What’s odd about Salam’s piece is that it doesn’t really touch on any current foreign policy issues. Does he believe the U.S. should topple Bashar al-Assad by force? Should we be taking more aggressive measures to counter Russia’s actions in Ukraine? Should we be skeptical of efforts to reach a diplomatic agreement with Tehran on Iran’s nuclear program? Should Israel not be pressured to make territorial concessions on the West Bank? It’s these issues, not vague support for military superiority and standing up for human rights, where those typically described as neocons actually differ from mainstream foreign policy views. If we’re going to have a debate about neoconservatism, we need to talk about the policies neoconservatives actually espouse.
That’s right. Once we start talking in detail about what policies neoconservatives prefer, it becomes much more difficult to make an argument in favor of neoconservatism that persuades anyone that isn’t already convinced. Take the question of what the U.S. should do in Syria. It has been almost an article of faith among neoconservatives that the U.S. has major interests at stake in the Syrian conflict, and they have tended to view that conflict primarily in terms of their hostility to Iran. As they still see it, the U.S. should have become much more involved much earlier on in order to inflict a defeat on an Iranian ally and on Iran as well, and they are still far more likely than almost anyone else to urge greater U.S. involvement in the war even now. This is, of course, a wildly unpopular view, but it’s also a dangerous one that would risk dragging the U.S. into an open-ended war in which it would be aligning itself with some of the worst political forces in the region.
If someone calls himself a neoconservative, as Salam does, one would expect him to insist that this senseless policy is actually the right one for the U.S. and the wider region, but instead he doesn’t offer any defense for a single policy identified with neoconservatives over the last fifteen years. After all, neoconservatives aren’t just garden-variety internationalists. They usually make a point of denouncing other kinds of internationalists, especially realists, for not favoring sufficiently aggressive policies. They are far more likely than most other internationalists to favor the most hard-line policies toward rival and pariah states. It is no accident that they were among the most vocal supporters of invading Iraq, because they are always among the most vocal advocates for pursuing similarly aggressive policies no matter what the country in question may be. A defense of neoconservatism would need to explain why its consistent alarmism, threat inflation, and overly militarized approach to foreign crises are correct, and it is telling that Salam doesn’t or can’t provide that explanation.