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Neo-conservatism and the American future

Stefan Halper Jonathan Clarke
6 July 2004

The stealth transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis on 28 June 2004 raises an intriguing question of whether a parallel transition will also take place at some future midnight in Washington - specifically whether the neo-conservative influence that did so much to instigate the Iraq war will also be bundled unceremoniously into retirement.

Those who have recently met privately with Paul Wolfowitz, the war’s most ardent neo-conservative advocate, report that he is a subdued personality. If Wolfowitz and his colleagues depart the scene, what changes does this foreshadow for American foreign policy?

It is already possible to discern a more collegial tone in American discourse – on policy fronts as diverse as North Korea, Nato and the Group of Eight (G8). There is talk of Colin Powell, the bruised but still combative critic of neo-conservatism, remaining secretary of state after a Bush victory in November 2004.

Furthermore, within Republican circles in Washington there is a palpable backlash against policies that many party veterans fear may cost the election. Many current Republican gatherings reverberate to the sound of establishment internationalists, anti-empire sceptics, deficit hawks, or simple believers in good governance voicing their dismay at the damage they perceive the neo-conservative follies have inflicted on the nation and the party.

What is happening may be described as a new institutional syndrome in Washington – the “axis of disorder”. It represents a lethal combination of underperformance in the executive, on Capitol Hill and within the opinion-leading elite.

Many observers would celebrate the eclipse of a neo-conservatism that has brought American governance to this pass. But a word of caution is in order. The neo-conservatives’ demise has been predicted before. The post-cold war era of the 1990s, when Norman Podhoretz pronounced that neo-conservatism no longer existed as a distinctive phenomenon, was one such moment. John Judis in Foreign Affairs even described the neo-con journey as “a transition from Trotskyism to anachronism.”

These predictions proved premature – but although “neo-conservatism” returned to the political lexicon after the Republican victory in 2000, this has proved more journalistic shorthand than shaping category of understanding. Now, if the term and the policies it has been used to connote are once more losing their potency, what exactly will be removed from American foreign-policy thinking?

The neo-conservative core

The three chief tenets of neo-conservative ideology are:

  • the human condition is a choice between good and evil, and the true measure of political character is to be found in the willingness by the former (themselves) to confront the latter
  • the fundamental determinant of the relationship between states rests on military power and the willingness to use it
  • the Middle East and global Islam is the prime theatre for American overseas interests.

In making these tenets active, neo-conservatives:

  • see international issues in morally absolutist categories; they are convinced that they alone hold the moral high ground and argue that disagreement effectively offers comfort to the enemy
  • emphasise the unipolar nature of American power and are prepared to exercise the military option as the first rather than last policy choice; they repudiate the received “lessons of Vietnam”, believing they undermine American willingness to use force - and rather embrace the “lessons of Munich”, believing they establish the virtues of pre-emptive military action
  • disdain conventional diplomatic agencies such as the state department and country-specific, pragmatic analysis because they dilute and confuse the ideological clarity of their policies
  • eschew multilateral institutions and treaties while drawing comfort from international criticism, believing that it confirms American virtue

The price of failure

The experience of George W. Bush’s presidency has delivered a lengthy list of setbacks to this mindset and agenda – above all (though not exclusively) in Iraq. The pre-war neo-con confidence about the nature and extent of Iraqi resistance; the predicted warm welcome for American forces; the United States’s capacity for peaceful reconstruction of vital infrastructure (especially electric and water services); even the expenditure of already approved project funds - all ended in bitter disappointment.

The cost of these miscalculations, now laid at the neo-cons’ door, has arrested the nation’s political discussion and emerged as a pivotal element in the November election.

For analysis and debate of neo-conservatism on openDemocracy:

  • Godfrey Hodgson, “From frontiersman to neo-con” (April 2004)
  • Danny Postel’s interview with Shadia Drury, “Noble lies and perpetual war: Leo Strauss, the neo-cons, and Iraq” (October 2003)
  • Mark Blitz, “Leo Strauss, the Straussians and American foreign policy” (November 2003)
  • openDemocracy forum debate

Beyond the human and financial cost, the effect of sharply diminished American credibility has been felt in official Washington, and in the money centres of New York, Atlanta and Chicago. Most damaging for the neo-conservatives, however, has been the revelation that their utopian strategic plan for the Middle East is naive and unworkable. The limitations of American power have become a public spectacle; with each day, Americans have learned more about how the post-conflict plan for Iraq’s reconstruction was developed without the benefit of Arabic-speakers or country experts, riven by bureaucratic and exile factions, and without addressing the critical tension in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moreover, the relentless focus on Iraq has allowed Afghanistan to fester, North Korea and Iran to continue along their nuclear paths and Saudi Arabia to stumble towards catastrophe. Perhaps the most ominous result of Iraq’s seizure of the attention of top United States foreign policy and national security managers is the neglect of China, which already may have replaced the US as the leading power in East Asia.

In the corporate sector, failures of this magnitude would result in the speedy replacement of those responsible. This may yet happen. But even if November’s election brings a change of administration, the question arises: will the neo-conservatives’ influence on American foreign policy endure?

From Vietnam to Iraq

The implication of two 2004 studies broadly sympathetic to neo-conservatism – Surprise, Security and the American Experience by John Lewis Gaddis and Power, Terror, Peace and War by Walter Russell Mead – is that the unilateral exercise of American power draws on certain social and cultural themes, centring on an insular and aggressive nativism, that have animated America’s interaction with the world from the earliest days of the republic. The implication is that, far from being an aberration, neo-conservatism is part of an established historical tradition.

There is even a case to be made that neo-conservatism has affinities with the missionary zeal (socially progressive as well as often militantly anti-communist) that animated the “best and the brightest” generation – George Ball, McGeorge and William Bundy, Robert MacNamara, Paul Nitze, Walt Rostow – who presided over America’s engagement in Vietnam.

This generation came to political maturity during the Eisenhower years of the 1950s when, as today, the US enjoyed an unchallengeable global power projection capability. Its leading figures came to believe that military power could press against the evil represented by communism and install American-style democracy, bypassing the forces of local nationalism, in a region (south-east Asia) with a long and vibrant cultural history but without any democratic legacy. All this was done with little reference to rich, available resources of regional and linguistic expertise.

The recurrence of this pattern among the ostensibly very different group represented by President Bush’s neo-conservative advisers in the aftermath of 9/11 suggests that the United States is indeed in the grip of a syndrome, a problem that is structural and not merely cyclical: an “axis of disorder” which at times of stress inhibits calm and deliberate decision-making.

At these stress-points, it appears that the combination of a crusading idealism, an assertion of the universal applicability of American values, and the willingness (indeed eagerness) to use force to back them can overwhelm the venerable “checks and balances” considered integral to the American political process. Some argue that Republican administrations may be more vulnerable to this process, since the party’s driving spirit has shifted from cosmopolitan globalists towards America-first populists – a development accelerated by the increased influence of a conservative and fundamentalist talk-radio culture.

In the case of Iraq, a determined special interest was capable of leading a march to war without any effective counterweight to its seizure of the levers of power. The central failure was in the Condoleezza Rice -led National Security Council; despite her training in traditional statecraft and alliance management, Rice was unwilling or unable to highlight the imbalances in decision-making arising from the neo-conservative dynamics in the defense department and vice-president’s office.

Beyond the executive, Congress abandoned real oversight in giving overwhelming, almost instinctual support to the war. Just as the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed the Senate unanimously and thus formalised US involvement in Vietnam, leaving two relatively obscure Democratic senators (Alaska’s Ernest Greuning and Oregon’s Wayne Morse) to ask the first tough questions, so it took two outsiders (the hoary senator with an independent streak, West Virginia’s Robert Byrd, and former Vermont governor Howard Dean) to make opposition to the Iraq war respectable.

The media was also guilty of institutional failure in ways that echo the past. Just as in the early 1960s, establishment newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post had enthusiastically backed involvement in Vietnam, so in 2002-03 major media outlets were uncritical in the face of administration assertions about al-Qaida/Saddam links and the latter’s possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Network and cable television businesses, from which most Americans now derive their news, compounded this failure. Their imprisonment by the competitive search for market share leads them to fear offending power; as a result, they are satisfied with recycling soft, compliant questions and stories. At least part of the media, notably the New York Times which (another Vietnam repeat) diverged earlier than the Washington Post from the official line, has conducted a self-critical post-mortem on its own coverage .

The present danger

The recurrent pattern of institutional weakness over Vietnam and Iraq suggests a systemic weakness – one that creates an ever-present danger of a neo-conservative special interest group turning a manageable, controllable challenge (as, in principle, was Iraq) into a major crisis. In the near term such a sequence could unfold over Iran; in the more distant future, it could develop as the United States and China compete for regional or global hegemony.

The warning-signs exist whenever unchecked special interests within an administration can act on their belief in American exceptionalism, demonise an opponent, and present his position in monolithic terms as a target for destruction.

Thus, the true legacy of the neo-conservatives may be to have revealed a systemic problem that must be addressed if the American foreign policy process is to recover its consistency and predictability. The current neo-conservative moment may be passing, like a comet that streaks through the skies at regular intervals before disappearing into space. The result, in the short- to medium-term, may be a more familiar, collegial and substantive, American foreign policy. This will provide opportunities for the United States’s allies not just to agree with American policy but to influence it for the better.

But as comets return, so will the neo-conservatives’ themes - especially the preference for unilateral military power as the option of first resort. Neo-conservatism offers a recurrently powerful ideological booster-rocket in support of America’s military pre-eminence. If another “perfect storm” on the 9/11 model recurs, where fear and confusion suspend the political process, the American response is likely to be predominantly military rather than political, diplomatic or economic - irrespective of the party affiliation of the White House incumbent.

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