Saturday, June 21, 2008

Neoconservatism: America's Tradition

One way to look at this year's election, ideologically, is to frame the battle between the Democratic and Republican nominees in ideological terms, between the forces of postmodern radicalism and neoconservatism.

Barack Obama is not Marxist, but his leftist positions on race and religion, government spending, and off-shore drilling, for example, place him on the extreme left of the political spectrum, essentially electoral radicalism.

John McCain, on the other hand, represents the great traditions in American history of peace through strength and moral certainty. His commitment to defending the nation in a time of terror, and his proven leadership on the Iraq war, put him closer in values to the neoconservative perspective.

Folks can quibble with the definitional categories, which are loose approximations, although the utility of this framework is demonstrated empirically, in terms of the identified political coalitions that have lined up behind each of the candidates (particularly on the left).

The left radicals, for example, are
intent to demonize neoconservatism in their rush for power and recrimination. While traditional conservatives, many of whom rejected McCain early this year, have come to see his campaign as a bulwark against the coming to power of far-left relativism and retreat.

Politics is ultimately a battle of ideas and values, and while neoconservatism is generally reviled by the left as a warmonger's cult, neoconservative ideology can be seen as the essential firmament guiding America's relations with the world for over 200 years, as Robert Kagan notes in his piece, "
Neocon Nation: Neoconservatism, c. 1776."

I'd like to just post the
whole thing, Kagan's piece is so good! But I'll just add a couple of bits of flavor, from the introduction:

“The Iraq War will always be linked with the term ‘neoconservative,’” George Packer wrote in his book on the war, and he is probably right. The conventional wisdom today, likely to be the approved version in the history books, is that a small group of neoconservatives seized the occasion of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, to steer the nation into a war that would never have been fought had not this group of ideologues managed somehow to gain control of national policy.

This version of events implicitly rejects another and arguably simpler interpretation: that after September 11, 2001, American fears were elevated, America’s tolerance for potential threats lowered, and Saddam Hussein naturally became a potential target, based on a long history of armed aggression, the production and use of chemical weapons, proven efforts to produce nuclear and biological weapons, and a murky relationship with terrorists. The United States had gone to war with him twice before, in 1991 and then again at the end of 1998, and the fate of Saddam Hussein had remained an unresolved question at the end of the Clinton administration. It was not so unusual for the United States to go to war a third time, therefore, and the Bush administration’s decision can be understood without reference to a neoconservative doctrine. After September 11, the Bush administration weighed the risks of leaving Saddam Hussein in power against the risks of fighting a war to remove him and chose the latter, its calculus shaped by the terrorist attacks and by widely shared suppositions about Iraq’s weapons programs that ultimately proved mistaken.

If one chose to believe this simpler version, then the decision to invade Iraq might have been correct or mistaken, but the lessons to be learned from the war would concern matters of judgment, tactics, and execution—don’t go to war based on faulty intelligence; don’t topple a foreign government without a plan to bring order and peace to the country afterwards; don’t be so quick on the trigger; exhaust all possibilities before going to war; be more prudent. But they would not raise broader issues of foreign policy doctrine and grand strategy. After all, prudence is not a foreign policy. It is possible to be prudent or imprudent, capable or clumsy, wise or foolish, hurried or cautious in pursuit of any doctrine. The intervention in Vietnam was the direct product of the Cold War strategy of containment, but many people who think the Vietnam War was a mistake nevertheless do not condemn containment. They believe the war was the misapplication and poor execution of an otherwise sound strategy. One could argue the same was true of Iraq.

One could, but very few critics of the war do. The heated debate in the United States over the past few years has not been so much about bad intelligence, faulty execution, or imprudence in Iraq. In his book The Assassins’ Gate, Packer claims that he is unable to explain why the United States went to war without recourse to the larger doctrine behind it. “The story of the Iraq war,” he writes, “is a story of ideas about the role of the United States in the world.” And the ideas he has in mind are “neoconservative” ideas. His premise, and that of most critics, is that neoconservatism was uniquely responsible for the United States going to war in Iraq and that, had it not been for the influence of neoconservative ideas, the war never would have occurred.

To examine this premise requires first understanding what people mean by “neoconservative,” for the term conjures very different images. For some, it is synonymous with “hawk,” to others, it is an ethnic description, and to still others, it is a term to describe anything evil—I once heard a Cornell professor earnestly define neoconservatism as an ideological commitment to torture and political oppression. But when employed fairly neutrally to describe a foreign policy worldview, as Packer does, neoconservatism usually has a recognizable meaning. It connotes a potent moralism and idealism in world affairs, a belief in America’s exceptional role as a promoter of the principles of liberty and democracy, a belief in the preservation of American primacy and in the exercise of power, including military power, as a tool for defending and advancing moralistic and idealistic causes, as well as a suspicion of international institutions and a tendency toward unilateralism. In the hands of more hostile critics, the neocons are not merely idealistic but absurdly and dangerously hubristic about the unlimited capacity of American power to effect positive change; not merely expansive but imperialistic, seeking not only American pre-eminence but ruthless global dominance; not merely willing to use force, but preferring it to peaceful methods; and not merely tending toward unilateralism but actively spurning alliances in favor of solitary action. Even these deliberately polemical caricatures point to something recognizable, a foreign policy that combines an idealist’s moralism, and even messianism, with a realist’s belief in the importance of power.
I think that's key, at the end: the combination of moralism and power.

GSGF, note Douglas Murray, who explains the background for his book, Neoconservatism: Why We Need It:

... I try to demonstrate why the neoconservative impulse is vital at this moment in history ... But the drive of the book is really an attempt to put down a marker. Having observed the allegedly ‘anti-war’ left sink into what became in large part a pro-war, but pro-the-other-side-winning stance it seemed to me that a philosophical and practical explanation had to be attempted which identified not only the jihadist enemy, but also the disastrous relativistic bent of our time which has given that enemy some of its oxygen. Relativism has deeply damaged my own generation and greatly hindered our chances of defeating this or any future enemy.
That's an interesting concept, that the left's not so much "antiwar" but anti-American, and that many on the left will readily back the other side in the West's great defense of right in the world (for more on that, see "The Politics of Peace: What’s Behind the Anti-War Movement?")

I'll have more. In the meantime, check out "
The Return of the Neocons: Bush Hawks Aggressively Working to Rewrite Accepted Iraq War History."