When conservative critics of the Iraq War start portraying it as a useless quagmire, the word neoconservative is usually not far behind. Since it’s not claimed that Bush and his top policy team are themselves neocons, there’s always an unpleasant implication that neocons are people with extraordinary powers, capable, as subordinate officials or pundits, of bending the nation’s top leaders to their ways.
The bitterest part of the accusation is usually that neocons have a crazed, crusading vision of remaking the world in the American image, of bringing democracy to unlikely places like Iraq or the Middle East in general. As someone of more or less neocon description who’s been getting mugged by Middle Eastern reality for about twenty years, I understand the criticism. My own attitude toward the prospects of Iraqi democratization could be called worried agnosticism.
But a few caveats are in order here. To begin with, the most discouraging aspect of the current situation in Iraq — the presence of a terrorist insurgency that is taking a daily toll in blood and destabilization — is one that was probably avoidable, and it wasn’t the neocons who enabled it.
As Jed Babbin argues in his new book Inside the Asylum (Regnery), it was probably during the five months (November 2002-March 2003) that America wasted trying to get a U.N. imprimatur for the war that Saddam and terrorist neighbors were able to plan the postwar insurgency. And it’s worth adding that it was Colin Powell — the top official who is the farthest from neoconservative views — who apparently prevailed on Bush to seek U.N. approval. Neocons are not multilateralists; probably without exception, they would have preferred that the U.S. go it alone (maybe with British help) and get the job done much sooner and better. If so, the situation on the ground in Iraq would likely have offered a lot less for neocon-bashers to complain about today.
In any case, once the Saddam regime was overthrown, what was Bush to do? If, on the one hand, you believe the war shouldn’t have been launched at all, the question of democratization is irrelevant or at least not paramount. Democratizing Iraq and the Middle East may have been on the list of rationales for the war, but it wasn’t at the top; that place was reserved for the danger Saddam posed, in terms of WMD and support for terror, to his neighbors, America, and the rest of the world. The war was a response to 9/11, not a crusade for democracy by crazed ideologues.
But, given that the war was launched and Saddam was quickly toppled, the issue is what should have been done next. Regarding democratization, both optimists and pessimists could make strong arguments. Optimists could point to the fact that, despite earlier claims about democracy’s supposed incompatibility with various peoples and cultures, by now it has spread not only to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist countries but also, in substantial degree, to Muslim countries like Turkey and Indonesia. Pessimists could claim a special Muslim-Arab democracy-unfriendliness, a particular, toxic mix of authoritarianism and disorder that prevents civil society from forming in these countries and keeps them problematic in a way that neither the Bush administration nor anyone else knows how to remedy for now.
The question, though, is where neoconservatism comes into all this. If one claims that Bush took the optimistic route because Richard Perle and William Kristol pushed him into doing so, one makes a totally unsubstantiated allegation that, for one thing, presumes to look inside the president’s mind and motives and, for another, goes against what we do know about his strong personality and leadership. It seems much more plausible that Bush was, and still is, ready to make a go of democracy in Iraq because, for one thing, the possibility faced him, open and enticing — much more enticing than the option of “installing a strongman”; because it offered hope of positively influencing the rest of the Arab world and, concomitantly, reducing the threat to America; and also, if psychologize we must, because it jibed much better with an ingrained American optimism that is part of Bush’s makeup. Some claim that, in this context, that optimism was closer to naïveté; and in today’s Iraq both democratization and “strongman” advocates can still find much evidence for their positions. But the point is that the neoconservative connection is hard to see.
To sum up, to the extent the U.S. involvement in Iraq now has a “quagmire” cast to it, it makes little sense to pin the blame on neoconservatism and much more sense to impugn its opposite, multilateralism. Neoconservatism, conceived as a democratizing crusade, was not the reason for launching the war, nor the reason for attempting democratization once its first stage was over. “Neoconservatism” is actually a bogey for those who don’t want the war to be fought at all, and seem intent on dragging America down in bitter arguments as it confronts an unprecedented menace.
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