Can the Neocons Get Their Groove Back?

By Joshua Muravchik
Sunday, November 19, 2006

These are dark days for the neocons.

The midterm "thumping" the GOP suffered on Nov. 7 was largely a repudiation of the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, a conflict linked to neoconservative ideology. Donald H. Rumsfeld, the administration's leading patron of neoconservative personnel, was quickly ousted as defense secretary. Key players from the administration of Bush the elder are back -- former secretary of state James A. Baker III heading the search for new Iraq policies, and former CIA director Robert M. Gates nominated to take over at the Pentagon -- leading some to believe that the president will cast aside the neoconservative influences that have distinguished his foreign policy from that of his father.

So, is neoconservatism dead?

Far from it. Neoconservative ideas have been vindicated again and again on a string of major issues, including the Cold War, Bosnia and NATO expansion. It is the war in Iraq that has made "neocon" a dirty word, either because Bush's team woefully mismanaged the war or because the war (which neocons supported) was misconceived. But even if the invasion of Iraq proves to have been a mistake, that would not mean that the neoconservative belief in democracy as an antidote to troubles in the Middle East is wrong, nor would it confirm that neoconservatism's combination of strength with idealism is misguided. Neoconservatism isn't dead; it can be renovated and returned to prominence, because, even today, it remains unrivaled as a guiding principle for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond.

Let me confess to the obvious: I am a dyed-in-the-wool, true-believer neocon. And to show why neoconservatism will continue to thrive, let me explain first what that term really means. We neocons were a small group of political thinkers who broke with fellow liberals during the war in Vietnam. Most liberals came to believe that the United States had gotten into Vietnam out of what President Jimmy Carter later called an "inordinate fear of communism." By contrast, neocons held to the conviction that communism was a monstrous evil and a potent danger. For our obstinacy, we were drummed out of the liberal camp and dubbed "neoconservatives" -- a malicious gibe to which we eventually acquiesced.

Ronald Reagan's militant anti-communism bore a neocon imprint, and during his presidency most neocons switched to the Republican Party. Reagan's policies, we believed, secured victory in the Cold War. But in bringing a conclusion to the cause that had been our raison d'etre, that victory also seemed to spell the end of neoconservatism.

Until Bosnia, that is, which showed that the embers of neocon thinking still glowed. Although it was not self-evident that people who had thought alike about the Cold War should also think alike about post-communist conflicts in the Balkans, it turned out that almost everyone who had been a neocon supported U.S. military intervention in Bosnia. We were reunited, not by a fixed platform but by a mind-set distinct from that of traditional conservatives or liberals.

To traditional conservatives, the Bosnian conflict, however tragic, did not affect narrowly defined U.S. interests and therefore could not justify the expense of American blood and treasure. "We have no dog in that fight," proclaimed then-Secretary Baker. Neocons, however, were more inclined to take action over a humanitarian issue such as ethnic cleansing, and we held a broader definition of U.S. security, believing that aggression and mayhem anywhere could eventually reach America's doorstep.

Neocons and liberals were mostly of one mind on the necessity of doing something to stop the Bosnian conflict; we parted company on what that something should be. Liberals were loath to endorse U.S. military intervention or to act without the United Nations. They hoped that concerted economic or diplomatic pressure could stop the Serbs. We considered that naive. In short, in the 1990s, neocons were more idealistic than conservatives, more militaristic than liberals.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, shattered the relative calm of the post-Cold War years, confronting the United States with a deadly enemy and an urgent need for a strategy. There was little disagreement among the different ideological schools over the need to smash al-Qaeda and kill Osama bin Laden. Most also agreed that the threat went beyond one man and one group; 9/11 was only the latest and biggest of many terrorist attacks on the United States. Why were so many young Middle Easterners willing to throw their lives away to kill Americans? Why did terrorists enjoy so much indulgence in the region? What could we do to change all this?

Liberals had an answer. To eliminate terrorism, the United States needed to address its supposed "root causes," such as poverty and hopelessness. But neocons found this unconvincing. The 19 killers of 9/11 were mostly well educated and middle class, and the man behind them was a multimillionaire. Even if poverty did help produce terrorists, what could be done? Could the threat of terrorism suddenly help the world figure out how to end global poverty? Traditional conservatives had few answers, focused as they were on conventional questions of statecraft and "big power" politics.

But neocons did have answers. We agreed on the need to address the root causes of terrorism, but for us that root cause was the political culture of the Middle East. Political culture did not mean Islam. Rather, it meant a habit of conducting politics by means of violence. At the time of the attacks, not one of the region's rulers (apart from Israel's) had been freely elected to his post. All relied on force and intimidation.

The neocon solution involved overhauling the way the region thinks about politics so that terrorism would no longer seem reasonable. This was a wildly ambitious idea, of course, but similar transformations had occurred in Europe and much of Asia over the previous half-century. If democracy had shown its potency in discouraging war elsewhere, it stood to reason that it also could be a cure to terrorism in the Middle East.

This latter extrapolation, admittedly, was just a hypothesis, but Bush embraced it because it was the only strategy on offer. Contrary to the tales of pervasive neocon influence within the corridors of power, few neocons have served in the Bush administration. All of the top figures -- Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice -- are traditional conservatives. But this school had no answers to the challenge of terrorism, and the liberal answer was vacuous. Enter the neocon approach.

As badly as things have gone in Iraq, the war has not disproved neoconservative ideas. Iraq is a mess, and the U.S. mission there may fail. If that happens, neocons deserve blame because we were key supporters of the war. But American woes in Iraq may be traced to the conduct of the war rather than the decision to undertake it. In fact, despite the alarming spike of anti-Americanism worldwide, the political space in many Middle Eastern countries -- such as Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and most of the Persian Gulf nations -- has widened appreciably in response to Bush's pressure and advocacy.

In recent weeks, hopes have risen that Baker and the Iraq Study Group will devise an alternative approach to neoconservatism, one more in the mode of traditional conservatism. Rumor has it that this will rest on courting Iran. But why would a country whose president proclaims his goal to be "a world without America" pull our chestnuts out of the fire? Others suggest that Baker will link Iraq to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, but this has been sought for decades without success. Even if achieved, why and how would it make Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites stop slaughtering each other?

Until someone comes up with better ideas than these, the neocon strategy of trying to transform the Middle East, however blemished, remains without alternative. No doubt, the results of the midterm elections will produce some course corrections (as Rumsfeld has discovered). But neocon ideas are unlikely to be jettisoned -- either by Bush or his successor -- until a viable replacement is found. So far, there is none.

Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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