Views expressed by Michael Gove MP on Iraq and Palestine

1 November 2009 Paper on views expressed by Michael Gove MP on Iraq and Palestine by John McHugo

Introduction – a campaigning tool for fighting the Conservatives at the next election

Michael Gove is a key figure in Cameron’s Conservative Party to whom the party looks for intellectual guidance. He has a crucial role in “Project Cameron”, being an influential member of the Notting Hill set, and is currently the Conservative shadow secretary of state for education. But with Gove so prominent in their party, it will be a disaster for British relations with the Arab World and Muslims both at home and abroad if the Conservatives come to power. This paper is designed as a campaigning tool for the 2010 elections. It draws attention to some of the views Gove has expressed on Middle Eastern matters in his columns in The Times and in his book Celsius 7/7 (published in 2006).

Voters at whom the material contained in this paper is aimed

There will be many voters who will be appalled at some of the things Gove has written. This paper should be of particular use for campaigning in Labour marginals with a sizeable Muslim vote, but it is equally intended for voters who are church going Christians from the mainstream denominations (Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists etc), who are appalled at the environment created by Israel’s occupation in which Palestinian Christians have increasingly little choice but to emigrate. William Dalrymple, extracts from whose review of Gove’s book are given below, is a very popular figure among church goers because of his book From The Holy Mountain, which highlights the plight of Arab Christians – not least of those who live under Israeli occupation. Most fundamentally, however, this paper contains material which will help persuade any voter with a basic concept of justice why voting Tory is dangerous, and how Tories cannot claim that they were merely ‘misled’ by Blair over Iraq.

William Dalrymple on Gove’s book

To get a flavour of Gove’s views on “the war on terror”, consider the following extracts from William Dalrymple’s review of Gove’s Celsius 7/7 in the Sunday Times on 24 September 2006:

A prominent example of the sort of pundit who has spoon-fed neocon mythologies to the British public for the past few years is Michael Gove. Gove has never lived in the Middle East, indeed has barely set foot in a Muslim country. He has little knowledge of Islamic history, theology or culture – in Celsius 7/7 he just takes the line of Bernard Lewis on these matters; nor does he speak any Islamic language. None of this, however, has prevented his being billed, on his book’s dust jacket, “one of Britain’s leading writers and thinkers on terrorism

Gove’s book is a confused epic of simplistic incomprehension riddled with more factual errors and misconceptions than any book I have come across in two decades of reviewing books on this subject. Thus, we are solemnly told, for example, that during the Jordanian occupation of the West Bank from 1948 to 1967, the Palestinian population from Jenin to Hebron was “herded into, and kept penned up inside, refugee camps”, an idea as novel as it is comically ridiculous and ahistorical. During this period, towns such as Ramallah became sleepy backwaters, quite free from the land seizure and apartheid policies of Arab-free Israeli settlements and Arab-free road networks that followed the Israeli occupation – realities entirely at odds with what Gove calls Israel’s “culture of equality.

Gove rewrites history when he alleges that it was the “appeasement” of the Palestinians represented by the Oslo peace process that encouraged Al-Qaeda to launch the 9/11 attacks. In fact it was the violent repression that followed Israel’s unilateral ending of peace talks that formed the background to the attacks. Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, has written that the repressive campaign waged against the second intifada by Sharon in Autumn 2002 provided Al-Qaeda’s opportunity: as the corpses of dead children piled up, Al-Zawahiri realised that here was the rallying cry that could unite the Muslim world…

Gove is also quite wrong that few Muslims and Islamists really mind what Israel does to the Palestinians and Lebanese, and that it is “what Israel is, rather than what Israel does” that really provokes resistance. Instead, Israeli violence is the principal cause of anti-American anger – Bin Laden has written that it was the sight of US support for the Israeli bombing of Beirut in 1982 that initially radicalised him: “I still remember the blood torn limbs, the women and children massacred. Houses were being destroyed and tower blocks collapsing…As I looked on those destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the oppressor in kind by destroying towers in America.

Throughout Gove’s book, neocon myths are reheated and served up, despite being discredited most recently by the 2005 CIA report…Saddam, believes Gove, “invited Islamists into Iraq”; “was determined to pursue his WMD programme”, and “dreamt of emulating” 9/11, strongly suggesting the central lie of Saddam’s non-existent links with 9/11…

All terrorist violence is contemptible. But just because we condemn does not mean that we should not strive to analyze accurately. It is exactly the sort of woolly elisions and linkages that Gove indulges in that have got us into the trouble we are now in. None of this would matter if Gove were still ring-fenced within his op-ed-page padded cell; horrifyingly, he now sits in the Conservative shadow cabinet and is credited with having influence on Conservative policy in the region. Worse still, this book was named as the one most taken by British MPs on their summer holidays. Blair was bad enough, the blind leading the blind; now it seems the madmen have taken over the asylum.

Iraq – Were the Conservatives misled by Blair, or did they follow Gove?

Gove is quite unrepentant over his support for the Iraq war. On 28 December 2008, he referred in The Times to the “liberation of Iraq” as “that rarest of things – a British foreign policy success.” It hard not to think that in the run up to the invasion Gove influenced the direction of Conservative party policy. He was not then an MP, but his prominence in the Conservative Party and status as one of the country’s leading right-wing columnists makes it hard indeed for Conservatives to argue that they were only duped by Blair into supporting the war. It is likley that, thanks to Gove’s efforts, the Tories led Blair from the front.

In early 2002, he was already showing himself as an advocate for the invasion. On 2 March, his column praised Iain Duncan Smith for his willingness to contemplate military action against Iraq. On 2 April, he followed this up with a piece in which he wrote:

…[T]he allies have failed to make a proper case for removing Saddam Hussein; the need to forestall Saddam’s development of weapons of mass destruction before he blackmails the West is compelling. The argument is not yet won, as it will be, because it has not yet been made as it should be.

He finally made the argument in his Times column on 28 August 2002, almost a month before the publication by the British Government of the infamous intelligence dossier on 24 September which some Conservatives would now like to claim misled them. “We have no alternative but to launch a pre-emptive war against Iraq to prevent Saddam completing his drive to acquire weapons of mass destruction”, wrote Gove. “Military force must be deployed to remove Saddam’s regime”. In the same column, he likened those who opposed it to appeasers in the 1930s (a recurrent theme in his writing – anyone who opposed the invasion or stands up for Palestinian rights is an “appeaser”).

Gove eulogises Blair

From the start of 2003, Gove banged the war drum vigorously, morally blackmailing the Conservative leadership to support the war with his admiration for Blair.

‘The Prime Minister told us yesterday that his job was “sometimes to say the things that people don’t want to hear”, he wrote on 14 January. “From a congenital people-pleaser, it was a telling statement, a demonstration that he realises statesmanship involves taking decisions in which there is no difference to split, no happy “third way” between undesirable options. The public, and the press, would very much like there to be a third way of dealing with Saddam which doesn’t leave us in danger or involve young men taking ships to a war zone. The uncomfortable truth is, there isn’t.”

On 4 February, he returned to a theme that pervades his thinking: “anti-Americanism” is the motivating force of the opposition to the Iraq war. He assumes this is what drove “Old Europe” to oppose it and praises Blair who was “understandably impatient with the juvenile and obstructive stance which France and Germany have taken towards dealing with Iraq”. He followed this up on 21 March with a piece captioned “Hand of Churchill weighs heavy on Blair’s shoulder”.

But it was on 25 March, five days after the invasion started, that his praise of Blair tips over into a gushing eulogy entitled “I can’t fight my feelings any more: I love Tony”. After the subheading “Blair’s outbreak of courage deserves the respect of natural conservatives”, the piece begins: “You could call it the Elizabeth Bennett moment. It’s what Isolde felt when she fell into Tristan’s arms. It’s the point you reach when you give up fighting your feelings, abandon the antipathy bred into your bones, and admit that you were wrong about the man. By God, it’s still hard to write this, but I’m afraid I’ve got to be honest. Tony Blair is proving an outstanding Prime Minister at the moment”. After a few paragraphs on other issues on which Blair is courting discontent within the Labour Party, Gove turns to Iraq and writes:

“It is over Iraq that he is in the greatest difficulty politically. All because, as a Labour Prime Minister, he’s behaving like a true Thatcherite. Indeed, he’s braver in some respects than Maggie was. The Falklands war took courage. But Thatcher had most of the country, and her party, behind her. In dealing with the Iraq crisis, Mr Blair has neither…Mr Blair’s policy…has the merit of genuine moral force….My admiration for the Prime Minister’s bravery in making the case is, I have to add, only increased when I listen to the sneering condescension with which broadcasters treat Government policy on Iraq…It may seem a trifle rich of me, as someone who’s enjoyed giving Mr Blair a good kicking, to object when the boot is being driven home on another foot. But there’s a difference between taking on a leader with a 93 per cent approval rating when he’s steering to the sound of applause, and piling in against a Prime Minister who’s grown into a conviction politician, risking public approval, party support and a cosy relationship with Europe in order to confront tyranny.”

Gove on Israel/Palestine

Glaringly absent from Gove’s writing on Israel/Palestine is any sense that the Palestinian people have a claim to justice, any rights under international law, or an entitlement to fair treatment by Israel. For Gove, Palestinian claims are “manufactured”. Consider the following which is taken from a piece on 2 April 2002 entitled “Spare us any more Middle East peace plans”. In this, he writes that:

men who live by violence and feast on weakness are testing the limits of our resolution. They prosecute their claims by force of arms, directed against the innocent in their sights, and solicit international pressure for a “peace plan” to satisfy their manufactured grievances. These plans, hybrids bred from the spores of aggression and watered by the sweat of fear, poison any contested ground in which they take root. They bind and weaken the innocent prey, confirm the calculation of the evil that democracy is too decadent to resist, and eventually embolden the wicked in their ambition for total conquest.

This was written at the time of the violence of the second Intifada, but Gove was not talking only about extremists who wish to wipe Israel from the map. A few paragraphs later he says, outrageously:

“The moral logic of self-defence, intuitively grasped across the West after September 11, licenses a nation under such attack to seek out, punish and disable those responsible. But the West today seeks to circumscribe, hedge around or deny morality in Israel’s hour of danger and put its faith in the discredited expediency of “peace plans”. Whether it is the Mitchell plan, the Tenet plan or the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s Arab League-sponsored plan, there is a quack’s cabinet of patent salves always on offer to apply to the Middle East’s agony. But all such treatments, like the snake oil peddled by Al Haig in 1982 and the “clean” dismemberment which Chamberlain and Daladier administered to Czechoslovakia in 1938, can only cause the infection to take yet more virulent hold. For each of these “peace plans” rewards terror by ratifying the gains secured by violence and reinforcing the message that the West is too weak to resist aggression.”

Was Gove aware that the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s Arab League peace plan offered Israel security within its 1949 borders, as well as recognition by all member states of the Arab League? This plan was (and is) intended to provide a framework for a comprehensive peace, and the statesmen and diplomats who drafted it deserve respect. President Obama described it as “an important beginning” in his Cairo speech in June 2009. To refer to it as ‘snake oil’ or analogous to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia at Munich shows Gove to be a deeply unpleasant man. It is not the kind of comment that should be expected from a member of the Conservative front bench.

Gove’s denial of Palestinian rights and contempt for international law

Sadly, there is plenty of evidence that Gove believes Israel should be allowed to add to its territory at the expense of the Palestinians by retaining some of the land it occupied in 1967, something that shows clearly he is not a campaigner for peace. He asserts that in 1967 “the Israeli government sought to provide the Israeli state with more defensible frontiers, occupying land that belonged to its attackers, Syria, Egypt and Jordan, in order to cement its own borders”. Each of these states, says Gove, only lost “a sliver of its territory”. On the same page as this assertion, he gives a list of historical precedents of states acquiring sovereignty over territories they had acquired by war. Incredibly, this list includes “the initial German acquisition of Alsace-Lorraine in 1871″ (Celsius 7/7, p.54).

At the time of the 1967 war, many believed that Egypt was the party that commenced hostilities, not least because of President Nasser’s inflammatory rhetoric, but historians today have shown that this was not so. Even if Gove is not convinced by the historical record, he should at least have made himself aware that by 1967 customary international law forbade the acquisition of territory by war – irrespective of whether the war was one of aggression or defence. He has also equivocated about the legality of the Israeli settlements on occupied land, which he described as “still an open issue” on 3 May 2002, while on 9 November 2004 he wrote that Sharon’s “security barrier” was being erected “along Israel’s frontier”, mischievously ignoring the fact that it makes a land grab by slicing deep into occupied territory. One looks in vain in Gove’s writing for the slightest sign that he acknowledges that the people of the Occupied Palestinian Territory have the right to political self-determination.

All new members of the Conservative Friends of Israel receive a complimentary copy of Celsius 7/7 when they join up.

Other memorable quotes:

- On Guantanamo Bay, Europe and America
“From griping about Guantanamo Bay to deprecating the vulgarity of the axis of evil and sniping at US support for democracy against terrorism in the Middle East, Europe has never missed an opportunity to bite the hand which shields it”. (31 May, 2002)
- On Donald Rumsfeld
“As [Rumsfeld] said [in August 2002]: “It’s less important to have unanimity than it is to be making the right decisions and doing the right thing, even though at the outset it may seem lonesome.” There is something distinctively cowboyish about the use of that word lonesome. But if there is a cowboy that Donald Rumsfeld really resembles it is the Gary Cooper of High Noon. The sheriff who won’t allow the fears of others to prevent him doing what he knows to be right for their protection…Donald Rumsfeld may be on a lonesome road. But he won’t worry if it takes him quickly to Baghdad” (6 March, 2003).

John McHugo,
1 November 2009