by Bastoche | 6/15/2008 11:46:00 AM
Dean Barnett has read George Packer’s essay heralding “the fall of conservatism “and judges it “not particularly insightful.” Barnett specifically takes Packer to task for failing to acknowledge a “simple fact”: it is not conservatism that is heading for a fall but the Republican Party. Conservatism is one thing, Barnett argues, the Republican Party quite another, and one cannot conflate the enduring principles of conservatism with the party that is serving as their vehicle in the political arena. Those principles, according to Barnett, include “a belief in free markets, free people, and in the greatness of the American people and the American nation.” These are not talking points that will pass with the political season. They make up a “set of core principles” that are now and will always remain “timeless…pure and, in the eyes of conservatives, true.”

The Republican Party may well be headed for defeat this year, but its defeat will stem from its “inability or unwillingness to govern according to its conservative core principles.” The crucial point that Packer fails to see, according to Barnett, is that although the Republican Party has become flabby and unreliable, the core principles of conservatism “remain solid.” And Barnett is confident that “they’ll remain solid and relevant well beyond 2008.”

1. Neocons Retrieving, Reengaging, and Revising

The conservative principles Barnett enumerates can, I think, be more properly construed as neoconservative principles. Certain traditional principles that some conservatives have faithfully adhered to, such as opposition to big government and an unwillingness to meddle in the affairs of other countries, have been crucially modified if not rejected outright by the neocons. But as I said in Part I of this series, the neocons, in the wake of the Iraq muddle, have been engaged in a return to and reengagement with first principles. The neocon writer who has been most original in this reengagement with and revision of principle is Robert Kagan.

Like Barnett, Kagan believes that the principle of freedom is uniquely connected to America and its people. Barnett, however, in his enumeration of the core principles of conservatism stumbles into a contradiction. If conservative principles are timeless, the greatness of America and its people cannot be one of them since America is a nation that came into existence some 230 years ago and is therefore, obviously, bound in time. By means of an adroit maneuver, Kagan has resolved this contradiction. In his book Dangerous Nation and in his essay “Cowboy Nation,” which I am examining in this series, Kagan has argued that America and its people have a unique relation to the principle of freedom. Kagan, like Barnett, argues that freedom is a universal value, applicable to all peoples and all nations, and therefore in a sense is timeless since it transcends any specific historical tendency or moment. Kagan, though, takes the argument a step further. In his view, America is the nation that was born into history in order to make this timeless and abstract ideal a real and concrete element in human history. That which is timeless and universal, freedom, was first embodied and made flesh in America and its people, and it has been the mission of America, since its momentous birth, to see that universal principle embodied and made flesh in every other nation on earth.

Dedicated from its birth to the realization of freedom in history, America, in Kagan’s view, is thus, inherently, a progressive and an expansive nation: it seeks progressively to expand the realm of freedom in the world. Conveying freedom to all the nations of the earth is, however, no easy thing. A nation and its people must have sufficient drive to bring such a mission to a successful conclusion. And indeed America was born with such a dynamic spirit, an energy and drive that manifested itself throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the expansion of America’s territory and the growth of its commerce. That daring and expansive spirit is now engaged in carrying to its completion the task that history has bestowed on America: the complete realization in human history of the timeless, pure, and true principle of freedom.

Kagan, however, makes an interesting point about this drive inherent in the American character. It is a dangerous and irrational force, a drive and energy intimately connected to the warrior ideal of honor. Kagan refers to this energy and drive as thumos, a Greek term derived from Plato and Aristotle. In his book Manliness, the political philosopher Harvey Mansfield retrieves this ancient term and uses it to critique the “gender-neutral society” of modern America. But Mansfield’s discussion of thumos in Manliness goes far beyond his critique of gender neutrality. Like Kagan, Mansfield recognizes that thumos is an irrational force. Though irrational it is a force that drives the human activity we call politics and, especially, the individual who excels in the arena of politics, the man of thumos and courage or, as Mansfield calls him, the manly man. Thumos drives the manly man to assert his own importance, and when the manly man links his own importance to a cause, he enters the arena of politics to do battle with those who resist his assertion and attempt to defeat his cause.

Since thumos is an irrational force, the manly man can get carried away asserting the superiority of his cause and begin to impose it on those who, he deems, espouse an inferior cause. He can, that is, give way to an excess of manliness and become tyrannical. But just as a man can give way to an excess of thumos and courage, he can also suffer from a deficiency of those distinctively manly attributes. In order to position the manly man in the arena of contemporary politics, Mansfield borrows Aristotle’s idea of a moral continuum in which a specific virtue occupies a moderate mean between two extremes of vice. In Mansfield’s scheme, manly courage inhabits the moderate and virtuous mean between two corresponding and vice-like extremes, the extreme of manly excess and the extreme of manly deficiency. Excessive manliness leads to tyranny. Deficient manliness leads to the rationality of the modern liberal.

In the neocon narrative of modern history, America has had to defend the realm of freedom against three expansive and tyrannical opponents. Two of those opponents, Nazism and Communism, it has successfully overcome, and the third, Radical Islam, it is currently fighting and, in Iraq at least, thanks to the surge, close to defeating. But even if America does soon defeat Radical Islam, or at least diminish its power, the fight for freedom, according to Kagan, will not soon conclude. Autocracy, especially in China and Russia, is making a comeback, and America will have to band together with its fellow democracies in order to defend the realm of freedom from these expansive and potentially dangerous opponents.

In the neocon narrative, America has been beset by another and internal enemy, the modern liberal, who has tried, by means of rules and regulations imposed by an imperious and overweening government, to restrict and even diminish the realm of individual freedom. In Manliness, Mansfield sets himself the task of defending individual freedom against its enemies and especially against the insidious campaign being waged against it by the modern liberal. I’ll return to Kagan’s vision of autocracy’s resurgence and The Return of History (his latest book) in future posts in this series. First, though, I want to explore a bit further Mansfield’s neocon notion of political courage and its embodiment in the manly man. As we shall see, according to Mansfield, the manly man’s current crisis is that he must on the one hand fight against those who embody manly excess, the Islamic fascists, while defending himself against those who embody manly deficiency, the modern liberals.

2. In Which the Manly Man Falls Into the Clutches of the Liberal

The Radical Islamists are a new threat to the universal principle that the manly man has always vigorously defended, the individual’s freedom to assert his importance. But for some decades now the manly man has been defending himself and his importance from another and different threat, a threat posed by those seeking to strangle his spirit in the constraints of regulations and rules: the modern liberal.

While the manly man welcomes struggle and dispute, the modern liberal seeks above all else to defuse and avoid conflict. Deficient in thumos, in manly spirit, he has no stomach for the aggressive assertion of cause against cause that defines the arena of politics. He cringes before any display of anger and seeks to appease his adversary by removing politics from the arena of partisan struggle into the auditorium of amicable debate in which agreement can be reached quickly and without pain. He seeks, that is, to substitute cooperation and peace for struggle and war.

The modern liberal, Mansfield argues, has identified and is waging a “calculated campaign” (228) against one of the chief obstacles to his regime of cooperation and peace: the spirited assertion of the manly man, convinced of his importance and superiority. Comfortable in that conviction, the manly man is more than willing to get angry and confrontational, and he is always ready to fight for himself and his cause, vigorously and aggressively, both in the arena of politics and on the battlefield of war.

Deficient in manly spirit, in dread of conflict and of those who provoke it, the modern liberal defensively seeks a way to neutralize manliness and constrain those who exhibit it. And he has found just the right trick. To the impetuous and aggressive irrationality of the manly man the modern liberal opposes the soothing force of reason and rules. Whereas the manly man acts on the basis of egotistic impulse, the liberal acts on the basis of universal reason. Whereas the manly man asserts the importance of only himself and his cohort, the liberal defends the equality of all men and women. Whereas the manly man self-servingly imposes on others his own partisan view, the liberal humbly submits to rules established for the good of the whole.

Though the modern liberal seems principled in his adherence to reason, progressive in his defense of equality, and self-effacing in his submission to rules, such is not the case. The liberal’s overt appearance, Mansfield argues, masks a covert and disturbing agenda. The reason to which the liberal adheres is not principled but instrumental and technocratic. The equality he defends is meant not to preserve but to nullify individuality. And the rules to which he submits are abstractions designed to benefit the leveled mass at the expense of the superior and meritorious individual.

The modern liberal entertains a utopian dream: he wants every institution in society—school, corporation, government, etc.—to operate efficiently, productively, and without conflict. In order to realize this dream, the modern liberal strives to organize all institutions in society according to rules that, he submits, are fair, impartial and reasonable. In every instance, however, the rules that govern an institution are predicated on an abstract notion of personhood. The person who inhabits the institution is one that has been stripped of all disruptive individuality and reduced to a function of the organizational routine. Every organization, is, of course, segmented into levels of unequal status and responsibility, but within each level a functional equality exists. Each member who inhabits a specific segment or level, as defined by the operational needs of the organization, is interchangeable with every other member of that segment. Such functional equality, however, is diminished and dehumanized, an equality based on parts that are standardized and interchangeable. And it does not tolerate that which does not fit into its abstract and generalized notion of the human person: the exceptional man who chafes at routine and rebels against conformity.

The desire on the part of some individuals to assert their importance and superiority is, however, ineradicable. The organization—and the liberal regime in general—must therefore domesticate that spirit and reroute it into channels that do not disrupt the routine of the organization or the placid tranquility of society as a whole, and the modern liberal has found two methods that have successfully tamed the manly man’s assertive spirit. Within the organization individuals must always abide by the operational needs of the system and strictly conform to organizational guidelines and rules. As long as they do so, they can assert their importance and satisfy their ambition by “getting ahead,” that is, by advancing into the organization’s higher levels of status and income. Outside the organization, the manly man’s assertive spirit is channeled into the domain of his private life and reduced to “lifestyle choices” based on commodity consumption. The manly man is still allowed to feel important, but his importance in now defined by the degree to which his personal consumption can be rendered cool and conspicuous.

Sufficiently tamed by the liberal regime of reason and rules, no longer daring to raise his voice in defense of a cause that reflects his own importance, the manly man allows his spirit to fall into disuse. Though he might now and again nostalgically think of politics as an arena in which to struggle and sacrifice for the success of a cause, he no longer has sufficient drive to translate dream into action. Reduced in all spheres of his private life to a passive consumer, he treats politics as if it were just another shopping mall, a gallery of commodities in which he bases his choice on the suavely tailored messages broadcast by candidates and on that most powerful of persuasive tools, public opinion.

This potential in liberal democracy, Mansfield reminds us, was long ago identified by Tocqueville who “sees democracy in a long trend toward similarity in its citizens and conformity in their behavior” (235). This trend, if not vigorously opposed by those who value the importance of the manly individual, inevitably results in a tyranny of the timid majority, a “new democratic despotism” that neutralizes the assertive spirit of the manly man and lays the groundwork “for a dull bourgeois society lacking in both love and ambition” (236).

Liberal propaganda reinforces this despotism of the timid majority. The man who suppresses his spirit and, for the sake of communal order and tranquility, submits to organizational rules and public opinion is the good man, the “role model” (233). This role model refuses to assert himself or display his superior abilities for fear that he might rise above the general level and disrupt the communal harmony. In fact, having internalized the rules established by his community, he will inflict on himself an inward punishment for harboring the merest temptation to assert his own importance. He will, that is, feel guilt for the impulses of his own manly spirit. The modern liberal thus achieves his greatest triumph. He no longer has to externally coerce the manly man to abide by the rules. The manly man will internally coerce himself to submit and conform. He will allow his superior strength and skills to be neutralized, and for the sake of equality and peace he will strive to blend in inoffensively with the other, and inferior, members of his community.

3. In Which the Manly Man Liberates Himself From Liberalism

The liberal, it seems, invokes rules and instills guilt for an overt end that is, without doubt, commendable: the establishment of a peaceful and productive community based on mutual respect and toleration. But the liberal’s real motive is covert: to protect himself from those endowed with an aggressive sense of their superiority and importance. The modern liberal is deficient in precisely those attributes that the manly man has in abundance, aggressiveness and the capacity for anger. Unlike the manly man, the liberal has no confidence in his ability to assert himself. Alone, he is a poor and pathetic thing, incapable of carrying a cause or defying the opinion of the crowd. Though he is also incapable of anger, the liberal is full of a sullen spite whose origin is his envy of that which he lacks, the manly man’s exuberant and independent spirit.

Driven by fear and fueled by envy, craving security and terrified of standing apart, the liberal bands together with others of his deficient kind in order to neutralize the manly man’s dangerous and unpredictable spirit, chasten it, render it meek and unthreatening. By the imposition of rules and the instillation of guilt the liberal regime achieves its overt goal, the elimination of conflict, but it also achieves its covert and predominant agenda: the suppression of thumos and the acquisition of power.

Though temporarily subdued and suppressed, the manly man will not long tolerate the subjugation of his importance beneath the rules of a timid and liberal elite. He knows that the origin of his action cannot be located outside of himself in a set of abstract and alien rules. Submission to such a regime is a betrayal of his nature, and as a free agent he must, finally, answer to no other authority than his own inherent spirit.

But in his rebellion against the rules that the liberal elite have devised to rob him of his agency, the manly man is in danger of flinging himself into the opposite extreme, the extreme of excessive manliness—the extreme of Nietzschean nihilism. As I explained in my last post, the manly man, according to Mansfield, asserts his cause on the basis of reasons that, he claims, identify it as superior to all other causes. Convinced of both his own superiority and that of his cause, the manly man without hesitation seeks to make all other causes subservient to his own. This inclination to dominate and tyrannize is an inherent aspect of the manly man’s character. When he gives way to this inclination, Mansfield says, the manly man is no longer asserting his cause but using it as a means to another and very different end: his own power and prestige. He reduces his cause to an instrument in the service of his true ideal and cause: himself. He then becomes a figure of irrational and nihilistic excess, and his spirit, his thumos, is transformed into a vehicle for tyranny and a “terrifying imperialism” (217).

The philosopher who prefigured the modern excess of manliness is Nietzsche. According to Mansfield, Nietzsche deplored the fact that “modern softness” had produced a bourgeois order based on “herd morality.” Seeking a transvaluation of all timid and inoffensive values, Nietzsche advocated a regeneration of individual will. Nietzsche understood that the exercise of the will contained a danger, namely that “men will rather will nothingness than not will” (236). But he chose nonetheless to discount the danger of the excessive and immoderate will, and thus, Mansfield says, “with his call for will to power,” Nietzsche “illustrated the danger he warned of” (236).

That danger—the drive to will nothingness and destruction—was subsequently embodied in three great totalitarian excesses. Though Nietzsche, Mansfield allows, would “not have agreed with the Nazis,” nonetheless “he inspired them” (236). And though of course he did not inspire Lenin and the Bolsheviks, his doctrine of the will-to-power reveals the underlying motivational impetus of Soviet Communism. “The communists spoke of ‘the struggle for peace’,” Mansfield says, “but they were always much more interested in struggle than in peace. They were war lovers as much as the Nazis and with the same ruthlessness” (236). Nazi Fascism and Soviet Communism were secular movements, but the corrupt will-to-power of excessive manliness has also had a religious manifestation. “The Islamic radicals of our century overflow with the same spirit; though they say they are pious, they use the name of God to strengthen and serve their own will, not to direct it” (236).

Mansfield thus cleverly and neatly distributes at the extreme ends of his Aristotelian continuum the traditional neocon enemies: totalitarian tyranny and modern liberalism. The modern liberal is relegated to one extreme of the continuum, the extreme of deficient manliness. The liberal dreams of realizing his utopian ideal of a community based on rationality and rules, in which toleration, equality, and mutual respect are the enforced values and in which no one angrily and aggressively asserts his importance and disrupts the established harmony. Such a utopian community achieves its desired goal, the suppression of all conflict, but the peace it imposes is the peace of mediocrity and vapid uniformity. The totalitarian tyrannies of Nazism, Communism, and Radical Islam are relegated to the other extreme, the extreme of excessive manliness. Each of these tyrannical regimes seeks to impose its ideal violently and despotically, crushing all opposing views in order to establish its autocratic version of universal peace: the peace of the omnipotent master and the impotent slave.

Inhabiting the moderate mean between the tyrant and the liberal is the manly man, the man who refuses to suppress his dangerous and disruptive spirit but who also and at the same time masters it and prevents it from lapsing into the excesses of tyranny and despotism. He is capable of maintaining his poise and balance between the extremes that threaten him because he has at his disposal a weapon of exceptional power and efficacy: manly reason.

4. In Which the Manly Man Is Rescued From Excess and Tyranny

Manly men, however, are not always ruled by reason and are all too often impatient of reflection. Most often they are moved by their passion for importance, by the spirit and energy that spurs them to assert their cause against its opponents in the arena of politics and especially in that most honorable and glorious of all arenas, war.

But even though they bristle at having their self-assertion bridled and reined in, manly men are susceptible to the power of reason. Mansfield once again takes his cue from his favorite philosopher: “Aristotle draws a distinction between thumos, which is uncultivated, and the habit of a virtue” (207). Thumos is an inborn and instinctive energy on which the manly man draws in order aggressively to uphold and assert his cause. But it is not a virtue. Virtue “is reasoned, reflective, deliberate rather than spontaneous”(192). The manly man certainly advances reasons that his cause should prevail, but those reasons are often arbitrary and dependent on circumstance. In order to preserve himself from the extremities of a tyrannical ambition, the manly man must rise above the arbitrary and circumstantial and ground his cause in arguments that are cogent and coherent. He must, that is, abide by the rules and strictures of a manly reason. He must always remain wary and refuse to submit to the technocratic rules put forward by the timid and liberal majority. But by grounding his irrational energy on the secure foundation of rational argument, on the foundation, that is, of manly reason, he not only moderates thumos but sublimates it and raises it to the status of a virtue, the true virtue of the manly man: courage.

Since rational reflection is not an activity that the manly man, with his penchant for struggle in the competitive arena of politics, is inclined to pursue, he must, at least, be willing to accept instruction from those men whose manliness is exhibited not in physical or political struggle but in the higher, more refined precincts of intellectual struggle: the philosophers. “Politics,” Mansfield counsels, “has to be shown moderation by those who know best how to live in peace, the philosophers” (218). Achilles must accept the guidance of Socrates. And if the philosopher truly is Socratic in spirit and temperament, the warrior will be well served.

Such a philosopher, attuned to the diverse potentials of manly men, knows that his task is not to expunge their exuberant and dangerous spirit. Indeed, he “tolerates and even endorses their often misguided forwardness” (210). That forwardness, however, can quickly tilt to an extreme, and the philosopher remains acutely aware of the manly man’s proclivity to excess and tyranny. To help the manly man achieve moderation, the philosopher warns him that even though his cause is an honorable one, worthy of victory in the arena of politics, he must not transgress limits and impose it despotically on his opponents. Unfortunately, the philosopher “can offer advice to manly rulers but not with confidence that it will be listened to” (210). Often it is not, and the manly man, reducing his cause to a mere instrument in his grandiose quest for power and predominance, lapses into the extreme of tyranny.

But sometimes the manly man accepts and heeds the philosopher’s advice. He does not inflate himself into an ideal but remains aware that his cause and the ideal it embodies transcend the limits of his individual self. He then becomes the virtuous warrior, the warrior of tempered impulses and wise judgment. He attains to the indispensable virtue, courage, and achieves the true ideal: a moderate manliness.

5. In Which the Manly Man Surrounds Himself With Philosophers

Dean Barnett sees the situation clearly and accurately: “the Republican politicians entrusted to put conservative principles into action have proven a disappointment as a class.” Pure and timeless principles were put in their care, and rather than respecting those principles, the Republicans marginalized them and dedicated themselves to the personally advantageous and politically expedient. Because of their intellectual and moral cowardice, they deserve to lose.

John McCain, on the other hand, deserves to win. Though Barnett does not mention McCain, he does hold up Ronald Reagan as perhaps “the last successful Republican politician to fully personify” the true conservative standard. “Not only did Reagan come to office with a full set of conservative principles to guide him,” Barnett says, “he only sought office because his passion for those principles compelled him to do so.”

McCain, a warrior in the true sense, is, like Reagan, passionately committed to the core principles of conservatism. More than any other presidential contender, McCain proudly endorses the greatness of the American people and the nobility of America’s mission to carry freedom to all corners of the globe. True, McCain sometimes lapses into manly excess and angrily confronts those who question his honor or the honor of America. But during his long career of service to his nation, he has learned to moderate his aggressive spirit, and he has the wisdom to surround himself with advisors who are warriors in the philosophic mode. These advisors, dedicated to the true, timeless, and pure principles of neoconservatism, will help him maintain his equilibrium and poise when he confronts, as inevitably he must, those who oppose America’s ideals and America’s interests.

Robert Kagan will be among those advisors should McCain become president. Unlike Mansfield, who in Manliness focuses on the deficient liberal, Kagan is most concerned with those who occupy, in Mansfield’s scheme, the extreme of excessive manliness. For Kagan the greatest challenge to the pure and timeless principles of neoconservatism comes not from American liberals. In fact, Kagan’s neoconservative celebration of freedom and American power has struck a responsive chord in those liberals who do not balk at using America’s military power to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations. The focus of Kagan and his liberal allies, rather, is on those autocratic nations—Iran, China, Russia—whose expansive and dangerous spirit pose a growing threat to America’s historical mission.

I’ll return to Kagan and his neoconservative vision later in this series. Next time, I’ll discuss the force that, according to Mansfield, drives politics—anger—and argue that there is an essential difference between rational anger and irrational rage. I’ll also, with a little help from Aristotle, take a closer look at Mansfield’s concept of courage and make a related argument, namely that courage cannot be understood apart from another distinctively rational attribute: empathy.

Crossposted at Daily Kos and at Politics and Letters

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Blogger Bastoche on 6/15/2008 12:07 PM:

Meanwhile, in Tuesday’s WSJ, Kim and Fred Kagan launch a salvo in the direction of the nay-saying Democrats. America and its Iraqi allies are, Kim and Fred argue, close to defeating our enemies in Iraq, and we must not lose our will and deny ourselves and the Iraqi people final victory over the forces of evil. This variation on the classic Republican campaign theme of the Defeatist Democrats will be one of McCain’s favorite talking points this summer and fall.

But disengaging militarily is not defeat if we reengage diplomatically, economically, and culturally in order to achieve what we cannot achieve by means of military force: long term political stability in Iraq.

McCain, of course, abetted by his neocon advisers, has no intention of disengaging militarily because he believes that only continued application of American military force will achieve victory in Iraq. The neocon narrative of the surge, exemplified in Kim and Fred’s WSJ piece, supports McCain’s stance.

The main lines of the Kagan narrative are clear. First, the disruptive elements in Iraq are either foreign and therefore illegitimate—agents of Iran and of Al Qaeda—or indigenous but nonetheless illegitimate: ex-Baathists, Special Groups of the Mahdi Army, and homegrown jihadis amalgamated with Al Qaeda.

Second, the main pacifying elements are either indigenous and therefore legitimate—the Maliki government, the Sons of Iraq, and Iraq Security Forces—or foreign but nonetheless legitimate: the American occupying forces.

Third, the surge has successfully suppressed the illegitimate elements in Iraq and strengthened the legitimate elements.

Fourth, as Kim and Fred confidently maintain, the “sectarian civil war has ended.” That is, as a consequence of the success of the surge, hostility between indigenous Sunni and Shia populations has effectively disappeared.

And fifth, though suppressed, the illegitimate elements, and especially the nefarious Iranians, remained poised to take advantage of any weakness of American will. Therefore we must not foolishly throw away our present advantage but “see this critical effort through to the end,” the end, of course, being complete victory and its reward: the long-term presence of American troops in Iraq.

More on the Kagans’ very problematic narrative in my next series.


Blogger mark on 6/15/2008 11:29 PM:

Barnett seriously needs to read Russell Kirk.

The belief in the universalism of democracy is a neoconservative tenet while the assumption of liberal democracy being a non-exportable (or difficult to export) product of Anglo-American cultural tradition is a paleoconservative argument.

The two factions generally despise one another and neither assume the economic determinism of free markets held by libertarians.

The Right's intellectual traditions are heterogeneous in comparison to the Left. The difference between a liberal and a Social-Democrat is one of degree; the difference between a Libertarian and a Religious Right Conservative is a difference of kind.


Blogger Unknown on 6/16/2008 1:22 AM:

Mark, not all Libertarians consider themselves conservatives. Also, I consider myself a "liberal," yet I take none of those positions. I believe in democracy, but I honestly don't care whether other nations agree with me or not. I also believe in exporting American ideas, but I think what we should be exporting is self-determination, human rights, and a democratic world-government system. What does that make me?


Blogger Bastoche on 6/16/2008 11:10 AM:

Mark: You’re right. The paleocons intensely dislike the neocons. One reason is that the neocons disregard the longstanding paleocon principle of minding one’s own national business. But America, according to the neocons, no longer has the option of minding its own business, and the paleos, I suspect, know that the neocons are right.

The isolationists and the internationalists in the conservative movement have been fighting this battle since the fifties, but it’s pretty clear now that there’s no going back to a Kirkian world in which venerable traditions (especially religious traditions) are nurtured and protected on a local basis while the rest of the world is kept at arm’s length. A technological revolution in communications and transportation has occurred, and we can no longer deny its globalizing consequences. Simply put, the oceans no longer isolate America, and the neocons know it. Like it or not, we’re actors on a global stage, and either we write the script and impose it on the other actors or they will, without the least hesitation, write it themselves and impose it on us.

Kagan and his allies, both neocon and liberal, are already at work on that script. They foresee a geopolitical situation in which increasingly powerful autocratic nations—Iran, Russia, China—will attempt to expand their spheres of economic and political influence. The world’s democracies must therefore band together in a league or concert in order both to oppose the expansion of autocracy and to support the expansion of democracy.

One problem with their assessment of the situation is that the autocratic states we now face across the ideological divide are not totalitarian states like the Soviet Union. Iran and China and Russia contain real democratic elements. The Chinese Communists have for decades been encouraging individual entrepreneurship, while both Russia and Iran allow some space for individual citizens and groups to take part in the democratic process. The space these autocracies have made for free and democratic action is undeniably limited, but it is also undeniably real. One can therefore argue that no stark, unbridgeable ideological gap separates the world’s democracies from the world’s autocracies. Kagan recognizes some of this complexity. But he seems committed to perpetuating the opposition between democracy and autocracy, and this commitment to oppose has, of course, practical political consequences. For example, do we talk to the autocrats in Tehran or reduce them to cinders?

And by the way, mark, a belated welcome to our crew. :)


Blogger mark on 6/16/2008 10:53 PM:

Hi guys,


IMHO you are left of center but in a somewhat eclectic fashion. Wilsonian progressivism is a major influence on you but you eschew the need to follow anyone's party line.


Thank you ! It's good to be here.

At a certain level of interdependence, inaction ( by the US, UN, EU, NATO - whatever) also becomes a form of "meddling" for those on the losing side overseas conflicts. Globalization has pretty much brought us to that point so the Neocons are correct, though they probably would not put it that way given the primacy they give to military "hard power".

That doesn't mean the paleocons, American or foreign, accept that logic. For them cultural identity trumps economic drivers and political reactionaries from Bin Laden to Burmese generals to Pat Buchanan are at the forefront of pushback against globalization. They demand civilizational firewalls, border fences, censorship, tariffs - basically a greater degree of socioeconomic and cultural disconnection.

Your point on non-totalitarian autocracies vs. democracies are well-taken. They trade away ideological isolation for greater economic vitality. In one sense, they are more vulnerable than the old USSR but in another far more competitive and pragmatic opponents who are willing to cut deals (or break them) with anybody, even us