American presidential elections are often best read as verdicts on the administrations that precede them, and in that light, Barack Obama’s victory on November 5 marks the long-overdue death of neoconservatism. ~David Donadio
As our editor Scott McConnell would say, they only look dead, and strangely these days they don’t look very dead at all. Conor calls for sober assessments on the right concening foreign policy, so I am here to offer a sober reality check to the many people who probably think, or very much want to believe, that Mr. Donadio’s reading of the election results is correct. I want to be clear: few things would please me more than for this claim to be true, but we must look at how things are and not merely at how we would like them to be. Should neoconservatism, particularly with respect to foreign policy, be absolutely discredited, dead and buried? Certainly. In the last thirty to thirty-five years, scarcely any other American political persuasion, to use their preferred term, has been more wrong about more things in foreign policy debate. But the reality that something should be ruined does not mean that it is. The same might be said of any number of false understandings of man, society or international relations, yet these ideas live on long after their opponents assume that they simply had to vanish, partly because they continue to find patrons and institutional support and partly because any given ideology is designed to blind its adherents to the consequences of their ideas. Ideology serves to tell its adherents why it is always different this time, why the examples of the past do not reveal that they will fail, and why their cause, unlike all the other armed doctrines, will win…eventually.
There is a powerful belief that I think most people have that failure of a policy endorsed by certain ideologues ought to so undermine an ideology that it cannot survive, except perhaps as a shrinking remnant, but this forgets that ideology often is, as Prof. Bacevich put it so well, a highly elastic rationale for action. Its utility comes from its adaptability and its ability to endure setback after setback; it must present a worldview that is compelling enough that people wish to follow it long after its failures have become obvious, and it survives only so long as it keeps providing that rationale for action. Because ideology is abstract and necessarily unbalanced in its understanding of the world (ideology being at its core the excessive emphasis on one truth or half-truth to the point of absurdity), failures are inevitable. Successful ideologies are those that can incorporate and explain away those failures in terms of a long struggle for lofty ideals or imperfect execution by half-hearted followers. If the “ideology of national security” that Bacevich identifies in The Limits of Power is concerned primarily with legitimizing the exercise of executive power, neoconservatism is similar in that it seeks to legitimize the aggressive use of American power and, to the very large extent that this entails aggrandizing the executive, it dovetails with the “ideology of national security” that is much more broadly shared in the political class.
Bacevich makes an important point about the postwar U.S. “power elite” and foreign policy that helps us to understand why neoconservatism is not going to disappear:
Yet from the late 1940s to the present day, members of the power elite have shown an almost pathological tendency to misinterpret reality and inflate threats. The advisers to whom imperial presidents have turned for counsel have specialized not in cool judgment but in frenzied overreaction. Although the hawks have not always prevailed…more often than not the proponents of action, whether advocating direct intervention, relying on covert means, or working through proxies, have carried the day. The hawks may not always advocate immediate war per se, but they lean forward in the saddle, keeping sabers drawn and at the ready. The mantra of the hawks is the barely veiled threat: “All options remain on the table.”
The ideology of national security underwrites a bipartisan consensus that since World War II has lent to foreign policy a remarkable consistency. While it does not prevent criticism of particular policies or policy makers, it robs any debate over policy of real substance.
Clearly, neoconservatives, who are among the most forward-leaning of these forward-leaning members of the elite, are suited to thrive in this environment, because they specialize in threat-inflation, saber-rattling and calls to action, action, action. Another thing that ideology has going for it is its simplicity. The idea that America is essentially blameless, a force for good and must project its power to secure liberty for all is both emotionally powerful and readily digestible. The false, progressive nationalist historiography of the United States helps to make this message more resonant, which is one reason why neoconservatives remain so wedded to this view of American history. Precursorism, anachronism and cherry-picked evidence are their favorite instruments. In the official story, America expands, moves from strength to strength and its increase in power has meant an increase in freedom for all, which both justifies and demands continuing the pursuit of more power. Neoconservatives are not alone in being willing to oblige, but they are among the most eager.
There is an idea, which seems to have gained some currency in the country as a whole, that the financial crisis and our economic woes will force the government to scrap the empire and give up on hegemony. I am increasingly of the view that something much closer to the opposite will be true. The conventional, and typically wrongheaded, interpretation of the interwar period has been that global economic calamity not only helped to create totalitarian menaces, but they also undermined Western efforts to thwart them, and I fear this is going to be applied to the present to agitate for an even more interventionist and aggressive posture abroad.
We are not, God willing, entering into a period of similar dislocation and upheaval. Even so, you can guarantee that the alarmists who warned of new Hitlers every other week in the booming ’90s and were constantly warning against “existential threats” during the last decade will be, if it is humanly possible, even more inclined to declare emergencies and demand action–and I fear the public will be inclined to listen to them, because a people is never as susceptible to a message of national superiority and self-righteousness as it is when times are bad, and neoconservatism indulges both sentiments. The moment when reflection and renovation are needed is often the moment when men turn instead to ready-made ideas that flatter and reassure them. A time of crisis is often the least likely time for self-criticism and reform. We may have seen the end of preventive war for now, and aggressive democracy promotion may recede into the background for a while, but the basic conviction that American power should advance and defend American ideals–as I think neoconservatives would euphemistically describe their own vision of the American role in the world–is going to continue to motivate a large part of the right. This is why, perversely, even though the experience of the Bush Era should make conservatives more inclined to heed non-interventionist and realist counsel, I fear that most conservatives are going to oppose the Obama administration by adopting even more hawkish positions than he does and criticize him for his lack of resolve, and the neoconservatives will be there urging them on.