How I learned to start worrying about the bomb

27 November 2008

Douglas Murray is a leading neo-conservative thinker and heads the think-tank, the Centre for Social Cohesion. His most recent book was called “Neoconservatism: Why We Need It”, the publication of which led to him being hailed as “the Right’s answer to Michael Moore”. Shane Murray spoke to him recently about his views on the war on Terror and the then-upcoming American elections.

You’ve been described as the only British neo-conservative, so what is your definition of neo-conservatism?

The old definition was that we were liberals who were mugged by reality. I’m not sure that applies as much anymore. It holds true for me, but there are a lot of people who never had the liberal phase. Obviously, the early ones, Irving Kristol and people did, former Trots. I think it’s quite rare now, people like Bill Kristol, Irving’s son, supporting the Nixon campaign for the White House and no-one who did that at university can claim to have ever been a liberal.

Now, really the only distinctive thing that neo-cons are regarded for is foreign policy, there are a lot of neo-con domestic and economic policies, but foreign policy is the main thing now. The thing that defines us, I would say, is a combination of realism and idealism, that we like to think we see the world as it is, but don’t believe, as a lot of realists do, that that means you allow the world to keep going the way it is. You have a view of how you want the world to be, so in my case, a democratic pluralist society, but you don’t imagine that the world is something else. Do you think the war in Iraq was a mistake? I think it is too early to tell in many ways, but I don’t think it was a mistake. I think we had an overdue appointment with Saddam Hussein and he had to be got rid of. We had tried most other means.

By 2003, we had not only the excuse but the impetus to do it. We should also remember that even while Iraq has been such a bloody conflict that has not been because of our intervention but because of the forces of international jihad, who have decided that they would rather massacre their so-called religionists than see Iraq become a democratic state, they rather do anything than see that. Well, is it really mostly or solely “international jihad” or is it not also a large amount of indigenous resistance? Absolutely, but that bit, the former Baathist remnants and others, undoubtedly there were mistakes made that exacerbated their presence and their actions. I think we have to remember who is firing the shots. When we, that is the coalition forces, build a water plant, you can usually be sure that there’ll be someone trying to blow it up. The idea is that we’re responsible for building it and for blowing it up, which of course we’re not, this a problem which has dogged us since 2003. I think to follow that, Iraq is turning into the success story we wanted it to be in 2003.

Counter-insurgencies are very difficult things – Malaya took us ten years to master, this has taken a shorter time than that.

General Petraeus said we shouldn’t use the word “victory” in the context of Iraq. Would you agree or would say there is a situation

that we could call victory? General Petraeus is a great man, it goes without saying, and he is probably right to say that an American general and an American president shouldn’t declare victory in Iraq. Victory in Iraq under some definitions happened in 2003 when Saddam’s regime was overthrown. I don’t agree with that. Victory in Iraq will be a slow process, we’re in the end of that victory process, I’d argue, but there will be no day when the ticker-tape parade occurs. Iraq will be a victory when for some years it has been able to show itself as a beacon of democracy in the region, which is surrounded by squalid dictatorships. Who would you prefer to win the US presidential election and what do you think their foreign policy objective should be after Iraq? The most important foreign policy objective for anyone is to prevent, by any means necessary, Iran from becoming a nuclear state, that is the biggest strategic issue of our time. The reason I say that is not just because I believe that Iran is bent on the destruction, one way or another, of the Jewish state, which is the stated objective of not only Ahmadinejad but of every leader of the Iranian revolutionary government, but also because it would lead to a spread of nuclear material across the region. We know about this already, the deals by Saudi and Egypt. They’re acquiring weapons off the shelf as it were, just a few nuclear weapons they could use as a kind of deterrent. The problem with that situation is that detente breaks down, I don’t know of a nuclear strategist who knows of what happens when instead of having a stand-off between two nation states, neither of whom want to be annihilated, you have multiple nuclear powers pointing their missiles in every direction and in some cases would like a bit of martyrdom. I think there’s been a lot of hype on both sides about what the other would and wouldn’t do. I don’t think the Obama presidency would be as bad as a lot of Republicans seem to think. I think McCain has mucked up his campaign by the elevation of the woefully underprepared Sarah Palin. This has been a fairly desultory election.

I think John McCain is a decent man, but none of the other runners have any right to pertain to the office which they’re attempting to come to. After all, I see no qualification on Barack Obama’s side; he’s never done anything but run for president, as Sarah Palin rightly said at the convention the other week. Never found time to draft a piece of legislation but he’s found time to write two autobiographies.

Do you not think Russia is going to become the greatest threat to the West? The first thing is that it’s not an either/or equation. I’m not as hawkish on Russia as some people are. I happen to think that in some ways we need Russia, especially if we regard the imminent nuclearisation of the Middle East. We need Russia’s help. We already getting some of the way there, for example, Russia is no longer delivering one of the missile systems to Iran. This seems to me to be very important.

I think we live in a world and always will live in a world where great nation-states verging on democracy will continue to want to maintain power and leverage over their spheres of influence. Russia has just been showing that it feels it has been treated badly for 15 years and I think there’s some justification in that. International jihad is a quite different thing, a movement with totalitarian world-wide ambitions. Russia has ambitions and always will have ambitions, but they are not the ambitions of the nihilists, the jihadists and suicide bombers, who sadly in Iran have a country under their thumb. This will be a much more serious and much more epochal battle.

How do you think we are going to win the war on terror in that case? There will be no day when there is a ticker tape parade and we’ve won, there will be no day when the forces of Islamic terrorism realise they have lost, but conflicts do end by one side winning and one side losing. We don’t have an idea of this because of Northern Ireland, that conflicts come to an end through some sort of stalemate. This isn’t the case.

In my mind, the war on terror will finish when the widespread idea that there is an attainable target, for example, in getting Israel out of the Middle East or of the ridiculous idea of restoring the Caliphate, when all of these ludicrous wet dreams of the jihadists are shown to be impossible and they are impossible. If there is to be peace in the region, it relies on us reminding people what they can achieve and what they cannot.

There are a whole set of things that we are implying are achievable, for example, the negotiation over Israel’s borders and even its very existence. The best way the Palestinian peoples could get peace would be by accepting that the Israel state is going nowhere and never will be going anywhere.

Are you saying they should accept living inside the Israeli state or… Well, I believe many do and many others live in Jordan, which is effectively a Palestinian state already. That wouldn’t mean though that they’re couldn’t be a Palestinian state of its own, it would just have to recognise that it was neighbouring Israel.

However, the Israel-Palestine issue is not the central problem for the region. The central problem for the region are the twin problems of Iran and an ideology from Iran, this ludicrous idea that there is a government run by people who think a pre-pubescent boy is going to crawl out of a well and herald the end times. On the other hand, the nightmare of Saudi Arabia, which is a twin problem and different type of Islamist problem. The twin problem of a Saudi state that tries to hide its own failings by pumping, rather successfully, around the world its own virulent and cancerous form of Wahabi ideology. These are two problems we will have to deal with at the same time.

We very rarely face an enemy so complex but the idea that we can only tackle one of these problems would be like saying in 1939 that we’d deal with Mussolini but not Hitler or vice-versa. You can’t do that. There’ll be no day of victory in the war on terror when the troops can all come home and there’ll be a ticker tape parade. We’ll find it very hard to define what victory is, but we’ll know what defeat is and defeat will be exceedingly clear to us. It will be gradual and I think we are the way to it now.

In terms in the domestic threat, how far should the GB government go in curtailing civil liberties to fight terrorism? I think 42 days was a very unpopular piece of legislation and I think the government made the case for it exceedingly badly for why we needed it and I’ve spoken to a lot of people about why I think 42 days is a good idea, but the government was unable to articulate that. You have to accept that some people in your society are going to have to give up their civil liberties in any major security operation: we did it in 1940, we did it Northern Ireland. The populace itself should not be encouraged to believe, I think ID cards and so on are a red herring, and the government has to be extremely careful in using scare tactics.

When you have a situation as we do, where in a month of each other, a couple of months ago, we have a young man, a clean-skinned convert becoming a radicalised man trying to blow up Bristol town centre, being found with a suicide jacket in his father’s £800,000 house and then a month later in Exeter another stand-alone, clean-skinned bomber trying to blow up a restaurant, we as a society have to accept this is going on and will keep on going and if we are to stop it we can’t go on wheedling and whining about what I regard in the main to be relatively small voluntary sacrifices.

Murray then began his speech where we had left off with the interview, talking about the War on Terror, suggesting that it would be dropped politically by next January, but that “the war will still be there”. Murray warned that those who “were trying not to see the monster” would bring about a defeat in the War on Terror. He argued that there had been successes in the Western strategy of fighting terrorism, observing that “with the exception of the Afghan-Pakistani border, it’s much harder to join a terrorist training camp.”

However, he was particularly animated on the subject of the domestic War on Terror, which was the subject that dominated the vast majority of his talk. Murray declared scathingly that “This country has been particularly successful in pumping out international terrorists” and pessimistically told us that “We have lost a generation of young Muslims”. Despite the fact that he was certain that “If you’re an Islamist, you’ll always find a reason to be hot for martyrdom”, Murray was concerned with apportioning blame and revealed his own personal bugbear: “the wars for freedom of expression”. Much of what Murray said on this topic was uncontroversial as he defended the right to free speech and made the obvious point that one should not have to go into hiding “for publishing a book about someone

else’s prophet”.

It was perhaps more surprising that he was met with glowing and unquestioning approval from the audience when he proclaimed ulticulturalism to be “a racist doctrine”. Murray was convinced that multiculturalism (whatever that is) had failed and sneeringly dismissed multi-faith dialogues as “one of the ways to waste your life”. Murray made it clear that he saw the practice of multiculturalism, treating people as minorities as “a different type of citizen” and political correctness as responsible for the rise in Islamism.

“Communities could only ever be spoken to as communities” he complained and said “the best way to win this war is to make it clear where we stand”, rather than trying to placate Muslim communities. Murray indeed announced that “we need de-sensitivity training” and demanded that movements for rights no longer “stop at the borders of Islam”. Undoubtedly, there was much correct with what Murray said, especially his trenchant defence of the right to free speech, something he knows a great deal about, having needed armed bodyguards when travelling in Holland. His opinions on multiculturalism would be more controversial, but they were well-explained, as he pointed to the excesses of that movement, as has his think-tank, which arguably support a re-alignment in social policy.

However, Murray delivered all of this so smugly (which is probably unavoidable if you’re arguing that we vehemently defend our culture of rights) that it was difficult to warm to his themes and instead, one got the distinct impression that he was throwing the baby out with the bathwater.