There are several remarkable aspects of Reihan Salam’s recent essay “Why I Am Still a Neocon,” but none so much as its timelessness. Though ostensibly a consideration of what it means to be a post-Iraq neoconservative, Salam’s essential arguments are the same as those of the pre-war neocons; a substantially similar version of the piece could have been run in 2002 under the headline “Why I Am a Neocon.” Salam discusses what neoconservatives have cost this country and the world in these past 15 years, but the essay is a record of analytic and argumentative stasis.
There are two major planks to Salam’s argument, and they will ring familiar to anyone who lived in the immediate post-9/11 world: that America must have an aggressive and powerful army, first because our strength is required to bring stability to a vulnerable world, and second because there is so much evil in the world, we are required to defeat it. These are not, let’s say, the freshest of arguments when it comes to the defense of neoconservatism. But since he’s brought them back up, they should be addressed.
In essence, both arguments can be refuted with three words: Should implies can. For the argument toward stability, I ask simply: We have endured a war in Iraq, we still have thousands of troops in Afghanistan, we have waged secret wars in Pakistan and Yemen. I ask you: How stable do you find the world? How stable was the world at the height of the Bush Doctrine? What possible evidence can be offered that neoconservatism brings stability in fact, rather than merely in rhetoric?
Nor is it clear that the enduring American military dominance Salam advocates for can be achieved. I would certainly oppose American military hegemony even if I thought such a thing were still possible, but it’s irrelevant, because I don’t. To quote Matthew Yglesias, relative decline is not a choice. That the United States cannot maintain its status as unipolar power forever should be obvious to anyone who has studied history and anyone with a newspaper subscription. The rapidly developing economies and massive populations of countries like China and India make that plain enough. That’s not to say that there will necessarily be a new dominant superpower, but it’s a reason you should bet on the field.
Salam acknowledges that the military spending of the United States is, well, insane, but waves that concern away by arguing that we’ll constrain costs by lowering our personnel costs, which are half of our military budget. This is a uniquely bad idea for neoconservatism, which requires hyperbolic valorization of the soldiers whom we send away to be killed. But set that aside, and assume we can convince the country to pay soldiers less while we they are necessarily killed more often. Saying that half of our military budget is devoted to personnel is another way to say that half of it isn’t, and that half still dwarfs the next several largest militaries combined. And no amount of cost savings can address the vast disadvantage America has in manpower, for either our military or our workforce. The Chinese enjoy a billion-person advantage over the U.S., and India is rapidly approaching the same. However far behind they are now economically, they will close that gap through sheer population size eventually, and the world will reorient itself.
This is to say nothing of America’s shrinking middle class, always the engine of our economic dominance, or our refusal to properly task our immensely wealthy elite. It may happen in our children’s lifetime, it may happen in our grandchildren’s, but the end of American hegemony is coming, and no political philosophy dedicated to opposing that end will long survive.
I struggle to imagine the amount of anti-Americanism that would reign in Pakistan had we intervened militarily against it, considering it is already filled with (justified) rage against the U.S. Nor would I envy the military that had to invade Pakistan, then as now a strategic nightmare. But set those concerns aside, as well. How can we possibly be convinced that American military intervention would have succeeded in saving lives? If anything has been proven by the post-9/11 American experience, it’s the profound limitation of our military to prevent violence through military force.
Salam writes only that “[Archer Blood] also knew that had President Nixon decided to lift a finger, he could have forced Pakistan to stay its hand,” a frankly incredible piece of argument by assertion. Is it possible that the U.S. military could have swooped in and stopped bloodshed without causing more? Sure. It’s just as possible that such intervention could have deepened what already threatened to become a regional conflagration, inflaming the bitter disputes between India and Pakistan and no doubt drawing direct Soviet response. Salam’s breezy, untroubled insistence that our good intentions would have been sufficient to save lives would have been bad enough in 2002, but in 2014, they are inexcusable. I find it just as likely to imagine that Salam’s uncle, or others like him, would have died through the terrible fallout that we should know enough by now to assume is the consequence of our military adventures.
I don’t begrudge anyone the urge to imagine counterfactuals in which a family member survives an immoral military excursion. But Salam’s invocation of his uncle means that we must think of a world made up of beloved, lost relatives. Iraq was filled with uncles, and brothers, and aunts, and cousins, and they died by the hundreds of thousands thanks to sentiments of equal nobility and equal delusion to Salam’s. This is the price of viewing the world through a lens of righteous fantasy: You are forever pitting the lives of the hypothetically saved against those of the actually dead.
And even this exercise, in considering whether the United States could have saved Salam’s uncle or people like him, is not enough. What an adult approach to foreign policy requires is exploring context; if that sounds cold, recognize that Salam performs similar mental calculations every day. However committed he may be to the regular deployment of other people into wars of choice, I highly doubt, for example, that he would support an invasion of North Korea on humanitarian grounds. However much American media enjoys making fun of that horrific regime, it is home to a massive military and is a nuclear power, and if any regime on earth is so insane as to deploy nuclear weaponry internally, it’s North Korea. So I highly question whether even Salam would sign us up for that misadventure. And yet uncles are starved to death every day in that country, they are tortured, they are thrown into internment camps, they suffer under routine and brutal subjugation. Salam, too, makes judgment calls about human lives. He simply works an unjustifiable optimism into his equation.
As others before him have, Salam contrasts neoconservatism with a supposedly corrupt and apathetic realism, arguing that the alternative to neoconservatism is “amoral realpolitik.” Like so much of neocon argument, this is asserted but unproved, and directly refuted by recent historical events. It would certainly come as a surprise to dissidents in Saudi Arabia to learn that neoconservatism is antithetical to “realist” coziness with ugly regimes. America has been tight with the corrupt theocracy in Saudi Arabia for a long time, but few times was it as cozy as during the Bush administration. You might well wonder what an administration bent against authoritarian governments and political Islam would be so complicit with the Saudi regime, but of course they were; they had to be. An aggressive military requires access to vast quantities of oil. No neoconservative administration will ever jeopardize the stability of the country with the world’s largest proven reserves. Salam’s basic reasoning is flawed: because his favored political philosophy requires enormous human effort and enormous expenditure of resources, it is more susceptible to the demands of ugly regimes, not less. An endlessly adventuring military means a government that must break bread with some of the ugliest governments in the world, for reasons of simple expediency and need. It turns out that there is a great deal of real in even the most idealist politik. The notion that a neoconservative American government is less friendly to autocratic and illegitimate regimes is an empirical question, and one Salam has not even really attempted to prove. I find the historical evidence severely lacking in that regard.
What we’re left with, really, is the same old saw: that America should be an unapologetic, militarily assertive nation because we are good and because we are strong. This, despite brutally potent evidence that we are neither good enough nor strong enough to remake the world in the way we would prefer. It would be hard to overstate this point: Reihan Salam’s beliefs about the world and about military force could hardly have been more ruthlessly and efficiently debunked by the past 15 years. He resorts to pleasant fantasies about what might have been because real history is such a bleak landscape for him.
What’s left is a simple question: How could his neoconservatism possibly be refuted by events? What would it have to take, if the trail of blood this country has cut across the world in the last decade is not sufficient? I haven’t got a clue. I am, I suppose, as committed an anti-interventionist as any American I can think of, and yet I will admit that I would deploy our military to stop a Holocaust in a heartbeat. With Salam, what, exactly, would it take? How thoroughly would his pleasant fantasies have to be rebuked before he gave in? I have no idea, and that frightens me, and it should frighten you. Because however much he might want to express his neoconservatism as a Slate pitch, it is in fact the ideology of many of the most powerful people in the world. What remains to be seen is whether they will rise again, and in doing so accelerate our inexorable and certain decline.