The most prominent neoconservative in Britain, Conservative MP Michael Gove, was once interviewed by the New Statesman. It contained one of the best analyses of his foreign policy views, formed not in the cauldron of distant battlefields or the misery of refugee camps, but at his untidy little desk at the Times. “In print, the well-mannered, self-ironising young fellow was transformed into a Churchillian warrior,” his profiler wrote. “A self-proclaimed neoconservative, he was an ardent supporter of the Iraq war and an implacable foe of Islamic terrorism, about which he wrote a book, Celsius 7/7.” The New Statesman did not mention that this book, amongst other things, had called in great part for a strengthening of Britain’s relationship with Israel. Instead, we were told that, “His columns were stylish, if shallow, displaying a debater’s grasp of foreign policy, in which abstract nouns such as freedom, appeasement and resolve carried all before them.”
A debater’s grasp of foreign policy is what sums up neoconservative naiveté better than any phrase I have yet come across. It is the kind of naiveté that sounds great on the debating floor of a posh university but less good when you’re in the real world. Gove published Celsius 7/7 in 2006. It was issued to all new members of Conservative Friends of Israel and became a kind of go-to resource for British Conservative MPs as they thought about the Palestine problem.
I now understand that, amazingly, Gove had never visited Israel when he wrote the book. In fact, according to a close Tory friend of his, he only visited for the first time in 2013, roughly seven years later. “The Israeli embassy was actually so nervous about Michael visiting,” the source told me in a hushed discussion in a Westminster coffee shop, “that the trip was put off a couple of times.” The story goes that the Israeli public relations officers were worried that their greatest advocate in Westminster might see something he didn’t like, so perhaps it wasn’t even worth him going. “In the end it snowed when he went,” the anecdotist concluded. “Michael loved it.” He now returns with his family to spend most Christmases there.
How could a neoconservative write a book about strengthening Britain’s support for Israel despite having never visited the country? It is because, as a neoconservative, Gove had the debater’s grasp of the issue. For him, it was all about the abstract nouns that carried all before them; freedom, appeasement and resolve. It was about the principle of supporting the idea of “Israel”, not what Israel really was, or is.
Ground zero for neoconservative thinking was Winston Churchill’s position of assertive violence against Adolf Hitler versus Neville Chamberlain’s nervous appeasement. It was that dynamic of aggression-appeasement that has come to define the neoconservative position on foreign policy in the decades since, notably in two areas: the appeasement of terrorism and appeasement of autocracy. The neoconservative argument goes — and, again, I am sure it sounds great in that plush debating club — that if you appease a terrorist or an autocrat only once, you will embolden not just him, but all other terrorists and autocrats at that time and in the future. Appeasement is therefore positioned as one of the great sins of foreign policy.
Gove applied this thinking to the Irish Republican Army in a fascinating paper he wrote about Northern Ireland called “The Price of Peace”. He positioned the Good Friday Peace agreement as an act of appeasement, which caused him some embarrassment last year when he attempted briefly to become prime minister. Gove closed his introduction to the paper with reference to World War Two, as neoconservatives often do: “Those who warned of the consequences of appeasement in the Thirties were derided as glamour boys, renegades and war-mongers.” Then he talked about the “flawed assumption” that “armed terrorists can be converted to democracy by re-shaping democracy to suit the terrorist.” He concluded with: “The Belfast Agreement has, at its heart, an even greater wickedness. It is a capitulation to violence, a validation of terrorism which has led to ‘demilitarisation’ – the removal of the British Army from our sovereign territory… The moral stain of such a process will prove hard to efface. It is a humiliation of our Army, Police and Parliament.”
What would Gove have made of the debates surrounding his beloved Israel in the middle of the twentieth century? It is a fact that the British Army was forced to withdraw from the area because Jewish-Zionist terrorists were blowing up our diplomats, civilians and soldiers with abandon. In leaving Palestine, did the British government of the day capitulate to Jewish-Zionist terrorism, providing its “validation”? And what would Gove say to the then future Prime Minister of Israel, Menachim Begin, who was placed on the “Most Wanted” terrorist list by the British government for his murderous activities with the Irgun terror organisation; would it be a “flawed assumption”, as he said of Sinn Fein and the IRA, to assume that “armed terrorists can never be converted to democracy”?
Gove himself was President of the Oxford Union, the premier debating club in Britain. The problem with neoconservatives isn’t that they’re necessarily stupid, but that they are certainly excellent at winning debates. They then think that they are clever enough to translate the universal principles which seem so clear and easy in a debating chamber to any particular situation at any particular time.
If it was wrong to appease the Irish Republican Army, why was it so right to appease the Irgun and associated Jewish-Zionist terrorist groups? Would Michael Gove and the neoconservatives in America — from where this ugly radical virus has infected the British right in recent years — have supported the killing of British troops in Mandate Palestine by Jewish terrorists? I generously suspect not, but how, then, can a neoconservative like him reconcile his supposedly universal principle that “you must never negotiate with terrorists” with support for what one expert in radical Islamist terrorism has called “the original terrorist state”, his beloved Israel?
If I was a potential terrorist contemplating the bombing of Western targets in the Middle East, I might look for examples of where terrorists have succeeded in achieving their political aims. This is the exact concern that neoconservatives like Gove have about appeasing terror; you appease one terrorist, you encourage the rest. If I was in such a position — and I must stress, of course, that I am not — then I would look no further than the terrorists who played such a crucial part in founding the state of Israel. There was, and remains, an awful lot of appeasement surrounding “the original terrorist state”, but perhaps for Gove and his neoconservative ilk, some appeasements are better than others. Their support for Israel makes no sense whatsoever.