In recent weeks, the Prime Minister has given two vaguely neoconservative speeches – one in Munich on multiculturalism, and the other in Kuwait on democracy in the Middle East. Yet he also has a track record of misrepresenting neoconservative thought, just in case any potential voter mistook him for one. Everyone knows neocons are pretty dastardly, so if you are not for them, then that must mean you're an OK guy.
It was therefore unsurprising to see Cameron comment in Cairo this week that 'I am not a naive neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000ft'. This is the third time, by my reckoning, that Cameron has used some kind of variation on this theme. At the Conservative party conference in 2007, he said that 'I think that if we have learnt anything over the last five years, it's that you cannot drop a fully formed democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet.' Since nobody has ever tried to do such a thing, I would have thought that would be quite low on the list of all the things that were learned between 2002-2007. Cameron continued down the same track in a speech in Pakistan in September 2008; though at this stage he was less sure at what height democracy could actually be dropped from, revealing that 'we cannot drop democracy from 10,000 feet'.
These are perhaps throwaway comments. But language matters – and so does differing truth from lies. I would be fascinated to know which neoconservative the Prime Minister thinks he has ever heard suggest democracy can be imposed from 40,000 feet. Surely if you were trying to do so, you would launch bombing campaigns but not commit troops to the ground; you would not care about elections, democratic structures or fostering a basic civil society; and you would certainly not risk your troops' lives. In short, you would act how Clinton did in Sudan in 1998. Yet it is clearly not Clinton that Cameron is aiming his criticism at. It is Bush; the president who, by committing blood and treasure in the way he did to Afghanistan and Iraq, did the precise opposite of trying to drop democracy from 40,000 feet.
Cameron also said in Kuwait that
"Democracy is the work of patient craftsmanship it has to be built from the grassroots up. The building blocks have to be laid like the independence of the judiciary, the rights of individuals, free media and association, and a proper place in society for the army. It can’t be done overnight."
What on earth does the Prime Minister think has been happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, if not precisely that? Either Cameron has bought hook, line and sinker the grossest misrepresentations of US policy or – more likely – he is so keen not to be portrayed as a neoconservative that he is happy to distort what previous US/UK policy over the last decade or so actually was.
The problem for Cameron here is that what has been happening in the Middle East is proving the neocons right – that no race or culture wants to spend their lives living under murderous dictatorships and 'strongmen'. Neoconservatives have been arguing this for a long time – and it is the realists who are increasingly coming round to this point of view. So who were the 'naive' ones here?