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From Neocon to Realist

Why I became a lapsed neoconservative and joined The American Conservative

Editor’s Note: Pratik Chougule has been recruited by TAC, effective February 6, as one of our two executive editors. He comes to us from The National Interest, where he was managing editor. Knowing of Pratik’s former commitment to the neoconservative creed, we asked him to share with us, and our readers, a bit about his intellectual journey from neocon to foreign-policy realist. This is what he sent.

An explanation is probably in order. I was, until recently, a neoconservative—a true-believing one at that. Now I’m about to join The American Conservative, a magazine founded in defiance of my erstwhile colleagues.

What changed?

I wish I could say my neoconservative phase was just a fleeting bout of youthful indiscretion. But it was more than that. My journey into neoconservatism began in 1990, when I was four years old. My parents were glued to CNN for America’s first televised war in real time, and I struggled to make sense of the conflict. My uncle helped by writing a children’s book by way of explanation. Don’t Steal My Blocks! told the story of a bully named Iraq who stole toys from a smaller kid named Kuwait. Only when America came to Kuwait’s rescue did Iraq learn his lesson.

My early understanding of the Gulf War laid the seeds of the neoconservative worldview I came to embrace. I saw authoritarians such as Saddam Hussein as affronts to human dignity. My Jain background notwithstanding, I had few scruples about confronting dictators “in a war paradigm,” if only in the absence of better alternatives. I celebrated the United States as a benign “empire” with a responsibility to act as “a force for democracy and human rights in the world.” Visits to the Holocaust Museum and travels to impoverished areas of Latin America and South Asia underscored to me that passivity in the face of atrocities was unacceptable, and that Western economic development was an imperative where destitution had become disturbingly normal.

The tougher question, in retrospect, is why I remained a neoconservative even as the humanitarian case for the Iraq War collapsed, and even as the financial crisis rendered the crusade financially untenable.

The main reason, I suspect, is that I spent most of my twenties working closely with senior government officials. I was a Bush appointee at the State Department and assisted a number of prominent foreign-policy hawks with their memoirs about the Iraq War. These projects required hours of archival research and long conversations with policymakers and journalists intimately involved in the conflict. My colleagues hardly resembled the zealous “warmongers” caricatured in anti-neoconservative tracts. They may have made what might be called “context-specific misjudgments,” but they struck me as bright public servants with creditable intentions, trying to navigate stultifying “bureaucratic resistance.” The personal relationships I had with these figures, and the empathy I felt for them, made me resist the possibility that their critics were on to something.

I must acknowledge that engaging with policy at a granular level created a forest-from-the-trees problem. It wasn’t hard to see that the Iraq mission was going poorly, but so too was it obvious, as I lamented at the time, that “the war was grossly mismanaged.” In analyzing what went wrong, I fixated on “bureaucratic arrangements, management structures, and chains of command.” Endless mid-level bureaucratic disputes” made me ponder more rosy counterfactuals. If only we learned the right lessons and made “significant investments in defense capabilities,” I rationalized, we could keep the neoconservative dream alive the next time around. I missed what the psychologist Moshe Feldenkrais might have called the “elusive obvious”—that the enterprise was doomed in conception, that the occupation of foreign lands was itself a threat to liberty, not only to those at the receiving end of a hegemonic footprint but also to taxpayers footing the bill for the mirage of “democratic consolidation in the Middle East.”

There’s perhaps another reason. During the darkest days of the Iraq War, I was a student at two particularly leftist Ivy League schools. I chafed at the “relativist culture,” as I derided it at the time, that prevailed at these institutions. So I approached my education with the mindset of a contrarian and an ideologue, and found solace in a community of neoconservatives who did not allow their intellectual rigor to decay into moral equivalence. Careerist considerations were not entirely absent either. As a young neoconservative, I recognized the professional rewards that could come from unapologetic intellectual combat with my professors and peers—a reality, I see now, that discouraged ample self-reflection.

There was no epiphany, no singular moment when I accepted that the problem was my own misguided utopianism, that I was—to quote another ex-neocon, Scott McConnell—“under the spell of a tragic delusion.” I’m reminded, rather, of a passage from The Gulag Archipelago, where Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reflects that “There is nothing that so assists the awakening of omniscience within us as insistent thoughts about one’s own transgressions, errors, mistakes.” There was the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, when the spouse of a prominent neoconservative asked me to write a defense of the war, and I obliged, only to reread my words with remorse. There was my stint on the Huckabee campaign, when I encountered the pathetic state of Arkansas’s working class and sensed that the foundations of American power were weaker than they looked from the Acela Corridor. There was my introduction to the burgeoning literature on nonviolent resistance, which convinced me that human rights could advance without the ham-handed excesses of the American national security state. And there was also an ill-fated experience with the Trump campaign—an indecent candidacy, in my view, fueled by the policy failures I had championed.

As my doubts grew about neoconservatism, I gave realism another chance. I had generally sympathized with values-based critiques of realism, assuming that balance-of-power diplomacy would inform “a policy of promoting ‘stability’ based on extended authoritarian decay.” I realized, however, that realism is not simply a concession to the world as it is, where religious and ethnic identities retain their stubborn holds, and where human nature resents even the most benevolent efforts to impose societal transformation. In realist insights I discerned the roots of a sustainable strategy—one that could preserve the enlightened ideals of Western civilization, at least as long as it remained mindful of America’s historic role as a global stabilizer as well as the universalistic ethos that often animates its people. Satisfied that realism had a compelling moral basis, I concluded that a foreign policy of restraint offers the best hope for nurturing democratic capitalism at home and inspiring those in other countries who, as Irving Kristol counseled, “will draw on their own political and cultural backgrounds in arriving at a suitable disposition of this matter.”

In the tribal morass that is Washington, ideological conversions rarely end well. A lifetime of relationships can be burned when honest disagreements are mistaken for betrayal and ingratitude. Charges of opportunism invariably follow those whose views evolve, for a certain type of cynic can never concede that even the most battle-hardened insiders do, from time to time, follow their conscience.

That’s why I am grateful for the opportunity to join The American Conservative. Inherent in the magazine is a sensibility that resonates with my newfound persuasion, one that bends in the direction of prudent statecraft, limited government, and skepticism toward ideological exuberance. 

Pratik Chougule is an executive editor at The American Conservative. Follow him on twitter @pjchougule. He can be reached via email at pchougule@theamericanconservative.com. Sign up for his email list here.