war and the neo-cons
It was a little more than three years ago, on March 20, 2003,
that President Bush ordered the coalition to launch an
attack of opportunity against specified targets in Iraq.
Today, it seems less and less likely that history will regard
that moment of decision kindly. The invasion turned Iraq into
a fertile operational base for terrorism, with multiple targets,
local and foreign. A Shiite-dominated, democratic Iraq remains
a possibility, but the new government will be weak for quite
some time to come.
Will the US leave, as many Americans wish? Will Iraqs
more fundamentalist neighbours fill the vacuum? Removing Saddam
Hussein was a considerable benefit to the Iraqi people, but
Saddams removal and its sequel hardly seems to justify
all the blood and money spent so far on this venture.
The decision to invade Iraq was premised on Bushs doctrine
of pre-emption, spelled out in a special declaration of policy
during his first term, entitled The National Security
Strategy of the United States of America.
The declaration stressed Americas unparalleled military
dominance and said it would launch pre-emptive strikes to
defend itself against rogue states and terrorists with weapons
Bringing democracy to the greater Middle East was part of
the long-term solution to the problem of terrorism, but this
was not as front-and-centre in the declaration as the other
Pre-emption, however, depends on the ability to predict the
future accurately and on good intelligence.
Neither was forthcoming at the outset of this war. Bushs
talk of unilateralism also left the US more isolated and resented
as never before in the world. Small wonder that talk of pre-emption
has disappeared from policy discourse in the administrations
second term. Today, for instance, in dealing with the nuclear
threat from North Korea, Condoleezza Rice speaks of transformational
The use of American power to promote democracy and human rights
abroad became the centrepiece of foreign policy after Bushs
second inaugural. Americas vital interests and
our deepest beliefs are now one, he stated. But the
results of the activist foray abroad have, if anything, pushed
Americans more insistently towards isolationism.
There is a tradition that a president is never abandoned in
the middle of a war, but the prevailing situation reminds
many of the end of the Vietnam war, with the country wondering
once again what were the troops doing there in the first place.
The war and the identification of foreign policy with the
spread of democracy and human rights are attributed to the
influence of neo-cons, a group of neo-conservative
thinkers and strategists in the administration.
As is often the case with all such labels, neo-cons are not
all alike. Scholars like Daniel Bell and statesmen like Daniel
Patrick Moynihan, hardly regarded as neo-cons, nonetheless
shared some key conservative beliefs, notably a strong anti-communism
and a conviction about the limits of all social engineering.
Their anti-communism did not exclude sympathy with the social
and economic aims of communism. It was the communist state
that they regarded with horror.
They had no love either for large-scale engineering to achieve
social justice. Such schemes only left society worse off than
before, either because they required enormous state intervention,
which disrupted pre-existing social relations, eg busing to
achieving racial balance, or they ended up with a host of
unintended consequences, eg more single parent families as
a result of welfare.
Their form of neo-conservatism does not easily, if at all,
square with a foreign policy that would sanction the invasion
of Iraq to promote democracy. That came from another wing
of the movement, the neo-con Reaganites, who were emboldened
by the collapse of evil empires, not only the USSR, but also
East Germany and Romania.
Other totalitarian regimes, they felt, all similarly riven
by internal contradictions and hollow at the core, would collapse
at a push. This made regime change realistic, and American
power to bring it about eminently reasonable.
Thence came the belief that once Saddam was toppled, Iraq
would greet the invaders as liberators. It is now known that
the Pentagon had planned to reduce forces in Iraq to some
25,000 troops the summer after the invasion. A longer involvement
and greater commitment to civil stability were not envisaged
at the outset. Democracy was something that would have occurred
almost by default.
Theres yet a third strand to neo-conservatism. Concerns
here range from relativism to the crisis of modernity to the
belief that neither the claims of religion nor convictions
of the nature of the good life can (or should) be banished
from public life, as the (European) Enlightenment hoped, and
as its progeny still thinks.
Its the second strand thats in crisis at the moment.
The difficulty of promoting democracy in a problematic context
like Iraq seems to have been completely underestimated.
is one matter, John Deutsch, a former deputy secretary
of defence, observes, to adopt a foreign policy that
encourages democratic values; it is quite another to believe
it just or practical to achieve such results on the ground
with military forces.
But the notion of intervening in foreign nations to build
some preferred form of society is not uniquely a Republican
failing. The failing on the Democratic side is intervening
to stop egregious violations of human rights, and to move
from such peacekeeping to peacemaking
Thus, in the mid-1990s under Clinton, the US moved from halting
the ethnic cleansing or Bosnians by Serbs to creating
with indifferent results a multi-ethnic society among three
groupsBosnians, Croats, and Serbswho had had an
ancient history of enmity.
On yet another hand, where intervention could have been more
completely successful, with considerably less deployment of
force, as in ending the genocide in Rwanda, not a single finger
Diplomacy and economic clout are far better instruments for
achieving peacemaking than the ill-suited efforts of military
forces. Even North Korea for a while saw the advantages of
curbing its nuclear ambitions for the sake of economic benefit.
The demise of apartheid in South Africa also showed what could
result from collective economic action. Libya is yet another
instance. It too backed off from its commitment to weapons
of mass destruction at the prospect of economic benefit.
Less militarism costs less financially. It also costs less
in terms of human tragedy and the loss of countless numbers