Forgive me if I’m arriving a little late to the debate, but this gripping discussion of the tenets of neoconservatism has prompted my comment…with due deference to the erudite opinion already at play.
For many Americans, nationalism is a basic element of our native soil. We tend to subscribe to a virtuous self-awareness, particularly after decades of Cold War tensions crisply delineated the United States in opposition to the evils of the “Soviet Empire.” After the fall of communism, this sense has been reinforced by a decade of unipolarity and the emergence of a new global threat in the wake of September 11, 2001. Fundamentally, neoconservatism has capitalized on this attitude, both with respect to domestic initiatives and what we, as Americans, might offer the world; as David Brooks and Irving Kristol wrote, “Our nationalism is that of an exceptional nation founded on a universal principles, on what Lincoln called ‘an abstract truth applicable to all men and all times.’”
Such sentiment revels in American dignity and purpose and bursting with this special zeal it is understandable that neoconservatism might boast of “hard-Wilsonianism,” a term coined (if I remember correctly) by Max Boot. Certainly, President Wilson shared the impression that the United States was to define its legacy through its mission, as it assumed the role of the “Sir Galahad of nations.”
As it happened, President Reagan offered the first and best opportunity for neoconservative theory to be put into action. Considerable attention was paid to the aggressive containment of Soviet states, the near bottomless support of Israel as a strategic asset in the Middle East, and the implementation of the “Kirkpatrick Doctrine” in Latin America. Ultimately, such foreign policy schemes came to represent the bullet points of the ideology’s international agenda, characterized by an emphasis on substantial military spending.
The valuation of Israel as a vital tactical outpost for American influence remained at the forefront of policy initiatives, even as a general distaste for multilateral institutions and alliances developed. The comparable efficacy of unilateral action presented to the lone superpower seemed all the more inviting.
Following the perceived retreat of communism as an international threat, one could make the argument that some neoconservative Cold Warriors found new life and fresh opportunity during the second Bush administration. Can we call it a neo-neoconservatism? They discovered and defined the new threat to the American way of life. Arisen from the ashes of the communist menace, the hazy specter of “Islamofascism” now satisfies the movement’s demand for diametric opposition. While neoconservatives have continued to push an agenda that they endorse in the best interests of a safer world for the their particular sense of democratic ideals, others — such as Ron Paul or, say, foreign policy heavy-weight Francis Fukayama — have persisted in warning that “The problem with neoconservatism’s agenda lies not in its ends, which are as American as apple pie, but rather in the overmilitarized means by which it has sought to accomplish them.”
Thus, the export of democracy and American values has become the star luminary purpose of a neo-neoconservative movement. And while the true neoconservative may not want to conquer the world, the desire clearly exists to — in the words of Ben Wattenberg — “influence it so that it is hospitable to our values.”
Either way, we’re a long way from Monroe, and our presence in “Iraq or anywhere in the Middle East” and our forever war against the phantasmal menace of “jihad” (or whatever else you want to call it) can easily be construed as “Neocon,” if it concerns preventive war, nation-building and reconstruction.