Burial of Neocons
IT is as easy to be distracted by the outward glamour of a prime ministerial visit to Washington as it is to fail to discern its occasional real inner substance. Both things apply in the case of David Cameron’s White House talks with Barack Obama on March 14. On one level they were the very embodiment of the self-indulgent vacuity. On another, they marked the end of a chapter in modern history.
At the White House, they buried the neocons. Or, to put it rather more carefully, since neoconservatism has been through many contrasting incarnations and the term is widely misused, Cameron and Obama marked the imminent close of the phase of US-UK foreign policy that began after 9/11 with the coming together of American imperial power and British support for the active promotion of democracy and liberal institutions, particularly in the Muslim world.
Of course, like most attempts to draw a line in the sand of history, this one is approximate and inconclusive in many ways. The Afghanistan campaign which, along with the jihadist threat, is one of the few constants of the past decade, is not over yet. There will still be nearly 70,000 US troops in Afghanistan at the turn of this year and 9,000 British until late next, with an “enduring commitment” beyond that. The interventionist reflex, the wish to nurture liberal institutions as a counterweight to jihadism, and the sheer ability to act with greater military effectiveness than most rivals will all continue to shape US and UK foreign policy in the Muslim world and elsewhere for as far ahead as the eye can see.
Meanwhile, for all the buddiness of the US visit and the Churchillian rhetoric of their Washington Post op-ed piece this week, the two leaders do not march in lockstep anyway. Obama put it with utter clarity in Wednesday’s White House press conference. Britain and America are different economies in different places.
The one nation is an indisputable first-rank world power. The other is a leading second-rank one that cannot act unilaterally even if it wanted to. The US is bound into the Middle East, in particular in relations with Israel, in ways that do not apply to Britain to the same degree. Cameron was more committed to intervention in Libya and is keener on intervention in Syria than Obama.
Yet, even when all these and many other provisos are taken into account, it was still the end of an era. Over Afghanistan - despite all the talk about the upcoming Nato summit, the handover to Afghan security forces and Obama’s claim that there will be “no steep cliff” of rapid pullout at the end of 2014 - the aim is withdrawal.
Recent killings of Brits and by Americans and Wednesday’s audacious attack inside Camp Bastion are all harbingers of that. “People get weary,” said Obama, in a moment of frankness. The pullout will happen because the voters have lost the will to fight.
The similar surface noise over Iran and Syria also conceals a deeper current, a long withdrawing roar of disengagement.
Cameron and Obama dwelt less on Iran and Syria than they did on Afghanistan. That’s partly because there is less they can do there, even the Americans, certainly the British. The Washington Post joint article emphasised that there is time and space to pursue a diplomatic solution in Iran, buttressed by stronger sanctions.
There is not an iota of ambiguity in the toughness of the language, but the unspoken reality is that Obama would do almost anything to avoid getting trapped into a military strike against Iran. That doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. But it does mean that he thinks, rightly, that it would be a mark of failure if it did.
In Syria the limits of engagement are even more stark. At the White House press conference, Obama spoke about aid to the opposition, about pressure on the regime, about mobilising the nations and tightening the sanctions.
Cameron threatened the Assad dynasty with the international criminal court. It all sounds like action, and it is all useful incremental stuff. But it is action at a distance, with strict limits. It is not intervention, because the international order has a collective interest in inaction and because the costs - not least the political costs at home - are deemed too high.
All this is, in very large part, the politics of where we are now. Faced with all three of these grim situations at once - a decade-long losing struggle against a feudal patriarchal narco-state, the threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of a paranoid revolutionary theocracy, and the readiness of a corrupt Arab socialist autocrat to kill his own people for the sake of the revolution - it is hardly surprising that Obama and Cameron hold back. Who’s to blame them for doing so? The historic failure in Iraq leaves them little choice. But so does the fragility of the global economy. Even if the US and the UK were faced with only one of the three problems, Iraq and the recession would make them think twice.
A large part of all of us breathes a huge sigh of relief at this. The post- George Bush era finally beckons.
Withdrawal from Afghanistan means no more pointless deaths of young soldiers, no more massacres, insults and acts of desecration against Afghans - at least by Americans.
Western nations think in instant gratification terms and short timescales and this has all gone on too long. The west has had enough of fear and shame and hard times, of making enemies out of strangers and realising that getting people to change their ways is harder than it first seemed. People get weary, just like Obama said.
Another part of us, though, ought to reflect on what is being lost by this overwhelming collective disengagement.
The disengagement is happening because the mistakes - crimes if you prefer - of the past have created a collective war-weariness that has now become a collective war-wariness. It is natural to want the conflict to end.
Who wouldn’t? It’s not wrong to want a quiet life, but how right is it when it comes at a price that someone else will inevitably have to pay? That wasn’t acceptable to earlier generations who scorned non-intervention in Spain or Abyssinia. Obama and Cameron closed the door on the George Bush era, to the general relief of the world. But the era of Mullah Omar, Ayatollah Khamenei and Bashar al Assad goes on, posing questions that will one day have to be answered.