Over on the main site, John has authored a well-crafted take on Marco Rubio’s foreign policy address, given yesterday at the Brookings Institution. There will be plenty of time to tackle the nature of “neo-Reaganism” in a post-Cold War world, but for now, I’ll couch my response to the timbres of neoconservatism.
The neocons are often cast as the villains of the Bush years, blamed for leading the country into a calamitous Mesopotamian misadventure. The historical record doesn’t really support this narrative. The invasion of Iraq was supported by a broad swath of the right, left, and center.
Fair point. In fact, 373 senators and representatives — from both sides of the aisle — were somehow duped into believing the following:
1. Iraq’s exaggerated power presented a critical threat to America’s national security;
2. A de facto ally (however unpleasant) against Islamic fundamentalism, and a strategic counterbalance to Iran needed to be removed, as swiftly as possible;
3. The invasion and “liberation” of a Muslim country in the Middle East would not become a recruiting poster for Islamic terrorists;
4. The U.S. invasion of Iraq would not destabilize the region or topple “friendly” regimes in neighboring Arab states;
5. We could create a stable, liberal democracy that would be friendly to American interests, despite the fact that an electoral democracy would, predictably, put Shi’a groups in power — groups supported by Iran since Ba’athi repression drove many to seek sectarian sanctuary; and,
6. An invasion and long-term occupation of Iraq would pay for itself, and not cost trillions of dollars, bust the budget or throw the U.S. economy into a tailspin.
I’m sure both John and I could go on, and on, listing the false promises/premises of America’s efforts in Iraq. Flattening the logic that bound presumptive fabrications is an exercise in ease. As such, I’d respectfully counter that shortsighted, neocon-driven consensus was just ill-advised groupthink, unimproved by hindsight.
Now as far as the surge goes…
The instance where President Bush followed the neocons out onto a limb against skeptical majority opinion was the troop surge, designed in part by Bob Kagan’s brother Fred. That policy rescued the war from totally unmitigated disaster; one would think that would leave its architects at least somewhat vindicated.
Again, I’ll agree with John that the surge “rescued the war from unmitigated disaster.” But its misfortune was much more refined. The surge saved lives — this much is true. What it didn’t do was create an environment needed for political reconciliation, recognize that the United States — alone — cannot stabilize the Middle East, or prevent what our presence ultimately prolonged.
An idea isn’t necessarily bad because George W. Bush was attracted to it. The vision of American hegemony as an engine of freedom is one artifact of the Bush years that is worth defending, and good for Marco Rubio for defending it.
I admire this sentiment, but I often disagree with its practical application. I recognize that exceptionalism is native to American soil. After decades waged in a Cold War against the evils of Soviet Empire, our lot in this world was crisply defined as the White Knight of international order.
After the fall of communism, America’s sense of purpose has been reinforced by the emergence of a new, if often exaggerated, global threat. As John notes, the Reagan doctrine is awkwardly applied absent a Red Menace.
Neoconservatism has capitalized on our virtuous self-awareness and our unipolar moment. 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.'”
As I’ve written before, President Wilson shared this vision. He saw the United States as the “Sir Galahad of nations.” Such sentiment revels in American dignity of purpose. It burst with a special zeal — one can understand why neoconservatives boast of “hard Wilsonianism.”
But Machiavellian pragmatism, blended with Platonic idealism (not to mention a healthy dash of Trotskyism) doesn’t change the fact that neoconservatism is an odd duck, that’s largely alien to authentic conservatism.
I presumed its renaissance during the Bush administration was anachronistic. I figured that American blood and treasure spilled in Iraq might have exhausted our unilateral leanings. That a $15 trillion debt spent fighting two ground wars, “kinetic military actions” and a gaggle of drone campaigns might have taught us the lessons of endless interventionism. That a strong national defense begins on our shores, because limited government at home doesn’t sync with big government abroad.
Of course that was right up until Marco Rubio stepped to the mic and told me otherwise.