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Come on, You Liberals
4 November 2001
The soft Left has taken a hard line on the war against terrorism. But does it really have the right stuff?
The corpse of British foreign policy was buried last week with praise from Jesse Helms. The Senator for North Carolina was all smiles as he proposed a vote of 'heartfelt appreciation to the United Kingdom for its unwavering solidarity'. After noting that Blair had made British and American interests one, and given thanks for our military contributions to America's Afghan war, the words which thrill Atlanticists more than 'I love you' were at last heard. We reaffirm 'the special relationship', said Helms, and the rest of the Senate concurred.
It is fair to say that Helms is the foulest relic of segregation in American public life. His introduction to Senatorial politics was as an aide to a Republican candidate in the 1950 election.
The Democratic contender was attacked with an ad which read: 'White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories? Frank Graham favors mingling the races.' Helms saw off a black opponent 40 years on with an infamous commercial which showed white hands crumpling a rejection letter while a grim voice muttered: 'You needed that job but they had to give it to a minority.'
Away from the Carolinas, he has given full-throated support to fascist death squads from El Salvador to South Africa. A caller to CNN in 1995 summed up Helms's career when he congratulated him for 'everything you've done to keep the niggers down'. 'Well, thank you, I think,' replied Helms as he saluted the camera. For Americans who ask 'Why are we hated?' Helms is as much a part of the answer as Henry Kissinger.
Helms is nearly 80 and preparing for an overdue retirement. It is easy to dismiss him as a fossil with no place in the new world of 'compassionate conservatism' and 'appropriate behavior'. Yet he was a portent of modernity when he last discussed Blair in 1999.
Bill Clinton wanted America to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Nuclear weapons were spreading across the Indian sub-continent and Russia's deteriorating stockpile remained on hair-trigger alert. The danger of maniacal clerics or other terrorists capturing a 'loose nuke' niggled at the back of worried minds. Blair, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder appealed to the Senate to recognize that 'nuclear proliferation remains the major threat to world security'. Helms would have none of it. America's allies were 'three people who know nothing about the United States', he said, before delighting his colleagues by conjuring up the image of Blair bowing to Clinton's request to lobby the Senate with an, 'Oh yes, I'll do that. And give Monica my regards.'
For Helms, the Prime Minister was a permissive fool who indulged dating and fellating in the Oval Office. The Senate threw out the treaty. George W. Bush assumed power and got with the Helms program. Bush approved the testing of nukes.
He wrecked a European Union initiative to contain money-laundering in tax havens favored by terrorists, among others. For good measure he rejected the global monitoring of chemical and biological weapons by independent inspectors on the alert for, to pick an example blowing in the wind, anthrax, and kicked off a new arms race. The Star Wars fantasy could have done nothing to protect New York and Washington from hijackers armed with knives, but on it goes.
More effectively than the fiercest anti-war polemic, Helms's congratulation delineates Blair's capitulation to America. It cannot be said often enough, indeed it is scarcely being said at all, that the Prime Minister's management of the war has been weak to the point of frailty.
'Weak' is not an insult Blair would recognize. In his Cardiff speech, he appeared anything but when he said: 'We will not stop until our mission is complete. They mistake our desire for a comfortable life, living in peace, benign towards different races and cultures, for decadence. It is not decadence. It is progress and we will fight to maintain it.'
His resolve has been theorized by my colleagues Will Hutton and Polly Toynbee into the doctrine of 'hard liberalism'. Hard liberals grasp what many on the muddle-headed Left won't admit. They know that the values of liberty, equality and fraternity are on a different and better planet to the theocratic barbarities of al-Qaeda. The enmity is irresolvable.
I couldn't object to that if hard liberals in Downing and Fleet streets stopped there. Unfortunately, hardness of heads is in inverse proportion to the hardness of hearts. A criminal conspiracy cannot be defeated by a conventional war. Al-Qaeda is 'more of an idea than something you can touch', as Admiral Boyce, the chief of the defense staff, said. When the enemy craves the ideas which will animate recruits from New Jersey to Indonesia, by way of every Muslim country and diaspora community in between, it is demented to revert to the tactics and B-52s of a Vietnam War so many hard liberals marched against in their soft youth.
If bin Laden died tomorrow, he could console himself with the happy parting thought that the deaths of civilians and the coming Afghan famine have ensured a posthumous victory.
Nor are hard liberals particularly keen on liberalism when the going gets tough. Until 11 September, all right-thinking people denounced America's anarchic sabotage of global security. Britain opposed her when we had a foreign policy.
We endorsed Kyoto, controls on chemical, nuclear and biological weapons and an international criminal court. Suicide bombers and plague carriers have given the last four items on that list an urgent appeal, to put it in the most restrained language I can find, but London is now too polite to mention the causes we once championed.
America is in Tony Blair's debt. Because Bush can barely be trusted to behave when he's let out in private, Blair has turned himself from British Prime Minister to American ambassador and willingly accepted exhaustion and humiliation as he tours the world on the President's behalf. He has ordered British troops to stand 'shoulder to shoulder' with the US military.
He has - and there's no point being prissy about this - pinned a large target sign on this country. What he can't or won't do is ask for concessions in return which might offend Jesse Helms.
British will not demand an end to American unilateralism. While the Senate was praising Blair, Condoleeza Rice exposed US contempt for British interests with insouciant brutality. In July, America wrecked 10 years of negotiations on strengthening controls on biological weapons to the unconcealed fury of the Foreign Office.
Last week anthrax in the mail forced a slight rethink by the national security adviser. UN protocols should be 'enhanced', she admitted, but America still wouldn't accept independent inspection of potential germ warfare plants.
The pharmaceutical and defense conglomerates, which funded Bush's campaigns, can't stomach effective international regulation. Britain and the rest of the civilized world can go hang, alongside nervous workers for the US Mail.
This isn't diplomacy. Russia faces as great a threat from militant Islam as Britain and America. But when Bush entertains Boris Putin in a fortnight, Russia will make damn sure America picks up the check. In return for Putin's support, Washington will remove economic sanctions and admit Russia to the World Trade Organization. Putin will almost certainly get the cut in nuclear arsenals he wants, and may, if we're lucky, be smart enough to stall Star Wars.
Blair is a paradoxical contrast. On the one hand, he is the most cynical of leaders whose incessant manipulations have discredited politics and suffocated the best hopes of the Labour movement. On the other, he is more prey to idealistic passions than Keir Hardie. Genuine horror at 11 September has propelled him to assure Bush that, contrary to what the President may have heard, there is such a thing as a free lunch.
War makes cowards of us all. I remember liberals weeping with the late Saint Di about the horrors of landmines. Now Clare Short defends cluster bombs, which are nothing more than mines dropped from 15,000 feet. Liberals denounced the destruction of Chechnya. Now, they cheer on their brave Russian allies.
Progressive Observer readers used to agree that a belief in democracy kind of goes with the liberal territory. Before 11 September, I'm sure they joined the Government in deploring General Musharraf's coup d'état . Now the dictator is a bulwark against the Talibanizing of Pakistan.
The only pro-democracy voice I've heard came from Talat Masood, who wrote in the Karachi newspaper, Dawn, that Musharraf's 'sidelining of mainstream political parties' had created 'a gap that is being filled by radical religious extremists'.
Masood was a lieutenant-general in the Pakistan Army, who wasted his time serving the tyranny of General Zia. But at least no one can accuse him of liberalism.
Supporters of the war should be required to defend the tributes of Jesse Helms, a strategy which incites rather than defeats crime, the killing of civilians, the first great famine of the twenty-first century, the refusal of America to accept restraints on weapons of mass destruction, the collapse of our national independence, mines falling from the heavens, free-fire zones in the Caucasus and a suppression of democratic rights in Pakistan which feeds the enemy we are meant to be fighting.
Come on liberals. If you think you're hard enough.