Friday, February 29, 2008

The Bush Administration, Neoconservatives, and the Iraq War

One of the most bothersome things about discussions of neoconservatism is how critics resort to uncritical conventional wisdom or inaccurate stereotypes to ridicule the Bush administration's war in Iraq. To hear these folks, the war's always a "disaster" or a "failed policy of idealist neo-imperial overreach." Rarely are events placed in historical context (World War II, for example, had its share of disasters, and was hardly a sure run thing until late in the conflict).

I'm seeing this trend more lately, as otherwise esteemed analysts and pundits make the same mistakes over and over again in reviewing recent journalistic histories of neoconservatives in the top ranks of power.

For example, David Greenberg, who writes very respectably on trends in conservatism, makes some simple, largely discredited or unsubstantiated remarks about the movement
in his review of Jacob Heilbrunn's They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons:

Not long ago the term "neoconservative" seemed ripe for retirement. The label was originally applied in the 1960s and 1970s to the ex-liberals (themselves ex-socialists) who turned halfway to the right after becoming disenchanted with the Great Society, left-wing politics, and the Democrats' post-Vietnam isolationism. Under Ronald Reagan, however, the neocons kept moving right and joined in a broad right-wing consensus, and by the 1990s it became hard to tell them apart from other Republicans....

Despite some tensions that surfaced during George Bush Sr.'s presidency, Reagan's conservative coalition cohered, more or less, until midway through the current administration. Only with the failures of Bush II and the Iraq War has the concept of neoconservatism gained new life and new meaning, at least on foreign policy (on domestic issues the neocons now can hardly be distinguished from other Republicans). On one side, the neocons' zeal for the war has earned them seething hatred (occasionally tinged with anti-Semitism) from the anti-war left, as younger bloggers, indifferent to the label's precise meaning, sling it as an all-purpose epithet. On the other side, the Republican crack-up has resurrected old internecine splits on the right -- Wall Street versus Main Street, isolationist versus neo-imperialist, and paleocon versus neocon -- with the neocons often being blamed for the right's disarray.
There's the "failed war" meme right there!

To be fair, though, sure, the war did look increasingly, disastrously lost in the fall of 2006. But the point (attack) was made more often by enraged radical left bloggers (with little credibility) than evenhanded policy analysts.

I keep these thoughts in mind whenever I see some new essay on the Bush administration's Iraq policy or on the neoconservative movement.

So I was quite pleased to read Adam Garfinkle's review of three new books on the Bush adminstration over at Foreign Affairs, "
Bye Bye Bush: What History Will Make of 43?"

Garfinkle reviews, Fred Kaplan's, Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, Heilbrunn's, They Knew They Were Right, and Jacob Weisberg's, The Bush Tragedy.

He does a great job. The review's analytical and fair, and Garfinkle's no neocon. But the most important section comes near the end of the piece, where he puts Bush's efforts in Iraq in analytical and counterfactual perspective:

Years from now, when historians work on advanced drafts of the Bush legacy, they may well conclude that the Iraq war, the failed "freedom agenda," and the White House's response to 9/11 compose its central contributions. But this is not certain. After all, judgments about historical epochs are, as the humorist S. J. Perelman once observed of the prospects for immortality, "subject to the caprice of the unborn." And even if these policies do turn out to be the main themes of the Bush presidency, they might look different a decade or so hence. For example, the conclusion of all three authors that the Iraq war and the collapsed freedom agenda make the Bush presidency a failure is premature. All three books were conceived before the surge in U.S. troop levels in Iraq improved security there. More broadly, who can possibly know now the long-term effects of current U.S. policy in the Middle East, any more than French observers in 1801 could accurately reckon the impact of Napoleon's botched adventures in Egypt? Yes, neoconservatives, flush with having been vindicated by the West's victory in the Cold War, lazily applied their creed to problems and places for which their experience was a poor guide. But who is to say that a third generation of neoconservatives, whose arrival Heilbrunn foresees, will not do better? Whatever they are called, and wherever they come from, there will be idealists in the United States' future.
Garfinkle argues that other Bush administration failures - such as the "retrograde" bureaucratic reforms following September 11 and the Katrina disaster of 2005 - will likely be way more important in forthcoming historical assessments of the Bush adminstration's legacy.

He may be right, but I must admit being surprised that his review wasn't one more canned denunciation of that "evil neocon cabal" who hijacked American foreign policy to implement the "greatest military blunder" in history.

We've seen plenty of such hack jobs in the past (
Garfinkle himself has tended that way occasionally), and more are coming out all the time.

See some of my earlier posts on neoconservatism, here, here, here, here, and here.