- January 31, 2007
Neocon to Neocons; Learn from our mistakes and move forward
Neoconservatives have the president’s ear, but they also have lots of baggage. To stay relevant, they must admit mistakes, embrace public diplomacy, and start making the case for bombing Iran.
We neoconservatives have been through a startling few years. Who could have imagined six years ago that wild stories about our influence over U.S. foreign policy would reach the far corners of the globe? The loose group of us who felt impelled by the antics of the 1960s to migrate from the political left to right must have numbered fewer than 100. And we were proven losers at Washington’s power game: The left had driven us from the Democratic Party, stolen the “liberal” label, and successfully affixed to us the name “neoconservative.” In reality, of course, we don’t wield any of the power that contemporary legend attributes to us. Most of us don’t rise at the crack of dawn to report to powerful jobs in government. But it is true that our ideas have influenced the policies of President George W. Bush, as they did those of President Ronald Reagan. That does feel good. Our intellectual contributions helped to defeat communism in the last century and, God willing, they will help to defeat jihadism in this one. It also feels good to see that a number of young people and older converts are swelling our ranks.
The price of this success is that we are subjected to relentless obloquy. “Neocon” is now widely synonymous with “ultraconservative” or, for some, “dirty Jew.” A young Egyptian once said to me, “‘Neoconservative’ sounds to our ears like ‘terrorist’ sounds to yours.” I am shocked to hear that some among us, wearying of these attacks, are sidling away from the neocon label. Where is the joie de combat? The essential tenets of neoconservatism—belief that world peace is indivisible, that ideas are powerful, that freedom and democracy are universally valid, and that evil exists and must be confronted—are as valid today as when we first began. That is why we must continue to fight. But we need to sharpen our game. Here are some thoughts on how to do it:
Learn from Our Mistakes. We are guilty of poorly explaining neoconservatism. How, for example, did the canard spread that the roots of neoconservative foreign policy can be traced back to Leo Strauss and Leon Trotsky? The first of these false connections was cooked up by Lyndon LaRouche, the same convicted scam artist who spends his days alerting humanity to the Zionist-Henry Kissinger-Queen Elizabeth conspiracy. The second probably originated with insufficiently reconstructed Stalinists. To say that our core beliefs remain true is not to counsel self-satisfaction. We got lucky with Reagan. He took the path we wanted, and the policies succeeded brilliantly. He left office highly popular. Bush is a different story. He, too, took the path we wanted, but the policies are achieving uncertain success. His popularity has plummeted. It would be pigheaded not to reflect and rethink.
But we ought to do this without backbiting or abandoning Bush. All policies are perfect on paper, none in execution. All politicians are, well, politicians. Bush has embraced so much of what we believe that it would be silly to begrudge his deviations. He has recognized the terrorist campaign against the United States that had mushroomed over 30 years for what it is—a war that must be fought with the same determination, sacrifice, and perseverance that we demonstrated during the Cold War. And he has perceived that the only way to win this war in the end is to transform the political culture of the Middle East from one of absolutism and violence to one of tolerance and compromise.
The administration made its share of mistakes, and so did we. We were glib about how Iraqis would greet liberation. Did we fail to appreciate sufficiently the depth of Arab bitterness over colonial memories? Did we underestimate the human and societal damage wreaked by decades of totalitarian rule in Iraq? Could things have unfolded differently had our occupation force been large enough to provide security?
One area of neoconservative thought that needs urgent reconsideration is the revolution in military strategy that our neocon hero, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, has championed. This love affair with technology has left our armed forces short on troops and resources, just as our execrable intelligence in Iraq seems traceable, at least in part, to the reliance on machines rather than humans. Our forte is political ideas, not physics or mechanics. We may have seized on a technological fix to spare ourselves the hard slog of fighting for higher defense budgets. Let’s now take up the burden of campaigning for a military force that is large enough and sufficiently well provisioned—however “redundant”—to assure that we will never again get stretched so thin. Let the wonder weapons be the icing on the cake.
Deploy More Than the Military. Recent elections in the Palestinian territories and Egypt have brought disconcerting results that suggest democratizing the Middle East may be more difficult than we imagined. That parties unappealing to us have done well should not in itself be a surprise. (After all, it happens in France no matter who wins.) But there is plenty of reason to wonder whether Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, once empowered by democracy, will simply turn around and crush it.
We need to give more thought to how we aid Middle Eastern moderates. They are woefully unequipped to compete with Islamists. When the U.S. government tries to help them, they stand accused of being American stooges. We can do more through private-sector groups, such as Freedom House, and partially private ones, like the National Endowment for Democracy and its affiliates. They could use appreciably more resources to train journalists, independent broadcasters, women’s advocates, human rights investigators, watchdog groups, and for civic education for various audiences, including imams. In relatively open countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and many of the Gulf states, funding from the Middle East Partnership Initiative should make it possible for a range of American nongovernmental organizations to maintain a presence on the ground. And we should develop and fund training programs back at home that allow Middle Eastern democrats to come to the United States—free of charge—to hone their electoral, organizational, and public relations skills. James Carville and Karl Rove should be the titular heads of this program.
Fix the Public Diplomacy Mess. The Bush administration deserves criticism for its failure to repair America’s public diplomacy apparatus. No group other than neocons is likely to figure out how to do that. We are, after all, a movement whose raison d’être was combating anti-Americanism in the United States. Who better, then, to combat it abroad?
The silver lining in the cloud of anti-Americanism is that every stuffy orthodoxy inspires some bright, independent-minded people to rebel. Like many of you, I receive a steady stream of messages from behind enemy lines, so to speak—from France, Germany, Arab countries, and even the BBC—saying, “The people all around me hate America, but I love America.” These people, strengthened and inspired, are our best defense against anti-Americanism. We need representatives on the ground in every country whose mission is to find and develop such friends, to let them know we appreciate them, to put them in contact with others of like mind, and to arm them with information and talking points.
Today, no one in the U.S. Foreign Service is trained for this mission. The best model for such a program are the “Lovestonites” of the 1940s and 1950s, who, often employed as attachés in U.S. embassies, waged ideological warfare against communism in Europe and Russia. They learned their political skills back in the United States fighting commies in the labor unions. There is no way to reproduce the ideological mother’s milk on which Jay Lovestone nourished his acolytes, but we need to invent a synthetic formula. Some Foreign Service officers should be offered specialized training in the war of ideas, and a bunch of us neocons ought to volunteer to help teach it. There should be at least one graduate assigned to every major U.S. overseas post.
Prepare to Bomb Iran. Make no mistake, President Bush will need to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities before leaving office. It is all but inconceivable that Iran will accept any peaceful inducements to abandon its drive for the bomb. Its rulers are religio-ideological fanatics who will not trade what they believe is their birthright to great power status for a mess of pottage. Even if things in Iraq get better, a nuclear-armed Iran will negate any progress there. Nothing will embolden terrorists and jihadists more than a nuclear-armed Iran.
The global thunder against Bush when he pulls the trigger will be deafening, and it will have many echoes at home. It will be an injection of steroids for organizations such as MoveOn.org. We need to pave the way intellectually now and be prepared to defend the action when it comes. In particular, we need to help people envision what the world would look like with a nuclear-armed Iran. Apart from the dangers of a direct attack on Israel or a suitcase bomb in Washington, it would mean the end of the global nonproliferation regime and the beginning of Iranian dominance in the Middle East.
This defense should be global in scope. There is a crying need in today’s ideological wars for something akin to the Congress for Cultural Freedom of the Cold War, a global circle of intellectuals and public figures who share a devotion to democracy. The leaders of this movement might include Tony Blair, Vaclav Havel, and Anwar Ibrahim.
Recruit Joe Lieberman for 2008. Twice in the last quarter-century we had the good fortune to see presidents elected who were sympathetic to our understanding of the world. In 2008, we will have a lot on the line. The policies that we have championed will remain unfinished. The war on terror will still have a long way to go. The Democrats have already shown that they are incurably addicted to appeasement, while the “realists” among the GOP are hoping to undo the legacy of George W. Bush. Sen. John McCain and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani both look like the kind of leaders who could prosecute the war on terror vigorously and with the kind of innovative thought that realists hate and our country needs. As for vice presidential candidates, how about Condoleezza Rice or even Joe Lieberman? Lieberman says he’s still a Democrat. But there is no place for him in that party. Like every one of us, he is a refugee. He’s already endured the rigors of running for the White House. In 2008, he deserves another chance—this time with a worthier running mate than Al Gore.
Shadi Hamid, The American Prospect, USA
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