Commentary

Neocons Forced to Face Reality

As American operations in Iraq continue to lose support from both the American and Iraqi people, the neoconservatives who engineered the war are on the defensive. There is a pervasive fear among neoconservatives in Washington of the resurgence of realism: a foreign policy that emphasizes the defense of vital national security interests and rejects values-based foreign interventions. The most recent anti-realist article, “Unrealistic Realism,” comes from Thomas Donnelly and Vance Serchuk of the American Enterprise Institute. This and other counterattacks on realism suffer from internal contradiction, strategic errors, and faulty assumptions.

First, the article claims that neoconservatism is the rightful heir to the “great liberal tradition of American strategic culture - a history that links the Founders to the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.” Paradoxically, the authors then lament the “blowback in the traditional foreign policy community” against neoconservatism. Perhaps “tradition” for neoconservatives is in the eye of the beholder. Certainly, their attempt to link the foreign policy of the Founders to that of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush is strained, at best.

The authors then proceed to openly demonstrate their hostility towards conservatism. They warn that realism is a “specter” that threatens to undermine President Clinton’s “foreign policy as social work” paradigm. One would hope that the Clinton legacy adequately demonstrated that foreign policy as social work detracts from the defense of American interests, and is detrimental to U.S. security. Did President Clinton’s focus on peacemaking exercises in Somalia, the Balkans, and elsewhere help identify and eliminate threats to America? Each problem in the world is not necessarily an American interest.

Donnelly and Serchuk then employ a familiar neoconservative tactic: question the moral judgment of realists. The article portrays realists as wanting to “put democracy on hold.” The cold fact is that the phone was never ringing. The Iraq war sought to effect staggering social change in Iraq through the application of military violence. Its failure to do so has been saddening, if predictable. But just as no conservative would oppose truly free universal health care, no realist would oppose truly liberal democracy in Iraq. We simply question the ability of the U.S. government to make it happen.

If the neoconservatives were simply seeking to head up a liberal Lincoln Brigade to fight tyranny across the globe, we would happily lend them our moral support and well wishes. But the U.S. military is not a Lincoln Brigade. It exists to defend the country from threats.

Bizarrely, the article then claims that realists believe “recogniz[ing] and embrac[ing] the `great powers’ of Europe, specifically through NATO, [is] a sine qua non of success in Iraq and the global war on terrorism.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. It appears the authors have conflated all opposition to the Bush Doctrine into “realism.” Though John Kerry seems to object at least partially to the conduct of the war in Iraq, he is not a realist.

Realists acknowledge that other states can help us in the war on terrorism. But we hardly consider international support a panacea. After 9/11, virtually the entire world saw its interests converge into a united front against the type of terrorist attack suffered by the U.S. If European opposition to the war in Iraq had obstructed the pursuit of vital U.S. interests, realists would not have hesitated in proceeding without their support. The problem is that invading and occupying Iraq was never in America’s interest. And why should we squander near-total international support for the war on terrorism absent a vital need?

Neoconservatives, by contrast, seem to revel in alienating historical allies. It is worth noting that even after all of the invective slung across the Atlantic, France still maintains troops in Afghanistan that are hunting for Osama bin Laden.

Donnelly and Serchuk claim that the proper strategy would “leverage [U.S.] hegemony in favor of the forces of political and economic liberalism in the greater Middle East.” Who are these forces? Ahmed Chalabi, the man who promised an oil pipeline to Haifa and who now is alleged by the U.S. government to have betrayed U.S. interests to Iran? The real forces of political and economic liberalism in Iraq unfortunately lack the power and popular support to remake the country. The development of liberal society requires more than a few good men and institutions with familiar names, and even these cannot succeed when implanted by force.

The AEI article concedes central points in the realist critique of neoconservatism. The authors admit that “the United States cannot impose democracy,” and that “the U.S. military cannot create civil society.” But that shouldn’t matter, the authors argue, because the U.S. can install governments that are “more likely than not” to embrace liberal democracy, and can also “dramatically influence” foreign cultures to make them receptive to American values. This is a utopian vision, not a coherent foreign policy framework. Hoping against hope makes for bad public policy.

Unfortunately, the cautionary notes sounded by realists before the war went unheeded. Realists asked, “Will invading Iraq hurt us or help us in the war on terrorism?” As Saddam Hussein sits in a jail cell, Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are unknown. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah warn that anti-Americanism has never been so high - in the very region we seek to transform.

Realists asked, “Is Iraq so severe a threat to national security that it warrants the expenditure of U.S. lives, treasure, and allies?” After the deaths of 1,000 coalition soldiers, hundreds of billions spent, no meaningful links to al Qaeda determined, and no stockpiles of WMD uncovered, the answer seems clear.

Realists asked, “What will be the consequences of deposing Saddam?” Iran, its strategic position strengthened by the removal of its worst enemy, now accelerates its nuclear program with relative impunity. North Korea, flying under the radar while the United States was preoccupied with Iraq, now negotiates from a position of strength. As widely disparate forces in Iraq jockey for power and influence, Iraq has become inherently unstable and threatens to become a haven for terrorists.

Though the public rhetoric from the Bush administration remains decidedly unrealistic, there are growing signs that the utopian vision of the neoconservatives is losing favor. Skepticism about government power seems to be retaking its rightful place in conservative circles. And though John Kerry is no realist, any attempts to inject a dose of reality into the debate over U.S. foreign policy should be welcomed.

Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a founding member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, chaired the task force that produced the report Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War against Al Qaeda (2004).” Justin Logan is a research assistant at the Cato Institute.