Following on from Justin’s post here a while back, Henry at Crooked Timber sounds a note of alarm over the apparent Ã¢â‚¬Å“lovefestÃ¢â‚¬Â between the antiwar left and the realist Ã¢â‚¬â€œ or National Interest – right.
leftwingers who rush too quickly to embrace their new friends on the right should meditate upon the malign example of Henry Kissinger, and the implications of Realpolitik for the causes and issues that theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re committed to.
Well yes, except that the past two years have given interested observers of an idealistic bent a horribly detailed tour through that fine old conservative principle, the law of unintended consequences. This in particular applies to those who took the stated principles behind the invasion of Iraq at face value. Despite this, many found themselves unable to believe the government over the WMD issue and so unable to support what was therefore simply a war of aggression. A general, maybe rather fluffy belief in intervention foundered against a basic principle in foreign affairs. Many found themselves on the othercside of that issue. But over WMD this constituency learned that the government cannot be trusted even or especially in important matters. It has watched the brutal progress of the insurgency and counter-insurgency and learned that acting with good intentions does not guarantee good outcomes. It has seen the Iraqi government slide gradually under the control of ShiaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ theocrats and the horrible possibility occurs that there might be no good outcomes whatever you do because some problems are simply insoluble by political agency. It surveys the general slaughter and wonders, in the dark of night, whether it really does have the right to impose its good intentions on others. It reads the columns of Matthew Parrish and Max Hastings and finds itself nodding along in tremulous agreement.
It looks ahead to Darfur, which presents a seemingly unanswerable case for international action. Yet while the spirit remains willing, the events of the past two years makes the will shrivel like a well salted slug. When hearing calls to action, it starts wondering about the small print. When listening to idealists, it begins to wonder what exactly they have to sell and what the price might actually be. It finds itself judging policies less on whether theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re right, and more on whether theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re reckless. Feeling ill-used because of its ideals, it begins to gravitate to people whose outlook concentrates on the material and the particular Ã¢â‚¬â€œ to what are generally termed realists.
I suppose what I’m really talking about here is the mainstream of the great “do-somethingist” coalition that originally grew up around intervening in the Balkans conflict in the nineties, stretching from Margaret Thatcher on the right across the great, herbivorous plain of the centre and liberal left, not including national interest conservatives or people whose general political outlook necessitated radical distrust of actually existing government – Marxists and others on the far left, for instance, or full throated libertarians. This coalition split over the initial Iraq invasion and now appears to be undergoing a general crisis of faith.
Such bruised idealists are, in classical political terms, Tory converts in larval stage. As to why the Tories arenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t amongst them promoting the gospel of Interests, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a puzzle to me, and one IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll have to leave to the brothers and sisters of that parish to answer.
So what is the answer for the disappointed idealist? One thing I heard quite frequently around the time of the invasion was that people were prepared to Ã¢â‚¬Å“forgiveÃ¢â‚¬Â Tony Blair in his failures of domestic governance because of his forceful expression of international idealism. Well, we know now that a government which demonstrates lying and incompetence in small, domestic matters will show the same qualities in large, international ones. To reverse the old parable, a government unable to remove the mote from itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s own eyes Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and which gets away with it Ã¢â‚¬â€œ will be unable to remove the beam from someone elseÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s. You donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have to embrace the full realist agenda to realize that a government which canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be trusted in a country where it can be thrown out of office canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be trusted to take action in places where it can act with less supervision.
Personally, I’m not too optimistic about getting either, but if you’re in the market for salvaging your ideals, I’d say that this is the place to start.