This article was adapted from remarks delivered at an America’s Future Foundation roundtable in Washington on November 19, 2008.
American presidential elections are often best read as verdicts on the administrations that precede them, and in that light, Barack Obama’s victory on November 5 marks the long-overdue death of neoconservatism.
I doubt the Democrats are going to build an everlasting majority with disaffected conservative realists, or even hang on to those realists forever – let’s wait a few months until the showroom shine fades from Obama’s administration, or just a few minutes if it turns out the Clintons really are going to enjoy a third term over at the State Department. But if the Democrats play their cards right, and the Republicans continue to forestall the necessary debates, digestion and excretion of neoconservative thinking, conservatives will be spending years longer in the wilderness.
I don’t think it’s fair to say the Iraq war was the cause, or perhaps even the primary cause, of John McCain’s defeat. The financial crisis clearly knocked everyone off balance, and its tremors set previously solid political blocs in motion. But in my view, the Iraq war and the government’s response to the financial crisis have much in common, in that they both engendered deep-seated distrust by the American people, and a sense that the Bush administration was overreacting.
Neoconservatism has meant a lot of different things over the years. As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan had it, it centered on using conservative means to accomplish liberal ends in domestic policy. By the mid-‘90s, it seemed to mean that the United States should take a maximalist view of American foreign policy and go to war for humanitarian ends. But at a certain point, thanks to the combination of an unduly conflictual understanding of politics and the absence of any big challengers abroad, neoconservatism really turned a corner; no longer was it about achieving liberal ends with conservative means, it was about achieving divine ends with whatever means were at hand.
To good students of comparative politics, the creation of a stable, durable, liberal, pro-American democracy in Iraq in under a decade would have seemed absurd, but in 2003, that’s what neoconservatism promised. It would be like Germany, neocons argued, discounting obvious distinctions between Saddam’s Ba‘athist dictatorship and the democratic Weimar republic that preceded the Third Reich. Or like Japan, an ethnically homogenous island with a history of strong, centralized government.
So we blundered into Iraq, where we promptly found ourselves trying to keep a lid on several civil wars at once. After assuring Iran that we would disarm the MEK, a group that had killed Americans before the Iranian revolution, under the direction of Vice President Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld, we welched on that promise. And even more embarrassingly, we found ourselves harboring the PKK, a terrorist group that was launching cross-border attacks against Turkey, one of our allies, and a member of NATO.
Neoconservatism now counts an increasing number of distinguished defectors like Francis Fukuyama and John Agresto, who after years working on education in post-war Iraq, describes himself as “a neoconservative who’s been mugged by reality.”
What makes the Bush administration neoconservative, I think, is its tendency to conduct policy as if every problem has to be solved immediately, and can be. It’s shown precious little knowledge of history, culture, or strategic thought: failing to make distinctions between small threats and large, between threats that need to be addressed immediately, like al-Qaeda, and long-term projects to be pursued peacefully and patiently, like Arab political reform. In other words, like a kid who’s scared of the dark, it can’t assess risk.
The two challenges we’re here to discuss, Iraq and Afghanistan, have one major element in common: they both share a border with Iran. And if we’re willing to look soberly at the situations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ll see that Iran is the country most inclined to support our objectives there. Unlike the Syrians, or our allies the Turks and the Saudis, the Iranians support democracy in Iraq because it empowers Iraq’s Shiite majority, which is the best guarantor of their interests.
And in Afghanistan, Iran supports a peaceful, pro-Iranian government, while Pakistan continues to support the Taliban, a radical Sunni government that harbors al-Qaeda. Just the other day, Pakistani Taliban militants abducted an Iranian diplomat in Peshawar, yet here we are, still stubbornly refusing to work with Iran against a common enemy. In spite of early gestures of cooperation, we kicked Iran to the curb some time before the Iraq war.
Al-Qaeda is almost entirely a product of the Egyptians, Saudis and Pakistanis, all our allies. The Iranians view themselves as victims of Sunni extremism, which makes them our natural allies in the fight against al-Qaeda. We also had much to gain by allowing them to bid on reconstruction contracts in Iraq, but the Bush administration tried to freeze them out, and only reluctantly hosted meetings in Baghdad between U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart. As realists have always understood, sometimes adversaries can be friends and friends can be adversaries.
Nixon, the consummate realist, went to China because he recognized that you don’t have to approve of all a regime’s behaviors to cooperate with it in areas of common interest. The point is that you’re advancing common interests. At some point, neoconservatives stopped caring about interests. That’s causing us all kinds of undue difficulty.
Instead of trying to build productive cooperation with Iran in Afghanistan, we’re still trying to make it work entirely through Pakistan, which has plenty of historical cause to doubt our intentions. In the words of a former State Department official, “Pakistan has always been the wife, but we’ve had many mistresses.” As they jockey for supremacy with us, the Iranians and the Indians, the Pakistanis are no doubt enjoying the opportunity to fleece us without solving our problems.
And so, instead of working with Iran — the country where most Afghan heroin actually goes, which has an insanely high number of addicts — the Bush administration is pressuring our allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to deploy their troops in support of counternarcotics operations in South Asia. This asinine, counterproductive strategy wins us plenty of enemies and few friends, and has even our staunchest allies, like the United Kingdom, looking for exits. In other words, with Russian power again on the rise, the Bush administration is pushing NATO to the breaking point over problems it’s within our power to solve.
At the same time, the Bush administration has given precious little thought to the problems it was actually causing. I remember thinking shortly after September 11th that it was going to be easier to apologize for accidentally killing civilians on a battlefield in Afghanistan than to figure out how to handle terrorists we managed to capture alive, and I worried that we were either going to damage our legal system or let guilty men go. But I suppose I had faith that the Bush administration would craft some sort of solution that protected our Constitutional system without creating special “security courts” that bore unhealthy resemblances to Stalin’s show trials. No such luck.
Today, Yemenis make up the single largest group of detainees at Guantanamo. A colleague received the list of prisoners from the government of Yemen, and it doesn’t square with any of the U.S. listings. In fact, the U.S. government hasn’t even maintained a clear manifest of the names of the detainees (which often vary, depending on how you render them in English), so it ends up with internment numbers and no names, which makes it look as though we’re running a gulag. This is an ongoing public relations disaster, and if the Bush administration had been asking itself how it would look seven years later, it would never have allowed this to happen.
To be fair, the Bush administration has accomplished significant objectives — defense arrangements with India under Secretary of State Powell, for instance — and it’s done all right in East Asia, but its foreign policy has otherwise been too much gas pedal and not enough steering wheel.
Only with the arrival of former CIA director Robert Gates in the Pentagon has there been sufficient appreciation of the need to match means to ends. As Senator Chuck Hagel noted at an event at SAIS on Monday, the Secretary of Defense is beginning to sound more like a Secretary of State. Gates recognizes that for as much energy as Donald Rumsfeld brought to the job, it’s simply not desirable to use the military to do everything from building sewers to administering medicine.
Remarkably enough, Area of Responsibility commanders like the CENTCOM chief have their own planes, and much more latitude than Assistant Secretaries of State to make U.S. foreign policy. And as Gates remarked recently, he has more people on one aircraft carrier than the State Department does in the entire foreign service.
To an international observer, imagine what kind of message it sends that we have 3 million people working in uniform or as civilians for the Department of Defense, and less than 1% as many in the Department of State.
With this sort of imbalance in capabilities, it’s not altogether surprising that we tend to try solving problems from 30,000 feet. It’s as though your high school nurse — the one who used to give you cough drops and Tylenol no matter what was wrong with you — has started administering amputations, chemo and radiation. You can technically cure the disease by killing the patient, but that’s not the goal.
Whether because they recognize the relative strength and invulnerability of the United States or because they’re unduly risk averse, realists sometimes minimize problems we actually need to solve — like al-Qaeda. In the late ‘90s, as al-Qaeda blew up our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and finally bombed the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, neoconservatives were right that there had to be some middle ground between benign neglect and a land war in Asia. But there also has to be some middle ground between benign neglect and air strikes that kill innocent people and leave the guilty alive.
If someone bombed your house, you probably wouldn’t care whether it was an accident. If someone killed your family, or a friend’s family, you might be inclined to support people who wanted to exact revenge.
“Perhaps there is concern that too much pressure on Mubarak might produce a victory by the Muslim Brotherhood, the most popular Egyptian opposition party, which has been outlawed by the government,” my colleague Robert Kagan tells Jeffrey Goldberg in a must-read New Yorker piece in 2005. “That’s a risk, of course, but if the Bush Administration isn’t willing to let Islamists, even radical Islamists, win votes in a fair election, then Bush officials should stop talking so much about democracy and go back to supporting the old dictatorships.”
As we’ve spent the last few years learning the hard way, these ideas have consequences.
“What the realist fears is the consequences of idealism,” Bush 41 national security advisor Brent Scowcroft told Goldberg. “The reason I part with the neocons is that I don’t think in any reasonable time frame the objective of democratizing the Middle East can be successful. If you can do it, fine, but I don’t you think you can, and in the process of trying to do it you can make the Middle East a lot worse.”
We need to relearn what realists have always understood, the lesson of an entropic world: that it’s a whole lot easier to make things worse than it is to create order from disorder. And we need to relearn how to match means to ends.
It’s in this department that neoconservatives went horribly wrong, and at a moment when America’s relative power in the world was already in decline. Instead of breaking challenges down into manageable chunks, to divide and conquer, the Bush administration has aggregated every problem into a bigger problem, accreting them into a monstrous unmanageable mass, beyond even our power to tackle. In transforming Clinton’s fecklessness into Bush’s recklessness, the neoconservatives have given us all the problems of liberalism, on steroids.
With the election of Barack Obama and an enlarged Democratic congressional majority, the bill finally came due, and Republicans paid it in full.
Politics in a democracy is always about the felt needs of the people, and in looking for – and more importantly, creating – trouble abroad, the Republicans have dug a very deep hole for themselves at home. A great deal now depends on whether the Republican party makes peace with conservatives who came to oppose the war in Iraq, and expiates for the sins of the Bush administration. It’s possible, but it won’t happen until there are some very nasty public arguments about what went wrong.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Jacob Hayutin