I’ve been telling critics of the war in Iraq for three years that they have to take the neoconservative argument about American foreign policy seriously when it’s made by serious people like Paul Berman, Paul Wolfowitz and a smattering of others in and out of the current administration. Seriously in several respects.
It should be taken seriously as one of the most important causal roots of post-9/11 policy, meaning that yes, for the second time in the last forty years, the United States is involved in a major war conceived of by intellectuals to service an abstract conception of global history and political causality.
A good deal of what neoconservatives have had to say about existing international institutions has a lot of validity, and indeed what they have said echoes some critiques on the left. The United Nations has been and remains largely captive to corrupt statist elites and bureaucratic inefficacy, many treaties are sham performances rather than binding commitments, many international institutions exist to reproduce themselves and their own interests rather than serve as vehicles of transformative power and so on. If we ever get beyond the fiasco of the Iraqi conflict (something I increasingly doubt) we shouldn’t just return to multilateralist business as usual, but work out instead some different configurations of international institutions and the assumptions that undergird their activities.
Equally, what the neoconservatives had to say about the contradictions and inconsistencies in a lot of existing postures taken by their critics was legitimately potent. I went to a meeting here at Swarthmore a year before the Bush Administration took office where speakers condemned the suffering to innocents caused by continuing sanctions against Iraq; by December 2001 some of the same people were calling for the extension and tightening of the sanctions regime as a preferable alternative to war. A lot of the material emerging now on Iraq before and after the war has made it clear that the sanctions really did have a grevious impact on Iraqi civilians and relatively little impact on Hussein: if you’re upset by civilian deaths in the war, it’s pretty hard to see how you could not be upset by the civilian costs of sanctions. Not that this contradiction is new: people who supported sanctions against South Africa opposed them against Poland and vice-versa, often on the flimsiest of grounds. I still remember Ronald Reagan saying in a press conference that the reason why sanctions weren’t appropriate in South Africa was that the conflict there was “a tribal thing”.
More deeply, I still think that some of the neoconservatives scored a legitimate point about the patterning of Western responses, both on the left and among conservative realists, to illiberalism abroad. It isn’t just that each side excused its friends and excoriated its enemies according to friend-or-foe signals set in the Cold War. There was a powerful intellectual moment in African studies whose influence is still very marked in the field where critical depictions of European colonialism and apartheid essentially complained of the illiberal character of those regimes while at the same time exempting postcolonial nationalists from the same critique on the grounds that their achievement of sovereignity was the key thing to cherish and protect. Sovereignity and liberalism bear a kind of distant causal relationship to one another, but the former is no guarantee at all of the latter. If the problem with colonialism or apartheid (or Israeli occupation of the West Bank, or various US-client dictators like Somoza or Marcos) were violations of rights-bearing humanity, then a transfer of power should have had few implications for a critique of such violations, the critique should simply continue with full force after such a transfer. If the problem with colonialism was simply a violation of sovereignity, then at least some of the conventional content of anticolonial and antiapartheid sentiment in African studies and political critique aimed at other areas of the world from the 1960s to the 1990s was misplaced. The more austerly intellectual forms of neoconservatism legitimately called attention to the mismatch between what many intellectuals in the West had to say about global injustice between the 1970s and 1990s with their reflexive idolatry at the shrine of sovereignity.
This being said, the number of truly disciplined, committed, intellectually authentic neoconservatives both inside and outside of the Bush Administration has always been in question. The danger with responding seriously and respectfully to the neoconservative critique as many “liberal hawks” did is that many of the people preaching the neocon line on Iraq, Afghanistan, the “war on terror” and much else were purely expedient and instrumental in doing so, exploiting the sincerity of such liberal hawks in order to advance a much darker kind of policy objective, an old-style paleoconservative form of uber-nationalist realism in an unusually brutalist, frankly stupid, and grossly triumphalist form.
I’ve gone around and around on this issue over the years in many different conversations, and yes, I think there’s no alternative but to admit that liberal hawks and folks like them, including myself, got played in some ways. Just as I think the authentic neocons inside and around the Bush Administration got played. Just as the deep strains of Wilsonian ambition in American culture got played.
What’s happening now, if you read the emergent structures of argument within the blogging world pretty widely, is that the realist parasite within neoconservatism has pretty much burst through the chest of its host and is grinning with sharp alien teeth at onlookers. Start tallying it up, and you’ll see a lot of wingnuts overtly discarding any pretence of being constrained by the ideals of “freedom” in their views of what the US should do in Iraq. Bit by bit, what is being advanced instead is the proposition that it’s time to stop playing by the rules, to give as good as we get, to abandon restraint. There’s always been a low throbbing drumbeat of that sentiment out on the right-wing fringes, rising often defensively as revelations from Abu Ghraib or Gitmo came forward, but now it’s becoming the overt and standard line among Bush loyalists. It has its popular doppleganger: increasingly one hears in vox populi coverage in the media the old Vietnam War trope that the politicians aren’t allowing the soldiers to win the war–a war which if you actually swallowed the neoconservative line was always about a political rather than military objective.
The shift can be heard even within the Administration, where there is more and more talk of democracy and less and less talk of freedom. How can there be talk of freedom, when even the most loyal US clients in Iraq, such as the Kurdish political elite, are being given a free pass to lock up dissenters and create a one-party state? Democracy, in this context, is an old realist code-word: it means the US is looking for a way to install a safely dominant figurehead like Mubarak or Musharraf, possibly with some sham pretence that the leader is elected or that there is a legislature that matters. We’ve done none of the work of building institutions that make either liberalism OR democracy meaningful. You could say that’s because the neoconservatives like Wolfowitz were naive, gullible, or plain stupid in their understanding of how democratic freedoms come into being, or you could say it’s because the realists like Rumsfeld and Cheney never had any intention to engage in institution-building. It ends up at the same place, with the US beating a retreat after building some kind of political fig leaf and from there incurring a costly legacy of subsidizing and propping up an unpopular regime against what is likely to be continuous pressure from many sides.
It’s one thing to be a realist in the context of an unmistakeably realist conflict. Sure, there were neoconservative forerunners in the Reagan Administration who were probably just loopy and deluded enough (Jeane Kirkpatrick, say) to think that Jonas Savimbi or any number of other US proxies were liberal democratic revolutionaries. Mostly proxy wars were fought under Reagan as they had been fought since Truman, with the single goal to push back on Eastern Bloc intrusions and maintain existing hegemonic spheres of influence.
Those policies were frequently stupidly unnecessary and destructive of long-term US interests, but with Iraq, the problem is far, far worse. First because the stakes are vastly higher than they were in Angola or El Salvador or Grenada or the Horn of Africa or even Vietnam. Second because about the worst possible combination of policy frameworks for advancing any coherent objectives is a genuinely idealistic neoconservative mask over a brutalist face. That combination leaves behind it broken and bitter local elites who actually trusted in the idealism and put their lives and futures at stake on its behalf, it serves as a license to brutalism everywhere, it feeds the ideological credibility of radical Islamism. It achieves nothing except the waste of blood and treasure, putting a regime into place whose long-term prospects amount to a return to Hussein’s version of Iraq. Already there are new mass graves being built busily in the soil of Iraq: some filled with the victims of the anti-American insurgency, some being filled by the secret militias of those that the US counts as allies or at least relies upon to prop up its occupation. Already the new Iraqi state is being divided up as a set of corrupt fiefdoms, having been tutored in the new era of corruption by various US-approved contractors.
The yearning for something better and freer in Iraq is real. The possibilities that its elections have revealed are authentic. It’s all being lost precisely because underneath what I take to be genuine passion for and authentic commitment to neoconservative ambitions, a realist beast has always lurked. Now that the intellectual shallowness and credulousness of the neoconservative understanding of historical causality has been inalterably revealed, there are really only two choices left for those who supported and still support the war. Either demand that the Bush Administration finally get serious about the promotion of freedom, which entails closing Gitmo, firing Rumsfeld, and a massive host of other policy shifts in that consistent direction or stop pretending to idealism. And if you’re a genuine realist, what the hell are you doing supporting this war in the first place? Any realist who is serious about that worldview, whether liberal or conservative, knew this war was a dog from the outset and said so.