A Silver Lining to the Economic Crisis?

The economic meltdown has highlighted some large errors and failed predictions within neoconservative doctrine, thus forcing McCain to tone down his blustery foreign-policy rhetoric.

When Senator John McCain identified health care, energy and entitlement reform as "compelling national security requirements," could he have been uttering a death rattle for neoconservatism? Surely, such a characterization contrasts sharply with the national security threats McCain has pointed to in the very recent past. Where, in Tuesday's debate, was McCain's call to "take the lead in fighting this transcendent issue of our time: the battle and struggle against radical Islamic extremism" (not be confused with moderate Islamic extremism). McCain didn't even use the word Islamic in the debate. He merely described some of those that benefit from our purchase of foreign oil as countries that don't "like us very much."

Also, McCain explained that it was only in jest that he chanted "bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys song. He didn't mention the inevitability of future wars or explicitly call to drop Russia out of the Group of Eight. And when he conjured the cold war, it was to say that he did not believe the world was in on the brink of a second one. This was an important clarification, given McCain's declaration in August that the Russian-Georgian conflict was "the first probably serious crisis internationally since the end of the cold war."

With polls indicating that concerns over the economic crisis preponderantly outweigh concerns over national security and terrorism, it makes political sense for McCain to ratchet down the brinkmanship and the possibility of more costly foreign adventures. But there is more at issue here than a shift in Americans' focus and of McCain's tone. Indeed, the current economic crisis seems to undercut some fundamental principles of neoconservatism.

Similar to their apparent belief that America's superpower clout would not be diminished through unwarranted interventions and posturing, many neoconservatives tend to advocate America's virtual economic infallibility, a kind of economic end of history, where cyclical booms and busts can be relegated to the past.

In a letter to members of Congress in 2005, a who's-who of neoconservatism (including Peter Beinart, Max Boot, Eliot Cohen, Ivo H. Daalder, Frederick Kagan, Robert Kagan, William Kristol, Danielle Pletka, Randy Scheunemann, Gary Schmitt, etc.) appealed for an increase in military spending and said:

We understand the dangers of continued federal deficits, and the fiscal difficulty of increasing the number of troops. But the defense of the United States is the first priority of the government. This nation can afford a robust defense posture along with a strong fiscal posture. And we can afford both the necessary number of ground troops and what is needed for transformation of the military.

It was as if U.S. resources-whether they are economic, military or hard-won intangibles-could never be exhausted, or be better saved for more vital purposes.

Indeed, neoconservatives always seem prepared to appropriate U.S. revenue for their favored interventions of choice. Neoconservatives often cite the size of the American economy when arguing for the mission in Iraq. In the run-up to the surge, Frederick W. Kagan published a plan for Iraq: "Victory is still an option in Iraq," he said. "America, a country of 300 million people with a GDP of $12 trillion, and more than one million soldiers and marines can regain control of Iraq, a state the size of California with a population of 25 million and a GDP under $100 billion." But even an economy of that size can encounter severe financial difficulties. And a fighting force as effective as America's can face considerable challenges in reckoning with asymmetrical threats.

Influential neoconservatives held out the probability that America would not be unduly harmed by its expenditures in Iraq. That hypothesis has not held up against reality. And due in large part to America's vast spending in Iraq-on a scale of $10 billion a month-U.S. officials now have more limited options in dealing with the economic threat. And the hyperbole that neoconservatives are wont to use when describing foreign threats might now fairly characterize the escalating, global economic credit-crunch. Given the size of America's fiscal deficit, if the crisis does not abate and officials decide to continue deficit spending in huge quantities, the United States could come to undermine the prominence of the dollar as the global reserve currency.

Similarly, neoconservatives also seem to have given sparing thought to the possibility that the war in Iraq could undermine America's superpower clout, by depleting military resources (human and otherwise) and exposing weaknesses. To the contrary, the neoconservatives broadly predicted America's enemies would cower in wake of the Iraq campaign. The American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka argued in USA Today in January 2003:

After all, Osama bin Laden remains at large, al-Qaeda is recovering from the Afghanistan strike, and North Korea's regime has run amok. But these are not reasons to defer action. They are reasons for the U.S. to act now and remove Saddam from power. Only then will al-Qaeda's followers grasp that the U.S. is a power to be reckoned with, committed to destroying its enemies. Only then will North Korea step back and assess the fate of dictators committed to amassing weapons of mass destruction.

These predictions have not been vindicated in regards to North Korea-or even Iran. Many are now calling the surge in Iraq a success, but the Iranian-backed Shi'a have already ethnically cleansed the Sunnis in many areas and the difficulties of waging urban warfare, even for such a superior military force, have been on display in a global theatre.