Sunday, October 7, 2007

Welcome to American Power

Welcome to my new blog, American Power.

I've been meaning to establish a new blogging homepage for some time, since the "Burkean" in
Burkean Reflections (my original blog), no longer reflects my fundamental political orientation. The fact is, when I started blogging I had just finished teaching a new course, Introduction to Political Theory. More so than other political philosophies covered in the class, I was drawn to Burkean thought for its emphasis on custom and tradition. I especially liked Burke's emphasis on continuity in culture - on prescriptive authority found in a nation's historical associations and traditions, and how such bases of authority formed a bulwark against revolutionary movements, and the rise of authoritarian leadership. I thus thought Burkean conservatism would provide excellent foundations for a traditionalist's analyisis of poltics and world affairs.

Yet I've become increasingly distressed under a Burkean identity of classical conservatism. While Burke will remain a key pillar of my thinking on the best social order, my forward orientation on America power and U.S. foreign policy diverges substantially from orthodox conceptions of Burkean restraint in foreign affairs. What's more, I've been disgusted, frankly, by some of the uses of Burke among
some old-guard conservatives, who've championed Burke in a program of outright American isolationism and reactionary race doctrines.

Moreover, a couple of recent articles further convinced me that it was time to firmly authenticate the neoconservative foundations of my blogging project. One of these is
a New York Times essay by David Brooks, which argues that the current GOP crisis is explained by the party's shift away from Burkean foundationalism:

Modern conservatism begins with Edmund Burke. What Burke articulated was not an ideology or a creed, but a disposition, a reverence for tradition, a suspicion of radical change.

When conservatism came to America, it became creedal. Free market conservatives built a creed around freedom and capitalism. Religious conservatives built a creed around their conception of a transcendent order. Neoconservatives and others built a creed around the words of Lincoln and the founders.

Over the years, the voice of Burke has been submerged beneath the clamoring creeds. In fact, over the past few decades the conservative ideologies have been magnified, while the temperamental conservatism of Burke has been abandoned.

Over the past six years, the Republican Party has championed the spread of democracy in the Middle East. But the temperamental conservative is suspicious of rapid reform, believing that efforts to quickly transform anything will have, as Burke wrote “pleasing commencements” but “lamentable conclusions.”

The world is too complex, the Burkean conservative believes, for rapid reform. Existing arrangements contain latent functions that can be neither seen nor replaced by the reformer. The temperamental conservative prizes epistemological modesty, the awareness of the limitations on what we do and can know, what we can and cannot plan.

Over the past six years, the Bush administration has operated on the assumption that if you change the political institutions in Iraq, the society will follow. But the Burkean conservative believes that society is an organism; that custom, tradition and habit are the prime movers of that organism; and that successful government institutions grow gradually from each nation’s unique network of moral and social restraints.

Over the past few years, the vice president and the former attorney general have sought to expand executive power as much as possible in the name of protecting Americans from terror. But the temperamental conservative believes that power must always be clothed in constitutionalism. The dispositional conservative is often more interested in means than ends (the reverse of President Bush) and asks how power is divided before asking for what purpose it is used.

Brooks' essay provides a useful service, which is to push today's GOP to more clearly identify the true ideology conservative partisans ought to genuinely champion. Brooks is correct, of course: Tradition and habit should always be respected. Yet in some areas of public and international life, new demands may impel a tweaking of ideational foundations to fit the needs of the day. The current era is one calling forth such demands, and unlike Brooks, I hold the Bush administration as offering a powerful legacy for the direction of Republican Party conservativism in the decades ahead.

Sure, I know what many readers might be thinking: "Wow, this Professor Douglas has lost his mind! The Bush administration? Sheesh! What a disaster." But I disagree. This administration - like any other in American history - has made mistakes and has often overreached. But President Bush is no intellectual lightweight, despite what detractors may believe (see James Lindsey and Ivo Daalder's, America Unbound, for an early look at the rigorous intellectual foundations for the Bush revolution in international policy). Indeed, Bush's agenda of global democracy promotion is well within the established traditions of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy, from Wilson to Reagan. There's no ignominy in the push to harness U.S. hegemony for the expansion of world freedom.

This point brings me to the second recent article that has affirmed the importance of making more clear the ideological identity for my writing: Joshua Muravchik's October 2007 essay in Commentary Magazine, "The Past, Present, and Future of Neoconservatism." Muravchik makes an awesome case - absolutely no apologies - for the power of neoconservative thought thus far and in the years ahead. The essay offers a fairly comprehensive review of neoconservativism's development. Here are the key elements Muravchik identifies:

First, following Orwell, neoconservatives were moralists. Just as they despised Communism, they felt similarly toward Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic and toward the acts of aggression committed by those dictators in, respectively, Kuwait and Bosnia. And just as they did not hesitate to enter negative moral judgments, neither did they hesitate to enter positive ones. In particular, they were strong admirers of the American experience—an admiration that arose not out of an unexamined patriotism (they had all started out as reformers or even as radical critics of American society) but out of the recognition that America had gone farther in the realization of liberal values than any other society in history. A corollary was the belief that America was a force for good in the world at large.

Second, in common with many liberals, neoconservatives were internationalists, and not only for moral reasons. Following Churchill, they believed that depredations tolerated in one place were likely to be repeated elsewhere—and, conversely, that beneficent political or economic policies exercised their own “domino effect” for the good. Since America’s security could be affected by events far from home, it was wiser to confront troubles early even if afar than to wait for them to ripen and grow nearer.

Third, neoconservatives, like (in this case) most conservatives, trusted in the efficacy of military force. They doubted that economic sanctions or UN intervention or diplomacy, per se, constituted meaningful alternatives for confronting evil or any determined adversary.

To this list, I would add a fourth tenet: namely, the belief in democracy both at home and abroad. This conviction could not be said to have emerged from the issues of the 1990’s, although the neoconservative support for enlarging NATO owed something to the thought that enlargement would cement the democratic transformations taking place in the former Soviet satellites. But as early as 1982, Ronald Reagan, the neoconservative hero, had stamped democratization on America’s foreign-policy agenda with a forceful speech to the British Parliament. In contrast to the Carter administration, which held (in the words of Patricia Derian, Carter’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights) that “human-rights violations do not really have very much to do with the form of government,” the Reagan administration saw the struggle for human rights as intimately bound up in the struggle to foster democratic governance. When Reagan’s Westminster speech led to the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, the man chosen to lead it was Carl Gershman, a onetime Social Democrat and a frequent contributor to COMMENTARY. Although not an avowed neoconservative, he was of a similar cast of mind.

This mix of opinions and attitudes still constitutes the neoconservative mindset. The military historian Max Boot has aptly labeled it “hard Wilsonianism.” It does not mesh neatly with the familiar dichotomy between “realists” and “idealists.” It is indeed idealistic in its internationalism and its faith in democracy and freedom, but it is hardheaded, not to say jaundiced, in its image of our adversaries and its assessment of international organizations. Nor is its idealism to be confused with the idealism of the “peace” camp. Over the course of the past century, various schemes for keeping the peace—the League of Nations, the UN, the treaty to outlaw war, arms-control regimes—have all proved fatuous. In the meantime, what has in fact kept the peace (whenever it has been kept) is something quite different: strength, alliances, and deterrence. Also in the meantime, “idealistic” schemes for promoting not peace but freedom—self-determination for European peoples after World War I, decolonization after World War II, the democratization of Germany, Japan, Italy, and Austria, the global advocacy of human rights—have brought substantial and beneficial results.

Yet, the ultimate aim of the essay is to provide a robust defense of neoconservatism against its critics. Here's the essay's disussion of the Bush administration and America's national interests following 9/11:

Whether or not a distinct neoconservative position could be discerned in the relatively calm 1990’s, everything changed, with a vengeance, after September 11, 2001....

Bush’s declaration of war against terrorism...[bore] the earmarks of neoconservatism. One can count the ways. It was moralistic, accompanied by descriptions of the enemy as “evil” and strong assertions of America’s righteousness. As Norman Podhoretz puts it in his powerful new book. Bush offered “an entirely unapologetic assertion of the need for and the possibility of moral judgment in the realm of world affairs.” In contrast to the suggestion of many, especially many Europeans, that America had somehow provoked the attacks, Bush held that what the terrorists hated was our virtues, and in particular our freedom. His approach was internationalist: it treated the whole globe as the battlefield, and sought to confront the enemy far from our own doorstep. It entailed the prodigious use of force. And, for the non-military side of the strategy, Bush adopted the idea of promoting democracy in the Middle East in the hope that this would drain the fever swamps that bred terrorists.

It is possible that Bush and Cheney turned to neoconservative sources for guidance on these matters; it is also possible, and more likely, that they reached similar conclusions on their own. In either case, the war against terrorism put neoconservative ideas to the test—and, in the war’s early stages, they passed with flying colors. The Taliban regime was ousted from Afghanistan quickly and without a major commitment of American forces. More striking still, a democratic government was established in Afghanistan—one of the least likely places on earth for it. Muammar Qaddafi, the ruler of Libya and one of the world’s most erratic and violent dictators, abandoned his pursuit of nuclear weapons, and in effect sued to bring his country in from the cold reaches to which Bush had assigned terrorism-supporting states. Finally, Saddam Hussein was toppled from power in a brief campaign with minimum loss of life.

Even more remarkably, Bush’s advocacy of democracy brought an immediate and positive reaction around the region. The Lebanese drove out Syrian forces after a 30-year occupation. In an unprecedented development, elections at various levels of government were held in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and a handful of other Arab states (and the Palestinian Authority), including most dramatically Iraq itself. The collective leadership of the Arab states, meeting at a summit, declared its commitment to “strengthening democracy, expanding political participation, consolidating the values of citizenship and the culture of democracy, the promotion of human rights, the opening of space for civil society, and enabling women to play a prominent role in every field of public life.”

Crowning all these events was one crucial non-event: the absence, despite the almost unanimous forecast of experts, of further terror attacks on the United States.

Muravchik also provides a penetrating response to the claims that American difficulties in Iraq discredit the neoconservative project:

According to one highly publicized article in Vanity Fair, several leading neoconservatives put the blame on poor execution of their ideas on the part of the administration. This is not a very satisfying analysis. Complaints about government incompetence dog every administration, almost always with justice, and there is no convincing evidence that the functioning of the present administration has been worse than that of its predecessors.

More specific and more convincing targets for blame are a few key decisions made by Paul Bremer, the chief of the allied occupation from May 2003 to June 2004, and by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Bremer’s decisions—to disband the Iraqi army and to undertake a purge of Baath party members so sweeping as to dismantle the Iraqi government—have been widely criticized. Whether it would otherwise have been easier to cope with the insurgency is hard to say, though the idea seems plausible. Rumsfeld’s insistence, backed by the President, on deploying to Iraq only a fraction of the troops requested by General Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff, seems more clearly to have courted trouble—a conclusion brought home all the more sharply by the apparent success of today’s “surge” in manpower.

In any event, the decisions about troop levels and about abolishing Iraq’s existing administrative structure had nothing to do with neoconservative ideas. The most that can fairly be said is that Rumsfeld was an ally of neoconservatives and that some among them, enamored of military technology or influenced by the Iraqi dissident Ahmad Chalabi, endorsed his choices. Besides, whatever measure of responsibility may be placed on neoconservatives in this one matter, it pales in comparison to the errors of the realists in the George H.W. Bush administration who in 1991 chose to leave Saddam in power, and of the liberals in the Clinton administration who allowed Saddam’s defiance of his disarmament obligations to swell steadily over eight long years. Together, these failures left the problem of Saddam Hussein festering for George W. Bush to confront in the aftermath of 9/11, when it appeared in a more ominous light.

This article's a modern classic, and those who so easily and utterly dismiss neoconservatism would be irresponsible to disengage from the arguments it presents. Muravchik concludes the piece by rightly noting that neoconservatism isn't foolproof, that it doesn't hold all the answers. What it does do is offer a coherent and compelling approach to meeting today's international challenges, not the least of these being the war on terror:

By contrast, liberals and realists have no coherent approach to suggest—or at least they have not suggested one. That, after all, is why George W. Bush, searching urgently for a response to the events of September 11, stumbled into the arms of neoconservatism, unlikely though the match seemed. One can always wish that policies were executed better, but for a strategy in the war that has been imposed upon us, neoconservatism remains the only game in town.

Now, to conclude, let me assure readers that my basic blogging style and delivery will continue here at American Power. I remain as firmly committed as ever to providing incisive daily commentary and opinion on the big issues of the day. Indeed, the standards and goals anounced when I first took up blogging - especially my commitment to challenging anti-American nihilism - remain central to my ongoing enterprise. Popular features such as books reviews and my regular top-featured posts - like the Blog Watch series - will continue as unique attractions of this blog.

So, welcome again to all of those visiting my new blogging homepage. As regular readers know, I'm enthusiatic about blogging. Perhaps more importantly, I also greatly appreciate everyone who's been following my writing over this last 18 months or so. Thanks as well to all of those who've helped me get established on the web, a list of names which is much too long to enumerate in this post.