Heroes in Error?

I’ve written a good amount, for me, about neoconservatism.  Peter Berkowitz’s neoconservative apologia (not apology!) contains a few interesting points.

First off, he provides more of a definition of neoconservatism than the hodgepodge of resentments and predilections offered by Irving Kristol and Joshua Muravchik:

The Moynihan report and the Kirkpatrick essay made decisive contributions to the forging of the sensibility that came to be known as neoconservatism. That sensibility evinces a fierce pride in American constitutional government. It insists that government policy should be judged not by the hopes of advocates and intentions of decision makers, but by real world consequences. It holds that freedom and democracy depend on qualities of mind and character that do not arise automatically, but must be cultivated by the family and civil society. It recognizes that government, while often part of the problem, can also be part of the solution by finding ways to strengthen both family and civil society. And it knows that America advances its interests by maintaining and expanding an international order that, to the extent possible, is composed of states that respect individual rights and are based on the consent of the governed.

There isn’t a whole lot in this boilerplate to which many policymakers would object, but at least it lists some of the particulars of the neoconservative persuasion, rather than defining it by opposition.

Then there’s the whole matter of the Iraq misadventure.

For starters, it’s worth noting that the president, vice president, secretary of defense, secretary of state and the national security adviser all lacked neoconservative roots. And insofar as neoconservative thinkers influenced Iraq policy, the problem was not with neoconservative principles, but the failure to fully appreciate the implications of those principles. …

No doubt that blend and tradition should have counseled greater caution in the run up to the war in Iraq. It should have encouraged a keener awareness, particularly in light of 40 years of neoconservative criticism of the grandiose ambitions of social engineers, that implanting democracy in Iraq was among the greatest feats of social engineering ever conceived by a modern nation-state. It therefore demanded sustained attention to the likely impact of regime change on Iraqi society.

So what went wrong? The most likely explanation is one advanced by John Hopkins University political scientist Francis Fukuyama. Mesmerized by the rapid collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and then in the Soviet Union, he argued, neoconservative thinking drew a false analogy to the very different cultural circumstances of Arab and Muslim Iraq.

Still, the failure of today’s neoconservatives to anticipate the challenges of postwar reconstruction does not discredit neoconservatism. To get swept away by the awesome spectacle in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union of popular uprisings followed by peaceful transitions to popular governments; to fail to incorporate into the assessment of military action the particular challenges presented by Iraqi religious beliefs, social structure, sectarian divisions, and the effects of decades of bloody dictatorial rule — all this is to lose sight of neoconservative teachings about the material and moral preconditions of freedom and democracy.

Berkowitz’s effort to distance neoconservatism from the Iraq adventure is unconvincing at best.  Rumsfeld had come to be associated with the neoconservative movement over time.  His staff, and the influential Defense Policy Board, were stacked with prominent neoconservatives.  And neoconservatives in the media failed to express opposition to the Iraq invasion.

I actually agree with Berkowitz’s point that the catastrophe in Iraq doesn’t, on its own, prove that everything that neoconservatives advocate is always wrong.  Freedom and democracy are, in fact, good things.

It’s not clear, though, that neoconservatism has been much more than a fancy version of jingoism.  I can agree that America is good, that the constitutional system merits pride, and that we may well have acted more benevolently than any other great power in world history.  But none of this means that any given use of force is moral and practical.

That said, there is nobility and hard-headed realism in the stand that neoconservatives took in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and in their refusal to run for cover when the going got rough. Certainly more nobility and realism than in, say, Sen. Hillary Clinton’s unending evasions and equivocations, or than in Sen. Barack Obama’s oft-repeated promise that, should he become president, he will rapidly remove American troops.

This gets at the nub of the problem with neoconservatism– it is a domestic political and social impulse, but it has been transformed into an approach to foreign policy.

The only way that there’s an ounce of “hard-headed realism” in advocating an indefinite occupation of Iraq is if there’s a likelihood of success to be achieved at a reasonable cost.  And all we’ve gotten is changing definitions of success, constant insistence that we’re winning, and a resolute refusal to honestly reckon with the costs.

Berkowitz implausibly joins “hard-headed realism” to “nobility,” not in the course of making any actual argument, but dismissing as dishonorable those who disagree with his implicit assertion of likely, cost-effective success.

It just may be that this knee-jerk resentment of liberals made some sort of sense, in 1965, when some noisy, but powerless, liberals were advocating extreme things.  But it certainly doesn’t make any sense in the context of today’s Democratic Party or progressive movement.  And the anti-anti-American impulse was never adequate as a philosophy of governance.   Supposed neoconservative forerunner Jeanne Kirkpatrick is known as much for her “our son-of-a-bitch” approach to foreign policy as for support for democratic values.  It’s true that the Soviet Union was evil, but that doesn’t mean that every action we took in the name of opposing it was good.

So Berkowitz is right that the concepts of democracy and freedom have not been discredited by the Iraq invasion and occupation.  But the loudest shouters of “freedom and democracy” have been.


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