I am a regular subscriber to The Weekly Standard and Commentary Magazine, both of which qualify as "neocon" rags (magazines). I have been greatly impressed by the Standard, which I began reading in the midst of the Gingrich Revolution in the mid-1990s. The insightfulness and generally sane tone of the magazine stood out as a welcome change from, say, Time or Newsweek. However, I first began having doubts about the neocon program when they began advocating for invading the former Yugoslavia, an area in which we had little to no vested interest. And yet there we were, and there was the Gingrich coalition supporting Bill Clinton as he sent airstrikes into Bosnia, Serbia, etc.
My next whack upside the skull came on September 20, 2001, when George Bush announced the "Bush Doctrine," the notion that terrorism abroad could only be fought by overturning repressive governments and turning them into democracies. I remember turning to my roommate and saying, "Wow. That's bold. Can we do that?" Still, I stuck with W and neoconservatism through the Iraq war, even when a coworker whose sanity and levelheadedness I respected pointed out to me, "He hasn't attacked us, you know." But in we went, and there we are. The surge might create a desert and call it peace. And yet, as yet another election approaches, this one without Bush as a candidate and with no signs of terrorist attack imminent, it is time to re-think my 13-year relationship with those who call themselves neocons.
In its October edition, Commentary published an article titled "The Past, Present, and Future of Neoconservatism," which details the rise of the neocons and what they stand for. A few pointed passages can clarify my misgivings:
The term “neoconservative” was coined in the 1970’s as an anathema. It was intended to stigmatize a group of liberal intellectuals who had lately parted ways with the majority of their fellows.Note its origins: neoconservative is a liberal phenomenon, not one with its roots based in the conservatism of William F. Buckley or Dwight Eisenhower. Instead, it consisted of a group of Scoop Jackson-type hawks who were disgusted by the New Left's vehement anti-Americanism during the Vietnam War. Their approach to government was and is inherently expansionist. While they are quick to castigate Bush for showing lack of military will on this or that, they are equally silent about the unnecessary, expensive, and distinctly un-conservative domestic expansion of government.
They saw the Soviet Union as, in the words of Ronald Reagan, an “evil empire,” unspeakably cruel to its own subjects and relentlessly predatory toward those not yet in its grasp.
In partnership with the limited-government-loving Reagan, the neocons provided useful allies in the military struggles with the Soviets. It might be that Joe Lieberman is the last "neocon" Democrat. He was almost certainly the last hawkish Democrat, and he was hounded out of the party. Yet now lacking an enemy that (so far) does not require mass conscription or sacrifice, these same pro-military boosters have forgotten the "limited" part of Reagan's creed of limited government.
Thinkers ranging back to John Quincy Adams have cautioned against the desire to "seek dragons to slay" overseas. In other words, the evils of the world are not America's concern until they affect America's vital interests. It is also not America's job to force our moral or political system upon the other nations or peoples of the world at the point of a bayonet. Yet that's been the main thrust (pardon the pun) of American foreign policy since Woodrow Wilson. Just because America has been consistent does not mean that it has necessarily been correct in every case.
most traditional conservatives believed that America’s own interests were not sufficiently engaged to justify intervention [in Bosnia]
neoconservatives, like (in this case) most conservatives, trusted in the efficacy of military force
Sometimes, it seems, they trust in little else. World War II was an anomaly to this extent: the enemy was so blatantly evil that, by contrast, any form of government would have been better. And, in fact, by their very evil, they required "unconditional surrender" to ensure that they would not damage the future peace of the world. And the taming of Germany and Japan still took the better part of a decade. Other, lesser tyrants can simply be kept in place through punishment and armed watchfulness. Consider the pounding Qadaffi received by Reagan and how little direct action he took afterward. Indeed, he was the first to dismantle his nuclear weaponry after Gulf War II, just in reaction to someone else receiving the pointy end of the spear. I admit now, albeit three years too late, that Saddam Hussein probably could have been kept in his box through Operations Other Than War (OOTW, as the military commanders call it). Iran might, as well, though Congress is making even military strikes a political hot button.
It is hard to picture what would be better today, either for the Iraqis or for us and our interests, had we just deposed Saddam and left. Numerous scenarios are imaginable, all of them grisly. Saddam might have been succeeded by one of his equally bloody henchmen, like the infamous “Chemical Ali.” An ethnically-based civil war might have broken out, or the country might have devolved into anarchy like Somalia, except with infinitely more weapons available. Or Iraq’s neighbors might have torn it to pieces, with the largest piece consumed by Iran.
A Saddam Hussein with a bloody nose might heed the lesson not to directly support terrorists attacking the United States. Jerry Pournelle (one of my favorite conservatives) suggested an alternative to the Powell Doctrine ("You break it, you fix it"). Instead of destroying a hostile nation's military and then occupying, we could simply go in, pound the nation's military, and leave, as we did in Gulf War I. And if the nation's leader(ship) makes the mistake of supporting our enemies again, they simply invite another reprisal until they learn the proper lesson. Quick, direct victories that instill a lesson are easily understood by the American public (as they were by the British public 100 years ago), and they do not require that we expose our legions to year after year of low-body-count, high-intensity, and media-warped warfare.
What bothers me most about the Iraq situation is that, if we win (say, for ten years), the neocons will feel vindicated in their approach and seek to invade and hold other nations in the future, like Iran. The next Republican president would do well to take a page from Theodore Roosevelt's playbook: speak softly, and carry a big stick. That would be better than following the neocon temptation to do good and seek to remake the Islamic world in our image. And, while that Republican was at it, he or she might try restrain the growth of government here at home. Again quoting Pournelle, a nation that acts imperially overseas will eventually act imperially at home. It cannot help it.
We can help it by thinking long and hard about whom we choose in the next presidential election.