Why I’m Not A Neocon

Why I’m Not A Neocon

(And why Reihan Salam probably isn't either.)
David Harsanyi
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Over at Slate, the always smart Reihan Salam has written piece with the self-explanatory headline “Why I Am Still a Neocon.”  It has, not surprisingly, attracted a ton of attention. And in it, Salam explains why, despite the failures of the Iraq war, he remains a neoconservative:

Why do I still believe that the U.S. should maintain an overwhelming military edge over all potential rivals, and that we as a country ought to be willing to use our military power in defense of our ideals as well as our interests narrowly defined? There are two reasons: The first is that American strength is the linchpin of a peaceful, economically integrating world; and the second is that we know what it looks like when America embraces amoral realpolitik, and it’s not pretty.

There are a problems with this contention.

Other than some genuine isolationists, those who oppose any intervention under any circumstances, I doubt many people would disagree with the sweeping assertion that the United States ought to be “willing” to use its military power in defend its “ideals” and “interests.” I know I don’t. I’m also pretty sure that being a neocon entails a lot more than supporting the two aims Salam mentions above.

As I understand it, contemporary neoconservatism is a philosophy that advocates the promotion of “democracy” and liberal ideals abroad – and one that isn’t shy about using military power to achieve those goals. It’s a doctrine that is far more hawkish than the one Salam describes. The central argument of the neocons in the early 2000s was that an invasion of Iraq would result in the spreading of democratic values across the Middle East; ideals that would be embraced by the people and transform once-bellicose adversaries into reliable allies. For a time, regrettably, I supported the Iraq War because I naively bought into the notion that the United States could turn a neighborhood of authoritarian regimes into a peaceful, economically integrating Middle East. (I also believed one of these regimes had WMDs). As it turned out social engineering doesn’t work abroad either.

Here, Salam answers some of his critics by admitting that his initial piece was “somewhat idiosyncratic” about what neoconservatism because his “intention was to reframe the discussion.” Defending neoconservatism means reimagining the doctrine and reframing means offering a false choice. Salam argues that though we have a better understanding of the limits of military power, we shouldn’t forget that at one time “U.S. policymakers were so dismissive of humanitarian considerations that they aided and abetted in a humanitarian disaster through their malign neglect.” Promoting American ideals is preferable to engaging in “amoral realpolitik,” he argues.

Well, yeah, when you put it that way!

Then again, add the qualifier “amoral” to almost anything and you’ve got something that sounds distasteful. Realpolitik?  Foreign policy, to some extent, is always about practical objectives as much as idealism. Even for neocons. For example, Salam mentions that the United States has formal security guarantees with more than 50 countries. These agreements make global stability a possibility, he says. Well, as some of those nations don’t exactly share our principled love of liberty and democracy. Do neoconservatives believe we should leave them defenseless? Doubtful.

Salam reminds us that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger backed Pakistan’s military junta in 1971 and that resulted in the massacre of thousands of innocents and negated the nation’s first free elections. It’s a fine example of “amoral” realpolitik, actually. A fascinating topic. And irrelevant.

In today’s environment, we’re not dealing with administrations that hatch Machiavellian coups or nullify elections to counter Soviet influence. We’re dealing with neoconservative politicians who support unprecedented statist program that collect data on every American right here at home. We’re dealing with neoconservatives who advocate that the United States forcefully intervene in nearly every international crisis — many of them potentially decades-long commitments — without any clear objective or any indication that those we’re allying with would serve our best interests or even share our ideals.

That’s where the debate over neoconservatism is situated. If our very recent experiences teach us that there are countless unintended consequences that accompany foreign entanglements, we can just as easily call John McCain’s positions “amoral interventionism.” If you’re going to defend neocons, that’s a good place to start.

Now, I’m also sure that most people also agree with Salam that U.S. should maintain an “overwhelming military edge” over our potential rivals. The notion that we can’t modernize or preserve that edge with a leaner military is risible. Conservatives who can’t locate any palatable cuts in military spending lack credibility when they advocate for smaller government elsewhere. Surely some waste, somewhere, somehow can be ferreted out. We now deploy military in 150 countries, with around 165,000 active-duty personnel serving outside the United States and another 120,000 deployed in contingency operations elsewhere. (Not only does this seem needlessly expensive, it seems ineffective. Did the presence our troops in Germany or Turkey stop Russia from annexing Crimea? Does our presence in South Korea stop North Korea from firing off missiles and creating a dystopia for millions? Does the democratically elected* government of Iran seem overly concerned that we’re right next door?)

There are worse things we could do than take each foreign policy situation as it comes and assess the costs and potential rewards – sans ideology. Caution is not tantamount to isolationism, of course. Caution doesn’t even mean we shouldn’t promote liberalism abroad. It’s simply to say that recent history’s lessons are worth remembering, too. With the emergence of a more libertarian-centric GOP foreign policy — led by Rand Paul; though others have shed some of the neocon rhetoric, as well –that debate is just getting started. Though I suppose we may have to define our terms again. Because while Salam does a commendable job of defending his rebooted version of neoconservatism, he doesn’t offer much of a defense of the neoconservatism we’ve actually experienced.

*It’s been pointed out to me, fairly, that there are too many irregularities to make this contention without major qualifications.  

David Harsanyi is a Senior Editor at The Federalist and author of The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy. Follow him on Twitter.

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