Was Churchill a neocon?
Author, attorney, and former Reagan administration official Spencer Warren has an interesting thesis about Winston Churchill, as a statesman who over the course of his long career consistently applied a traditionalist and realist understanding of human nature to the problems of foreign policy. I am pleased to present Mr. Warren’s thoughts about Churchill with VFR’s readers.
WAS CHURCHILL A NEOCON?
Of course, Churchill lived in another time and it is dangerous to attribute to him or any other historical figure views on current issues. This didn’t prevent neocon guru Feith from embracing Churchill in the original article, without any evidence to back up his claim of parentage. For his part, Hayward cited only meaningless speculation (even if by Churchill’s official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert), to support his suggestion.
Instead, they should have studied Churchill’s philosophy of international politics, as found particularly in the many hundreds of speeches he made during his six decades in public life. These reveal a broad outlook that is very different from that of the neoconservatives. Whatever Churchill might have said about the Iraq war, he was not a neocon, and it is typical of neocons’ un-historical, dogmatic outlook that they make this erroneous claim.
Most importantly, Churchill, unlike the neocons, was no utopian. As I explain in my study, “A Philosophy of International Politics,” published in Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech Fifty Years Later (University of Missouri Press, 1999), Churchill revered the British empirical conservative tradition going back to Edmund Burke and to earlier thinkers of the seventeenth century. Unlike the neocons, he grounded his policy views on a broad understanding of human nature, its considerable weaknesses as well as its strengths. This led him to an appreciation of the need for skepticism, prudence and limits in foreign affairs.
Churchill would not have embraced the neocons’ expansive, indeed radical, policy derived from an abstract, universalist theory of democracy. Rather, like a true conservative, he reasoned from the specific facts at hand.
For example, in the 1930s, Churchill advocated collective action as the best means to gather superior power against Hitler. But he did not advocate it as an abstract, universal principle. In the Abyssinian crisis of 1935-36, he advocated strong action against Italy, provided it had wide support, but only because he wanted to strengthen the League of Nations against the real danger—Hitler. He feared (correctly) that indecisive action would only drive Mussolini into Hitler’s arms. Earlier, in 1931, he opposed condemnation of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria because it did not materially affect the world power balance and, in any event, the League had no power to act there. If neocons possessed what Churchill often liked to call a “sense of proportion,” they might have recognized that our invasion of Iraq could have – as indeed it has – constrained our ability to face the far greater threat posed by Iran’s race for nuclear weapons.
Churchill also held quite a negative view of Arab civilization. In his 1937 testimony before the Peel Commission (reviewing British policy in its violent Palestine mandate), he stated: “Where the Jew goes there is oasis. Where the Arab goes there is desert.”