Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Neoconservatism is a movement of failed men

Andrew Sullivan has rendered the most articulate explication of the undeniable Marxist/neocon synergy I have ever read. Check it out if you haven't read it.

The post has gotten me thinking orthogonally. One can learn a lot about a movement by what it sees as its enemies. The neocons' greatest enemy is probably Neville Chamberlain, who (to them) personifies the liberal weakness of coddling evil and refusing to see that great and looming threat, all in the name of preserving "peace." It occurs to me that this is mostly wrong. Don't get me wrong, Chamberlain was a failure as a statesman. He misread Hitler completely and allowed him to get away with breaking commitment after commitment. It's true that Chamberlain didn't have the capability to fight Hitler in 1936, and that between then and 1939 it was Chamberlain who began rebuilding the strength of the British military, but it was Chamberlain who legitimized Hitler's conquests with worthless paper, and Chamberlain who refused to listen to wiser voices both at home and abroad about Hitler's evil. Churchill famously had Hitler pegged from the beginning, but so did Franklin Roosevelt. Chamberlain's desire to avoid another awful war led him to ignore contrary opinions and push forward with his peace process. Chamberlain's attempt to finally rein in Hitler--by offering Poland a unilateral security guarantee--was not taken seriously by Hitler because of Chamberlain's earlier weakness, and he invaded Poland anyway. Chamberlain's reign was pretty much a disaster when it came to the most important issue out there, and he will continue to pay a price for that in the history books.

I have no quibble with any of this conventional wisdom. What I have a problem with is where it stops. Most popular estimations of Chamberlain just stop once WWII was declared. But his career didn't end then! His premiership didn't even end for another few months, once his declining health forced him to give up the reins. He could have named his close ally (and appeaser-in-chief) Lord Halifax his successor, but he picked Churchill instead. This was an admission that Churchill had been right and that he (Chamberlain) had been wrong. Chamberlain continued as an MP for a few more years and supported Churchill's government completely, and John Keegan's bio notes that angrily rejected any diplomatic overtures from Germany after his premiership ended. He had come full circle.

Now, I don't think that Chamberlain's post-PM conduct makes up for his mistakes as PM. He bungled the situation badly, and while some of his mistakes can be excused his record as a statesman cannot be salvaged. But as a man? I think you can make the case that the humility and moral courage shown by Chamberlain in passing power to his greatest critic showed that while he was a failure in office, he gained some measure of redemption as a man for his conduct afterward. He certainly didn't have to do what he did. He could have refused to admit he was wrong, forced a No Confidence vote and probably a general election, named Lord Halifax as his successor, and then done everything possible to destabilize Churchill's government from without. But Chamberlain didn't do it. This is more than can be said for someone like Dick Cheney, who ostensibly hates everything Chamberlain ever stood for, and ironically enough is pretty much right to do so, though not in the way he probably figured.

This is a thought I've had for some time. I might have mentioned it on this blog before. But it was recalled to my mind by this passage by Sullivan:
As you watch Iraq today veer between a reprise of brutal sectarian warfare and a political class utterly uninterested in actual democracy, only a blind man or a fool can still believe what Kristol and others (including me) said before the war. [...] Only ideologues or cynics can sustain this kind of insanity against this mountain of empirical evidence.
Sullivan leaves out the category of the prideful, which I think is mostly the problem here. But it is simply impossible to debate the point. Neoconservatism is a movement of failed men, of angry and arrogant people who hate to have their failures pointed out to them. These guys have a similar record of poor judgment to Chamberlain's (albeit in the opposite direction), but they entirely lack the grace notes of NC's post-PM phase. I don't doubt that most of these men are ignorant and simply don't know much more about Chamberlain's career than the most obvious facts, but the irony here is that in trying so hard not to be like him, they are undoubtedly going to be remembered more harshly than the great appeaser himself. How can they not be?

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.