Mugged by Reality
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Douglas Murray isn’t a man you’d immediately peg as being a self-described neoconservative and Zionist. Eton and Oxford educated, an Anglican — sorry, a “practicing Anglican,” as he corrects me — and complete with the chiseled features and upper-class accent one associates with the British aristocracy, Mr. Murray almost seems out of place declaring his admiration for the Jewish State, Leo Strauss, and everything else the left sneeringly associates with neoconservativism. But the man who tells me with complete certainty over a dinner on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that “any sensible person is a Zionist,” who when in Holland needs police protection and stays under an alias, can hardly be described as an ordinary individual.
Already before he started Oxford Mr. Murray had finished a biography of Oscar Wilde’s lover, Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. It won applause on both sides of the Atlantic. At Oxford he wrote reviews for Britain’s Spectator. Upon finishing Oxford he wrote a play, “Nightfall,” about the Swedish anti-Nazi hero Raoul Wallenberg. Now, at 27 years old, he’s touring America publicizing his latest book, “Neoconservativism: Why We Need It.” Mr. Murray lectures and debates across Europe in support of what he describes as neoconservative foreign policy. He also writes for, and is profiled in, numerous publications, and is known on the British television chat show circuit as “Britain’s only neoconservative.” With such a resume it’s hardly surprising that Mr. Murray has been described as a “prodigy” and a “great hope” in Europe.
As his earlier writing interests indicate, Mr. Murray wasn’t always a neocon. That doesn’t mean that he fits Irving Kristol’s famous definition of a neoconservative being a “liberal mugged by reality.” If he spent any time on the left, he tells me, it “was a matter of hours.” Rather his early interests lay in literature and the arts, and not in practical government policy. Mr. Murray was, however, “repeatedly mugged by reality” by three pivotal events — Kosovo, the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the reaction to those attacks on America.
Kosovo was his “defining conflict.” It shocked him that the governments of Europe were prepared to allow another genocide take place on European soil. The September 11, 2001, attacks provided the second jolt, and the third came with the “reaction to 9/11.” He witnessed a large swathe of people in Europe and in America who still “didn’t get it” and whose reaction was self-blame rather than seeking to defeat the terrorists. Realizing that the world he loved faced real danger, he turned to the practical world of policy and became a neocon.
Mr. Murray readily admits that neocon is a confusing label. He says that it’s “not a cabal, a group, a party,” but rather comprises people from both the left and right “united only by their broadest beliefs.” It’s an “instinct, a way of looking at world.” Neoconservatives, he says, “see the world as it is, but try to make it as we would like it to be.” Other ideologies fail, according to Mr. Murray, as liberalism fails to see the world as it is, while old-school conservativism sees the world as it is but believes the best we can hope for is containment.
We pick Iran as a test case for his neoconservativism. First, basic realism is applied: When someone threatens to wipe out an ally, as Tehran’s theocrats have repeatedly done toward Israel, you don’t just say “that’s interesting” or say that they “don’t really mean it,” he tells me. You take it as a real threat. Then you imagine how you’d ideally like Iran to be, which is as a non-threatening democratic government. Therefore what America and her allies should have been doing during the past few years is fostering democratic movements in Iran.
Instead little was done, and now the mullahs are emboldened, openly aid Hezbollah, and are pursing a nuclear program. Western governments need to “stop being weak” and “make it clear that this period in history will be run on our terms and not theirs.” We need to make clear in no uncertain terms that “we hold all the cards” and if they fail to comply either strikes or regime change will soon follow.
Support for Israel is another solidly neoconservative policy, according to Mr. Murray. Neoconservatives support Israel as it’s a fellow democracy surrounded by tyrannical regimes. Moreover, he says, one can’t but help admire how the country was turned into “something from nothing.” After being interviewed by the BBC during a recent visit to Jerusalem, a friend pointed out to him that he referred to Israel as “we.” This, Mr. Murray tells me, was an “instinctive” unconscious reaction, as “Israel is up against the same things” as we are and “has the same ends.” He says that he’s always believed that Israel is the front-line in the war on Islamist terrorism and that “9/11, 7/7, and every other attack has vindicated” that view.
As we finish the meal I ask him what his next project will be. A career in politics perhaps, I suggest. He laughs and says he’s not sure they’ll have him. For the moment he’s working on a book on Europe, which, he is at pains to stress, isn’t lost just yet. If Europe can produce the likes of Mr. Murray, he may be right.
Mr. Freedman is editor of the online edition of The New York Sun and blogs at www.itshinesforall.com.