Reaganism v. Neo-Reaganism

Reaganism v. Neo-Reaganism

Mini Teaser: Reagan knew the difference between a conservative foreign policy and Wilsonian interventionism. Do his soi-disant heirs know it too?

by Author(s): Richard Lowry

Since the end of the Cold War, conservatives have been at odds over the way forward for America in the world. September 11 and the new American orientation toward preventive defense have united most conservatives in strong support of President Bush, but have not clarified what it is exactly that conservatives believe about American grand strategy. Indeed, the picture has gotten muddier. The New York Times and other inartful observers characterize the conservative foreign policy choice as between the unmitigated crusading of a William Kristol or the rejectionist nativism of a Patrick Buchanan. This is a false dichotomy. It elevates flawed splinter schools of thought above the broad conservative foreign policy tradition.

The messianic vision of the neoconservatives and the rejectionist attitude of the paleoconservatives represent dueling fantasies. Neither is truly conservative. Both are impractical, bound to be unsuccessful in protecting America and unlikely to maintain public support. In fact, none of the three major foreign policy schools identified with the right--neo-, paleo-, or realist--fully captures a true conservative foreign policy. That foreign policy, and its major premises and practices, are hidden in plain view in the practical policy of the Bush Administration.

Too Hot, Too Cold and Just Right

The term "neoconservative" has dominated discussion of conservative foreign policy over the last few years primarily because of Iraq. Any supporter of the war has been lumped in with the neocons, a slippery label that is most reliably applied to the sort of idealistic crusading associated with the Weekly Standard. It is important to recall that prior neoconservative causes, whether braying against China in the 1990s or supporting John McCain's presidential bid in 2000, were rejected by the conservative mainstream. Iraq was different. Most UN-hyphenated conservatives supported the invasion. They did so for a host of strategic and moral reasons, and not just because it was thought Saddam possessed WMD. But neither they nor the broader American public would have supported the war on purely humanitarian grounds, as many of the neoconservatives would have done--something they made clear after WMD weren't found in Iraq. For neocons, digging up mass graves was enough to justify the war.

Herein lies an important difference between neocons and conservatives. Almost all conservatives believe that American power can be a force for good, and they are unashamed about the aggressive use of that power in defense of national interests. The difference is over limits. Neoconservatives appear to believe U.S. military power can be wielded in almost any situation to produce exactly the results they desire, and that it is appropriate to wield it even in interventions with only an attenuated connection to U.S. national interest. As Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1996, since "America has the capacity to contain or destroy many of the world's monsters", failing to do so is to endorse "a policy of cowardice and dishonor."

Conservatives are more discriminating. As Charles Krauthammer has noted, an agenda of expanding the zone of open systems must be "targeted, focused and limited"--not a worldwide crusade, but one concentrated "in those regions where the defense or advance of freedom is critical" to vital U.S. interests. Discrimination is the essence of pursuing this project--discrimination about how, where, why and when America is to use its power, especially its military power.

Much of the intra-conservative debate turns on this key question: the malleability of much of the world, and the suitability of the U.S. government as an agent for fundamentally changing it. Conservatives have a strong dose of Reaganite optimism but are also clear-eyed in their view both of human progress and of America's ability to promote liberal values around the world. Since Burke, conservatives have sought just this balance between respect for reality as it exists and the possibilities for change.

Neoconservatism displays impatience at any reminder that the world is not infinitely plastic and that not all problems will break down under the solvent of American power. It assumes a universal admiration for America that does not exist, and it tends to dismiss the desire of local actors to have a say in how a project is carried out. For neoconservatives, liberal democracy can be achieved simply by an American invasion, or a set of sanctions, or a ritual invocation of the policy of "regime change." The government of China will fall as long as the United States doesn't grant it "most favored" trading privileges. Proponents of such free trade are latter-day Neville Chamberlains (never mind that the rest of the world will keep trading with Beijing). Russian President Vladimir Putin will see the advantages of liberalism if President Bush just scolds enough. And regime change--as much a wish as a policy--is promulgated as the U.S. strategy for every nasty government in the world. Those who are skeptical of this strategy might, according to their rhetorical barbs, have a "casual animus" about U.S. power.

Responding to such skepticism, neoconservatives routinely invoke the experience of Germany and Japan for the proposition that societies can be remade by American power. But those were exceptional cases where the countries were smashed by the United States in total war. Neoconservatives never cite the Philippines at the turn of the century, a host of Latin American countries (where the United States repeatedly intervened with Wilsonian aims in the early 20th century), and the subjects of the humanitarian ventures of the 1990s--Haiti, Somalia and the Balkans. All of them disappointed to varying degrees the ability of the United States to remake them.

Iraq may well avoid joining this litany of frustrations. Despite the success of the January 30 elections, however, Iraq is still a testament to the difficulties of nation-building in a tribal society ravaged by three decades of tyranny. No credible discussion of conservative foreign policy can take place without a serious and honest accounting of post-invasion Iraq, which the neocons have assiduously avoided, except for complaints about insufficient troop levels.

As John Nagl argues in his book, Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, the British were quite successful at imperial policing because they were conditioned to accept less than 100 percent victories, had no illusions about the human timber with which they were working, and were always attuned to the idiosyncrasies and practical requirements of the cultures in which they were operating. It was an approach suffused with British empiricism, prudence and realism. These are the exact qualities for which neoconservatives often have a sneering contempt, preferring instead ideological grandiosity and sweeping moral universals.

Essay Types: Essay