Why No One Should Still Be a Neocon
Reihan Salam offers a very roundabout explanation for why he still identifies as a neoconservative on foreign policy:
The neocon impulse proved badly misguided in Iraq, where it contributed to a moral calamity. But there are other cases, in South Asia in 1971 and in Bosnia in the early 1990s, to name two examples among many, where it might very well have prevented one.
It is an odd defense of neoconservatism that offers no real positive defense of neoconservative policies as such. We can agree that Nixon and Kissinger were very wrong in abetting Pakistani atrocities, but that doesn’t tell us why the U.S. should opt instead for a moralizing foreign policy that keeps trying to drag us into other nations’ conflicts at every turn. There are several alternatives to the neoconservatives’ warped understanding of U.S. “leadership” that don’t require the U.S. to tolerate or support atrocities by its clients. (Never mind that some neoconservatives and other hard-liners are often among the first to defend wrongdoing by clients for the sake of some larger ideological struggle.) If the only choices were Kissinger at his worst or neoconservatives at their least awful, perhaps Reihan’s argument would be more persuasive, but they are not the only choices available to Americans. It would be interesting to know why Reihan still wants to call himself a neocon, but all that his article has explained is why he doesn’t want to be like Nixon and Kissinger. That doesn’t tell us much that is relevant to contemporary foreign policy debates.
One of the many serious flaws of neoconservatism is its excessive confidence in American power. This routinely leads its adherents into advocating aggressive policies without taking into account the possible and likely consequences of those policies, because they overlook or simply ignore how their policies might go wrong. That’s not unique to neoconservatives, but it is more perilous because they are constantly agitating for U.S. activism abroad. If there is a foreign crisis or conflict, neoconservatives will insist that the U.S. can and must “lead” to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion, and they deride anything other than their preferred policy as vacillation and “weakness.” Neoconservatives also routinely overestimate the importance of willpower and resolve, and they imagine that many international problems could be successfully resolved with nothing more than the right application of resolve and an exercise of power.
Neoconservatives take for granted that the U.S. can and should meddle in the affairs of countless nations, and they are always convinced that this meddling is benevolent no matter how much instability and suffering result. It doesn’t matter if the people living there want this “help,” and it doesn’t matter if there are strong reasons to doubt that U.S. “help” will be of any good use. The “neocon impulse,” as Reihan calls it, is also the impulse to interfere where we aren’t welcome, to dictate to those that reject our advice, and to try to control what is beyond our grasp. It is virtually impossible to yield to this impulse without risking grave abuses of power, because the impulse recognizes no real limits to what the U.S. is allowed to do.
It’s important to emphasize that rejecting neoconservatism doesn’t require anyone to eschew all forms of internationalism. Neoconservatives are always trying to pretend that rejecting their reckless and dangerous ideas must involve a complete repudiation of internationalism, but it becomes less and less credible with every attempt. There is nothing left worth defending in neoconservative foreign policy (if there ever was), and no one should still be trying to defend it at this point.