by Bastoche | 3/02/2008 02:02:00 PM
The neocons are a resolute and resilient bunch. Their fantasy of implanting in the autocratic aridity of the Middle East a garden of seedling democracies has proven, in reality, to be a far more difficult act of cultivation than they had anticipated. Nonetheless they are certain that they have grasped the real historical forces at work in the region and that our intervention will soon produce vigorous and gladdening results. Charles Krauthammer, for example, confidently declares that the Keane/Kagan/Petraeus counterinsurgency plan known as the surge is succeeding. “After agonizing years of searching for the right strategy and the right general, we are winning,” he says, and we are winning because “unprecedented” acts of reconciliation between Sunni and Shia factions are “taking place at the local and provincial level.”

PSuch optimism, typical of neocons like Krauthammer, may, however, be without warrant. In his Washington Post column, “Two Winnable Wars,” Anthony Cordesman puts forward a more prudent and cautious assessment. Having visited both battlefields, he confidently asserts, like Krauthammer, that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq can be won. Unlike Krauthammer, however, he allows that in each instance the war can still be lost. Indeed, according to Cordesman, declarations that victory is tantalizingly within reach in Iraq and Afghanistan are not only wide of the mark but also might lead to our defeat. Facile cheerleading will, in the long run, only weaken our resolve because there will, without doubt, be a long run. The two crucial factors, Cordesman argues, that will determine whether we or our adversaries will prevail in these conflicts are the two factors that the cheerleading optimists all too readily scant: realism and patience.

The reality, Cordesman says, is that the political and civil institutions in Iraq and Afghanistan are broken and that a long term commitment of manpower and resources is needed to repair them. We must therefore steel ourselves to the inescapable fact “that it will take a major and consistent U.S. effort throughout the next administration at least to win either war,” an effort that we might have to extend as far as 2020. Having committed ourselves to such a long-term effort, we must then have the “strategic patience” to see it through. If we have neither the realism to see clearly what needs to be seen nor the patience to do faithfully what needs to be done, Cordesman concludes, we will need neither al Qaeda in Iraq nor the Taliban in Afghanistan to defeat us. “We will defeat ourselves.”

1. “Nothing Good Comes Easy, My Lad…

The prudent and patient realism that Cordesman now calls for was sadly lacking in those who originally planned and executed the mission in Iraq. And the neocons know it. The occupation, at least up to the advent of the surge, has been bungled, and some among their own have been responsible for the bungling. They are therefore anxious to show that the fault lies not in neoconservatism itself but in those who have acted—and acted foolishly—in its name. Peter Berkowitz, for example, in his WSJ opinion piece, “The Neocons and Iraq,” admits that many members of the foreign policy establishment, both progressive and conservative, directly attribute our difficulties in Iraq to the pernicious influence of neoconservatism. Yet those who make this attribution, Berkowitz argues, have little appreciation of neoconservatism’s long tradition, its specific tenets, and its abiding sensibility. As a result, these critics, content with their superficial understanding of a nuanced and complex worldview, simplistically conflate neoconservatism “with a single crude foreign policy idea -- that the United States should use military force, unilaterally if need be, to overthrow tyrants and to establish democracy.”

Berkowitz does not deny that for the neocons America’s mission is to resist autocracies and even, by the application of military force, to translate them into democracies. But, he argues, neocons are also aware that an act as radical as changing a regime by military force will produce consequences that must be anticipated and spelled out as clearly as possible before the change is initiated. In fact, neoconservatism, he reminds us, “has its origins in a critique of policy making—in both domestic and foreign affairs—that fails to take consequences into account.” Unfortunately, the neocons who pushed for the invasion of Iraq, swept away by a fervor of idealism, sniffed at this guiding principle and blithely assumed that intervention would bestow on Iraq the benefits of democracy and on themselves the aura of historical importance. The problem, therefore, Berkowitz argues, “was not with neoconservative principles, but the failure” on the part of neocon policymakers “to fully appreciate the implications of those principles.”

Of course, the principle that acts have consequences seems on the face of it both obvious and trivial, but it rests on a deep understanding of the realities of political behavior. Prior to an intervention, whether foreign or domestic, policymakers will assess a situation, formulate the goal that they want to achieve, and select the best means to achieve it. Ideally their assessment will be realistic and accurate, their goal achievable, and their selected means adequate. If these preconditions prevail, the intervention in all likelihood will produce consequences that have been anticipated and that can be controlled. If these preconditions do not prevail—if an unrealistic and inaccurate assessment produces an unachievable goal—then the intervention in all likelihood will produce consequences that have not been anticipated and that cannot be controlled.

A core aspect of the neocon sensibility, according to Berkowitz, is precisely this understanding that any situation must be realistically and accurately assessed before a response is formulated and action taken. As examples of this aspect of the neocon sensibility, Berkowitz adduces two “seminal documents” in the neocon canon. One focuses on domestic policy, “The Negro Family: the Case for National Action,” the 1965 report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The other focuses on foreign policy, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” the 1979 Commentary essay by Jeane Kirkpatrick. In each instance, according to Berkowitz, the author’s conclusions rest on a realistic assessment of a complex situation.

Kirkpatrick, for example, writing during the era of détente in the 70s, distinguished between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes and argued that it was in America’s interest to support the former and oppose the latter. According to Kirkpatrick, totalitarian regimes, such as the Soviet Union, dominate and control not only every aspect of political life but also every institution of civil life: family, school, workplace, church. Such regimes are total and totalizing. Their goal is to grasp and control every aspect of life so completely and so totally that no civil interstices remain within which freedom can take root and expand.

Authoritarian regimes, on the other hand, such as the Shah’s Iran, while suppressing freedom in the political sphere, allow some freedom of movement in the civil spheres of education, work, religion and family. In authoritarian regimes, therefore, a possibility exists that freedom will migrate from institutions in the civil sphere to those in the political sphere, transforming the authoritarian state into a democratic one. By providing economic and military support to authoritarian regimes, Kirkpatrick argued, America prevented them from lapsing into totalitarian despotism and falling into the Soviet sphere. But American support had another and no less important goal: it helped to preserve in those regimes precisely the interstitial cracks and crannies in which freedom could slowly and painstakingly develop.

Kirkpatrick, however, as Berkowitz reminds us, was bracingly realistic about the prospect of an authoritarian state evolving into a democratic one.

Although she favored a more activist foreign policy than did traditional conservative realists, Kirkpatrick emphasized that democracy is an achievement. "Decades, if not centuries," she sternly cautioned, "are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits."

The disciplines and habits of participatory democracy, that is, can take decades, even centuries, to develop. True neocons recognize this historical fact and apply it realistically and prudently in matters of foreign policy. Before involving America in the affairs of an authoritarian regime, whether that involvement takes the form of economic aid or military support or both, neocon policymakers—authentic neocon policymakers—prudently and realistically assess the consequences of such involvement for both America and the target nation. One crucial aspect of such an assessment is the effect that America’s support will have on the target nation’s political system. Neocon policymakers do not expect economic or military support to prompt in an authoritarian regime quick movement toward political democracy. Neocon policymakers are patient and allow sufficient time for such a democratic response to develop. Of course, policymakers can, as an adjunct to aid and support, propose that the autocrats in the target nation institute political reforms. But, as Kirkpatrick warned, policymakers must remain realistic and embrace patience. They must, that is, respect the conditions that prevail in the target nation and proffer reforms that “are aimed at producing gradual change rather than perfect democracy overnight.”

2. …and Therefore Be Patient,” the Wise Old Wizard Said

It was precisely this cautious realism, a realism characterized by prudence and patience, that our current crop of idealistic neocons brushed aside in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Since “implanting democracy in Iraq was among the greatest feats of social engineering ever conceived by a modern nation-state,” Berkowitz says, the neocon visionaries who were intent on the implantation should have given “sustained attention to the likely impact of regime change on Iraqi society.” They did not. They arrogantly refused to do what a crucial element of their own neocon sensibility urged them to do: assess the situation realistically and anticipate the consequences of the act that they were about to initiate.

“So what went wrong?” Berkowitz asks. His answer is that the architects of the war were “mesmerized” by the collapse of Communism. Though seemingly durable and entrenched, the totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe buckled with startling rapidity, and so thorough was the collapse that the transition from autocracy to democracy was accomplished with nary a bump or bruise. Having seen their ideals so completely and magnificently vindicated in Europe, the neocons rashly assumed that they could duplicate that ideological and political triumph in the Middle East—and duplicate it with an identical rapidity and transitional ease.

But the neocons neglected to take into account a simple fact: the conditions that prevailed in the Middle East prior to the invasion were radically different from those that prevailed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union prior to the collapse of Communism. Had the architects of the war not been so bewitched by their expansionist ideals, they would have clearly assessed those conditions and seen that they would not support a rapid and easy transition from autocracy to democracy. And having achieved such a realistic assessment, they would have planned accordingly. They would have, that is, understood that invasion and regime change in both Afghanistan and Iraq would unleash radically disruptive forces whose management would demand, on the part of America’s leadership, the utmost of military skill, political ingenuity, and moral courage.

Berkowitz does not rebuff the idealistic component in the neocon sensibility, nor does he suggest that a runaway idealism was the only motive spurring neocon policymakers to invade Iraq. As he says, “both nobility and hard-headed realism” were factors “in the stand that neoconservatives took in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and in their refusal to run for cover when the going got rough.” But he does seem to argue that the idealist component in the neocon sensibility has for too long been in the ascendant. The neocons will not of course renounce their ideals—liberty and democracy must, finally, triumph over autocracy and despotism. But it is essential that neocon policymakers reaffirm the realism that has also been a fundamental aspect of their political sensibility, for only by means of a staunch and clear-eyed realism will they be able, in this harsh and resistant world, to advance their democratic ideal.

And it seems as if they are now beginning to strike a new balance. They have been chastened by their mistakes—mistakes that stemmed from an excess of high, idealistic spirits untempered by prudence and caution—and they now appreciate “the need for the U.S. to make a long-term commitment to achieving stability and decent government in Iraq.” They appreciate, that is, the realism that Kirkpatrick espoused in her classic essay and that Cordesman is once again foregrounding. “The problem for those of us who analyzed the challenge of Saddam's Iraq from the perspective of neoconservative principles was not that we were too neoconservative,” Berkowitz says, “but that we were not neoconservative enough.” Prior to the war and during the first crucial years of occupation, both prudence and patience were lacking. But they are lacking no longer. The neocons are finding their way back to their original virtues—virtues that will enable them clearly to see the way forward in Iraq and in the Long War against Radical Islam. If America is defeated in this Long War, it will not be the neocons who defeat it.

3. Cowboys Seldom Listen to Wise Old Wizards

Berkowitz, responding to the consequences of neocon overreach in Iraq, wants to rein in the neocons’ high, idealistic spirits and temper them with a prudential realism. Victor Davis Hanson, however, has no intention of letting his neocon spirits, high or otherwise, be corralled and put to the bridle. He is adamant in emphasizing another aspect of the neocon character, an aspect that sneers at prudence and chafes at restraint. In a recent NRO piece, “Yippy Ti Yi Yo, Europe!” Hanson casts a contemptuous and amused glance at the “lovely, fragile orchid” of Europe, spreading its variegated petals in the “thinly protected greenhouse” of its multinational Union. He finds that all is not well in the postmodern hothouse. Europeans of every national stripe are capitulating to the demands of Islamic immigrants who refuse to assimilate—the vanguard elements of an expansionary and radical Islam. Such craven behavior inside the hothouse is bad enough, but outside there’s worse: in Afghanistan NATO forces are floundering in their fight against a resurgent Taliban. Hanson clearly sees the consequence of such timorous and incoherent behavior. “The vaunted European multicultural, multilateral, utopian and pacifist worldview is now on its own,” he says, “and thus will get hammered as never before in the unrelenting forge of history.”

The principal reason that Europe “is now on its own” and has become vulnerable to this unprecedented “hammering” is that it has, during the administration of George W. Bush, arrogantly spurned its American ally. But in spite of the Leftist intelligentsia who sit in smokeless cafes on the Boul Mich and stoke their indignation with chatter about America’s Middle East follies, European leaders understand that they have put themselves in a precarious situation. Since the end of the Cold War—indeed, since the end of WWII—they have been substituting economic growth and diplomatic savvy for military strength. But the world outside their hothouse remains full of Hobbesian threats that answer neither to economic inducements nor to diplomatic ploys but only to military force. The most sinister of these threats, a radical and expansionary Islam, is now gaining a foothold inside the hothouse itself. In order to protect themselves from this threat—and especially from its most dangerous manifestation, a nuclear Iran—Europe’s nations, incapacitated by military weakness and moral timidity, must turn to the one free nation that has remained both militarily strong and morally staunch: America.

But even though Europe’s leaders know that they must resolutely join with the one nation “that is not afraid to use force” against the threat of Radical Islam, they remain maddeningly indecisive. “Emotionally and culturally, Europeans are invested in a leftist such as Obama who reflects their soft socialist values and fuzzy multilateralism,” Hanson says. Should candidate Obama become President Obama, European leaders will no doubt publicly support his diplomatic overtures to the mullahs in Tehran. But in their heart of heart they know that diplomatic gambits, no matter how adroitly played, will not induce Iran to relinquish its nuclear dream. Only force can defuse the Iranian threat, and secretly they hope that the US, by means of air strikes, will apply that force. But if the US were to launch such attacks, “the French elite would trash America in Le Monde for being unilateral, cowboyish, and preemptive.”

Hanson, as a result, is “weary and tired” of this “Euro-neuroticism” and responds to it as would any self-assured and assertive American: riding high in the saddle, overbrimming with confidence and strong masculine spirits, he launches at Europe a barbaric and distinctively American yawp.

It is, of course, one thing to launch barbaric yawps at Europe, quite another to launch air strikes at Iran. A prudent neocon realist has ready an alternative to Hanson’s impatience and high cowboy spirits: Before we bomb Iran we must assess the situation realistically and prudently and forecast as clearly as possible the consequences of such a momentous act. But there is no guarantee even at this historical moment, with the shadow of Iraq still looming over the discussion, that neocon realism and prudence will prevail over neocon idealism and passion. Nor, from a perspective that takes in all aspects of the neocon sensibility, should there be such a guarantee. Even though neocon realists might look askance at such imprudence and reckless impatience, Hanson’s cowboy spiritedness is, as much as their own prudential wisdom, a fundamental, even an indispensable aspect of the neocon sensibility.

4. A Nation That Cowboys Can Call Their Own

Indeed, according to Robert Kagan, this cowboy spiritedness is not only a fundamental aspect of the neocon character but, more important and with implications far more profound, a fundamental aspect of the American character. In his essay “Cowboy Nation,” published to coincide with the release of his book Dangerous Nation in October 2006, Kagan counters the traditional view that America has been, at least until the end of WWII, a prudent and isolationist nation. According to this view—one favored by those traditional conservatives now known as paleocons—America has been a nation that throughout its history has deliberately sought to maintain a prosperous and peaceful existence ensconced behind its oceanic barriers, safely detached from the disputes that periodically roil the corrupt nations of Europe and Asia. But, according to Kagan, such a view of America is a myth and will not stand up to careful scrutiny.

Far from the modest republic that history books often portray, the early United States was an expansionist power from the moment the first pilgrim set foot on the continent; and it did not stop expanding--territorially, commercially, culturally, and geopolitically--over the next four centuries.

In Kagan’s view, the “territorial expansion” that occurred from the 1740s through the 1840s was carried out with a vigorous and single-minded determination that had nothing of the prudent and cautious about it. It was spurred on and driven, of course, by realistic self-interest and a clear-eyed desire for economic gain. But as observers in both the Old World and the New spotted from early on, the expansive vitality of the American nation, though “often violent” in its expression and destructive in its consequences, contained a uniquely idealistic element: the desire for liberty. Thomas Jefferson, for example, attuned to his nation’s boundless high spirits and irrepressible energy, “foresaw a vast ‘empire of liberty’ spreading west, north, and south across the continent.”

From the perspective of Old World, however, this vigorous and newly emergent nation was a uniquely dangerous one. To the autocrats of the Old Europe America was dangerous “not only because it was expansionist,” and thus inevitably would challenge Europe’s economic interests in the New World, but also because “its liberal republicanism threatened the established conservative order of that era.” While America was busy expanding its territory it was also broadcasting an ideal, precisely the one that Jefferson saw as the motivating force of its unique imperial ambition—liberty, a political and social force that would migrate across the Atlantic and undermine the decrepit and autocratic regimes of Europe.

From its inception, then, America was more than just a political and economic force in the world; it was a new and vibrant moral force. Its expansion was motivated not only by a lusty and exuberant assertion of its interests but also, and even primarily, by a noble and vigorous commitment to its ideals: individual liberty, democracy, and the rule of law. Astute observers on the far side of the Atlantic, like Prince Metternich, impressed and unsettled by the new nation’s explosive energy, clearly saw that America would not long be content to expand its interests and broadcast its ideals by the peaceful means of commerce and diplomacy.

What Metternich understood, and what others would learn, was that the United States was a nation with almost boundless ambition and a potent sense of national honor, for which it was willing to go to war. It exhibited the kind of spiritedness, and even fierceness, in defense of home, hearth, and belief that the ancient Greeks called thumos.

This fierce spirit, this thumos, had already, prior to the Civil War, established in America a “martial tradition” that was distinctively its own. Before the outbreak of hostilities in 1812, Kagan tells us, Henry Clay hoped that conflict with Great Britain could be avoided. But if “the honor and independence of the country” were at stake, Clay said, he would happily choose “the troubled ocean of war…with all its calamities, and desolations” rather than settle for “the tranquil, putrescent pool of ignominious peace." And Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a veteran of the Civil War who had been wounded three times in the conflict, remarked that war, “when you are at it, is horrible and dull. It is only when time has passed that you see that its message was divine," the divinity of its message, of course, pertaining to the end for which the war was fought: liberty, equality, and the rule of law.

These aspects of our national character—our expansionist energy, our impulsive ambition, our drive for power, our warlike quality and affinity for military force, our concern with national honor and independence, our inherent and sometimes reckless spiritedness—are not ones that accord with “our preferred self-image” of a prudent, cautious, reasonable nation that strives to stay aloof from foreign entanglements. But rather than confront the reality of our national character, Kagan says, we construct a myth that emphasizes our past innocence and that celebrates our desire to avoid entanglements in Europe and Asia. In the wake of the Iraq debacle, some policymakers on both the left and the right understandably seek to return to this mythic state of innocence and isolation. But “the hard truth” is that we cannot return to something that never existed. “America's expansiveness, intrusiveness, and tendency toward political, economic, and strategic dominance are not some aberration from our true nature,” Kagan says. “That is our nature.”

5. Toward a Reconciliation of Cowboys and Wise Old Wizards

The neocons seem to realize that before they can move beyond the debacle of Iraq they need to effect a retrospective act of conservation. They need, that is, to return to their origins. Berkowitz, in his return to the roots of neoconservatism, stresses realism and prudence. Kagan, in a more radical and far-reaching return to the roots of the American character, stresses idealism and passion. The current task confronting neocon theorists, then, is the unification of these competing, even mutually exclusive poles into a stable and coherent amalgam. And, perhaps, the element that will successfully unite the two poles is precisely the element that seems most likely to jeopardize their unity and to push them apart: the vaunting irrationality and high spirits that the Greeks called thumos.

Next time I’ll discuss the two elements of the American character that, according to Kagan, are responsible for its expansive drive: its commitment to liberty and its commitment to progress. As Kagan puts it, America is an expansionist and dangerous nation because it is, by nature, a liberal and progressive nation. I will then return, accompanied by Harvey Mansfield, to ancient Greece and to the fierce and martial quality that is so distinctive a trait in the neocon—and the American—character: thumos.


Cordesman expands on his Washington Post article in his CSIS report, “Victory and Violence in Iraq: Reducing the Irreducible Minimum.” In the report Cordesman discusses in detail the problems that our occupying force must overcome in order to achieve victory. He does not favor withdrawal of American forces, but neither does he present a coherent argument to justify the occupation. He says only that “using today's problems as an excuse to leave will abandon some 28 million people to problems we did much to create, and leave a power vacuum in Iraq that will directly threaten US strategic interests.” He does not, however, elaborate on the “strategic interests” that an American occupation serves or, correspondingly, that an American withdrawal will harm.

Crossposted at daily kos and Politics and Letters

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Blogger Bastoche on 3/02/2008 2:46 PM:

For an interesting contrast to Cordesman’s cool and prudent assessment, see Nir Rosen’s Rolling Stone essay, “The Myth of the Surge.”


Blogger Ahistoricality on 3/02/2008 7:54 PM:

I think, to some extent, we were all fooled by the Bush Administration's "no nation building" campaign language: we assumed -- stupidly -- that they wouldn't undertake a mission which so obviously required nation-building unless they thought there was some way around it....

Remember when we considered the Bush Administration rational actors?


Anonymous Anonymous on 3/03/2008 2:41 PM:

The sickening twist to all this, for me, is that when Bush came into office, I think the Nation was in a genuinely bipartisan mood. Had he a shred of decency, it could have been a great decade. And NOW, when bipartisanship has been totally discredited by the behavior of the GOP, we are being sold yet ANOTHER bipartisanship bill of goods, this time by a faux Dem.

And whereas I think Bush caught the national mood and exploited it, I think Obama is actually going against the national mood, but whistling a tune so compelling that people are beguiled by it.
I suspect they are going to wake up to reality with a terrible hangover.


Blogger Bastoche on 3/03/2008 3:21 PM:

Ahist: I remember. And I also remember, very clearly, the moment when I began to suspect that the invasion did not have a rational basis: the looting of the Iraq National Museum. I had thought that the Bush team (Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, etc.) had at least planned the war rationally, in the sense of anticipating problems and coordinating the means to deal with them. But the lackadaisical attitude they took to the looting of the museum and then to other aspects of blooming social disorder—the first glimmerings of the insurgency—soon convinced me that they were living not in reality but in some “nation-building” fantasy.

They still are. The surge is a variation on the original fantasy. Consider: the purpose of the surge is to defend the Iraqi government not only from the assaults of al Qaeda but also from the subversives sent by the evil president in Tehran. Meanwhile, that president is currently being feted by officials of the Iraqi government. In other words, our troops are trying to defend the Iraqi government from the evil machinations of the man with whom the officials of that very same government are happily negotiating.

Only in neocon fantasyland does any of this make sense.

The Wise Old Wizards offer us what passes, I suppose, for an alternative: if we prudently nudge the process along and show the requisite patience—and if we’re the beneficiaries of another dollop or two of luck (if, for example, those annoying Sadrists just disappear)—then somehow, within the next five or ten years, we’ll be able to draw down to, oh, I don’t know—forty, fifty thousand troops? And that’s from the realists among the neocons.


Anonymous Anonymous on 3/03/2008 4:11 PM:

The looting was like Katrina - an Emperor Has No Clothes moment that many seem to have gotten, but many also seem to have missed.