USSR, May has stated his support for waterboarding and other such forms of ‘enhanced interrogation’, called Hilary Clinton a “vaginal-American”, and joked that Guantanomo Bay prisoners should be released and then killed by a missile strike.

General Jack Sheehan: a US marine corps general who recently was forced to resign after claiming that the Dutch army was unable to prevent the Srebenica massacre because their soldiers were too gay.

Max Boot: a neo-Con academic who has called for an “American Empire” as a response to 9/11.

Michael Chertoff: The former US Secretary of Homeland Security, responsible for the building of a 700-mile fortified border wall to stop Mexican immigration into the US.

Robert Kagan: The other co-founder of the PNAC, and co-signatory of the letter to Bill Clinton calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Bruce Jackson: Former Chairman of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a lobby group linked to the PNAC which called for Saddam Hussein’s overthrow.

Joshua Muravchik: a self-described neo-Conservative who once wrote a newspaper article simply entitled “Bomb Iran”.

Natan Sharansky: a former Israeli cabinet minister who resigned in protest at the withdrawal of settlements from the Gaza Strip.

R. James Woolsey: a former head of the CIA, who has claimed that not only was Iraq responsible for 9/11, but also for the 1995 Oklahoma bombing and the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing.

So a pleasant bunch, then.

But surely all this is in the past, right? Er, no. For a start, a number of these statements listed above- like Sheehan’s comments on Srebenica and Max Boot’s call for an American empire have been made in the past year. Moreover, the Henry Jackson Society’s statement of principles says that, “any international or regional organisation which admits undemocratic states lack the legitimacy to which they would be entitled if all their members were democracies.” In other words, the UN, which does admit undemocratic states, does not have the legitimacy of organisations such as the EU, for example. This is at least an improvement on what the statement of principles used to say. Until 2009, the HJS’ signatories called for the use of the “sticks of the military domain” to bring democracy to foreign countries, and called the UN “fundamentally flawed”.

Some of the recent articles on the HJS’ website are pretty scary, too. There’s this one, for example, which claims that the recent Gaza flotilla, on which peace activists were shot in the head by Israeli commandos, was a “provocation” aimed at “caus[ing] an international incident”.

But you know what’s really scary? Some of the people who are the signatories to the statement of principles. There’s David Willetts, the universities secretary. And Ed Vaizey, the culture secretary. And Michael Gove, the education secretary. Now, I’m not sure whether these guys signed when the society still officially called for the use of “sticks of the military domain”. But is this really the kind of organisation members of the UK government should be involved in? With British troops still dying in foreign wars, isn’t it time we put this disastrous ideology to bed, once and for all?

David Willetts: Two Brains and No Clue

I must admit that one of my vices is to fulminate at newspaper articles that annoy me. I am generally a placid person, but I can only describe my reaction to certain articles as ‘the red mist’. The best thing I can compare it to are the scenes in Kill Bill where Uma Thurman sees an enemy of hers, and the screen flashes red with alarm-like music playing in the background.

This was my initial reaction yesterday to an article in the Guardian, reporting an interview with David Willetts, our new Education Secretary, and a man best known for his legendary nickname, ‘Two Brains’. Essentially, Willetts has called the system of student loans unsustainable, and dropped some pretty unsubtle hints that he would like to see the current loan system scrapped- and, by implication, replaced by a system where students have to take out support loans at commercial rates, and start paying them off immediately, rather than the current system, where they get a (slightly) lower rate, and only start to pay off loans after they start to earn £15,000 a year. I don’t need to tell you that the net result of this would be to drive out poorer students from the university system.

But on re-reading the article- with a little less anger in my veins- my more reasoned response was, “Eh?” Willetts says, “The so-called debt [students] have is more like an obligation to pay higher income tax.” I must admit, my student loan debt feels awfully like a debt to me. Sure, it doesn’t take cash out of my paycheck, but that’s for the very simple reason that I don’t currently have one. Moreover, my student loan is not accruing any interest- but that’s because it’s linked to interest rates, currently near zero per cent, not to what I earn. What Willetts means is that because the repayments of loans are linked to earnings, it sort-of-resembles an income tax bracket. But the logical solution to this, surely, is not to make a tax more regressive!

But the fact remains that, whilst Willetts’ logic has got extremely muddled, there is a problem with our university system. For what we have now is a mess of a university system, with no clear idea as to what it’s for. If Willetts really wanted to sort out university finance, there’s a number of fundamental questions he should look at first.

1) What is University for?

This may sound like a silly question, but there’s no agreed answer. Is university’s purpose to train students for work? Is it to give them a broad, ‘liberal’ education and the skills to live their lives? Is it even neither of the two, but simply a mechanism to teach 18-year olds how to live and work independently? I don’t have an answer to this, to be honest. I just don’t know enough about education policy to form an informed opinion. But in time, we do need to have a debate about this. But until then, we have two questions which do have more definite parameters and solutions.

2) Who should go?

Traditionally, UK universities were largely composed of the upper and upper-middle classes- and frankly, abolishing the current student loan system will bring this back pretty sharpish. This is probably the easiest question, in my opinion, to answer. In a stratified, 19th century style society, where a division of labour between classes was the norm, this system made more sense. But frankly, the ideal, if not the reality, of social mobility is one which is generally agreed to be beneficial, by all the major UK political parties. But if we can agree that, in theory, university should train the brightest people from any background, we come to the hardest question of all.

3) How many people should go?

This is the real sticking point. The Labour government entered power with the laudable aim of expanding access to education to people from poorer backgrounds. However, their solution was to try to widen the number of people going to university, up to their much-derided target of 50% of school leavers. The problem with this, of course, is that the government is saddled with millions of pounds of unrepaid loans- which in this time of fiscal crisis, is a major burden on the department, and which Willetts is quite right in trying to cut.

Willetts’ problems do actually come from the failures of the Labour government. You see, what they failed to recognise and implement, is that social mobility doesn’t just mean talented people rising up; it also means untalented people falling down the income and social scales. And frankly, this is something that we have a major problem with in this country. My upbringing is one of middle-class respectability; I went to a county grammar school. At the school, there was no argument about whether we should go to university once we left- the only question was where we should go. For example, one friend of mine who had his heart set on going into the army was still made to complete a UCAS form, even though he had no intention of going to university. The fact is, for social mobility to work, and for the number and therefore the cost of university students to be cut, middle-class parents and teachers have to realise that some people simply are not cut out for university, and will not benefit from it.

Can you really imagine a Tory education minister saying this? Er, maybe only if one of Willetts’ brains got a screw loose. Can you imagine a Liberal Democrat saying it either? I’d like to think so, but I don’t think that’s terribly likely, either. But if we were really honest about tackling the deficit incurred by education, in a way which didn’t turn back the clock on university access, this is what we would have to say.