Jacob Heilbrunn: The Neocons and Churchillmania

Roundup: Talking About History

Jacob Heilbrunn, in the NYT Book Review (2-27-05):

Jacob Heilbrunn, an editorial writer for The Los Angeles Times, is completing a book on neoconservatism.

Douglas J. Feith was becoming excited. After spending an afternoon discussing the war in Iraq with him, I asked what books had most influenced him. Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy and a prominent neoconservative, raced across his large library and began pulling down gilt-edged volumes on the British Empire. Behind his desk loomed a bust of Winston Churchill.

It was a telling moment. In England right-wing historians are portraying the last lion as a drunk, a dilettante, an incorrigible bungler who squandered the opportunity to cut a separate peace with Hitler that would have preserved the British Empire. On the American right, by contrast, Churchill idolatry has reached its finest hour. George W. Bush, who has said ''I loved Churchill's stand on principle,'' installed a bronze bust of him in the Oval Office after becoming president. On Jan. 21, 2005, Bush issued a letter with ''greetings to all those observing the 40th anniversary of the passing of Sir Winston Churchill.'' The Weekly Standard named Churchill ''Man of the Century.'' So did the columnist Charles Krauthammer, who in December 2002 delivered the third annual Churchill Dinner speech sponsored by conservative Hillsdale College; its president, Larry P. Arnn, also happens to belong to the International Churchill Society. William J. Luti, a leading neoconservative in the Pentagon, recently told me, ''Churchill was the first neocon.'' Apart from Michael Lind writing in the British magazine The Spectator, however, the Churchill phenomenon has received scant attention. Yet to a remarkable extent, the neoconservative establishment is claiming Churchill (who has just had a museum dedicated to him in London) as a founding father. ...

But is there a seamless continuum from Churchill to Reagan to Bush? Certainly Bush himself has not exactly shied away from the comparison. On Feb. 4, 2004, at the opening of the Library of Congress's ''Churchill and the Great Republic'' exhibit, Bush stated that ''our current struggles or challenges are similar to those Churchill knew. . . . One by one, we are finding and dealing with the terrorists, drawing tight what Winston Churchill called a 'closing net of doom.' ''

But after celebrating Churchill, many neoconservatives go on to champion empire, and at that point matters become trickier. Krauthammer has applauded the idea of American hegemony, which he calls ''democratic realism,'' in The National Interest. Shortly after 9/11, in an article called ''The Case for American Empire,'' published in The Weekly Standard, Max Boot wrote: ''Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.'' The former Canadian press baron Conrad Black, the chairman of the board of The National Interest, is calling for the creation of a Churchillian Anglosphere, while the historian Niall Ferguson wants the United States to quit being an ''empire in denial'' and adopt liberal imperialism.

It's hard to see why it should. What, after all, was Churchill's imperial legacy? While he was laudably eager to establish a Jewish state, his forays into Arab nation-building after World War I, including the creation of Iraq and Saudi Arabia, plague the region down to the present. Far from helping avert the collapse of the empire, Britain's machinations under Churchill accelerated it. At the same time, it's not clear how ''liberal'' Churchill's imperialism actually was. He was a rather equivocal democratizer, declaring in 1942 that he had not become ''the King's first minister in order to liquidate the British Empire.'' He bitterly fought with Roosevelt over recognizing Indian independence, and he despised Gandhi.

For many of the neoconservatives, however, the great liberal idol Franklin D. Roosevelt was a disaster. The former Bush speechwriter David Frum has hailed Churchill as the great man of the 20th century, while denouncing Roosevelt for not opposing Nazism and Stalinism vigorously enough. It seems clear that by shunting Roosevelt to the sidelines and elevating Churchill, neoconservatives are doing more than simply recovering a neoconservative hero from the past. They are, in effect, inventing a new interventionist tradition for the Republican Party that goes beyond anything Churchill or other British statesmen ever imagined.

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