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.
Neoconservatives had long been critics of America’s pre-9/11 foreign policy, the technical name for which is “realism.” “Realism” holds that all nations are, in one form or another, “rational” actors that pursue common interests such as money, power, and prestige. Given such common goals among nations, “realists” hold that, no matter what another nation’s statements or actions toward the United States, there is always a chance for a diplomatic deal in which both sides make concessions; any other nation will be “rational” and realize that an all-out military conflict with superpower America is not in its interest. Thus, America pursuing its “national interest” means a constant diplomatic game of toothless resolutions, amorphous “pressure,” and dressed-up bribery to keep the world’s assorted threatening nations in line. The only time “realists” are willing to abandon this game in favor of using genuine military force against threatening regimes is in the face of some catastrophic attack. Otherwise, they regard it as not in our “national interest” to deal with other nations by military means. Why take such a drastic step when a successful deal may be just around the corner?
In the 1980s and 1990s, as “realism” dominated foreign policy, neoconservatives criticized it for having a false view of regimes, and a “narrow,” shortsighted view of the “national interest” in which only tangible, immediate threats to American security warranted military action. They rightly pointed out that “realism” was a shortsighted prescription for long-range disaster—a policy of inaction and appeasement in the face of very real threats, and thus a guarantor that those threats would grow bolder and stronger. A neoconservative essay published in 2000 expresses this viewpoint:
The United States, both at the level of elite opinion and popular sentiment, appears to have become the Alfred E. Newman of superpowers—its national motto: “What, me worry?” . . . [T]here is today a “present danger.” It has no name. It is not to be found in any single strategic adversary. . . . Our present danger is one of declining military strength, flagging will and confusion about our role in the world. It is a danger, to be sure, of our own devising. Yet, if neglected, it is likely to yield very real external dangers, as threatening in their way as the Soviet Union was a quarter century ago.4
In place of “realism,” neoconservatives advocated a policy often called “interventionism,” one component of which calls for America to work assertively to overthrow threatening regimes and to replace them with peaceful “democracies.” Bad regimes, they asserted vaguely, were responsible for threats like terrorism; such threats could never emerge from “democracies.” “Interventionism,” they said, took a “broad” and ultimately more realistic view of America’s “national interest,” by dealing with threats before they metastasized into catastrophes and by actively replacing threatening governments with “democracies” that would become our allies. In place of a series of “realist” responses to the crisis of the moment, they claimed, they were offering a long-range foreign policy to protect America now and in the future.
After 9/11, the neoconservatives felt intellectually vindicated, and they argued for “interventionism” with regard to state sponsors of terrorism. An editorial in the leading neoconservative publication, The Weekly Standard, called for a “war to replace the government of each nation on earth that allows terrorists to live and operate within its borders.”5 The replacement governments would be “democracies” that would allegedly ensure that new threatening regimes would not take the place of old ones.
These ideas exerted a major influence on President Bush immediately after 9/11, an influence that grew in the coming years. On September 20, 2001, influenced by neoconservative colleagues and speechwriters, he proclaimed a desire to end state sponsorship of terrorism: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make: either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. . . . From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”6 His neoconservative deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, publicly called for “ending states who sponsor terrorism”7 (though the “realists” in the State Department caused the administration to partially recant).
Soon thereafter, President Bush made clear that he wanted to replace the state sponsors of terrorism with “democracies,” beginning with Afghanistan. When he dropped bombs on that country, he supplemented them with food packages and a tripling of foreign aid; he declared the Afghan people America’s “friend” and said that we would “liberate” them and help them establish a “democracy” to replace the terrorist-sponsoring Taliban.
The full influence of neoconservatism was evident by the time of the Iraq War. Prior to 9/11, the idea of democratic “regime change” in Iraq with the ultimate aim of “spreading democracy” throughout the Arab-Islamic world was unpopular outside neoconservative circles—dismissed as a “nation-building” boondoggle waiting to happen. After 9/11, George W. Bush became convinced—and convinced Americans—that such a quest was utterly necessary in today’s dangerous world, and that it could and would succeed. “Iraqi democracy will succeed,” he said in 2003, “and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Teheran—that freedom can be the future of every nation. The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.”8
Thus, the neoconservative foreign policy of “regime change” and “spreading democracy” had become the American foreign policy—and the hope of Americans for protecting the nation.
As neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in 2005:
What neoconservatives have long been advocating is now being articulated and practiced at the highest levels of government by a war cabinet composed of individuals who, coming from a very different place, have joined . . . the neoconservative camp and are carrying the neoconservative idea throughout the world.9
At first, Operation Iraqi Freedom—and thus our new neoconservative foreign policy—seemed to most observers to be a success. The basic expectation of the war’s architects had been that by ousting a tyrant, “liberating” Iraqis, and allowing them to set up a “democracy” in Iraq, we would at once be deterring future threats from Iran and Syria, setting up a friendly, allied regime in Iraq, and empowering pro-American influences throughout the Middle East. And when the American military easily took Baghdad, when we witnessed Kodak moments of grateful Iraqis hugging American soldiers or razing a statue of Saddam Hussein, when President Bush declared “major combat operations in Iraq have ended,”10 neoconservatives in particular thought that everything was working. Their feeling of triumph was captured on the back cover of The Weekly Standard on April 21, 2003, in which the magazine parodied prominent Iraq war critics by printing a fake apology admitting that their opposition to “Operation Iraqi Freedom” reflected stupidity and ignorance. “We’re Idiots. We Admit It,” the parody read. “We, the Undersigned, Agree that We Got this Whole War in Iraq Business Spectacularly Wrong. We didn’t see that it was a war of liberation, not a war of colonization. . . . We thought the Iraqi people would resent American troops. We thought the war would drag on and on. . . . We wanted to preserve the status quo.”11 Future cover stories of The Weekly Standard featured inspiring titles such as “Victory: The Restoration of American Awe and the Opening of the Arab Mind” and “The Commander: How Tommy Franks Won the Iraq War.”
But the luster of the Iraq War quickly wore off as American troops faced an insurgency that the Bush team had not anticipated; it turned out that many of the lovable, freedom-loving Iraqis we had heard about prewar were in fact recalcitrant, dictatorship-seeking Iraqis. Still, even through 2005, many viewed the Iraq War as a partial success due to the capture of Saddam Hussein and such alleged milestones as a “transfer of power” in 2004, an election and the passage of a constitution in January 2005, and a ratified constitution in December 2005—events that were heralded even by many of the President’s most dependable critics, such as the New York Times.
Now, however, in mid-2007, the Iraq War is rightly regarded by most as a disaster that utterly failed to live up to its promise. The Bush-neoconservative vision of deterred enemies, a friendly Iraq, and the inspiration of potential allies around the world has not materialized. Instead, for the price of more than 3,200 American soldiers, and counting, we have gotten an Iraq in a state of civil war whose government (to the extent it has one) follows a constitution avowedly ruled by Islamic law and is allied with Iran; more-confident, less-deterred regimes in Iran and Syria; and the increasing power and prestige of Islamic totalitarians around the world: in Egypt, in the Palestinian territories, in Saudi Arabia, in Lebanon. And all of this from a policy that was supposed to provide us with a clear-eyed, farsighted view of our “national interest”—as against the blindness and short-range mentality of our former “realist” policies.
How have we managed to fail so spectacularly to secure our interests in the perfect neoconservative war? The state of affairs it has brought about is so bad, so much worse than anticipated, that it cannot be explained by particular personalities (such as Bush or Rumsfeld) or particular strategic decisions (such as insufficient troop levels). Such a failure can be explained only by fundamental flaws in the policy.
On this count, most of the President’s critics and critics of neoconservatism heartily agree; however, their identification of neoconservatism’s fundamental problems has been abysmal. The criticism is dominated by the formerly discredited “realists,” who argue that the Iraq War demonstrates that “war is not the answer” to our problems—that the United States was too “unilateralist,” “arrogant,” “militaristic”—and that we must revert to more “diplomacy” to deal with today’s threats. Thus, in response to Iran’s ongoing support of terrorism and pursuit of nuclear weapons, to North Korea’s nuclear tests, to Saudi Arabia’s ongoing financing of Islamic Totalitarianism—they counsel more “diplomacy,” “negotiations,” and “multilateralism.” In other words, we should attempt to appease the aggressors who threaten us with bribes that reward their aggression, and we should allow our foreign policy to be dictated by the anti-Americans at the United Nations. These are the exact same policies that did absolutely nothing to prevent 9/11 or to thwart the many threats we face today.
If these are the lessons we draw from the failure of neoconservatism, we will be no better off without that policy than with it. It is imperative, then, that we gain a genuine understanding of neoconservatism’s failure to protect American interests. Providing this understanding is the purpose of this essay. In our view, the basic reason for neoconservatism’s failure to protect America is that neoconservatism, despite its claims, is fundamentally opposed to America’s true national interest.
What Is the “National Interest”?
When most Americans hear the term “national interest” in foreign policy discussions, they think of our government protecting our lives, liberty, and property from foreign aggressors, today and in the future. Thus, when neoconservatives use the term “national interest,” most Americans assume that they mean the protection of American lives and rights. But this assumption is wrong. To neoconservatives, the “national interest” means something entirely different than the protection of American individual rights. To understand what, we must look to the intellectual origins of the neoconservative movement.
The movement of “neoconservatives” (a term initially used by one of its critics) began as a group of disillusioned leftist-socialist intellectuals. Among them were Irving Kristol, the widely-acknowledged “godfather” of neoconservatism and founder of the influential journals The Public Interest and The National Interest; Norman Podhoretz, long-time editor of Commentary; Nathan Glazer, a Harvard professor of sociology; and Daniel Bell, another Harvard sociologist.
The cause of the original neoconservatives’ disillusionment was the massive failure of socialism worldwide, which had become undeniable by the 1960s, combined with their leftist brethren’s response to it.
In the early 20th century, American leftists were professed idealists. They were true believers in the philosophy of collectivism: the idea that the group (collective) has supremacy over the individual, both metaphysically and morally—and therefore that the individual must live in service to the collective, sacrificing for “its” sake. Collectivism is the social-political application of the morality of altruism: the idea that individuals have a duty to live a life of selfless service to others. The variety of collectivism that leftists subscribed to was socialism (as against fascism). They sought to convert America into a socialist state in which “scientific” social planners would coercively direct individuals and “redistribute” their property for the “greater good” of the collective. Many leftists believed, in line with socialist theory, that this system would lead to a level of prosperity, harmony, and happiness that the “atomistic,” “unplanned” system of capitalism could never approach.
The Left’s vision of the flourishing socialist Utopia collapsed as socialist experiment after socialist experiment produced the exact opposite results. Enslaving individuals and seizing their production led to destruction wherever and to whatever extent it was implemented, from the Communist socialism of Soviet Russia and Red China, to the National Socialism (Nazism) of Germany, to the disastrous socialist economics of Great Britain. At this point, as pro-capitalist philosopher Ayn Rand has observed, the Left faced a choice: Either renounce socialism and promote capitalism—or maintain allegiance to socialism, knowing full well what type of consequences it must lead to.
Most leftists chose the second. Knowing that they could no longer promise prosperity and happiness, they embraced an anti-wealth, anti-American, nihilist agenda. Whereas the Old Left had at least ostensibly stood for intellectualism, pro-Americanism, and prosperity-seeking, the New Left exhibited mindless hippiedom, anti-industrialization, environmentalism, naked egalitarianism, and unvarnished hatred of America’s military. Despite incontrovertible evidence of the continuous atrocities committed by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, American leftists continued to support that regime while denouncing all things American.
The soon-to-be neoconservatives were among the members of the Old Left who opposed the New Left. Irving Kristol and his comrades felt increasingly alienated from their former allies—and from the socialist policies they had once championed. They had come to believe that some variant of a free economy, not a command-and-control socialist state, was necessary for human well-being. And they recognized, by the 1960s, that the Soviet Union was an evil aggressor that threatened civilization and must be fought, at least intellectually if not militarily.
But this “neoconservative” transformation went only so far. Kristol and company’s essential criticism of socialism pertained to its practicality as a political program; they came to oppose such socialist fixtures as state economic planning, social engineering of individuals into collectivist drones, and totalitarian government. Crucially, though, they did not renounce socialism’s collectivist moral ideal. They still believed that the individual should be subjugated for the “greater good” of “society” and the state. They just decided that the ideal was best approximated through the American political system rather than by overthrowing it.
One might ask how America’s form of government can be viewed as conducive to the ideals of thoroughgoing collectivists—given that it was founded on the individual’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The answer is that the America neoconservatives embraced was not the individualistic America of the Founding Fathers; it was the collectivist and statist post-New Deal America. This modern American government—which violated individual rights with its social security and welfare programs and its massive regulation of business all in the name of group “rights” and had done so increasingly for decades—was seen by the neoconservatives as a basically good thing that just needed some tweaking in order to achieve the government’s moral purpose: “the national interest” (i.e., the alleged good of the collective at the expense of the individual). The neoconservatives saw in modern, welfare-state America the opportunity to achieve collectivist goals without the obvious and bloody failures of avowedly socialist systems.
There was a time in American history when the individualism upon which America was founded was advocated, albeit highly inconsistently, by American conservatives—many of whom called for something of a return to the original American system. (Individualism is the view that in social issues, including politics, the individual, not the group, is the important unit.) The best representative of individualism in conservatism in the past fifty years was Barry Goldwater, who wrote: “The legitimate functions of government are actually conducive to freedom. Maintaining internal order, keeping foreign foes at bay, administering justice, removing obstacles to the free interchange of goods—the exercise of these powers makes it possible for men to follow their chosen pursuits with maximum freedom.”12
The neoconservatives, however, openly regarded an individualistic government as immoral. The “socialist ideal,” writes Irving Kristol, is a “necessary ideal, offering elements that were wanting in capitalist society—elements indispensable for the preservation, not to say perfection, of our humanity.” Socialism, he says, is properly “community-oriented” instead of “individual-oriented”; it encourages individuals to transcend the “vulgar, materialistic, and divisive acquisitiveness that characterized the capitalist type of individual.”13 Criticizing the original American system, Kristol writes: “A society founded solely on ‘individual rights’ was a society that ultimately deprived men of those virtues which could only exist in a political community which is something other than a ‘society.’” Such a society, he says, lacked “a sense of distributive justice, a fund of shared moral values, and a common vision of the good life sufficiently attractive and powerful to transcend the knowledge that each individual’s life ends only in death.”14
Translation: Individuals’ lives are only truly meaningful if they sacrifice for some collective, “higher” purpose that “transcends” their unimportant, finite selves. That “higher” purpose—not individuals’ lives, liberty, and property—is the “national interest.”
For traditional socialists, that purpose was the material well-being of the proletariat. But as Kristol’s comments demeaning “materialism” indicate, the “higher” purpose of the neoconservatives is more concerned with the alleged moral and spiritual well-being of a nation. (One reason for this difference is that the neoconservatives are strongly influenced by the philosophy of Plato.) In this sense, neoconservatism is more a nationalist or fascist form of collectivism than socialist.
Ayn Rand highlights this difference between fascism and socialism in her essay “The Fascist New Frontier”:
The basic moral-political principle running through [fascism and socialism] is clear: the subordination and sacrifice of the individual to the collective.
That principle (derived from the ethics of altruism) is the ideological root of all statist systems, in any variation, from welfare statism to a totalitarian dictatorship. . . .
The socialist-communist axis keeps promising to achieve abundance, material comfort and security for its victims, in some indeterminate future. The fascist-Nazi axis scorns material comfort and security, and keeps extolling some undefined sort of spiritual duty, service and conquest. The socialist-communist axis offers its victims an alleged social ideal. The fascist-Nazi axis offers nothing but loose talk about some unspecified form of racial or national “greatness.”15
For neoconservatives, such nationalistic pursuit of “national greatness” is the “national interest”—the interest, not of an individualistic nation whose purpose is to protect the rights of individual citizens, but of an organic nation whose “greatness” is found in the subjugation of the individuals it comprises.
Fittingly, during the late 1990s, “national greatness” became the rallying cry of top neoconservatives. In an influential 1997 Wall Street Journal op-ed, neoconservatives William Kristol (son of Irving Kristol) and David Brooks called directly for “national greatness conservatism.” They criticized “the antigovernment, ‘leave us alone’ sentiment that was crucial to the Republican victory of 1994. . . . Wishing to be left alone isn’t a governing doctrine.”16 (Actually, it was exactly the “governing doctrine” of the Founding Fathers, who risked their lives, fortunes, and families to be left alone by the British, and to establish a government that would leave its citizens alone.) Brooks and Kristol pined for leaders who would call America “forward to a grand destiny.”17
What kind of “grand destiny”? Brooks explained in an article elaborating on “national greatness.”
It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness. . . . [E]nergetic government is good for its own sake. It raises the sights of the individual. It strengthens common bonds. It boosts national pride. It continues the great national project.18
Brooks and Kristol bemoaned America’s lack of a task with which to achieve “national greatness.” They got it with 9/11, which necessitated that America go to war.
In an individualistic view of the “national interest,” a war is a negative necessity; it is something that gets in the way of what individuals in a society should be doing: living their lives and pursuing their happiness in freedom. Not so for the neoconservatives.
Consider the following passage from the lead editorial of the neoconservative Weekly Standard the week after 9/11, the deadliest foreign attack ever on American soil. Remember how you felt at that time, and how much you wished you could return to the seemingly peaceful state of 9/10, when you read this:
We have been called out of our trivial concerns. We have resigned our parts in the casual comedy of everyday existence. We live, for the first time since World War II, with a horizon once again. . . . [There now exists] the potential of Americans to join in common purpose—the potential that is the definition of a nation. . . . There is a task to which President Bush should call us . . . [a] long, expensive, and arduous war. . . . It will prove long and difficult. American soldiers will lose their lives in the course of it, and American civilians will suffer hardships. But that . . . is what real war looks like.19
Why is the Weekly Standard practically celebrating the slaughter of thousands of Americans? Because the slaughter created “the potential of Americans to join in common purpose—the potential that is the definition of a nation.” Even if a “long, expensive, and arduous war” were necessary to defeat the enemy that struck on 9/11—and we will argue that it is not—it is profoundly un-American and morally obscene to treat such a war as a positive turn of events because it generates a collective purpose or “horizon.” Observe the scorn with which this editorial treats the normal lives of individuals in a free nation. Pursuing our careers and creative projects, making money, participating in rewarding hobbies, enjoying the company of friends, raising beloved children—these are desecrated as “trivial concerns” and “parts in the casual comedy of everyday existence.” The editorial makes clear that its signers think the exalted thing in life is “the potential of Americans to join in common purpose”—not the potential of individual Americans to lead their own lives and pursue their own happiness. This is the language of those who believe that each American is merely a cog in some grand collective machine, to be directed or discarded as the goal of “national greatness” dictates.
Americans sacrificing for the “higher” good of the nation and its “greatness” is what the neoconservatives mean by the “national interest.” And in foreign policy, this is the sort of “national interest” they strive to achieve.
An Altruistic Nationalism
Today’s neoconservative foreign policy has been formulated and advocated mostly by a younger generation of neoconservatives (though supported by much of the old guard) including the likes of William Kristol, Robert Kagan, Max Boot, Joshua Muravchik, and former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz. It holds that America’s “national interest” in foreign policy is for America to establish and maintain a “democratic international order”20 that promotes the long-term security and well-being of all the world’s peoples.
Neoconservatives, in keeping with their altruist-collectivist ideals, believe that America has no right to conduct its foreign policy for its own sake—that is, to focus its military energies on decisively defeating real threats to its security, and otherwise to stay out of the affairs of other nations. Instead, they believe, America has a “duty” to, as leading neoconservatives William Kristol and Robert Kagan put it, “advance civilization and improve the world’s condition.”21 Just as neoconservatives hold that the individual should live in service to the American collective, so they hold that America should live in service to the international collective. And because America is the wealthiest and most powerful of all nations, neoconservatives say, it has the greatest “duty” to serve. In doing its duty to the world, Kristol and Kagan say, America will further its “national greatness,” achieving a coveted “place of honor among the world’s great powers.”22
In this view of nationalism and “national greatness,” neoconservatives are more consistently altruistic than other nationalists. Most nationalist nations are altruistic in that they believe their individual citizens are inconsequential, and should be sacrificed for the “higher cause” that is the nation. But they are “selfish” with regard to their own nation; they believe that their nation is an end in itself, that it is right to sacrifice other nations to their nation’s needs; thus, the expansionist, conquering designs of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
The neoconservatives’ brand of “nationalism” does not regard America as an end in itself. It believes that America has a duty to better the condition of the rest of the world (i.e., other nations). It is an altruistic nationalism.
Neoconservatives do not put it this way; Kristol and Kagan come out for “a nationalism . . . of a uniquely American variety: not an insular, blood-and-soil nationalism, but one that derived its meaning and coherence from being rooted in universal principles first enunciated in the Declaration of Independence.”23
One might wonder how neoconservatives square their views with the universal principles of the Declaration—which recognize each American’s right to live his own life and pursue his own happiness and which say nothing about a duty to bring the good life to the rest of the world.
Neoconservatives attempt to reconcile the two by holding that freedom is not a right to be enjoyed, but a duty to be given altruistically to those who lack it. They do not mean simply that we must argue for the moral superiority of freedom and tell the Arabs that this is the only proper way for men to live—and mail them a copy of our Constitution for guidance—but that we give up our lives and our freedom to bring them freedom.
Thus, after 9/11, the neoconservatives did not call for doing whatever was necessary to defeat the nations that sponsor terrorism; rather, they championed a welfare war in Iraq to achieve their longtime goal of “Iraqi democracy.” Just a few weeks after 9/11, Max Boot wrote:
This could be the chance . . . to show the Arab people that America is as committed to freedom for them as we were for the people of Eastern Europe. To turn Iraq into a beacon of hope for the oppressed peoples of the Middle East: Now that would be a historic war aim.24
For those familiar with the history of the 20th century, the international collectivist goals of the neoconservative foreign policy should not seem new; they are nearly identical to those of the foreign policy school of which President Woodrow Wilson was the most prominent member, the school known in modern terms as “Liberal Internationalism” or just “Wilsonianism.”
According to Wilsonianism, America must not restrict itself to going to war when direct threats exist; it must not “isolate” itself from the rest of the world’s troubles, but must instead “engage” itself and work with others to create a world of peace and security—one that alleviates suffering, collectively opposes “rogue nations” that threaten the security of the world as a whole, and brings “democracy” and “self-determination” to various oppressed peoples around the world. It was on this premise that both the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations, were formed—and on which America entered World War I (“The world,” Wilson said, “must be made safe for democracy”).25
The Wilsonian-neoconservative view of America’s “national interest” is in stark contrast to the traditional, individualistic American view of America’s national interest in foreign policy. Angelo Codevilla, an expert on the intellectual history of American foreign policy, summarizes the difference. Before the 20th century,
Americans, generally speaking, wished the rest of the world well, demanded that it keep its troubles out of our hemisphere, and hoped that it would learn from us.
By the turn of the 20th century, however, this hope led some Americans to begin to think of themselves as the world’s teachers, its chosen instructors. This twist of the founders’ views led to a new and enduring quarrel over American foreign policy—between those who see the forceful safeguarding of our own unique way of life as the purpose of foreign relations, and those who believe that securing the world by improving it is the test of what [Iraqi “democracy” champion] Larry Diamond has called “our purpose and fiber as a nation.”26
As to how to “secure the world by improving it,” Wilsonianism and neoconservatism have substantial differences. Wilsonianism favors American subordination to international institutions and “diplomacy,” whereas neoconservatism favors American leadership and more often advocates force in conjunction with diplomacy. Traditional Wilsonians are not pacifists (Wilson, after all, brought America into World War I), but they tend to believe that almost all problems can be solved by peaceful “cooperation” among members of world bodies to paper over potential conflicts or “isolate” aggressive nations that go against the “international community.” Neoconservatives openly state that their ambitious foreign-policy goals—whether removing a direct threat or stopping a tribal war in a faraway land—require the use of force.
Some neoconservatives, such as Max Boot, embrace the term “Hard Wilsonianism,” not only to capture their intense affinity with Woodrow Wilson’s liberal international collectivism, but also to highlight their differences in tactics:
[A] more accurate term [than “neoconservatism”] might be “hard Wilsonianism.” Advocates of this view embrace Woodrow Wilson’s championing of American ideals but reject his reliance on international organizations and treaties to accomplish our objectives. (“Soft Wilsonians,” a k a liberals, place their reliance, in Charles Krauthammer’s trenchant phrase, on paper, not power.)27
Not only must “power, not paper” (to reverse Krauthammer’s expression) be used more often in achieving the desired “international order” than Wilsonians think, say neoconservatives, but America must lead that order. It must not subordinate its decision-making authority to an organization such as the U.N., nor cede to other countries the “responsibilities” for solving international problems.
America must lead, they say, because it is both militarily and morally the preeminent nation in the world. America, they observe, has on many occasions come to the rescue of other nations, even at its own expense (such as in World War I or Vietnam)—the ultimate proof of altruistic virtue. (According to the neoconservatives, “Americans had nothing to gain from entering Vietnam—not land, not money, not power. . . . [T]he American effort in Vietnam was a product of one of the noblest traits of the American character—altruism in service of principles.”)28 By contrast, they observe, other nations, including many in Europe, have not even shown willingness to defend themselves, let alone others.
The cornerstone policy of the neoconservatives’ American-led, “hard” collectivist foreign policy is the U.S.-led military “intervention”: using the American military or some military coalition to correct some evil; give “humanitarian” aid; provide “peacekeeping”; and, ideally, enact “regime change” and establish a new, beneficial “democracy” for the formerly oppressed.
Given the desired “international order” and America’s “responsibility” to “improve the world’s condition,” the obligation to “intervene” goes far beyond nations that threaten the United States. And when America is “intervening” in a threatening nation, the “intervention” cannot simply defeat the nation and render it non-threatening; it must seek to benefit the nation’s inhabitants, preferably by furnishing them with a new “democracy.”
Throughout the past decade and a half, neoconservatives have called for major “interventions” in remote tribal wars in Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, Darfur, and Liberia—none of which entailed a direct threat to the United States. And when they have called for responses to real threats, their focus has been on “liberating” the Afghans, Iraqis, and Iranians—not on breaking the hostile inhabitants’ will to keep supporting and sponsoring Islamist, anti-American causes.
Endorsing this broad mandate for “intervention,” William Kristol and Robert Kagan write, in their seminal neoconservative essay “National Interest and Global Responsibility,” that America must be “more rather than less inclined to weigh in when crises erupt, and preferably before they erupt”; it must be willing to go to war “even when we cannot prove that a narrowly construed ‘vital interest’ of the United States is at stake.” In other words, to use a common phrase, America must be the “world’s policeman”—and not just any policeman, either: It must be a highly active one. In the words of Kristol and Kagan: “America cannot be a reluctant sheriff.”29
Despite Wilsonianism and “Hard Wilsonianism’s” differences, they agree entirely on a key aspect of the means to their goals: Any mission must involve substantial American sacrifice—the selfless surrender of American life, liberty, and property for the sake of other nations.
When Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war to enter World War I, he said:
We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them. . . .
[W]e fight without rancor and without selfish object, seeking nothing for ourselves but what we shall wish to share with all free peoples. . . .30
Similarly, President Bush extolled the (alleged) virtue of “sacrifice for the freedom of strangers” in his decision to invade Iraq. Later that year, in a landmark speech at the National Endowment for Democracy, Bush said:
Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism?. . . I, for one, do not believe it. I believe every person has the ability and the right to be free. . . .
Securing democracy in Iraq is the work of many hands. American and coalition forces are sacrificing for the peace of Iraq. . . .31
Why must America “sacrifice for the freedom of strangers”? By what right do the problems of barbarians overseas exert a claim on the life of an American twenty-year-old, whose life may be extinguished just as it is beginning?
Both neoconservatives and Wilsonians have a dual answer: It is morally right and practically necessary for America to sacrifice for the international collective.
The moral component of this is straightforward. In our culture, it is uncontroversial that a virtuous person is one who lives a life of altruism—a life of selfless service to others, in which he puts their well-being and desires above his own. This is the premise behind our ever-growing welfare state and every socialist and semi-socialist country. Max Boot applies this premise logically to sacrificing for other nations: “Why not use some of the awesome power of the U.S. government to help the downtrodden of the world, just as it is used to help the needy at home?”32
And this help is not just money—it is also blood. For example, several years ago, when President Clinton finally succumbed to pressure from neoconservatives and liberal internationalists to attack Serbia in an attempt to force its surrender of Kosovo, the neoconservatives condemned him morally—because Clinton decided to forgo sending ground troops, which may have minimized Kosovar casualties, in favor of bombing, which would spare American lives. To quote Max Boot: “It is a curious morality that puts greater value on the life of even a single American pilot—a professional who has volunteered for combat—than on hundreds, even thousands, of Kosovar lives.”33
This moral argument is crucial to appeals for sacrifice—but it is not sufficient. Imagine if neoconservatives or Wilsonians openly said: “We believe that Americans should be sent to die for the sake of other nations, even though it will achieve no American interest.” Americans would rebel against the naked self-sacrifice being demanded.
Thus, a crucial component of the neoconservative call for international self-sacrifice is the argument that it is ultimately a practical necessity—that it is ultimately in our self-interest—that the sacrifice is ultimately not really a sacrifice.
Does National Security Require International Sacrifice?
Nearly every moral or political doctrine in history that has called on individuals to sacrifice their well-being to some “higher” cause has claimed that their sacrifices are practical necessities and will lead to some wonderful long-term benefit, either for the sacrificers or for their fellow citizens or descendants.
For example, calls to sacrifice one’s desires for the sake of the supernatural are coupled with the threat of burning in hell and promises of eternal bliss in heaven. (In the militant Muslim form of this, calls to sacrifice one’s life along with as many others as possible are coupled with promises of seventy-two virgins.) Environmentalist calls to sacrifice development and industrial civilization for nature are coupled with promises to stave off some ecological apocalypse (currently “global warming”) and to reach some future ecological paradise. Calls to sacrifice for the Socialist dictatorship of the proletariat were coupled with claims about the inevitable collapse of capitalism and promises that the sacrificers’ children and grandchildren would live in a Utopia where the state had withered away.
The argument always takes the same form. Our well-being depends on “higher cause” X—nature, “God,” “Allah,” the proletariat—and therefore we must sacrifice for its sake if we are to avoid disaster and procure some necessary benefit. The “higher cause” is always viewed as metaphysically superior to the individuals being sacrificed: Religionists view man as helpless in comparison to their supernatural being of choice; environmentalists view man in relation to Mother Nature in much the same way; and collectivists view man as metaphysically inferior to the collective as a whole. If we refuse to subordinate ourselves to this cause, they believe, only disaster can result—and if we do subordinate ourselves, something positive must follow.
Fittingly, both neoconservatism and Wilsonianism promise an ultimate, self-interested payoff to Americans for their acts of international sacrifice: a level of security that is unachievable by any other means. Both promise that when we toil and bleed to “make the world safe for democracy” or to create a “democratic international order,” we will ultimately bring about a world in which we achieve new heights of peace and security—in which the collective will of the various “democracies” will make war or terrorism virtually impossible. World War I was called “the war to end all wars.”
Instead of the dangerous, threatening world we live in today, the argument goes, a world in which aggressors are willing to threaten us without hesitation, the “international order” would feature an array of friendly, peace-loving “democracies” that would not even think of starting wars, that would inspire backward people of the world to set up similar governments, and that would eagerly act collectively, when necessary, to halt any threats to the “international order.” This was the basic argument behind Bush’s sending soldiers to bleed setting up voting booths in tribal Iraq, which sacrifice was ultimately supposed to lead to “the end of tyranny”—including international aggression—“in our world.”
What if, instead, we refuse to sacrifice for foreign peoples and resolve to use our military only to protect our own security? We will fail, the collectivists say, because our security depends on the well-being of other nations and on “international order.” If we let other peoples remain miserable and unfree on the grounds that it is not our problem, they argue, that will give comfort to dictators and breed hatred in populations that will ultimately lead to attacks on the United States.
In their essay “National Interest and Global Responsibility,” William Kristol and Robert Kagan write that America should
act as if instability in important regions of the world, and the flouting of civilized rules of conduct in those regions, are threats that affect us with almost the same immediacy as if they were occurring on our doorstep. To act otherwise would . . . erode both American pre-eminence and the international order . . . on which U.S. security depends. Eventually, the crises would appear at our doorstep.34
After 9/11, neoconservatives argued that the case of Afghanistan proved the necessity of “interventions” to resolve foreign crises and spread “democracy.” Max Boot writes that many thought that after Afghanistan was abandoned as an ally to fight the Soviets, we could
let the Afghans resolve their own affairs . . . if the consequence was the rise of the Taliban—homicidal mullahs driven by a hatred of modernity itself—so what? Who cares who rules this flyspeck in Central Asia? So said the wise elder statesmen. The “so what” question has now been answered definitively; the answer lies in the rubble of the World Trade Center.35
What should we have done in Afghanistan? Boot says that, in the case of Afghanistan, we should have kept troops there throughout the 1980s and 1990s:
It has been said, with the benefit of faulty hindsight, that America erred in providing the [mujahedeen] with weapons and training that some of them now turn against us. But this was amply justified by the exigencies of the Cold War. The real problem is that we pulled out of Afghanistan after 1989. . . . We had better sense when it came to the Balkans.36
In President Bush’s second inaugural address, he clearly summarized his agreement with the neoconservatives’ position regarding the threat of Islamic terrorism: American security requires us to bring “democracy” to all corners of the earth.
We have seen our vulnerability—and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny—prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder—violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.37
But does American security really require that we “sacrifice for the liberty of strangers”? Is every poor, miserable, unfree village on earth the potential source of another 9/11, and is it thus incumbent on America to become not only the world’s policeman, but also its legislator?
The idea that we depend on the well-being of other nations for our security—or, more specifically, that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands”—is given plausibility by the fact that free nations do not start wars and are not a threat to other free nations, including America. But it is false. It evades the fact that innumerable unfree nations are in no way, shape, or form threats to America (e.g., most of the nations of Africa) because their peoples and leaders have no ideological animus against us, or, crucially, because their leaders and peoples fear initiating aggression against us.
America does not require the well-being of the whole world to survive and thrive; it is not a mere appendage or parasite of an international organism that cannot live without its host. America is an independent nation whose well-being requires not that all nations be free, prosperous, and happy, but simply that they be non-threatening. And this can be readily achieved by instilling in them fear of the consequences of any aggression whatsoever against America.
Thomas Sowell, one of America’s most astute and historically-knowledgeable cultural commentators, cites 19th-century England as having such a policy: “There was a time when it would have been suicidal to threaten, much less attack, a nation with much stronger military power because one of the dangers to the attacker would be the prospect of being annihilated. . . .” Sowell elaborates citing the instructive case of the Falkland Islands war:
Remember the Falkland Islands war, when Argentina sent troops into the Falklands to capture this little British colony in the South Atlantic?
Argentina had been claiming to be the rightful owner of those islands for more than a century. Why didn’t it attack these little islands before? At no time did the British have enough troops there to defend them. . . . [but] sending troops into those islands could easily have meant finding British troops or bombs in Buenos Aires.38
If a pipsqueak nation’s leader knows that instigating or supporting anti-American aggression will mean his extermination, he will avoid doing so at all costs. If a people know that supporting a movement of America-killing terrorists will lead to their destruction, they will run from that movement like the plague.
Politicians and intellectuals of all stripes continuously express worries that some policy or other, and especially the use of the American military, will engender hatred for America, and that such hatred will “radicalize” populations and leaders who will then become greater threats to us. But America need not fear other people’s hatred of us. For a nation, movement, or individual to pose a threat to America, some form of hatred or animus is always a necessary condition, but it is never a sufficient condition. For hatred to translate into attacks on America, it must be accompanied by hope of success: hope that the would-be attackers’ values, including his movement or cause, will be advanced by anti-American aggression. When all such hope is lost, the respective movements and causes die; their former adherents no longer find glory in dying for them and thus lose interest in doing so. Consequently, the crucial precondition of American security is our declaration, in word and deed, to all nations and movements, that there is no hope for any movement or nation that threatens America.
Let us apply this to the case of Islamic Totalitarianism, the state-supported, ideological movement that terrorizes us. If America had memorably punished the Iranian regime once it took fifty Americans hostage in 1979, then other nations would have feared lifting a trigger finger in America’s direction. We are a target today because hostile nations do not fear us, but rather have contempt for us, since we have shown time and again that we are a paper tiger who will rarely punish—and never fully punish—aggressor nations.
If we had made clear that any association with Islamic Totalitarianism and/or Islamic terrorism would mean a regime’s annihilation, it is extremely unlikely that the Taliban would ever have risen in Afghanistan. And if it had, a foreign policy of true American self-interest would have taken care of that threat as soon as it became a threat—as soon as it demonstrated the ability and willingness to attack America. Once the Taliban rose in Afghanistan, openly proclaiming its goal of Islamic world domination, and started providing safe harbor to Islamic terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden, it was a threat and should have been immediately defeated. This was especially true once Afghanistan became the launching pad for terrorist attacks against American embassies in Africa and against the USS Cole.
It would have been absurdly sacrificial to do as Boot suggests and plant troops in Afghanistan from 1989 on to prevent something bad from happening or to facilitate the “self-determination” of Afghans. Who knows how many American lives would have been sacrificed and how much American wealth would have been wasted in such a debacle—let alone if Boot’s principle of “intervening” in “flyspeck regions” had been applied consistently.
The proven way of ending present threats and effectively deterring future threats in any era is to respond to real threats with moral righteousness and devastating power.
America’s true national interest in response to 9/11 was to use America’s unequaled firepower not to “democratize” but to defeat the threatening countries—those countries that continue to support the cause of Islamic Totalitarianism—and to make an example of them to deter other countries. We should have made clear to the rest of the world that our government does not care what kind of government they adopt, so long as those governments do not threaten us.
There was and is no practical obstacle to such a policy; America’s military and technological prowess relative to the rest of the world, let alone to the piddling Middle East, has never been greater. Nor is there any obstacle in terms of knowledge: America’s ability to destroy enemy regimes is not some secret of history; everyone knows how we got Japan to surrender and then covet our friendship for sixty-two years and counting.
America could have responded to 9/11 by calling for devastating retaliation against the state sponsors of terrorism, so as to demoralize the Islamists and deter any future threats from thinking they can get away with attacking America. But, under sway of the neoconservatives, it did not. The neoconservatives never even considered it an option—because they believe that going all-out to defeat America’s enemies would be immoral.
Consider this typical neoconservative response to 9/11 in the editorial from The Weekly Standard immediately following the attacks: “There is a task to which President Bush should call us. It is the long, expensive, and arduous war to replace the government of each nation on earth that allows terrorists to live and operate within its borders.”39
There is no practical reason why a war between superpower America and piddling dictatorships need be “long, expensive, and arduous.” It would be easy to make terrorist nations today feel as terrified to threaten us as the Argentineans felt with regard to 19th-century Britain. Potential aggressors against America should be in awe of our power and should fear angering us, but they are not and do not. Why?
Because, per the neoconservatives’ prescriptions, America has placed the full use of its military capabilities off-limits. The neoconservatives have taken all-out war—real war—off the table.
The reason is their basic view of the goal of foreign policy: the altruistic “national interest.” In this view, the justification of America using its military supremacy is ultimately that it will do so to “improve the world’s condition”—not that it has an unqualified right to defend itself for its own sake.
The right to self-defense rests on the idea that individuals have a moral prerogative to act on their own judgment for their own sake; in other words, it rests on the morality of egoism. Egoism holds that a nation against which force is initiated has a right to kill whomever and to destroy whatever in the aggressor nation is necessary to achieve victory.40 The neoconservatives, true to their embrace of altruism, reject all-out war in favor of self-sacrificial means of combat that inhibit, or even render impossible, the defeat of our enemies. They advocate crippling rules of engagement that place the lives of civilians in enemy territory above the lives of American soldiers—and, by rendering victory impossible, above the lives of all Americans.
In Afghanistan, for instance, we refused to bomb the known hideouts of many top Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders for fear of civilian casualties; thus these men were left free to continue killing American soldiers. In Iraq, our hamstrung soldiers are not allowed to smash a militarily puny insurgency; instead, they must suffer an endless series of deaths at the hand of an enemy who operates at the discretion of America. Neoconservatives are avid supporters of such restrictions and of the altruistic theory they are based on: “Just War Theory.” To act otherwise would be to contradict the duty of selfless service to others that is allegedly the justification and purpose of America using its military might. (For a thorough explanation of this viewpoint, see our essay “‘Just War Theory’ vs. American Self-Defense” in the Spring 2006 issue of TOS.)
Following the invasion of Iraq—in which American soldiers began the half-measures that eventually enabled pitifully-armed Iraqis to take over cities and kill our soldiers by the thousands, neoconservative Stephen Hayes wrote glowingly of the “Just War” tactics of our military.
A war plan that sought to spare the lives not only of Iraqi civilians, but of Iraqi soldiers. Then, liberation. Scenes of jubilant Iraqis in the streets—praising President Bush as “The Hero of the Peace.” A rush to repair the damage—most of it caused not by American bombs, but by more than three decades of tyranny.41
Such is the behavior, not of a self-assertive nation committed to defending itself by any means necessary, but of a self-effacing nation that believes it has no right to exist and fight for its own sake.
The idea that America must become the world’s democratizer is not the mistaken product of an honest attempt to figure out the most advantageous way to defend America. Neoconservatives have not evaluated our options by the standard of defending America and then concluded that using our overwhelming firepower to defeat our enemies is inferior to timidly coaxing the entire Middle East into a free, pro-American society. Rather, they have chosen policies by the standard of their altruistic conception of the “national interest” and have tried to rationalize this as both consistent with and necessary to America’s security from threats. But sacrifice and self-interest are opposites. To sacrifice is to surrender one’s life-serving values—to willingly take an action that results in a net loss of such values. By definition, this cannot be practical; on the contrary, it is deadly.
Bloodshed was the necessary result of Wilsonianism in the early 20th century, just as it is the result of neoconservatism today. Given the destructive history of Wilsonianism (unfortunately unknown to most Americans), the neoconservatives’ calls for international self-sacrifice for a “higher” cause that would ultimately somehow secure America should have been ominous. Wilsonianism demonstrated the logical consequences of America sacrificing for some “higher” cause that our well-being allegedly depends on. The sacrifice—Americans toiling and dying for the sake of foreign peoples—is never followed by the alleged payoff—American security.
Thomas Sowell illuminated this point in January 2003, before President Bush had officially decided to go to war for “Iraqi Freedom” but while neoconservatives were clamoring for such a war. For neoconservatives to place themselves “in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson,” he wrote, “is truly chilling”:
Many of the countries we are having big trouble with today were created by the Woodrow Wilson policies of nation-building by breaking up empires, under the principle of “self-determination of nations.” Such trouble spots as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon were all parts of the Ottoman Empire that was dismembered after its defeat in the First World War.
The Balkan cauldron of nations was created by dismembering the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire. That dismemberment also facilitated Adolph Hitler’s picking off small nations like Czechoslovakia and Austria in the 1930s, without firing a shot, because they were no longer part of a defensible empire.
The track record of nation-building and Wilsonian grandiosity ought to give anyone pause. The very idea that young Americans are once again to be sent out to be shot at and killed, in order to carry out the bright ideas of editorial office heroes, is sickening.42
All of this is true.
But the editorial office heroes disagreed that they were going to bring about new debacles—both in the case of Iraq and in their broader quest to bring about an “international order” of “democracies.” This time, international collectivism would work; this time, the sacrifices would be worth it, and the desired “international order” would materialize. The reason it would work this time is that these editorial office heroes were “Hard Wilsonians.”
Soft and Deluded Wilsonianism in Iraq
Since neoconservatism counsels military action, not merely in response to threats to America, but also in response to threats to the “international order”—with the aim of improving that “order” and the lives of foreign peoples—it imposes an effectively unlimited obligation on Americans to sacrifice for the “international order” until we achieve the neoconservatives’ triumph of “international democracy” or Bush’s “the end of tyranny in our world.” It would seem straightforward that this would involve years upon years of nation-building exercises, and thus years upon years of terrible burdens borne by Americans.
But the neoconservatives claimed that the burdens of their policy would not be all that great. They thought that their desired “international order” could be brought about without too much sacrifice on the part of Americans—sacrifice that would allegedly be paid for many times over by the ultra-secure world we would achieve thereby. “Hard Wilsonianism,” they said, was an eminently practical policy. Why? Because, they said, with the willingness to use force, and American leadership, “democratic regime change” is far easier than the “cynics” claim—and because successful “interventions” and the spread of “democracy” will deter future aggressors and inspire freedom fighters around the world.
In 2000, Kristol and Kagan wrote of their entire foreign policy of Iraq-like missions, that
to create a force that can shape the international environment today, tomorrow, and twenty years from now will probably require spending . . . about three and a half per cent of GDP on defense, still low by the standards of the past fifty years, and far lower than most great powers have spent on their militaries throughout history.43
They conclude this thought by asking, rhetorically: “Is the aim of maintaining American primacy not worth a hike in defense spending from 3 to 3.5 per cent of GDP?”—as if their policies, fully implemented, would not cost many multiples of that—and as if money, and not the irreplaceable lives lost, was the only value being spent.44
Part of the way the neoconservatives and President Bush justify their belief in the ease of “democratic regime change” is to cite the successful American occupation of Japan and Germany. When commentators criticized the viability of Bush’s plan to “democratize” Iraq, the Middle East, and ultimately the whole world, the president pointed to the example of Japan, which previous generations of commentators once said was unfit for proper government. Max Boot uses this same example when he writes that “we need to liberalize the Middle East. . . . And if this requires occupying Iraq for an extended period, so be it; we did it with Germany, Japan and Italy, and we can do it again.”45
But in fact, the examples of Germany and Japan do not vindicate the neoconservative foreign policy; they highlight its crucial vice. Note that these occupations were entirely different than the Iraq “liberation” occupation—the type prescribed by neoconservatism—both in ends and means. Their purpose was to render non-threatening the hostile populations of those countries; their purpose was America’s true “national interest,” not neoconservative “national greatness.” And the most important means to those occupations producing their desired result was the utter destruction and resulting demoralization that the Allies brought upon the Germans and Japanese.46
Contrast this to the altruistic policy of neoconservatism, which seeks to “liberate,” not defeat, hostile regimes. In the Iraq war, we treated hostile Iraqis with kid gloves and made it our mission to let them elect whatever government they chose, no matter how hostile to America or how friendly to Islamic Totalitarians. To try transforming an enemy nation without first defeating and demoralizing its complicit inhabitants is to invite those inhabitants both to rise up and rebel against America and to feel no fear in empowering even more anti-American leaders.
Another reason neoconservatives cite for the practicality of their policies is that each “intervention” will have a deterrent effect on future threats to America and to other evils—as well as an inspiring effect on good people—so “interventions” become progressively less necessary. Our “intervention” in Iraq, for example, was supposed to deter Iran and Syria and to inspire alleged masses of latent freedom-loving Muslims to democratize their whole region.
The alleged deterrent effect of “interventionism” is one reason Kristol and Kagan write that “a foreign policy premised on American hegemony, and on the blending of principle with material interest, may in fact mean fewer, not more, overseas interventions. . . .”47 Now if an “intervention” means decisively defeating a real threat, then that certainly has a deterrent effect on potential threats, just as appeasement has an emboldening effect. But neoconservatives argue for the deterrent effect of altruistic missions fought with pulled punches.
In the 1990s, neoconservatives made this deterrence argument in favor of a policy of “intervention” in the conflicts of Bosnia and Kosovo. Many opponents of the war objected to intervention because these conflicts, involving the slaughter of racial minorities by Serbs, were of no threat to America. But the neoconservatives claimed that in Kosovo
allowing a dictator like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic to get away with aggression, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder in Europe would tempt other malign men to do likewise elsewhere, and other avatars of virulent ultra nationalism to ride this ticket to power. Neoconservatives believed that American inaction would make the world a more dangerous place, and that ultimately this danger would assume forms that would land on our own doorstep.48
So, while Milosevic was no direct threat to the United States, the argument goes, it was necessary to deal with him to deter those who are or might become threats to America.
But how was America’s use of its limited military resources to go after a random dictator who poses absolutely no threat to it—treating him as a far greater priority than Iran, North Korea, the Taliban, or the like—supposed to deter Iran or North Korea or the Taliban or Bin Laden or Hussein? No such explanation was given, because none was possible. One does not deter a genuine enemy by picking a weak, irrelevant adversary to beat up on while leaving the genuine enemy be. Such conduct emboldens him, because he concludes that we are not strong enough, or courageous enough, to go after him. If Iran is a real threat, then to attack Serbia suggests to our enemies our lack of focus as well as our lack of moral backbone in going after our real enemies. The way to deter potential threats is to make clear that there is nothing to gain and indeed everything to lose from anti-American aggression (including supporting terrorism or spreading Islamic Totalitarianism).
To say that welfare missions such as our foray into Kosovo deter terrorist nations is like saying that going on a mission to “liberate” South Africa pre-World War II would have prevented the attack on Pearl Harbor or Hitler’s march across Europe.
No practical benefits for American self-defense can materialize from a policy whose central pursuit is American self-sacrifice. If one understands that the neoconservative foreign policy is a self-sacrificial “nationalism”—the goal of which is for Americans to sacrifice, to take a loss for some “higher purpose”—then it should be no surprise that, by the standard of the interests of individual Americans, a war conceived on this philosophy turned out to be a failure. The key thing to understand, however, is that by the standard of neoconservatism, the war has been a success.
Guided by neoconservative altruist-collectivist values, the Bush administration sought and fought a war of self-sacrifice—a war that necessarily failed to accomplish the only thing that can end threats to America: the thorough defeat of the enemies that threaten us. This war instead devoted us to the “national greatness” of endless “sacrifice for the [alleged] freedom of strangers.”
Given the nature of the Islamic Totalitarian threat, a war in Iraq did not have to be self-sacrificial. Iraq, after all, was no Kosovo. It was run by an avowed enemy of the United States who broke his terms of surrender, sponsored anti-American terrorists, and heavily sponsored suicide bombers against our vital strategic ally in the Middle East, Israel.
A war to defeat that regime could have served a valid purpose as a first step in ousting the terrorist-sponsoring, anti-American regimes of the Middle East and thus rendering the region non-threatening. For example, it could be used to create a strategic base for taking on Iran, our most important enemy to defeat. But such a goal would entail rendering enemy regimes non-threatening, which is not the same as free or “democratic.”
But if one’s standard of value is an altruist-collectivist ideal such as the “international order”—or if one seeks to police the “flouting of civilized rules of conduct,”49—then it is possible to do what President Bush did, which is to make Iraq a top priority, to evade the major threat that is Iran, and to set goals that were not oriented toward American self-defense.
Bush went to war with neoconservative, thus altruistic, ends and means. He thereby necessitated a disaster.
In the run-up to the war, President Bush stated not one but three goals in invading Iraq: 1) ending the threat to the United States posed by Saddam Hussein’s support of terrorists, his apparent possession of chemical and biological weapons, and his apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons; 2) “restoring” the “integrity of the U.N.”, which Saddam Hussein had allegedly tarnished by violating seventeen U.N. resolutions; and 3) “liberating” Iraq from the evil tyrant Hussein and furnishing the Iraqi people with a peaceful, prosperous new “democracy.”
In the view of President Bush and the neoconservatives, this combination of self-interested and altruistic goals was ideal; it was an act of selfless service to the world that would also supposedly protect America. But in fact, it was disastrous, because it did not focus America on identifying and eliminating the actual threat in Iraq; rather, it tore us between the contradictory goals of ending a threat and empowering Iraqis to do whatever they want. Combined with tactics designed to protect Iraqis at the expense of American lives, this contradictory combination guaranteed the fiasco that we are witnessing today.
Is it any wonder that our sacrificial objectives and sacrificial tactics have neither deterred our enemies nor inspired freedom-seeking allies—but instead have inspired large populations to elect our enemies into political power? We have seen a definite trend in the rise of Islamic Totalitarianism, the ideology that motivates Islamic terrorists and their strongest supporters—for example, the rise of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Ahmedinijad in Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Our enemies who were militant before 9/11 are now even more so. Iran and Syria, for instance, continue to support the slaughter of American soldiers in Iraq without fear of consequence, and Iran pursues nuclear weapons to bolster its policy of worldwide Islamic terror.
Given the neoconservative foreign policy’s altruistic ends and means, a war based on them would have to be a disaster. (In the run-up to and early aftermath of the Iraq War, the authors went on record on various occasions predicting this.) No president or secretary of defense or number of troops can make a policy of self-sacrifice yield anything but self-destruction.
But another component of the neoconservative foreign policy has made the Iraq war even more self-destructive—a component that made us pursue the particularly absurd altruistic mission we set ourselves regarding Iraqi governance. It is one thing, on the premise of altruism, to provide a foreign people with “humanitarian” aid or even to kill their reigning dictator in hopes that someone better comes along. It is quite another to try to make a primitive, tribal country into a modern “democracy”—and to expect that mission to protect us by inspiring the other primitive, tribal countries in the region to embrace “democracy” as well.
If one knows anything about those to whom we are bringing about “the end of tyranny in our world,” if one looks at the endless warring tribes and religious factions raised on a philosophy of faith, mindless obedience, and coercion, and if one knows anything about the meaning and preconditions of freedom—one sees that the “Hard Wilsonian” policy is a prescription for endless welfare wars and countless American casualties, not a mere half percentage point hike of GDP.
To the credit of neoconservatives’ opponents, many of them ridiculed the idea of an easily achieved, thriving Iraqi “democracy” that inspired spontaneous “democratic” uprisings in the Middle East. And given the results—the triumph of Islamists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority—they were right.50
To understand how the neoconservatives were so deluded about Iraq, we must grasp the essence of their political philosophy. For neoconservatives (who are influenced by the writings of philosopher Leo Strauss), politics is the central force influencing and guiding a culture. Thus, the regime a country has is the dominant cause of the direction its culture takes. Consistent with their view of individuals as metaphysically inferior to the collective, neoconservatives believe that the individual is necessarily an ineffectual product of the regime he is brought up in.
Bad regimes, they argue, inculcate in a people bad behavior and norms. If you take the same people and place them under a good regime (i.e., a “democracy”), they will become radically better people. The regime changes the culture. Thus, it is the governing elite, not the people, who ultimately determine the regime and the culture in a given country. If we replace the elite through regime change and help to establish a better elite that is pro-“democracy,” a new, better culture will be born.
Ultimately, according to the neoconservatives, the foundations for any good culture, the sort that a regime must strive to foster, lie in a respect for tradition and a strong role for religion. These are the forces that restrain individuals in every society from pursuing their own “passions” and thus from immorality and anarchy.51
By this standard, Iraq was a promising yet troubled country in need of assistance. It was a tradition-based, religion-oriented society that for decades had been ruled by a cruel, inhumane elite—the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein—an elite that had not been chosen by the people. Do away with that elite, cultivate the local traditions and the religious leaders, and Iraq was ripe for “democracy.” Once Iraqis experienced the wonders of electing their own leaders, once they participated in writing their own constitution, the neoconservatives postulated, Iraq would be transformed. The euphoria they expressed after the January 2005 Iraqi elections and the subsequent approval of a new constitution expressed their sincere belief that Iraq had fundamentally changed for the better. The new regime and the new practices in “democracy” would bring out the best in the Iraqis. Not only would this approach lead to political freedom in Iraq; it would also lead to economic prosperity through the adoption of free markets and to the peaceful coexistence of Iraq with its neighbors. And—in the ultimate payoff for America—this new Iraq would become our ally in the Middle East; it would help us reshape the region and destroy the threat of terrorism forever.
The neoconservative view of the relationship between individuals and regimes—which President Bush holds in an even stronger form, believing that freedom is “written on the soul of every human being”—also explains the plausibility of the idea that bringing “democracy” militarily to one country will likely set off a chain of “democracies” in other countries due to overwhelming civilian demand—thus lessening the need for future military “interventions.” As Bush put it, to raucous applause at the National Endowment for Democracy in late 2003: “Iraqi democracy will succeed—and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Teheran—that freedom can be the future of every nation. The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.”52
But the view of individuals and regimes that all of this is based on is false.
The truth is that the entrenched philosophy of a people is fundamental to what type of government those people can live under, and a government based on tradition and religion is in total opposition to freedom. (Contrary to the claims of conservatives, America was founded in complete opposition to centuries of religious and statist tradition—opposition that included its revolutionary separation of religion and state.) For example, it would be impossible for Americans, especially 18th-century Americans, to accept the rule of Saddam Hussein. Our forefathers did not submit to tyranny; they courageously rebelled against it in the name of individual rights, against far greater odds than Iraqis faced under Hussein. By contrast, today’s Iraqis, with the primacy they place on mystical dogma and tribal allegiances, are utterly incapable of the respect for the individual and individual rights that define a free society. Their religion and traditions do not facilitate respect for freedom; they make such respect impossible.
The Iraqis are essentially similar in this regard to the other peoples of the Middle East who are subjugated under terrorist states. It is no accident that the Islamic Totalitarian movement that terrorizes us enjoys widespread support throughout the Arab-Muslim world. If it did not, hostile governments would not be able to rally their populations with appeals to that cause.
(As for claims about freedom being “written on the soul of every human being,” this is false. There is no inherent belief in either freedom or anti-freedom—though one could make a far stronger case for an innate hostility toward freedom. Freedom is incredibly rare historically—because its root, a rational, individualistic philosophy, has been so rare.)
As a result of the neoconservatives’ false view of regimes, they take lightly the colossal task of replacing a barbaric nation with a civilized one—in fact, they do not even acknowledge it as barbaric. The pitiful peoples of oppressed nations are lionized as mere victims of bad actors—victims who must merely be “liberated” to go from members of terrorist states to good neighbors.
The neoconservatives’ false belief in the fundamentality of regimes, not philosophy, in human action, is made worse by the political system they advocate: “democracy.”
When President Bush and the neoconservatives use the term “democracy,” they act as if the term refers more or less to the type of government we have in the United States. Thus, the term “Iraqi democracy,” at least prior to its implementation, conjured up images of a nation with civilized courts, rule of law, respect for individual rights (including those of racial minorities), a prosperous, free-market economy, separation of church and state, and so on.
But the literal meaning of “democracy”—and the meaning applied in the actual carrying out of “Iraqi democracy”—is unlimited majority rule. “Democracy” refers to the system by which ancient Athenians voted to kill Socrates for voicing unpopular ideas. In 1932, the German people “democratically” elected the Nazi Party, including future chancellor Adolph Hitler. “Democracy” and liberty are not interchangeable terms; they are in fact antithetical. The distinctively American, pro-liberty principle of government is the principle of individual rights—which, to be upheld in a given society, requires a constitution that specifically protects these rights against the tyranny of the majority.53
Neoconservatives are unabashed promoters of “democracy,” while knowing that it is not America’s system of government and that it was opposed by the Founding Fathers of this country. As Joshua Muravchik writes, “This is the enthusiasm for democracy. Traditional conservatives are more likely to display an ambivalence towards this form of government, an ambivalence expressed centuries ago by the American founders. Neoconservatives tend to harbor no such doubts.”54
The practical justification for “spreading democracy” is that “democracies don’t start wars,” and thus to promote “democracy” is to promote our long-term security. But that idea is a dangerous half-truth. “Democracies,” in the literal sense, do attack other countries. To take a modern example, observe the elected Hamas government whose fundamental goal is to exterminate Israel. Or observe the triumph of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Moqtada al Sadr in Iraq’s “democratic” political process.
What gives plausibility to the notion that “democracies don’t start wars” is the fact that free nations do not start wars. This truth was elaborated by Ayn Rand in her landmark essay, “The Roots of War,” reprinted in her anthology Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.55 But a free society is not simply one that holds elections—it is one that holds elections as a delimited function to select officials who must carry out, and cannot contradict, a constitution protecting individual rights.
To the extent that it is necessary for America’s national security to occupy a given country, an understanding about the relationship between voting, freedom, and aggression is imperative. Because the neoconservatives and President Bush lack such an understanding, we have been treated to the spectacle of an Iraqi “democracy” in which “Islam is a basic source of legislation” and “No law may contradict the undisputed principles of Islam.”56 We have a “democracy” that is dangerously close to being a puppet or clone of the theocracy of Iran—an enemy we will have created on the grounds that “democracies don’t start wars.”
Holding the false view that freedom equals “democracy,” and clinging to the fiction of the noble Mideast Muslims, we have abetted and applauded these freedom haters as they have voted themselves toward terrorist theocracy. And we have promoted elections around the Middle East as the solution to the threats these nations pose, as if the people are civilized and friendly toward America but just “happen” to be under despotic rule. The results of these elections, which have empowered Islamic Totalitarians or their close allies in the Palestinian territories, Egypt, and Lebanon, is testament to how deluded the neoconservative advocacy of “spreading democracy” is.
To add offense to this destruction, in responding to criticisms of Mideast “democracy,” Bush administration members and neoconservative intellectuals have the gall to counter that American “democracy” has had problems, too. “Working democracies always need time to develop, as did our own,” says Bush, who calls on us to be “patient and understanding as other nations are at different stages of this journey.” Thus, the American “stage” of the Jefferson-Hamilton debates and the Iraqi “stage” of Sadr vigilante executions are rendered equivalent: two peas in a “democratic” pod.
The Realistic Moral Alternative: A Morality of Self-Interest
The basic reason for the failure of the neoconservative foreign policy is that it is a thoroughly altruistic, self-sacrificial foreign policy, and American self-defense is incompatible with self-sacrifice. Importantly, however, this analysis is not limited to the policy of the neoconservatives; it applies equally to the allegedly opposite policy of “realism.”
In our earlier discussion of “realism,” we focused on that doctrine’s view of nations as “rational” actors and its view of “diplomacy” as the foreign policy cure-all. Part of this policy’s failure derives from its short-range mentality that views America’s “national interest” in the time frame of political terms, a mentality that is always willing to kick the can down the road. But equally important is the policy’s thoroughly altruistic moral base. This may seem strange to those familiar with “realism,” because one tenet of that doctrine is that a nation should reject moral considerations in foreign policy and instead concern itself solely with its “vital interests.” In the “realist” view, moral considerations—moral ideals, moral restrictions, moral judgments of good and evil—get in the way of dealing with “practical reality.”
For the “realist,” in any given situation, everything is theoretically on the table, to be accepted or rejected depending on whether it will “work” to achieve the “national interest.” Moral principles cannot be permitted to get in the way; one must be “pragmatic,” not an “ideologue.”
But this is nonsense. To pursue “practicality” divorced from morality is impossible. Any claim that a course of action is “practical” presupposes some basic end that the course of action aims to achieve. For example, any claim that “diplomacy” with Iran is practical, or that democratic “regime change” is practical, presupposes some basic goal—whether achieving the approval of others, or establishing “stability” in the Middle East, or winning “hearts and minds,” or fulfilling our duty to “improve the world’s condition,” or maintaining the status quo, or eliminating the Iranian threat. The question of what basic ends one should pursue in foreign policy is inescapable to the issue of practicality—and it is a moral question.
Because “realism” rejects the need for moral evaluation, and because the need for moral evaluation cannot be escaped, its advocates necessarily take certain goals for granted as “obviously” practical—and reject others as “obviously” impractical. Which goals are good? Goals consistent with altruism and collectivism—like winning over positive “world opinion,” or coalition-building as an end in itself.
They will not consider any truly self-interested goals or means of achieving them—for example, ending state sponsorship of terrorism through devastating military action. To propose such an alternative to them would bring a flood of practical rationalizations—“We can’t go to war with the whole world”; “What about the allies?”; “That will just ‘radicalize’ more potential terrorists.” But all such objections evade the fact that such wars historically have ended the threats. This fact is ignored by the so-called “realists” because their opposition to such wars is rooted in their acceptance of altruism.
Take the example of former secretary of state Colin Powell, a prominent “realist” about whom we wrote in “‘Just War Theory’ vs. American Self-Defense”:
Does he call for America’s unequivocal, uncompromising self-defense using its full military might, since that would be eminently practical in achieving America’s self-interest? No. Instead, when he ran the State Department, he sought to avoid war, to appease any and every enemy, to court “world opinion,” to build coalitions, to avoid civilian casualties—while at the same time somehow to protect America. In other words, he did everything that pacifism and Just War Theory would have him do. While Powell and his ilk may say that they eschew moral analysis in matters of foreign policy and war, altruism nevertheless shapes what they think and seek to do.57
Since “realists” cannot conceive of doing what is truly practical in regard to threats, and since they reject explicitly altruistic missions of the neoconservative variety, they are left with only the option of ignoring or appeasing threats. This dereliction of responsibility makes more plausible the neoconservative idea that we need to be the world’s policeman—since the most prominent alternative is to be a negligent, passive, doughnut-munching American policeman.
But this is a false alternative.
The antidote to both of these disastrous options is to truly embrace the virtues that the neoconservatives claim to embrace—such as thinking long range, wide range, and morally about America’s interests—but to make our moral standard American self-interest—that is, the individual rights of Americans. If America is to have a future of freedom and security, this must be the supreme and ruling goal of American defense. (What such a standard means and why it is morally correct was a major theme of our essay “‘Just War Theory’ vs. American Self-Defense.”) This is the moral perspective needed to defeat Islamic Totalitarianism—a moral perspective that truly values American lives and liberty.
So long as we evaluate the question of where to go in foreign policy by the standards of the two leading altruist foreign policies—in terms of how many more troops, or whom to hold talks with, or how many U.N. Resolutions to pass—we will continue to lose. We need to jettison the corrupt moral framework of “realism” and neoconservatism, and adopt one in which American self-defense is the sole concern and standard of value—in which we take a long-range, principled, selfish approach to our self-defense.
In the wake of neoconservatism’s fall from grace, we must make clear that there is another alternative. Our true national interest, our lives and our freedom, depend on it.