The Rise and Fall of Neoconservative Foreign Policy
When asked during the 2000 presidential campaign about his foreign policy convictions, George W. Bush said that a president’s “guiding question” should be: “What’s in the best interests of the United States? What’s in the best interests of our people?”1
A president focused on American interests, he made clear, would not risk troops’ lives in “nation-building” missions overseas:
I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war. I think our troops ought to be used to help overthrow the dictator when it’s in our best interests. But in [Somalia] it was a nation-building exercise, and same with Haiti. I wouldn’t have supported either.2
In denouncing “nation-building” Bush was in line with a long-standing animus of Americans against using our military to try to fix the endless problems of other nations. But at the same time, he was going against a major contingent of conservatives, the neoconservatives, who had long been arguing for more, not less, nation-building.
By 2003, though, George W. Bush had adopted the neoconservatives’ position. He sent the American military to war in Iraq, not simply to “overthrow the dictator,” but to build the primitive, tribal nation of Iraq into a “democratic,” peaceful, and prosperous one. This “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” he explained, was only the first step of a larger “forward strategy of freedom” whose ultimate goal was “the end of tyranny in our world”3—a prescription for worldwide nation-building. All of this, he stressed, was necessary for America’s “national interest.”
President Bush’s profound shift in foreign policy views reflected the profound impact that September 11 had on him and on the American public at large.
Before 9/11, Americans were basically satisfied with the existing foreign policy. They had little desire to make any significant changes, and certainly not in the direction of more nation-building. The status quo seemed to be working; Americans seemed basically safe. The Soviet Union had fallen, and America was the world’s lone superpower. To be sure, we faced occasional aggression, including Islamic terrorist attacks against Americans overseas—but these were not large enough or close enough for most to lose sleep over, let alone demand fundamental changes in foreign policy over.
Everything changed on that Tuesday morning when nineteen members of a terrorist network centered in Afghanistan slaughtered thousands of Americans in the name of an Islamic totalitarian movement supported by states throughout the Arab-Islamic world. What once seemed like a safe world was now obviously fraught with danger. And what once seemed like an appropriate foreign policy toward terrorism and its state supporters was now obviously incapable of protecting America. Prior to 9/11, terrorism was treated primarily as a problem of isolated gangs roaming the earth, to be combated by police investigations of the particular participants in any given attack; our leaders turned a blind eye to the ideology driving the terrorists and to the indispensable role of state support for international terrorist groups. State sponsors of terrorism were treated as respected members of the “international community,” and, to the extent their aggression was acknowledged, it was dealt with via “diplomacy,” a euphemism for inaction and appeasement. Diplomacy had been the dominant response in 1979, when a new Islamist Iranian regime supported a 444-day hostage-taking of fifty Americans—as part of an Islamic totalitarian movement openly committed to achieving Islamic world domination, including the destruction of Israel and America. Diplomacy had been the response when the terrorist agents of Arab-Islamic regimes killed marines in Lebanon in 1983—and bombed a TWA flight in 1986—and bombed the World Trade Center in 1993—and bombed the Khobar towers in 1996—and bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998—and bombed the USS Cole in 2000. Diplomacy had also been the response when Iran issued a death decree on a British author for “un-Islamic” writings, threatening American bookstores and publishers associated with him, and thus denying Americans their sacred right to free speech. Throughout all of this, Americans had accepted that our leaders knew what they were doing with regard to protecting America from terrorism and other threats. On 9/11, Americans saw with brutal clarity that our actions had been somewhere between shortsighted and blind. The country and its president were ripe for a dramatic departure from the policies that had guided and failed America pre-9/11.
The only prominent group of intellectuals that offered a seemingly compelling alternative claiming to protect America in the modern, dangerous world (a standard by which neither pacifists nor Buchananite xenophobes qualify) were neoconservatives. . . .