The Obama Consensus

The president’s Afghan strategy is pleasing lots of people—including neoconservatives. If his approach works, will we have a new consensus in foreign policy?

President Obama, who pledged to bring bipartisanship to Washington, appears to have found one new ally on the Right: neoconservatives. On Tuesday, at the Mayflower Hotel, William Kristol and Robert Kagan held a maiden conference on Afghanistan to announce the formation of a new organization called the Foreign Policy Initiative. Speakers included John McCain and Jane Harman. Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl moderated one session. The thrust of the conference was to support Obama's pledge to ramp up the fight in Afghanistan-according to Fred Kagan, he, Obama, is sure to come under fire in the future for doing so-and to suppress any latent isolationist impulses that might manifest themselves in coming months and years.

Kristol's latest foray into foreign policy has excited much comment. It was first reported by Laura Rozen of Foreign Policy. Since then, Matthew Yglesias has cogently observed that it points to the sway neoconservatives continue to hold in Washington-the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, has added Elliot Abrams to its roster-and that it's mistaken to regard them as either a spent or a trivial force. Stephen Walt, in his blog on Foreign Policy, has bemoaned a lack of accountability among foreign-policy elites, likening the neocons to doctors who are never held responsible for the outcome of their bungled surgical interventions.

But the latest neocon move really shouldn't come as a surprise. Neoconservatism began as a movement within the Democratic Party. Jeane Kirkpatrick remained a Democrat during Reagan's first term. It was only with Reagan that other neocons signed on to the GOP. With the younger generation of neocons, such as Kristol, matters were a little different. They were never Democrats. Nevertheless, they occupied a somewhat ambiguous position in the party. In the 1990s, Kagan was closer to Bill Clinton's foreign policy of intervention in the Balkans than he was to anti-interventionists among the Republicans in Congress. Ditto for Kristol.

What's more, the Iraq War saw the formation of a de facto alliance between liberal hawks, on the one side, and neocons, on the other. They are conjoined twins. Might that alliance, then, be replicated in the Obama administration? Certainly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won the battle over Afghanistan, championing an increased force. Other strong liberal-hawk voices include Anne-Marie Slaughter, head of the policy-planning staff, and Russia hand Michael McFaul. It would be an interesting development if the State Department turns into the locus of arguments for humanitarian intervention, while the Defense Department and National Security Council oppose them.

The truth, as I was reminded in attending a "Historical Retrospectives Symposium" held by Nicholas X. Rizopoulos at the Carnegie Council in New York on April 1, is that these arguments between realists and neoconservatives never go away. At the Council, the historian John Lukacs bracingly expounded upon his belief that Winston Churchill had consistently taken a realist view towards Russia. Lukacs was arguing, in essence, that Churchill was not an early neocon (as many neocons argue). He was someone who recognized that Stalin was a canny adversary, but not a crusading Bolshevik. He had more in common with Ivan the Terrible than with Lenin.

Whereupon military historian and neocon Max Boot countered that this was nonsense. Churchill, Boot argued, had it right early on in 1919 when he declared that Bolshevism needed to be strangled in its cradle. Think, Boot suggested, of the tragedies-the rise of Nazism, the subjugation of Eastern Europe, Mao's brutal rule-that would have been avoided had Churchill's admonitions been heeded. In essence, Boot was arguing that a military surge should have taken place-the Western allies should have gone all-out to assist Lenin's opponents during the Russian Civil War-the Whites, the Greens, and so on-and extirpate communism.

Lukacs listened to Boot in disbelief. He snorted that he had always disagreed with William F. Buckley, Jr. and James Burnham who believed that history had "changed gears" in 1917. "History is not an automobile," said Lukacs. Lukacs thundered that he, not Buckley, was a true conservative.

In my view, Lukacs was wrong. The Bolshevik revolution may have been a product of World War I, but it was a hinge-point in history. Lukacs wants to write ideology out of history, turning Stalin into a mere Russian nationalist. Boot had it right in maintaining that the Western democracies would have been far better off if they could have crushed Bolshevism. No Lenin, no Hitler. But the real question is: could they have? Had Woodrow Wilson sent even more troops into Siberia, would the allies have successfully stopped Trotsky and Co.? Or would America and the British, not to mention the Czechs, who fought their way out of Russia, been dragged into a morass they could never escape?

This is the same conundrum that Obama confronts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Does realism dictate bailing out of Afghanistan or upping the ante?

Obama has chosen the latter, which is why neoconservatives are, for the moment, backing him. But dissenting voices can be heard, both inside and outside the Democratic Party. Thus, in his perspicacious new book Power Rules, Leslie H. Gelb suggests that a more restrained approach may preserve American preeminence. He has little patience for what he sees as the flights of fancy by neoconservatives and liberal internationalists who have joined, in his words,

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