Neoconservatives generally take the view that the internal character of a regime usually predicts the nature of its foreign policy. Governments that are answerable to their own people and accountable to a rule of law tend to respect the rights of their neighbors, honor their treaty commitments, and abide by the international rules of the road. By contrast, regimes that prey on their own citizens are likely to prey on their neighbors as well. Their word is the opposite of their bond.
That’s why neocons have no faith in any deals or “grand bargains” the U.S. might sign with North Korea or Iran over their nuclear programs: Cheating is in the DNA of both regimes, and the record is there to prove it. Nor do neocons put much stock in the notion that there’s a “reset” button with the Kremlin. Russia is the quintessential spoiler state, seeking its advantage in America’s troubles at home and abroad. Ditto for Syria, which has perfected the art of taking credit for solving problems of its own creation.
Where neocons do put their faith is in American power, not just military or economic power but also as an instrument of moral and political suasion. Disarmament? The last dictator to relinquish his nuclear program voluntarily was Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, who did so immediately following Saddam Hussein’s capture. Democratization? Contrary to current conventional wisdom, democracy is often imposed, or at least facilitated, by U.S. pressure—in the Philippines, in the Balkans and, yes, in Iraq. Human rights? Anwar Ibrahim, the beleaguered Malaysian opposition leader, told me last week that “the only country that can stand up” to abusive regimes is the United States. “If they know the administration is taking a soft stance [on human rights], they will go on a rampage.”
None of this is to say that neoconservatism represents some kind of infallible doctrine—or that it’s even a doctrine. Neocons have erred in overestimating the U.S. public’s willingness to engage in long struggles on behalf of other people. They have erred also in overestimating the willingness of other people to fight for themselves, or for their freedom.
But as the pendulum has swung to a U.S. foreign policy based on little more than the personal attractions of the president, it’s little wonder that the world is casting about for an alternative. And a view of the world that understands that American power still furnishes the margin between freedom and tyranny, and between prosperity and chaos, is starting to look better all the time. Even in France.
The question remains then what the “realists” believe. The crowd that was to put ideology off to the side has again and again substituted wishful thinking for clear-eyed analysis. We’d force a peace deal by insisting Israel do what Israel could never agree to do (enforce an absolute freeze on settlements) in the hopes the Palestinians would finally agree to do what they’ve never done (halt terrorism and recognize a Jewish state) in circumstances that suggest both parties are incapable of doing anything differently. This is “realism”?
In Honduras, the Obama team ignored the essential facts precipitating the ouster of Manuel Zelaya (the text of the Honduran constitution), the Honduran political scene (the military, middle class, Catholic Church, legislature, and Supreme Court all oppose Zelaya’s return), and the regional and international implications (boosting Hugo Chavez, who is fast becoming Ahmadinejad’s best pal). The Obama realists put their stock in a delusional follower of Chavez. Not much “realism” there either.
The list goes on. On Afghanistan the president is searching in vain for a mythical alternative to the counterinsurgency recommendation of his own general. The light-footprint model has proved unworkable, but experience does not matter much these days. Meanwhile, we yank the rug out from under Poland and the Czech Republic on missile defense because we know Iran isn’t working on long-range missiles and because the Russians will have to cooperate with us now. The Russians didn’t actually promise anything, but realists these days operate on warm fuzzy feelings and intuition about our adversaries.
There is not a single meaningful foreign policy decision—aside from the continuation of George W. Bush’s Iraq policy—that bears any trace of realism, if we understand realism to mean a foreign policy grounded in the world as it is, not as ideologues wish it to be. Past experience, current geopolitical realities, historical precedent, and common sense are nowhere in evidence. Instead we get gauzy rhetoric and undiluted faith in talking to those who plainly don’t want to talk to us (or who would be happy to talk while doing precisely what they want to anyway). And there’s plenty of stalling. So it seems that “realism” boils down to wishful thinking and a heavy dose of procrastination.
It is not at all clear that neoconservatives have “returned” in any way, and it seems highly unlikely that many people overseas are now craving the firm smack of incompetent warmongering that the neocons can offer. To a large extent, the neocons never went anywhere in domestic policy and political debates. This is because there has not been any accountability in either the foreign policy community or the conservative movement for their colossal failures and misjudgments. That said, they are not exactly riding high, either. Neocons continue to be taken far too seriously and they continue to have access to a great many media outlets, but for the most part they have been leading the Republican Party’s charge into spluttering irrelevance on foreign policy. Having destroyed the party’s political fortunes with the war in Iraq, they seem intent on sinking the party even deeper into the ditch into which it has crashed. If this is a “return,” I wonder what decline looks like.
One of the problems the GOP and the conservative movement has had over the last several years is the retreat inside their own echo chambers, in which they keep repeating the same nonsense to themselves and reinforcing all of their false assumptions. The foreign policy cocooning seems the worst to me, but the stagnation and persistence in error we see in most Republican foreign policy arguments are functions of the larger intellectual collapse on the right. Stephens’ op-ed is one example of this. The world is not looking for an alternative to Obama at the moment, but Stephens simply asserts that it is because a foreigner (a Frenchman, no less!) pitched a counterintuitive idea for a column to him. This assertion is similar to the repeated claims made by Iraq hawks throughout 2006 and after that the public had not turned against the war when it clearly had. It is understandable that ideologues feel compelled to ignore reality, because it almost never fits their predetermined schemes, but when they are reduced to making things up out of thin air they have reached a new depth of desperation.
China is not the only country that is rising. So is India. But we do not worry about India’s rise. That is because India is a democracy. Almost everything it does is transparent to us. We share liberal values with India, including the desire to strengthen the post-World War II liberal international order of open trade and investment and the general desire among democracies to settle internal and external disputes peacefully and democratically. The fact that China is not a democracy matters greatly as it rises. It makes its rise more disruptive as countries have to divine its intentions and observe the gap between its rhetorical policy of a “Peaceful Rise” and some of its actions that are inconsistent with a peaceful rise.
Wouldn’t it be nice if China got on board with all the post-modern, feel-good notions about international politics put forth by the Obama Administration? In the 21st century, says the Obama team, all countries have common interests in confronting transnational issues like climate change and proliferation. Sorry guys, those who lead China think 21st century international politics will look more or less like it did in the past. They favor good old fashioned power politics. Unfortunately for Obama, that forces us to do the same.
Taking his lead from Reinhold Niebuhr, Bacevich believes we are on an utopian mission to remake the world–or, in this instance, the Muslim world; it is a program that is immoral both because it is impossible (and hence counterproductive) given human nature and because, in pursuing it, we adopt policies that chip away at our own morality. (The ends begin to justify the means, etc, etc.) The more limited our ambitions in Bacevich’s view, the less damage we do to ourselves and others.
All of which contains a kernel of truth–but only a kernel. Whatever problems we face domestically, it is just an historical fact that a broader American vision abroad has typically made us a better people at home. Nor is there any evidence that a less expansive (and hence less expensive) foreign and defense policy would free up monies that miraculously would solve a problem like poverty or second-rate schools. To the contrary, more government funds could well confound finding the policies that would actually help alleviate those problems. However, the larger point is that Bacevich and other conservative critics, like George Will, are standing on unsound ground when they argue that the transformative goal of the Long War is utopian. It might be long and it might be difficult but, if anything, the evidence so far suggests that the establishment of decent democratic regimes is possible in all kinds of regions and in countries with diverse cultural histories. That hardly means that failure in the Long War isn’t possible; but to hear Bacevich and others tell it, is inevitable.
In Schmitt’s reading, spending tax dollars on welfare or education “could well confound finding the policies that would actually help alleviate those problems.” This is a fairly straightforward conservative argument. What’s strange is that Schmitt makes the argument that while the U.S. government likely could not figure out how to improve education or the general welfare in the United States, it can parachute into faraway countries and improve the governance over there. Or it at least ought to try, since “a broader American vision abroad has typically made us a better people at home.” This is, to my mind, utterly, profoundly incoherent. I think the most important point is that we ought not to send our military overseas to kill and die so that we can be “a better people at home.”
I am reminded of Irving Kristol’s statement that “A nation whose politics turn on the cost of false teeth is a nation whose politics are squalid.” It’s something of a parlor game in IR to debate whether neoconservatism is its own IR theory; whether it’s a theory at all, of anything; whether it’s really just liberalism; et cetera, but what would be really good to have is a clear statement that could be scrutinized on its own merit. Until then one is left guessing or, at best, turning up weird conspiracy theories about Leo Strauss and the University of Chicago on the internet.
Where My Neocons At? Where My Neocons At?
Bret Stephens at WSJ:
Jennifer Rubin in Commentary:
Danielle Pletka at AEI
Meanwhile, Daniel Blumenthal at AEI’s Center For Defense Studies:
Gary Schmitt at AEI’s Center For Defense Studies:
Justin Logan at Cato responds to both of the above:
Carl Franzen at The Atlantic has a round-up.
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Tagged as American Enterprise Institute, Bret Stephens, Carl Franzen, Cato, Commentary, Conservative Movement, Daniel Blumenthal, Daniel Larison, Danielle Pletka, Gary Schmitt, Go Meta, Jennifer Rubin, Justin Logan, The Atlantic, Wall Street Journal