It remains one of the mysteries of our time. Why have the Tories, who don’t seem over-endowed with clear-thinking, clear-speaking parliamentary ability, not already given Rory Stewart a desk in the Foreign Office or the MoD? Why waste talent? Is there something magical about the wind and water of the Menschs and worse of this world?
Something more than populist clap-trap
Stewart did a decent job for BBC2 with his two-parter on the history of foreign interventions in Afghanistan. Now Malcolm finds him in the New York Review of Books reviewing Diana Preston on Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1838-1842. As it happens, Malcolm doubts la belle dame Preston will earn any lasting space on Malcolm’s shelf-space, and he suspects Stewart — in these three pages — knows more and writes a lot better. He skewers her catchpenny pot-boiling through her:
remark that “the political and moral aspects [are] both more subjective and difficult to analyse
This reluctance to investigate the contradictory detail of policy decisions, and to assess the moral and intellectual foundations of the occupation, is also characteristic of almost every book on the Afghan invasion beginning in 2001. It may also be symptomatic of our culture… Our inability to acknowledge the inherent paradoxes of occupation, to recognise an impossible mission, to expose the flimsiest of national security arguments, or to accept the limitations of government institutions abroad (the prerequisites for any withdrawal), seems a weakness not just of our historians but also of our policymakers.
Stewart concludes with:
British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s favourite line: “Rule number one in politics is: never invade Afghanistan.”
The difference between then and now is not, as Stewart shrewdly notes, there is any valid comparison between Afghanistan in 1838 and 2008, but that attitudes in the West remain unchanged and unchanging.
Another difference is that, unlike Western leaders today, Captain Macmillan of the Grenadiers had been at the Somme. Macmillan never forgot that, of the Balliol intake of 1912, he and one other were the only survivors out of twenty-eight.
Doing as little evil as possible
Similarly, Malcolm reflects on the political chasm, which came oh-so-close to splitting the British Labour Movement in the maelstrom that was the later 1960s.
One of the worthier achievement of Harold Wilson’s premiership may be that he kept Britain out of the Vietnam embroilment. Peter Davies did a fine essay on just this in 2008 — which Malcolm has sadly discarded. To preserve and protect the relationship with the Johnson Administration (particularly when the position of sterling was a paramount consideration), Wilson was prepared to expend diplomatic credit; but that was it.
Malcolm recalls, and shudders, recalling the pressures that the Atlanticists, on Labour’s right wing, were attempting to apply. In due course it became clear just how many of those shrill voices had been bought, albeit indirectly, by CIA money.
It was all, to coin (ahem!) a phrase, a Strange Encounter.