There seems to be no dirtier word in the English lexicon today than “neocon”. Almost everyone has a strong opinion about the ideology, and yet very few have a clear and concise definition of it. To the Left, it’s tantamount to fascism or Nazism; to the traditional Right, it is pure heresy. On this very forum, Danny Polansky and David Donadio, have already penned their obituaries for neoconservatism. While they correctly recognize the true nature of modern neoconservatism—a loose collection of arguments for achieving liberal foreign policy ends using hard power, realist means—they are wrong in their assessments. Neoconservatism, when correctly defined, has far from failed in its endeavors, and has much to offer future administrations.
In “Neoconservative History Fixation”, Polansky argues that neoconservatives cannot rely on history to vindicate their intellectual worth, because what future generations may think of their past is colored by the biases of their own times. But rather than attack neoconservatism on its merits, Polansky simply asserts that, prima facie, neoconservatives deserve a bad reputation because of the blunders of Iraq. This assertion takes for granted that Iraq is destined for implosion. But recent developments have shown us that, if neoconservatives must stake their reputation on the campaign in Mesopotamia, their future might not look so dim after all. Since the 2007 surge, violence has sunk to manageable levels and order has been secured in areas that previously had been on the verge of Sunni-Shia civil war. In the latest agreement between Iraq and President Bush, American troops are scheduled to leave all Iraqi towns and cities in 2009, and completely by 2011. Such a diplomatic breakthrough is a testament to Iraq being stable enough to manage its own security without a significant American troop presence. And in the five years since the invasion, Iraq has grown comfortable enough with the complexities of democracy to witness multiple elections and power-sharing agreements. Iraq may not be a paragon of liberal democracy, but it is certainly on the right track.
But the more important point to make is that the war in Iraq is not by definition solely a neoconservative war: In 2003, it commanded strong support among both liberals and realists. Notables range from Kenneth Pollack and George Packer to George Shultz and James Baker. If Iraq was in fact a sin, then it is one with a much wider culpability than critics like Polansky recognize.
Donadio’s “The Death of Neoconservatism” more directly gets at the heart of the matter, charging that the neoconservatives were far too naive about Iraq’s democratic destiny and too stubborn about bilateral diplomacy with Iran. Furthermore, he says that the Bush administration’s floundering policies in Afghanistan directly reflect on neoconservative thinking.
The first major problem with this is that it seems to attribute the cause of all these failures to neoconservative ideology. To take just one example, there was no discernable “neoconservative” support for what Donadio calls a mistaken counter-narcotics campaign. In fact, aside from the war in Iraq and the promotion of democracy in the Arab world, neoconservatives have been fairly disappointed with Bush’s second term foreign policy: To name just two frustrations, he has twiddled his thumbs on Iran and taken North Korea off the list of terrorist-sponsoring states.
It was indeed naive of some neoconservative Brahmin, most famously Richard Perle, to predict an easy postwar occupation and fast transition to liberal democracy. But such statements have to be placed into context. No one was quite prepared for the level of incompetence in the Bush administration in the task of reconstructing Iraq. The neoconservatives failed to anticipate the lack of a plan for securing the country after Saddam fell, or the course of aggressive de-Baathification he would pursue. Some prominent neoconservative policymakers such as Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz no doubt bear some responsibility for these failures, but, for the most part, neoconservatives were neither architects nor managers of this war. Neoconservative Frederick Kagan, in collaboration with retired four-star general Jack Keane, proposed a larger troop presence as early as January 2007. Kagan’s colleagues at the Weekly Standard shared his views, as did the standard bearer for their cause, John McCain. It was Donald Rumsfeld, himself no neoconservative, who had steadfastly touted a “light footprint” in Iraq.
Neoconservatives still provide a critical perspective on the subject of Iranian diplomacy. They are skeptical of the utility of direct, high-level talks with Iran pertaining to Iraq because they don’t trust the regime’s motives. This is a prudent position to take when Iran has been one of the leading foreign instigators of violence in Iraq, as witnessed by the insurgents’ use of Iranian-supplied IEDs.
Donadio believes that “the Iranians support democracy in Iraq because it empowers Iraq’s Shiite majority, which is the best guarantor of their interests.” That conclusion may prove to be both naïve and simplistic. Given the Iranian track record of supporting disruptive Shiite militants, it is far easier to imagine that the Iranians support a separate Shiite enclave in Iraq that caters to Iranian interests, regardless of the costs of that policy to stability in Iraq. In fact, it’s easy to see how a stable Iraqi democracy might spook the theocrats of Iran. The sight of their Iraqi Shiite brethren flourishing under democratic rule could only encourage Iranians to put more pressure on their own government. Donadio is correct that sometimes we must make deals with unsavory regimes when “common interests” are at stake, but in this case it is not clear Iran wants any of the objectives we desire.
In the end, neoconservatives will always be integral to the foreign policy debate for two important, theoretical reasons: It is the only school of thought that actively tries to integrate both American principles and interests into a cohesive and coherent whole, and it is the only one to offer a plausible path (democratization) to addressing the deep, underlying roots of Islamic terrorism. Realists only seem to want to police the terrorist problem while neglecting its causes, ensuring that the West will engage in a prolonged struggle against a fanatical enemy. The Left believes that terrorism is caused by malign Western foreign policies—an insufficient explanation given that former Western colonies and war zones from Nicaragua to Vietnam have not sent suicide bombers to Western shores.
While we’re at it, we ought to remember to count the times when neoconservatives were arguably right, such as when they supported intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, as well as their prescience about the threat of terrorism in the mid-1990s.
It would be intellectually negligent to write off neoconservatism in any future policy debates. It is a perspective that will remain pertinent for a long time to come.
—Joshua Xiong is a third year University of Toronto international relations major and blogs at Neocon Blues.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire