Alex Massie

Rory Stewart & Mr Micawber in Afghanistan

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From an interesting Jason Zengerle piece in the New Republic:

And yet, for all his obvious ambition, Stewart believes the key to any successful U.S. policy in Afghanistan is modesty. "What muddling through is really about is recognizing that we don’t have all the answers," he says. "It’s not as if we have some amazing high modernist ideology that we’re kind of engineers of the human soul or central planners who are going to come out and create an ideal state. We don’t have that ideological certainty, we don’t know what we’re trying to do, nor do we actually have the power. We don’t have the kind of authoritarian weight to impose this on another country. Nor do we have the knowledge." He continues: "In that kind of situation, you’re much better off making small, incremental steps which are reversible. You can try something, if that doesn’t work, you can back off and try something else."

I think one may safely say that Rory Stewart is a Tory. It would be useful if this sort of modest outlook - albeit expressed by a man of some ambition - could find a place in parliament*.

As a matter of practical policy in Afghanistan, I don't know if Stewart is right or not but there certainly seems something to be said for muddling along as best we can in the hope that, at some point, something will turn up.

Stewart's point, however, is wider than that. Can we really be sure that we - that is, government - knows what it's doing at home too? I suspect not. Small, incremental steps which are reversible is a pretty good philosophy for domestic affairs too.

I don't expect this view to catch on. After all, the increasing Presidentialisation of British politics increases, necessarily, the notion that the Prime Minister possesses magical powers by which he may refashion the country, banishing every ailment and delivering a pony to every six year old girl who wants one. Unicorns too, of course. Even to them that don't want 'em.

Nor should one expect Stewart's advice to have much impact in Washington either, since the notion that the United States may not be able to achieve any goal it damn well sets itself is anathema to contemporary American political discourse. Suggesting that finding the optimum strategy is only the beginning of something, not a guarantee of success, is to suggest, more or less, that, damnit, you hate America and all her works.

*I have no idea if Stewart would make a good MP, but I'd like the chance to find out.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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