Neoconservatism -- RIP

The moralistic ideology has utterly failed. But as long as Bush still abides by it, his disastrous "war on terror" will drag on.

Published November 14, 2006 1:41PM (EST)

The neoconservatives who dreamed up America's Iraq nightmare are rushing desperately about, searching for scapegoats. Their favorite whipping boy is yesterday's jutting-jawed hero, Donald Rumsfeld, who has been unceremoniously tossed onto the scrapheap. But they also blame the National Security Council, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, Paul Bremer, Gen. Tommy Franks and George W. Bush himself. The only thing they don't blame is the actual culprit -- neoconservative ideology itself.

The neocon finger-pointing over who lost Iraq, recently showcased in Vanity Fair, obscures the fact that Bush's war was a laboratory in which their doctrine was tested -- and completely failed. This failure was manifested on the ground and confirmed by the midterms. Most Americans don't even know what neoconservatism is, but they know a failure when they see it -- and they decisively rejected it.

Unfortunately, Bush himself and the key figures in his administration continue to cling, with the fervor of true believers, to neoconservative ideology. Bush has taken some potentially positive steps, like dumping Rumsfeld and replacing him with the more pragmatic Robert Gates, and saying he's open to "any idea" on Iraq. And he is now under enormous pressure, not just from Democrats but also from his own party, to implement profound changes in his Middle East policies. But it remains doubtful whether a figure as dogmatic and inflexible as Bush, who regards his "war on terror" as a sacred duty, will be able to change his approach. It is essential that the fundamental failure of neoconservatism be recognized, to prevent more foreign policy debacles like Iraq.

Neoconservatism is a notoriously slippery and hard-to-define term, in part because its definition has shifted as its enemies have changed. The first generation of neoconservatives, including Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, Irving Kristol and Norman Podoretz, were former liberals who believed that America needed to stand up and fight communism. Accusing their former colleagues on the left of going soft, they claimed that America's survival and the fate of the free world required toughness, not compromise. (Kristol defined a neoconservative as a "liberal mugged by reality," which goes a long way to explaining why the ideology gained new adherents after 9/11.) The second generation of neocons, including Robert Kagan, William Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz, continued to believe in American exceptionalism and the virtues of force, but they added an idealistic note: America should not just battle evil but also promote democracies around the world. The "good" they sought, however, was not purely altruistic but inseparably bound up with America's self-interest. They wanted America to exercise "benevolent global hegemony." It was axiomatic that what is good for America is good for the rest of the world.

In 1997, many leading neocons started a pressure group called the Project for the New American Century, which called for America to overthrow Saddam Hussein. A number of PNAC members, including Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams and Richard Perle, went on to hold high positions in or to function as influential advisors to the Bush administration.

One of the reasons the neocons were obsessed with Iraq, as George Packer points out in his brilliant study of the Iraq war, "The Assassins' Gate," is that they "concluded it would be very good for Israel." Many neocon thinkers were closely associated with Israel's right-wing Likud Party; some went on to write a 1996 paper, "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," that urged incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to roll back Syria, work to effect regime change in Iraq, and refuse to return the occupied territories to the Palestinians.

The neocons' attachment to the Israeli right naturally carried with it a whole series of assumptions about the Middle East, about terrorism, about Arabs, about the Palestinians, about Islam, and about how American should conduct its Mideast policy. The neocons, following the eminent pro-Israel Arabist Bernard Lewis, argued that the Arab world had only itself to blame for its backwardness. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was trotted out by a moribund Arab culture as an excuse. In any case the Palestinians had lost any moral claim because of their recourse to terrorism. America should stop trying to placate the Palestinians and impose a Pax Americana on the region. The Arabs, who respected only force, would fall in line.

Under Bush, these assumptions became U.S. policy -- notwithstanding their significant departure from traditional U.S. Mideast policy, which at least made a pretense of being even-handed. And neoconservative beliefs are enshrined in the Bush administration's "war on terror."

Bush's "war on terror" follows the neocon playbook in every particular. The salient features of that war are these: 1) "Terrorism" is itself the enemy. It is soft-minded and immoral to consider historical context or grievances. Any group that practices terrorism is to be smashed into submission. 2) All militant Islamic groups, from al-Qaida to Hamas and Hezbollah, are essentially the same. They all subscribe to a totalitarian ideology and must be destroyed. 3) Force works. If you smash the Arab world in the mouth hard enough, it will get the idea. If it doesn't, it will be necessary to continue smashing it indefinitely. 4) The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not that important, and the United States should not interfere with Israel's actions, however harsh. 5) The war on terrorism is so crucial that it merits suspending civil liberties, establishing secret prisons and using rendition of suspects in order to torture them.

This approach has been a colossal failure on every level. Iraq speaks for itself. The issue that most inflames the Arab-Muslim world against America, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, is at one of its bleakest moments. The United States is more hated in the region than ever before. Hezbollah emerged stronger after Lebanon's war against it, and its leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, is the most popular figure in the Arab world. Iran has been greatly empowered. Arab moderates have been marginalized, afraid to be associated with the United States. Arab despots in "moderate" states like Egypt are increasingly threatened by Islamist parties. Afghanistan, which was never properly secured, is falling back into chaos. And as the National Intelligence Estimate pointed out, Bush's Iraq war has greatly increased the number of terrorists.

These are the achievements of the neoconservative approach to Mideast policy. And the problem is not, contrary to neocon claims, simply that Bush failed to properly execute the "war on terror." Well before the Iraq war started, many critics, including this writer, argued that the neocons' good vs. evil worldview was simplistic and dangerous, and that the Bush administration's approach to the Middle East was wrongheaded and if implemented would severely injure U.S. interests. It is no pleasure to be proved right at the cost of America's standing in the world. But as Republican and Democratic policymakers alike try to figure out how to salvage something from the Iraq debacle, it is essential that they also insist on a fundamental reorientation of America's Mideast policies -- and throw neoconservatism into the trash can.

The Bush administration used the shock of 9/11 to convince Americans that radical Islam was evil and that it was our calling to fight it to the death. Bush still believes this. No one disputes that what happened to America that day was terrible, or that terrorism is immoral. But the Iraq war decisively proved that these ethical truisms do not serve as a sufficient basis for foreign policy. You not only have to fight terrorism, you have to fight it smart. But in large part because of their ideological blinders about the Arab world -- dismissal of its grievances, failure to know its history, arrogant assumptions about what it "needed" to develop -- the neocons fought it crudely and stupidly.

The invasion of Iraq was the crowning glory of the neocons' great crusade. Yes, there were some genuine fears about Saddam's WMD, but those were secondary to the Bush administration's desire to smash the pathological Arab-Muslim world in the face (any face would do, and Saddam's was handy) and teach it a lesson it would never forget. Pro-war New York Times pundit Thomas Friedman summed up the neoconservative motivation for invading Iraq succinctly: a "terrorism bubble" had built up in the Arab-Muslim world, and we were going to burst it. Good would triumph and evil would be defeated. Beatings would continue until morale improved. America would show the rest of the world who was boss -- but we would be a benevolent boss, a disappearing boss, installing democracies in the Middle East and then pleasantly fading away to enjoy low oil prices and the glow of knowing that you can do well by doing good. As a bonus, the destruction of Saddam's regime, and the threat to do the same to the other regional evildoers, Syria and Iran, would force the Palestinians, deprived of their backers, to make peace on Israel's terms.

That was the hypothesis -- one that should never have left the ivy-covered walls of Neocon U. When it was field-tested using bullets and bombs in Iraq, not freedom and the triumph of the good but a witches' brew of violence and hatred bubbled up.

And what is likely to be the outcome in Iraq? The best-case scenario may be that we end up with an state run by an unpredictable Shiite strongman like Muqtada al-Sadr, whose rhetoric would be aggressively Islamist, anti-U.S. and pan-Arab but who might be willing to sell us oil. From a realpolitik standpoint, this would arguably be a worse outcome than if the nasty but non-ideological Saddam were still in power. And this is the best-case scenario.

The point is not that the Middle East is a hopeless, primitive mess, where tribal loyalties and the culture of revenge run so deep that it's better to stay away. That kind of Orientalist thinking -- which is now beginning to be heard again from disillusioned neocons on right-wing Web sites -- is too facile. The point is that the Middle East is far more complex in every way than the neoconservatives ever acknowledged. Take "terrorism," that bogeyman of neocon moralists. Both the Iraq mess and Israel's conflict with the Palestinians prove that reifying terrorism as an absolute evil, and basing foreign policy on defeating it without regard to the grievances or historical context out of which it comes, is self-defeating. As everyone who has studied terrorism knows, powerless people turn to terrorism.

In the case of al-Qaida and other jihadists, who have no legitimate grievances, strategic thinking dictates that we take actions to dry up public support for them while employing specifically targeted campaigns against them.

So-called realism, despised by neocons as instrumental and Machiavellian, turns out to be more effective, because more flexible, than the explicitly moralistic ideology of neoconservatism. At some deep level, the American people recognize this. The election was a repudiation, whether fully conscious or not, of lofty moral slogans and hysterical military crusades, and a demand that we take smaller steps. The heady days when neocons David Frum and Richard Perle could issue a book called "An End to Evil" are gone. Americans are at bottom pragmatists, and they now understand that the Middle East is not as black-and-white as Bush and the neocons insisted. Of course there are clear-cut bad guys, like al-Qaida. But the Bush administration's neocon attempt to link al-Qaida to every other militant group in the area we don't like is falling on increasingly deaf ears. It sounds too much like the same grandiose rhetoric used to justify the Iraq disaster.

The American people are not going to sign off on a new war against Iran or commit troops to battle Hezbollah. This isn't "appeasement" -- it's common sense. If the neocons still want to accuse their opponents of being appeasers, as they sit atop a pile of more than 2,800 American dead and hundreds of thousands of slain Iraqis, let them.

The neoconservatives' moment in the sun may have been cathartic for those Americans who wanted a credo that would echo their self-righteous rage. But it has left America despised and weakened globally, strengthened our enemies, and divided our country. It's time to put the crusaders' banner away.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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2006 Elections Iraq War Neoconservatism