Neocons Vindicated?

Andrew Sullivan links to ” a smashing column” by Daniel Finkelstein:

“I am a neocon. Given all that has happened over the past ten years, I am sure my PR consultant would advise me to drop this label. But I don’t employ a PR consultant. So, stubbornly, I cling on to the designation. It declares my belief in two things — that in every country in the world, wherever it may be and whatever its traditions, the people yearn for liberty, for free expression and for democracy; and that the spread of liberty and democracy (not necessarily through the barrel of a gun) is the only real way to bring peace to the world. I believe that what we are seeing on the streets of Iran now is a vindication of these neoconservative ideas.”

Hmm. If that’s what neoconservatism is, then I suppose I must be a neoconservative, or something very like one. I do not believe that everyone yearns for liberty, free expression, and democracy. I think that it took a lot of time for people to work out what, exactly, a free government would be like, and that before that happened, people could not possibly be said to have yearned for one. (Did people yearn for democracy in 12th century France?)

On the other hand, we have worked that out now, more or less; and the idea of democracy is available to anyone who is in contact with the broader world. It’s a natural idea to turn to when one’s own government seems unsatisfactory, and once a people start asking why they should have no say in their government, I think it’s hard for them to un-ask it, or to accept without hesitation a country in which their voices are completely excluded. So I suppose I am, for practical purposes, on board with this part of the neoconservative program.

Similarly, while I’m not sure I’d agree that “the spread of liberty and democracy (…) is the only real way to bring peace to the world”, I think it would certainly help a lot. So I suppose I’m on board with that as well. This, according to Mr. Finkelstein, makes me, if not a real neoconservative, at least a pretty close approximation of one.

Which is, of course, absurd.

I don’t have a definition of neoconservatism ready to hand. But to my mind, my differences with actual neoconservatives over the past decade or so have never concerned such questions as: Is freedom good or bad? Is an abhorrence of dictatorships a uniquely Western idea which we should not imagine that other people share? And the idea that they do is a symptom of one of the things that has consistently bothered by about neoconservatism: namely, a tendency to make arguments that either are made in bad faith or show a deep lack of interest in the details of any view but their own.

My biggest difference with neoconservatives concerns attempts to create democracies by military force. I do not believe that it is impossible to do this: we did it in Germany and Japan after World War II. But in that case, we had a really good reason both to occupy Germany and Japan: namely, the fact that they had attacked us, and they had lost. Similarly, we had a decent reason for trying to recast their political institutions: those institutions were partially responsible for the fact that they had just started a world war.

Creating a democracy requires the active participation of a lot of people in the country in which you are trying to create it, and you are unlikely to get this participation if those people regard your presence not just as undesirable, but as illegitimate. People tend not to regard our occupation of a country as illegitimate when they attack us, and they lose. But they do tend to regard it as illegitimate when we invade simply because we think they should have a different form of government, even if they themselves do not much like the government they have. For this reason, I think that even if we had the right to invade a country for the express purpose of creating a democracy, that invasion would be virtually certain to fail.

I also think that neoconservatives tend to have a wholly unrealistic view of how the United States and its allies are perceived in the developing world. Rightly or wrongly, a lot of people in the developing world do not see America as a benevolent power generously offering the gift of liberty to people around the world, but as a country whose interventions in their countries are often self-interested and sometimes disastrous. To an Iranian in particular, I would imagine that the idea that America or the UK are primarily interested in spreading freedom around the globe would seem downright delusional.

Many neocons seem to me to have bought into their own propaganda about our country and its history. For this reason they find it much easier than I do to advocate intervention in the affairs of other countries. I believe that we have less of a right to intervene in other countries than they do as a matter of principle. But I also think that the likelihood that any particular intervention will succeed is often undercut by our own past actions.

Again, Iran is a clear example of this: we forfeited the right to expect Iranians to assume that our intentions were benign when we decided to overthrow their government and support their dictator. And any intervention whose success depends on Iranians’ taking that view of us is one that we have, by our own actions, placed beyond our reach.

This is not about bashing the US. It is about having a realistic assessment of other people’s views of us.

Finally, I think I have a different view of war than most neoconservatives. I think war is one of the most horrible things there is. It is not the most horrible thing there is, which is why some wars are justified. But we should never go to war without thinking very, very hard about whether it is truly necessary, and about the likelihood that we can accomplish our objectives by military means.

The kind of cheerleading for war that neocons engaged in before the invasion of Iraq was, to my mind, both utterly irresponsible and profoundly unrealistic about what can be accomplished by military force. Our army is very good at what it does. But we should not expect it to do what no army can do: change people’s minds, create systems of government that depend not on force but on things like commitment to the rule of law, and so forth.

I did not oppose the invasion of Iraq because I thought that Iraqis did not want to be free. I opposed it because I thought that because we should never unleash war on anyone without a very, very good reason to do so, and that in this case, we did not have one. I thought the invasion of Iraq was both unnecessary and profoundly unlikely to achieve its stated objectives; and thus that it did not so much as begin to justify the immense costs it would impose on Iraq and on us.

Towards the end of his article, Finkelstein writes:

“The mistake the neocons made is that we were not conservative enough, not patient enough. Such impatience with dictatorships is understandable, indeed laudable. But the frustrating truth is that there are limits to what can be achieved by outsiders. Instead we have to wait as national movements, one by one, stand up for their rights. And sometimes, tragically, we even have to stand aside as those movements are crushed by their oppressors.”

Well, yes; that would be one way to put it. Another would be to say: neoconservatives were not just insufficiently patient; they were reckless beyond belief, willing to bring down unspeakable costs on other people without bothering to weigh the possibility that their simplistic and unrealistic views of the world might be wrong. If Mr. Finkelstein wants to change his ways and become more “patient”, power to him. To my mind, though, this column, with its equally simplistic (and insulting) view of his opponents, shows that he has not changed nearly enough.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!