Do ideas really matter?
(Part 1: a voice for neo-conservatism speaks in Cambridge)
Last Wednesday I went to see Michael Ladeen speak, a member of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing US think-tank. He is widely regarded as an influential neo-con, but he dismisses the label – saying there’s many points of view and considerable disagreement within the Institute over foreign policy.
Ladeen had an obvious belief in American exceptionalism and a special American destiny to support “the cause of freedom wherever it is threatened by tyranny”. As both a clear idealist and a scholar of Machiavelli he made some interesting arguments.
Fundamentally, he highlighted the tension in American thinking between isolationism and interventionism – a sense of having a mission in the world and a fear of contamination by a corrupt “outside” world the founding fathers (and all migrants since) deliberately left behind.
This, he argued, explained the historic American inability to sustain any coherent foreign policy. “We do crusades,” he said. “When we’re done, we go home.”
He argued that in nine years (the Regan era) the US was, by concerted but peaceful means, able to bring about the collapse of the Soviet empire and spread democracy in Latin America. If this could be achieved against a superpower, it should also be achievable in the Middle East: making invading Iraq a mistake.
(He thought the priority should be non-military support to Iranian democracy campaigners, as was done for Solidarity in Poland and Havel in Czechoslovakia).
He referred to the oil-for-food programme as the biggest money laundering operation in history, making the UN the most corrupt organisation in history.
He referred to terrorism as the conscious choice of well-educated people from good homes, arguing that the September 11 bombers were not in any sense people radicalised by personal experience of poverty or oppression.
He clearly saw terrorism as state-sponsored, referring to Iran, Iraq, Libya and Saudi Arabia as the “terror masters.”
His central thesis – which provoked outrage when the floor opened to questions – was that America is under attack because it is a free and open society, attempting to spread democracy in order to foster a more peaceful and rational international society. “Tyrants who support terror hate us because we are a successful and free society … they have to come after us … For them this is life and death.”
His argument being that so long as free societies exist as a viable alternative, tyrants must struggle to defeat them or risk being overthrown by their own people when they realise a better way of life is available.
It was interesting to listen to someone with a view of the world so morally infused as to be seemingly impervious to detail. When challenged on past American support for dictators he simply responded that these had been mistakes, and he understood how some could see the US as an enemy because it had supported tyrants in the past.
I couldn’t decide whether he was admitting to some genuine complexities, or just incoherently flip-flopping.
What I found most valuable was to realise that this is the kind of voice influencing US foreign policy (I wouldn’t say controlling it – US government is too big a power-process for anyone to really control foreign policy) – and it just doesn’t understand the pinko-lefty Eurocentric UN-as-rule-of-law consensus to which I belong.
It treats that pinko-lefty consensus as being as self-evidently mad (or rather, “tired”, “lacking self-confidence” or “nihilistically post-modern”) as we pinko-lefties consider the neo-cons.
So, in defining the war on terror as a “war of ideas”, he illustrated that the battle in policy circles over the role of international law is definitely one of ideas. In the academy and government we are fighting over which ideas will determine the way the industrialised and powerful nations view the world and respond to it.
In that context, the BBC 2 documentary “The Power of Nightmares” raises interesting arguments about the birth of the neo-cons and contemporary Islamic extremism (… to be continued).