Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Are You a Neo-Con?

In Neo-conservatism and the American future, Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke define what they claim as the core beliefs of neo-conservatives.

According to the site where this article is published ("Open Democracy"), Halper "is a former senior official in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations." And Clarke "is a foreign affairs scholar at the Cato Institute." These CVs suggest that both men come from "old school" conservative perspectives, which means their critique ought to be worth reading. I expect some logic and insight from that side of the political spectrum.

Classical conservatives in the U.S. often accuse neo-cons of being crypto-liberals. I support the Iraq war, but I find myself socially aligned more often with the Democrats, which makes me wonder if I'm a neo-con. So let's see how I stack up against Halper and Clarke. They say,

The three chief tenets of neo-conservative ideology are:

  • the human condition is a choice between good and evil, and the true measure of political character is to be found in the willingness by the former (themselves) to confront the latter

  • the fundamental determinant of the relationship between states rests on military power and the willingness to use it

  • the Middle East and global Islam is the prime theatre for American overseas interests.

Wait a minute, wait a minute. One parenthetical word ("themselves") in the very first tenet converts the whole critique into a flying leap at the straw man.

The authors slip in that word like a poison pill. It damns the neo-cons with self-righteousness without requiring the writers to prove it or even honestly charge it. Certainly such an assumption is not inherent in the view of the human condition that is being stated here. The statement of the tenet describes "good and evil" as the environment in which humans move and choose; but the "themselves" re-defines these terms and identifies one of them with the political persons themselves.

One can vaildly approach life as a moral struggle to parse out the good from the evil -- however you conceive those terms -- without presuming you have any perfect ability to always disentangle the threads properly or completely, and certainly without identifying yourself with "good."

Yes, I think the goal of a political person is to encourage the good in the world and fight the evil. What's the alternative? But I don't think I am the good. But maybe I do, because I think that devoting yourself to good is, well, "good." If that's what the authors mean, then they've divided the world into "neo-cons" and "nihilists."

I agree with the second tenet. International relations are still driven by power and force or threat of force. I don't think that is the most desirable situation. But I think it's a realistic reading. International law ultimately still depends on the power of a few nations who are willing to enforce it (in certain cases). A more developed check on naked force is economics. An integrated global economy is the antidote to tribalism.

Number three? The phrase "the prime theatre for American overseas interests" is so fuzzy as to be incomprehensible, at least to me. The Middle Eadt and the Islamic world (not all of it, but important parts of it) happen to be the places we are at war -- the places from which we were attacked. For now, that means these places have got our attention, and rightly so. But I wonder if "got our attention" is what the authors meant. Until they make themselves clear, I can't say whether I agree with them or not.

North Korea is as grave a threat as the Islamists, China is the conflict that awaits us, and India is the ally we will need. But for the next 20 or 30 years, Islamist terror is going to be the threat we face, and we must fight it creatively as well as forcefully, diplomatically and resolutely.

Back to the article.

In making these tenets active, neo-conservatives:

  • see international issues in morally absolutist categories; they are convinced that they alone hold the moral high ground and argue that disagreement effectively offers comfort to the enemy

  • emphasise the unipolar nature of American power and are prepared to exercise the military option as the first rather than last policy choice; they repudiate the received “lessons of Vietnam”, believing they undermine American willingness to use force - and rather embrace the “lessons of Munich,” believing they establish the virtues of pre-emptive military action

  • disdain conventional diplomatic agencies such as the state department and country-specific, pragmatic analysis because they dilute and confuse the ideological clarity of their policies

  • eschew multilateral institutions and treaties while drawing comfort from international criticism, believing that it confirms American virtue."

That's nuts. Not only do the authors make no connection between the "core tenets" and their activation (how does A cause B?), they show no examples of their opponents' supposed conviction that, to take just the first example, "they alone hold the moral high ground and argue that disagreement effectively offers comfort to the enemy."

Frankly, this is the kind of nonsense I expect from the left. Cato Institute or Kato Kaelin?

The U.S. goes to war in Iraq to overthrow a dictator, knowing full well that, in spite of the best efforts we can make, innocent civilians will die as a result of our war. To the anti-war mind, that de-legitimatizes the war as a moral force.

But we also know that Saddam and his sons are busy killing Iraqis in the most horrible ways, and that he is very interested in killing Americans if he gets the chance. So the realistic view notices that there is suffering and dying going on in Iraq. It says we can't claim our hands are unbloodied simply because we sit comfortably at home and do nothing to stop it -- rather the opposite.

This seems to me a complex decision, not a simplistic moral dichotomy. Rather, I'd characterize the anti-war position as a simplistic moral dichotomy.

And certainly many kinds of anti-war resistance do aid and comfort the enemy. The North Vietnamese have told us so. But if I am the moral absolutist this article would make me out to be, why do I not want these voices shut down and silenced -- thrown in jail and muzzled, a la Lincoln in 1862? Because my moral certainties include the belief that liberal democracy -- including freedom to make stupid protests -- is "good." It's certainly better than the Islamist alternative of fatwas on fiction writers.

At this point I'm still wondering if I'm a neo-con or not, but I've realized this article isn't going to be any help at all.