Douglas Murray, who will take part in the ‘Winning the War of Ideas’ event this Saturday in Dublin along with Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, is mostly known for his 2017 best-seller, ‘The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam’
Murray’s fame as a writer and public intellectual stretches much further back though, and to get a better insight into his thinking, it is worth examining his book ‘Neoconservatism: Why We Need It’.
To read it is to be transported back more than a decade, to a world where President Bush was in power, and America’s political debate was focused on the ongoing war in Iraq.
In Britain, the Labour Party had just achieved its third straight general election victory, and the Tories were so battered and confused that many had written off its chances of revival.
In this environment, Murray proposed that the Conservative Party should embrace the interventionist foreign policy approach which had become known as neoconservatism. By doing this, Murray believed, British conservatives could cast off their nostalgic identity, and wrestle away the mantle of leadership from Tony Blair and his party.
This would also help the Tories to achieve a renewal which would bring positive change in domestic policy, where three election drubbings at the hands of Blair had shown how difficult it was to put forward a conservative vision which could receive public support.
“It is my belief that the solution to many, if not all, the problems lies in neoconservatism – not just because it provides an optimistic and emboldened conservatism, but because neoconservatism provides a conservatism that is specifically attuned, and attractive, to people today,” Murray wrote.
Murray carefully laid out the evolution of this controversial school of thought, beginning as it did with the writings of the 20th-century political philosopher Leo Strauss. It was then picked up by the intellectual giant of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, during the tumultuous period that was the 1960’s.
It was only in the 1960’s that many Americans came to believe that their values were under threat, not just from the external aggression of international communism, but as a result of the fact that so many young Americans no longer believed in their country, and the righteousness of America’s cause in the global battle between democracy and tyranny.
America’s eventual defeat in Vietnam, prefaced by the grim spectre of privileged college students burning their flag and refusing to serve in uniform, led many formerly left-leaning intellectuals to believe that their fellow liberals had lost their way, as had the Democratic Party in which they had resided.
Communism had to be resisted, they insisted, and America’s strength restored. Together with a wide range of thinkers, Kristol slowly established a new set of beliefs about how America’s foreign policy should be conducted.
Among Kristol’s key ideas, as Murray describes, were that patriotism was commendable, that world government (as embodied by the UN) should be rejected and that America should draw clear lines between its friends and its enemies.
Later on, the staunch support which neoconservatives consistently gave to Israel, and the fact that Kristol, Strauss and many other neoconservative thinkers were themselves Jewish, would give rise to many sinister accusations about the motivations of those involved.
Yet, as Murray argues, providing strong support for America’s allies was an essential part of what neoconservatives believed in, as was the conviction that a United Nations Assembly filled with communist dictators and genocidal maniacs had no right to condemn the only liberal democracy in the Middle East.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, America’s foreign policy entered into a new phase where no major challenger existed. Yet history did not end, and when wars erupted in the former Yugoslavia, neoconservatives emerged as some of the strongest advocates for American military action to end the escalating violence there.
While the US and its allies eventually intervened in Bosnia, and later in Kosovo, there was a call by neoconservative groups such as the ‘Project for a New American Century’ to bolster America’s military spending, to challenge hostile regimes and to advance democracy. That call went unheeded, right up until the terrible events of September 11th 2001.
For many conservative readers, it will be at this point where they start to encounter problems. Murray’s description of the evolution of neoconservative thought during the Cold War era is superb, but his whole-hearted support for the tragic war in Iraq appears very different in hindsight.
The author’s optimistic take on the invasion can only be looked upon now as extreme naivety.
One particular statement from Prime Minister Tony Blair which Murray describes as “a perfect blend of humanitarianism, national interest and hyper-realism” is illuminating: “What amazes me is how many people are happy for Saddam to stay. They ask why we don’t get rid of Mugabe, why not the Burmese lot. Yes, let’s get rid of them all. I don’t because I can’t, but when you can, you should.”
Blair spoke those words from the comfort of Downing Street, unaware of what the consequences of the invasion would be, and judging by the failure to put in place a plan for a post-Saddam Iraq, not putting much thought into that matter either.
Nobody will ever know for sure just how many Iraqis died in the ensuing sectarian conflict, but estimates are in the hundreds of thousands. Thousands of American, British and allied service personnel were killed or maimed also.
Aside from this, the large-scale geopolitical effects were catastrophic, and included: the emergence of ISIS, the displacement of millions of refugees, the destabilisation of Syria, the rupturing of ties among Iraq’s religious communities, the destruction of Iraq’s ancient Christian community and much more besides.
Writing in 2005, Murray had no knowledge of much of much of what was to come, but he had surely seen enough not to have embarrassed himself by writing of how the invasion had kick-started a process whereby democracy was gradually spreading throughout the Middle East.
The legacy of the Iraq War alone has been calamitous enough to refute the positive sentiments expressed by defenders of neoconservatism, but a decade later there is much more evidence elsewhere.
Seventeen years after the initial invasion, the war in Afghanistan rumbles on. President Obama ramped up America’s involvement upon taking office, eager as he was to present it as an defensible alternative to Iraq. That did little good, however, and after Obama’s drawdown, President Trump was forced to deploy thousands more troops last September to stem the Taliban’s recent gains.
America’s longest war rolls on, and the Afghan state remains as weak as it is corrupt. When the last American infantryman departs this wasteland, it will be difficult to point to any meaningful achievements – the establishment of a functioning and self-sustaining state or a liberal democracy remains a fantasy.
The Libyan adventure was also pushed for by neoconservatives, even though it was launched under a Democratic president, and at the behest of a well-known Secretary of State. There too, the promises of regime change have proved illusory.
Like the other countries earmarked for “freedom,” Libya is now a failed state, embroiled in war. Ironically, one of the key outcomes of an intervention which so much of Europe’s political establishment supported has been a refugee crisis which has destabilised the European politics like never before.
The values and beliefs of the general public are ever-shifting, which makes it hard to preserve what is good. The welfare state is broadly popular, and entitlements are virtually impossible to remove once granted: this explains the dire situation in public finances right across the West.
Moreover, achieving reform in areas of the public service such as education or healthcare is hard work, and requires taking on powerful and entrenched vested interests.
Faced with such difficulties, many conservatives, President George W. Bush being a classic example, fell into the trap of focusing on foreign policy instead of attempting to enact conservative policies at home.
Worse still, opportunistic politicians of the left and the right have used foreign deployments and shock-and-awe airstrikes to project an image of strength on the international stage, while deflecting attention from domestic weakness – David Cameron springs to mind.
For empty vessels like Tony Blair, this is unfortunate. But for self-professed conservatives, this is unforgivable. Now, and at all times, the advancing of conservatism should begin at home.
To be fair to Murray, much of the content of his book does relate back to domestic policy. His views on a range of issues are eloquently expressed, and represent a proper manifesto for genuine conservative reform.
Among the policies he calls for are cuts in income tax (and some public services), stopping the growth of bureaucracy and ending the growing problem of extreme political correctness. Though an openly gay atheist, he praises the role of Christianity in British society, and calls for Christian values to be at the heart of the state’s education system.
As a conservative intellectual, Murray has not changed much between the publication of ‘Neoconservatism’ in 2006 and the publication of ‘The Strange Death of Europe’ last year, and his abundant intelligence and courage has meant that his star continues to rise among those who think that the war of ideas is worth engaging in.