Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Neoconservatism's death: please don't forget to throw out the baby with the bathwater

"As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, something unexpected has happened: the ideology that 9/11 made famous--neoconservatism--has died." That's Peter Beinart in The Daily Beast a couple of days ago. Similar assertions have been floating around for a couple of years -- predictably, when you consider the way that President Obama campaigned on being everything that his predecessor was not -- but they always cause a fair bit of consternation in the commentariat, and for what I think are some pretty good reasons. James Lamond lays out a few of those reasons at Democracy Arsenal, and I'd recommend giving it a look.

Fundamentally, the debate over neoconservatism's waning influence comes down to a struggle to define just what exactly constitutes the real core of the ideology. Lamond:
Battling terrorism through nation-building is not the ideological foundation for neocons, just the most recent incarnation. In his history [pdf] of the neoconservatism Justin Vaisse of Brookings identifies [pdf] five pillars that transcend the various generations that have worn the neocon label: internationalism, primacy, unilateralism, militarism and democracy.
Those who trumpet the end of neoconservative history tend to focus on one or the other of these tenets, or even to create their own fusion of the five. Beinart is fixated on the Bush administration's embrace of "a doctrine that rejected limits," which we might understand as emphasis on primacy and unilateralism. But this is quibbling over process and method, not substance; neoconservatives may have imagined that a bottomless defense budget would continue to resource muscular American military action in the face of impotent international opposition, but is that really what we understand the ideology to be all about in 21st century America? And is that what makes neoconservatives so damned bad for America?

I would argue that it's not. For me, the real destructiveness of neoconservatism is to infuse in so many Americans a belief in the transformative power of U.S. action abroad: the belief that our government and military can trigger predictable changes in the socio-political dynamics of only dimly-understood states on the other side of the globe in such ways as to render the international security environment more stable and safe for Americans (and, it almost goes without saying, for American primacy). This way of understanding America's role in the world goes hand-in-glove with a wildly unbalanced attention to the threat of terrorism, a naive belief in the possibility of perfect security, and an attendant theory of internerational engagement that rests on both "draining the swamp" (through economic development, education, and political liberalization) and "managing ungoverned spaces" (by establishing and maintaining physical control by compliant governments over almost every square mile of the earth's surface). In other words, it's built on the idea that national security isn't really about us, but about them; if we can just change the world enough, we'll be safe.

Some people have derisively (or half-jokingly) suggested that the Obama administration has not broken dramatically with neoconservative priorities.  And it's not at all uncommon to encounter sentiments like the one expressed by Hussein Ibish, who tweeted that "Obama achieved several neocon goals with anti-neocon methods." But what does that even mean? Why are we concerned with "method"? If unilateralism, militarism, and all the rest had been demonstrably effective in making Americans safer at a sustainable cost, would neoconservatives be so polarizing and unpopular?

I'd rather try to understand the so-called "neocon goals" that the present administration has allegedly achieved. If we're talking about degradation of al-Qaeda and an absence of major terrorist attacks, then surely we'd have to understand those as desired outcomes and national security objectives for people of all political and ideological stripes. But if it's something more nebulous, like political liberalization in the Arab world or more faith and trust overseas in the fundamental goodness of U.S. actions abroad, then we ought to ask whether there's any reason to believe that such developments have actually made Americans any safer, or whether we simply believe that they have out of an unjustified faith in the transformative power of American action and a tacit acceptance of neoconservatism's Magic Democracy Thinking.

If neoconservatism is dead, but there's still a rough national consensus that perfect security is achievable through the provision of global justice and economic opportunity, then haven't we killed the wrong thing? If Wolfowitz and Strauss are to pass from the scene, for god's sake let's make sure they take Wilson and Marx with them.


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