Editor’s Note: In the April 21 issue of National Review, we published a piece by Jay Nordlinger titled “Our Man in London: A visit with Michael Gove, Britain’s education minister.” This week in his Impromptus, Nordlinger is expanding that piece, and that visit, into a series. For Parts I and II, go here and here.
I speak with Michael Gove about America — a country he knows well, and admires highly. I say, “Are we going down the tubes?” “No!” he says. “Are we ‘fundamentally transformed’?” “No!” “Is it curtains for us?” “No!” “Lights out?” “No!” He then says he would not criticize President Obama or his administration, being a member of a government allied to America. But he does discuss America.
At different times, he says, Americans have asked themselves, “Is this a period of decline?” He guesses that this began not long after the founding of the Republic. Twenty or thirty years in, Americans most likely said, “Republican virtue is slipping away, the temptations of expansion or empire are eating away at the soul of our national project.” Flash-forward to TR, who lamented the diminution of martial vigor, and, what with big-money interests, the sapping of the entrepreneurial spirit.
“If you look at America now,” Gove says, “yes, you have a fiscal problem — but then so do most developed countries. And America is the place where tomorrow happens. It’s the most innovative and exciting country in the world in terms of technological change and in terms of intellectual endeavor.”
“Still?” I say. “Yes,” he responds. “Whose magazines and books do we want to read? Whether it’s the NYRB [New York Review of Books] or National Review . . .”
I say, “It’s hard for me to tell. Maybe I am too inside. A fish doesn’t know it’s wet.” “But I can see it from the outside,” says Gove. “American writing, whether it’s journalism or fiction or non-fiction, I think, is culturally far more significant than any other nation’s. Technology is a given. America’s higher-education institutions are the best educational institutions in the world.”
#ad#He then mentions “the old Churchill cliché,” which goes (in one version), “America will always do the right thing, but only after exhausting all other options.” Gove says, “There’s a moral sense that guides America’s leaders, which, for whatever reason, kicks in sooner or later. Even if you’ve got a bad president or a difficult time, it’s always the case that, when the crisis requires it, sooner or later America rises to the occasion.”
‐Israel is another nation that Gove knows a lot about, and cares a lot about, and admires highly. I ask, “In our countries, the Western democracies, is hostility to Israel rising or lessening?” “Rising,” he says, quickly. I then ask the awful question, one I have asked many: “Will Israel survive? Or are its enemies too great?” He believes that Israel will survive. But he makes some unvarnished statements.
“For a lot of people on the left, Israel is incredibly — what’s the word? Subversive of their world outlook. How can it be that the most successful country in the Middle East is the one with the fewest resources? How can it be that, when arbitrary lines were drawn on a map and that crippled other nations, this one succeeds? How can it be that when we argue that the future is in transnational governance, this country, which is absolutely determined to be a 19th-century liberal nation-state, is so successful?”
#page#And there is a “buried anti-Semitism,” says Gove, “whereby people say, ‘Yes, of course, we’re perfectly happy to defend Jewish people, Jewish communities, the Jewish state, on our terms, so don’t you dare be so uppity, don’t you dare attempt to determine what your state will be like: We’ll tell you the basis on which you should live.” And that, says Gove, is how it was in ghetto days.
I say that, in my observation, there are people who like Jews when they’re weak and vulnerable, but not when they’re strong and armed. Gove says, “Jews in tanks is not allowed.”
He continues, “One thing people say is, ‘If only Israel did X or Y in order to secure the world’s better opinion’ — and securing the world’s better opinion would be the dropping of sword and shield by Israel — ‘then the world might applaud.’ But what happens when the wolves descend?”
A further point, from Gove: Why is it that, when the resolution came up at the U.N. granting the Palestinian Authority special status, the only European nation to vote against was the Czech Republic? The only one? “Because they have direct experience of being forced by everyone else in order to appease international opinion to hand over land on the basis that that would secure peace. Didn’t go too well for them.”
#ad#‐I say to Gove, “Should we be embarrassed by our support of the Iraq War?” “No,” he says. “Of course, mistakes were made — it’s a cliché to say so, but it’s true.” He then cites a column by his friend Matthew d’Ancona, a well-known journalist here in Britain. The column was headed “Tony Blair’s instincts on Iraq were right — and Syria proves it.” The subheading was, “Unlike citizens who attempt to arrest him, the former PM grasps the perils of inaction in a post-9/11 world.” As d’Ancona recounted, a young man named Twiggy Garcia, working in a restaurant in which Blair was eating, tried to make a “citizen’s arrest” of Blair.
With me, Gove notes the end of d’Ancona’s column:
One wonders how many detainees have been maimed and killed since the Commons rejected possible military action against the Syrian dictator last August. This, of course, is Blair’s strongest point: that inaction, as much as intervention, has a cost. It is not always right to intervene, and often impractical to do so in any case. But those who do nothing should be held to account, too. Who interrupts the appeaser’s meal?
The point, says Gove, “is, What would have happened if we hadn’t acted [in Iraq]? Nobody explores that counterfactual. And I think it would have been disastrous.”
He then says, “I’ll put it in crude terms — and this is a difficult area — but when we applied the maximum amount of resolution, i.e., during the surge, then the benefits were being reaped, and it was only when we felt, ‘Okay, we’re ahead and we can quit now,’ that problems arose. In dealing with these things, you must not succumb to attention deficit disorder. . . .
“I also think that the situation in the Arab world was and is unsustainable. What happened in Iraq helped to generate the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring is going through particular problems at the moment, but the Arab Spring is like the French Revolution — you have exuberance, joy, then the blood-soaked moment. Then you have the Napoleonic moment, and eventually things settle down. The whole point is that absolutism couldn’t continue. There had to be a break.”
Referring to England, Gove says, “We were lucky in that our experience of absolutism ended in 1649, and then by 1688 we were okay. The French took another hundred years for their upheaval, and it was more painful when it arrived. The Arab world is coming late to these changes, but hopefully things will work out for the best. In the meantime, the action that we took I think was right.”
Tomorrow, we will wrap up, talking about World War I, Reagan and Thatcher, the Gove legacy (not that he would use that phrase), and more.