For hacks like me, chairing sessions at the Edinburgh Book Festival is a little like going back to university. The difference is that you get to interrogate in person some of those academic authorities whose works are held in awe by undergraduates and politicians alike. It can be a disarming experience.
I’m not quite sure what I expected the US neo-conservative thinker Francis Fukuyama – author of “The End of History and the last man” – to be like in person. But I assumed there would be at least some of the trademark neucon swagger, intellectual arrogance and God-bless-America chauvinism. After all, he was the soul mate of the arch Republican hawk, Paul Wolfowitz. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In the author’s yurt I discovered a diminutive, unassuming academic in jeans who’d lost his bags on the Edinburgh flight. When I got him on the stage he was subdued, almost penitent about the Iraq war, which his neo-con colleagues championed.
He described as a dangerous mess, which should never have happened and which could destabilise the entire region, if not the world. ‘The end of history’ began to take on a new and sinister connotation. Indeed Fukuyama’s attitude to the Iraq folly and his contempt for the handling of the subsequent crisis he reminded me of the late Robin Cook, who used to be a regular presence in Charlotte Square in August.
Nor did he subscribe to the bellicose ‘Third World War’ rhetoric of George W Bush and Tony Blair. Fukuyama insists that the way to defeat al Qaeda is through patient intelligence and policing work. New wars and suspensions of civil rights only enlist more to the terrorist cause.
I think the audience too were somewhat unnerved by his apostasy, humility even. It just didn’t compute. Here was one of the inspirers of the neocon Project for a New American Century coming over like a member of the Stop The War Coalition.
Clearly, history has a habit of starting up again when you least expect it. Fukuyama’s misfortune is to have had his name linked unfairly to a project for American hegemony lover the planet. Now, with the rise if radical Islam, we’ve suddenly got more history than we know what to do with.
Fukuyama wasn’t the only penitent in the EBF tent city last week. George Packer, the celebrated writer for the New Yorker magazine, is another former supporter of the Iraq war who’s changed his mind. An old Middle East hand, he’d hoped to see Saddam’s bloody dictatorship replaced by an Eastern European style popular revolution. Big mistake. His prognosis for the Middle East following the Lebanon is even gloomier than Fukuyama’s. Packer fears an all out regional war an Islamic terror threat to the West for a generation.
In one sense this chimes with the views of the thinking man’s Tory MP, Michael Gove, with whom I also crossed swords in the Spiegel Tent. He agrees there is a big fight coming – though unlike Packer he doesn’t believe the upcoming apocalypse is a down to a botched scheme for world domination from a handful of pro-Israeli ideologues who somehow got their levers on power in the Pentagon. The fight can’t come soon enough for Gove.
Gove is one of those on the Right who think that the West was always going to have to settle accounts with what he calls “Islamic totalitarianism”, which he claims is to this century what fascism or communism was to the last. He berates liberals and “cultural relativists” for failing to defend Western values and thus allowing muddleheaded Muslims to be “bewitched” by Islamists.
Gove, who is a very bright and congenial guy -one of David Cameron’s best assets – simply doesn’t buy the line that the West has been a cause of its own misfortune. That we inflamed Islamic resentment because of our policies in the Middle East. It’s all their fault for rejecting liberal democracy, capitalism and the end of history.
Well, I don’t know about Osama, but he sure as hell frightens me. It leaves little scope for reconciliation if we simply demonise Islamists and declare ourselves to be in a life and death struggle with evil. I can’t help thinking that it plays into the hands of terrorists to compare them with Hitler and Stalin, who posed real and serious threats to civilization.
But I would say that, wouldn’t I as a fully paid-up member of the “liberal left elite” who Michael Gove claims, are really running the country. For such a clever guy, he speaks an inordinate amount of rubbish.
This was all pretty sobering stuff, notwithstanding the effects of the excellent Orkney malt in the hospitality tent. I can’t recall a bleaker Book Festival – at least in terms of the views expressed on world affairs. But all credit to the EBF for allowing them to be aired. Packer lamented the supine US media and the lack of any serious conversation about the reality on the ground in Iraq and what to do about it. But it’s the same in Britain. It’s not as if there isn’t public interest. The tens of thousands of people who come to Edinburgh in August are extraordinarily well informed and eager for engagement with the issues – but where do they go to engage?
As for solutions, I’ll be doing the man some hope to see as the next Democrat presidential candidate, Al Gore on 27th.. Worth a visit if you can beg or borrow a ticket.