"I am not a naïve neoconservative who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet,” said British prime minister David Cameron last month. Like most of Europe’s political class, Cameron has a long track record of criticizing neoconservatism. What makes Cameron’s latest criticism noteworthy, however, is that it came at the culmination of the most neoconservative month of his life.
He got the ball rolling in a speech in Munich, where he said state multiculturalism in the U.K. had “failed.” Segregating different ethnic minority communities away from the mainstream and allowing them essentially to live according to their own values had led to social breakdown. What was needed, Cameron said, was a more assertive “muscular liberalism.” He then became the first world leader to visit Egypt since Mubarak’s overthrow, speaking about the need for immediate democratic reform. From there he went to Kuwait, where he extolled the virtues of democracy promotion. Cameron then became the first leader to threaten the use of military intervention against Libya’s Colonel Qaddafi. He concluded with a speech to the Community Security Trust in the U.K., in which he discussed the threat of Islamist extremism. Its “ultimate goal,” he said, was “an entire Islamist realm, governed by an interpretation of sharia.” This is strong stuff.
Acknowledging the existence of an existential threat; the need to assert your own values and lead by confident example; the promotion of democracy as a foreign policy goal in and of itself; and the awareness that military strength can further these goals when all other avenues have failed. That’s a neoconservative clean sweep.
Even so, Cameron is at pains not to be tarred with the neoconservative brush. The term in Europe is now synonymous with extreme right-winger with a penchant for civilian deaths—hardly a vote winner. So Cameron constructs neoconservative straw men in order to obscure the extent of his own agreement. He says that neoconservatives are “naïve” for trying to impose democracy from 40,000 feet (at least the third time he has made such an argument in a public speech).
Ignoring the fact that no neoconservative has ever suggested any such thing, it is an insult to the historical record. Compare Bill Clinton’s cruise missiles with George W. Bush’s land invasion of Iraq to see who was keener to resort to fixing problems from the air. Perhaps he meant Donald Rumsfeld’s take on the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), which might be summarized as fighting war via airstrikes and light and flexible ground forces. Yet that would mean that Cameron regards Rumsfeld as a neoconservative (he is not) and RMA as a neoconservative policy (it is not). In fact, U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been the precise opposite of Cameron’s butchering of history.
There is, of course, no particular reason why Cameron should defend neoconservatism. There are not many rewards for defending an unpopular ideology, and he is not even a neoconservative. Cameron is a realist and, more pertinently, an astute politician. Is there, for that matter, any reason why American conservatives should lose sleep over the currents and eddies of conservatism in the U.K.—a country essentially on the verge of disarming and signing itself up as a middling power and part of a European super-state? Perhaps one British prime minister playing fast and loose with the truth about neoconservatism is of little moment.
But it does matter. Cameron’s sentiments encapsulate how effectively neoconservatives’ opponents have hijacked the term. Over the past decade, all you needed to do to be “outed” as a neocon was to be sufficiently offensive to the prevailing liberal orthodoxy. Eventually, the term became simply a pejorative liberals used to describe anybody they disagreed with. John Bolton and Condoleezza Rice became as neoconservative as Paul Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams.
Were the ideology as morally and intellectually bankrupt as its opponents wished, such trivialities would not be important. However, if no effort is made to reclaim neoconservatism from its critics, the egregious lies and conspiracy theories about Leo Strauss, Iraq, and the Project for the New American Century will become assumed truths. No good can come from bad history.
Democratic sentiment exists in the Middle East, and for it to flourish we should do all we realistically can both to nourish it and to hasten the collapse of authoritarian regimes that would stamp it out. Neoconservatism has provided the intellectual underpinning for the push for democracy; it has turned realists into interventionists. It has been an important development in U.S. political philosophy. As recent events show, it is still relevant. It should not be consigned with less salubrious ideologies to the dustbin of history.
Robin Simcox is a research fellow at the Centre for Social Cohesion in London.