Sunday, October 28, 2007

Don't Blame the Neocons!

Alasdair Roberts has a ticklishly interesting article at the new Foreign Policy, "The War We Deserve" (by subscription).

He argues that it's foolish to blame the violence in Iraq on the Bush administration and a "small cabal" of neocons. In actuality, the American people are deeply implicated in the developments of American foreign policy over the last decade. Americans expect more of their government but don't like to sacrifice for a greater cause. Roberts argues that's an unrealistic way to fight a global war, and might even be deadly:

There’s an uncomplicated tale many Americans like to tell themselves about recent U.S. foreign policy. As the story has it, the nation was led astray by a powerful clique of political appointees and their fellow travelers in Washington think tanks, who were determined even before the 9/11 attacks to effect a radical shift in America’s role in the world. The members of this cabal were known as neoconservatives. They believed the world was a dangerous place, that American power should be applied firmly to protect American interests, and that, for too long, U.S. policy had consisted of diplomatic excess and mincing half measures. After 9/11, this group gave us the ill-conceived Global War on Terror and its bloody centerpiece, the war in Iraq.

This narrative is disturbing. It implies that a small cadre of officials, holding allegiance to ideas alien to mainstream political life, succeeded in hijacking the foreign-policy apparatus of the entire U.S. government and managed to skirt the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution. Perversely, though, this interpretation of events is also comforting. It offers the possibility of correcting course. If the fault simply lies in the predispositions of a few key players in the policy game, then those players can eventually be replaced, and policies repaired.

Unfortunately, though, this convenient story is fiction, and it’s peddling a dangerously misguided view of history. The American public at large is more deeply implicated in the design and execution of the war on terror than it is comfortable to admit. In the six years of the war, through an invasion of Afghanistan, a wave of anthrax attacks, and an occupation of Iraq, Americans have remained largely unshaken in their commitment to a political philosophy that demands much from its government but asks little of its citizens. And there is no reason to believe that the weight of that responsibility will shift after the next attack.
Roberts notes that, ideologically, both parties converged on a model of "neoliberal" politics in the 1990s - a perspective which included a commitment to domestic spending restraint at home and the promotion of American-led trade liberalization abroad. Inherent in this model is the pursuit of individual interest and the downsizing of government. Roberts suggests George W. Bush firmly embraced the neoliberal outlook, and the administration's war policies subsequenty asked little from the public in terms of national sacrifice. Both parties are implicated, however:

It may seem extraordinary, given the experience of the past six years, to suggest that President George W. Bush’s administration pursued a Clinton-style strategy of accommodation to neoliberal realities. After all, key Bush advisors flaunted their determination to throw off the constraints that bound the executive branch. And the Bush administration’s policies have had cataclysmic consequences—in Iraq alone, there are tens of thousands dead and more than a million people displaced. How can we call this “small politics”?

However, we must first recognize the critical distinction between what the Bush administration intended to do, and what actually transpired. The material point about the planned invasion of Iraq was that it appeared to its proponents to be feasible with a very small commitment of resources. It would be a cakewalk, influential Pentagon advisor Kenneth Adelman predicted in February 2002. The cost of postwar reconstruction would be negligible. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz suggested that it might even be financed by revenues from the Iraqi oil industry.

Of course, there were critics inside and outside the U.S. government who warned that these forecasts were unduly optimistic. But the administration’s view was hardly idiosyncratic. There were many Americans who believed, based on the experience of the previous decade—including the first Gulf War, subsequent strikes on Iraq, and other interventions such as Kosovo—that the U.S. military had acquired the capacity to project force with devastating efficiency. Consequently, it wasn’t hard to imagine that the invasion and occupation of a nation of 27 million, more than 6,000 miles away, could be accomplished without significant disruption to American daily life.

Even the larger war on terror remains a relatively small affair, asking for little from its masters. Although U.S. defense expenditures have grown substantially during the Bush administration—by roughly 40 percent in inflation-adjusted terms between 2001 and 2006—it is growth from a historically low base. In the five years after 9/11, average defense expenditure as a share of gross domestic product (3.8 percent) was little more than half of what it was during the preceding 50 years (6.8 percent). The proportion of the U.S. adult population employed in the active-duty military (roughly 0.6 percent) remained at a low not seen since before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

This determination to execute policy without disrupting daily life was maintained even as it became clear that the war on terror was faltering. The U.S. “surge” of troops in Iraq beginning in January 2007, designed to wrest control of the country from insurgents, was advertised as a substantial increase in U.S. commitments in Iraq. In August, the New York Times called it a “massive buildup.” But by historical standards, it has been negligible. The United States had more boots on the ground in Japan 10 years after its surrender in 1945 and in Germany at the end of the Cold War. It deployed twice as many troops in South Korea and three times as many in Vietnam.

In 2003, the conflict in Iraq might reasonably have been described as George W. Bush’s war. In 2007, however, it has become a bipartisan war—that is, a conflict whose course is shaped by the actions of a Republican president and by Democratic majorities in Congress. The stakes are substantial: Continued failure in Iraq is bound to have tremendous human and diplomatic costs. Yet the range of policy options is still arbitrarily limited to a token “surge” or various forms of “phased withdrawal.” No major political actor, Democrat or Republican, dares to contemplate a genuine surge that would raise the U.S. commitment in Iraq to the level said to be essential by several military leaders before the invasion. Similarly, there has been no serious consideration of a return to the draft, despite strains on the U.S. military. This, the New York Times said—echoing the argument made by Milton Friedman during Vietnam—would be inconsistent with the “free-choice values of America’s market society.”
Roberts reminds us that the Bush administration's appeal to the public after 9/11 was to continue spending, to "Go down to Disney World in Florida, take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed":

“One of the great goals of this nation’s war,” President Bush said immediately after 9/11, “is to restore confidence in the airline industry.” His administration quickly launched a “pro-consumption publicity blitz” (in the words of the Boston Globe) on behalf of the U.S. travel industry. The president starred in a campaign by the Travel Industry Association of America, designed, as one industry executive put it, to “link travel to patriotic duty.” Many Americans interpreted the campaign as a call to spend more money to boost the economy. “The important thing, war or no war, is for the economy to grow,” then White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said in 2003.
I've been critical of the White House for not developing a more comprehensive approach to public relations, although I understand the administration's call for Americans to carry on as normal. But note how Roberts put the criticisms of the adminstration's "threats" to civil liberties in context:

Civil libertarians certainly think Americans have paid a large if intangible price in the rollback of their civil liberties. Here, critics also reach for analogies between the war on terror and earlier conflicts. They accuse the Bush administration of trampling on civil liberties in the name of national security, just as the government had during the First and Second World Wars, the Cold War, and the domestic turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The steps taken after 9/11 were “chillingly familiar,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle. The historian Alan Brinkley said the government’s treatment of civil liberties was a “familiar story.” In 2002 The Progressive said, “We’ve been here before.”

But we haven’t been here before. Infringement of Americans’ rights after 9/11—that is, actual rather than anticipated infringements—were different in type and severity than those suffered in earlier crises. Citizens were not imprisoned for treason, as they were during the First World War. Thousands of citizens were not detained indefinitely, as they were during the Second World War. Citizens were not deported, or denied passports, or blacklisted, as they were during the Red scares.

Were there serious issues about the denial of citizens’ rights after 9/11? Undoubtedly. But those violations often had a distinctly postmillennial character. New surveillance programs were launched in secrecy and designed so that their footprint could not be easily detected. In effect, government was adapting to political realities, searching for techniques of maintaining domestic security that did not involve obvious disruptions of everyday life.
Here's Roberts' conclusion:
Was the war on terror devised and promoted by a small cadre of neoconservatives? Perhaps. But it was also a response to crisis that recognized and largely respected the well-defined boundaries of acceptable political action in the United States today. In important ways, the war on terror is not their war but our war. The desires and preferences of the American people have shaped the war on terror just as profoundly as any neoconservative doctrine on the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.
That's a point the GOP candidates might keep in mind as they're mercilessly attacked by the Democrats and leftists for their "failed" foreign policy.