In “Dr. Strangelove” the world is about to end because a Soviet doomsday device has been activated and can’t be stopped, not even by its creators. It’s a dead-man’s switch, an automated response to a first strike by the United States.
There’s a real-life doomsday machine that can’t be switched off by its creators, but it’s not a bomb, it’s an ideology. It was designed under the misleading name “anti-Communism”—misleading first because opposition to Communism was never the same thing as ideological, militarized anti-Communism, and moreover because anti-Communism was not just “not Communism” but a positive ideology in its own right, one that has survived the fall of the Soviet menace is was intended to combat.
Ideological anti-Communism did not win the Cold War—it never even got a turn at bat. Republicans like Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan were bitter disappointments to anti-Communist ideologues (including the neoconservatives), and those leaders’ preference for realist advisers marked them as Soviet dupes or suicidal liberals, if not actually traitors.
Even before 9/11, neoconservatives believed their day had come: remember the Hainan Island incident? A new Cold War with China seemed tantalizingly within reach. And Iraq was already in the crosshairs while the Twin Towers still stood. The point of anti-Communist-cum-neoconservative ideology was that America must take a pro-active military approach to dealing with enemies. And those enemies, like the late 1980s Soviet Union in Norman Podhoretz’s eyes, were merely pretending to be weak. They were gulling America into appeasement, and only by asserting our power militarily could we show the world what we were really made of. Iraq was a great place to do it.
The neoconservatives were an acute manifestation of ideological anti-Communism, with its paranoia and power worship, but they weren’t its first true believers, nor are they its latest. Ted Cruz demonstrated during the Hagel hearings that he’s every bit as committed to it as anyone named Kristol. Peter Beinart was exactly right: the Hagel hearings were about the Bush doctrine. And the Bush doctrine was about rollback.
The doomsday cult finally got to put its theories to the test in Iraq. The results disgusted the country, and the world, but that hasn’t led all Republicans to rethink their ideological programming. The war and its aftermath have, however, given renewed relevance to libertarian non-interventionism and traditional conservative realism. The best alternative to ideological anti-Communism was always a conservatism like George Kennan’s. (And notably, such conservatives as John Lukacs, Peter Viereck, Robert Nisbet, and Henry Regnery recognized this.)
There’s much more to be said about, but turn to Reason‘s symposium on libertarian responses to the Iraq War’s anniversary—featuring Anthony Gregory, Robert Higgs, Nick Gillespie, Matt Welch, and many more—for my thoughts on what this doomsday machine did to Iraq.