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Are Neocons Permitted to Define Their Own Worldview? Depends.


In a post responding to critics of Reiham Salam’s much-discussed Slate piece, “Why I Am Still A Neocon,” Commentary’s excellent Seth Mandel asks, “Are Neoconservatives Permitted to Define Their Own Worldview?”

Well, it depends. Are neoconservatives redefining their worldview retroactively? Because arguing that you “still” adhere to the philosophy – as Salam did — indicates that we’re talking about a recognizable version of the philosophy rather than a rebooted less-hawkish variety. After all, Salam goes out of his way to argue that despite Iraq’s failures, neoconservatism is still the philosophy that best utilizes American morality and power. My problem with the piece wasn’t that Salam’s neoconservatism sounded a lot like the kind of conventional idealistic foreign policy that most conservatives (and probably many Democrats) probably already subscribe to, or even that I think he’s all wrong, it’s that the formulation he uses has little to do with whether neoconservatism is “still” a good idea.

Specifically, though, Mandel takes issue with my contention that nation building is the core issue we should be debating when it comes to neoconservatism.

The paragraph compresses the timeline of neoconservative thinking on Iraq. Yes, democracy promotion was part of the nation-building strategy in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But it’s misleading to suggest that the desire to spread democracy was the reason we invaded Iraq. As Harsanyi notes, there were the widespread fears of weapons of mass destruction, which themselves came after (chronologically speaking) other concerns. The first Gulf war ended with a formal ceasefire agreement, the terms of which Saddam steadily began violating. After the breakdown of the ceasefire, Saddam’s forces started firing on American aircraft patrolling a no-fly zone. Then came the worries over WMD.

Agreed.  There were an array of arguments – more than a dozen bullet points, if I remember correctly — to invade Iraq. Unlike many critics of neoconservatism, I believe some of these reasons were pretty solid, and I don’t buy the caricature of neocons as malicious and mendacious oil-greedy warmongers. But the fact is, once WMDs (the most important political argument for invasion) were not found, the rationale for the war hinged on humanitarian efforts and the democratic mission in Iraq.  I’m not a scholar on neoconservative philosophy, but the spread of democracy– nation building—isn’t just some ancillary notion, it’s the core promise of the idea.

And Mandel basically admits as much:

In 1976, Irving Kristol attempted to define a “neoconservative” worldview. Kristol famously thought of neoconservatism as a “persuasion,” and he didn’t particularly care what it was called. (He said he would not have been surprised had the term given to his worldview changed over time.) “In foreign policy, neoconservatism believes that American democracy is not likely to survive for long in a world that is overwhelmingly hostile to American values, if only because our transactions (economic and diplomatic) with other nations are bound eventually to have a profound impact on our own domestic economic and political system,” he wrote.

Now, it’s true, as Mandel contends, neoconservatives do not believe spreading democracy is enough to justify the invasion and occupation of foreign countries. But if the very existence of nations that hold hostile views is an existential threat to our survival, logic dictates we have a responsibility to aggressively spread American ideals abroad. And if economic and diplomatic pressures aren’t always enough to succeed in this charge, it means the neoconservative is far more (very) apt to support military action to make it happen. That’s what we’re talking about. The choice we’re faced with isn’t Kissinger-realpolitik or neoconservatism or humanitarianism or nothing. If neoconservatism is still a good idea, let’s debate whether using our military supremacy to spread liberalism — rather than using it to defend our interests in a narrower sense — is beneficial.

There is some wiggle room, of course, but no, you don’t really get to define your ideology. Put it this way: I can write a column arguing that I’m “still a libertarian” and slam people who oppose lower taxes. I can contend that libertarianism, with all its faults, is far superior to “amoral socialism.” But haven’t really offered a fair look at the debate. I’m ignoring fundamental dissimilarities between libertarianism and other well-known political philosophies.Once you say you’re a necon you’re stuck with its intellectual tradition and the perceptions people have about it — until, that is, you change both.

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