"The deepest, the only theme of human history," wrote Goethe in Israel in the Desert, "is the conflict of scepticism with faith". True or not, his words certainly apply to written accounts of human history. Time and again, in reading what passes for intellectual critique of foreign policy, one sees a complete surrender of critical faculties. That is to say, faith.
There is, however, a curious slant to the creed. Reason and evidence are abandoned only in cases where the interests of the state are concerned. The official religion of the United Kingdom, it might be said, is not Christianity but falsifying the history of empire.
The famous cases are well known. Writing the history of our hegemonic past, Niall Ferguson consistently argued that "if it hadn't been the British, it might have been somebody worse". This in defence of a system of control that starved 1 million Irish people to death in the late 1840s, and achieved figures many times higher in India, many times over.
We award Churchill the honour of 'Greatest Briton'; this for a man whose astonishing racism helped starve to death 3.5 million Indians in 1943. The myth of Churchill also omits his feeling "nauseated" at the thought of Gandhi (who he terms a "seditious fakir" despite the fact that he was a Hindu) even conversing with a British diplomat. But what should this matter to Ferguson, who is after all "fundamentally in favour of empire". We might ask whether Ferguson would be given a Channel 4 television series, or be asked to teach at the prestigious New College of the Humanities, had he said similar things about the Nazi Holocaust.
Closer to the present, a fine example is afforded by Philip Stephens, writing in the Financial Times, who describes our "honourable diplomats and military commanders" who are "labouring mightily" to promote reconciliation, and reach a political settlement, in Afghanistan. He also laments our "indecent" leaders who won't provide them with the support they need, though either fails to see the 'White Man's Burden' scarcely hidden in his words, or is actively cultivating it.
Stephens also asks "what became of the grand plan to build a new Afghanistan that would bring democracy to its people and keep us secure at home?" This would be an interesting question, were it not for the fact that no such 'grand plan' has ever existed. Not only was this never the plan, but the removal of the Taleban was not even mentioned until some three weeks after the invasion had begun. The Coalition, of which we were a leading part, allied itself with the Northern Alliance, which was by then headed by the notorious mass-murderer General Dostum (an old ally of Burhanuddin Rabbani, who it has become obligatory to praise). Ignoring this is convenient.
Uneasy about the announced 'withdrawal' date of 2015, Stephens predicts that "power could haemorrhage from the Afghan government, pushing the country into civil war". What he believes has been happening since 1992 is anyone's guess.
"No one", Stephens says, "wants any longer to dwell on small things such as democracy or women's rights", though I can remember no time when the opposite was true. Goethe's conflict and faith could barely be more accurate.
It seems fitting to end on the words of an old Tory:
How Nations sink, by darling Scheme's oppress'd/ When Vengence listens to the Fool's request.