Another Perspective

What the Neocons Got Wrong

They thought we could remake the world.

By 11.26.06

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Speaking as an expert on the subject of exhaustion, I'd say the indulgence that traditional conservatives have shown for their neoconservative brethren seems about exhausted. Traditional conservatives have been extremely forgiving of the neocons and their little idiosyncrasies, like bigger government and a messianic belief in democracy to cure the world's ills, while they themselves regard such idealistic mumbo-jumbo as, well, mumbo-jumbo. This includes the utopian notion that "freedom is universally valid." It's an interesting phrase, that. Once neocons would have said straight out that "everyone desires freedom," or as George W. Bush preaches that freedom is the God-given right of all. No more. No matter how you put it, the phrase reeks of the metaphysical, which is not something traditional conservatives are comfortable with. They prefer the pessimism of a Mark Twain in his latter "Damned Human Race" period, or a Mencken who snarled that "the average man does not want to be free. He wants to be safe." Or the cold, steely realism of Bill Buckley who defined conservatism as the politics of reality, which is why conservatives have long opposed all attempts at social engineering.

Nonetheless, conservatives reluctantly went along with the neocons' grandiose and high and moral mission to remake the world, and in particular to bring democracy to the Middle East. It was 9/11 that provided the impetus. For a moment, in the swell of patriotic fervor, and the rush to avenge the 9/11 victims, conservatives supported regime change and nation-building and just about anything else the neocons proposed. We would liberate the Iraqis and Afghans from their totalitarian yoke and they would be eternally thankful.

Some thanks.

Grand ideas have a tendency to get slapped down by the cold, calloused hand of reality. And flush with what seemed like easy victories, it was easy to forget that, in Jeffrey Hart's words, "Historically, holiness, power, glory, conquest and empire have had greater appeal than freedom and democracy." It turned out that Saddam's heavy jackbooted heel was the only thing keeping the various Islamic sects and tribes from slitting each others' throats.

On paper the neoconservatives were right. The Wilsonian notion of spreading democracy could bring great benefits. At least two, anyway: a more secure world, and free and prosperous peoples. But societies -- even primitive ones -- are a little more complex off paper. There is tribalism, sectarianism, and there is Islam to consider, a word that means pretty much the opposite of freedom, i.e., "surrender." It was forgotten that the West, in order to get where it is today, went through the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Modern period, and that the Muslim lands, by way of contrast, have seen only anti-Modernist movements achieve success, witness the Iranian Revolution, the Talibans rise to power, the spread of Wahhabist doctrine by Saudi Arabia, and the election of pro-terrorist regimes in Palestine and Egypt. As certain as the neocons were that democracy was the "recipe for universal happiness," fundamentalist Muslims were even more certain and more willing to die for their belief that happiness isn't important, but that Islam and Islamic Law are.

Despite these obvious setbacks, a few neoconservative have not completely abandoned the fight. Just the other week two think tank types suggested it was time for a neocon offensive. Among Joshua Muravchik's comeback strategies are -- I'm not making this up -- draft Joe Lieberman for vice president, train Middle East journalists, and bomb Iran. More, Muravchik calls for "a range of American nongovernmental organizations to maintain a presence of the ground" in Arab states. Yes, al Qaeda will love that. Easy targets. Can the neocons really be that bereft of ideas?

Meanwhile Janet Daley, writing in the Daily Telegraph, chastised the quitters, asking if "some countries are better left with their genocidal dictators in place?" Well, no, but the problem is there are too many genocidal dictators and not enough American troops to throw at them. The U.S. has seldom intervened to remove genocidal dictators. Imagine the carnage if the U.S. had gone after Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, Menghistu, Ismail Enver, Yakubu Gowon, and Idi Amin, to name just a few of the dozens of genocidal dictators of the last century. Obviously genocidal dictators are bad news, but the U.S. can hardly be expected to invade every backwater ruled by a psychopathic butcher, especially when the thanks we get, as in Iraq, are more roadside bomb attacks. President Bush has apparently learned this lesson. His government insists there is ongoing genocide in Darfur, and does almost nothing to stop it.

In a descant of denial that would make O.J. envious, Ms. Daley says that "what failed in Iraq was not democracy, or the popularity of it. The Iraqis put their amazingly brave heads above the parapet every time they are given an opportunity to vote." True, but there is more to liberal democracy than voting one day and slitting your neighbor's throat the next. There is an independent judiciary, human and civil rights, freedom of press, speech, etc., tolerance and pluralism, majority rule with rights for minorities, and most importantly there is basic local governance and security. Democracy has a long way to go in Iraq, but despite reports of democracy's demise in Iraq, there are as yet a few signs of life. We'll have to wait until the American troops leave and full-blown civil war erupts to see whether democracy survives.

Yes, the neocons were too naive, too optimistic. Like bleeding hearts, they sought to perfect an imperfect world. Neocons had their opportunity in Iraq and Afghanistan to prove the genius of their ideas. They botched it. Such hubristic thinking was doomed to failure.

Yet for all their differences conservatives and neocons have similar goals. Both want a safer world, both want democracy to spread globally like melted butter. Traditional conservatives just aren't so sure such a transformation is possible. Right now, it looks like they're right.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.