Neo-Conspiracy Theories

Neo-Conspiracy Theories

Mini Teaser: There is much room for debate on the soundness of neoconservative policies. But a serious assessment of neocons and their role in the Bush Administration is a necessary starting point.

by Author(s): Gerard Baker

All of these men were marked by their opposition to the moral relativism of their age and by a moral approach to government, which they saw as a celebration of the defining value of American democracy. The "neo" prefix was a literal testimony to the recent nature of their conversion, such as that of the formerly Trotskyist Kristol, but it was also a symbol of their recasting of traditional conservative thought into a more dynamic and activist philosophy. "A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality", is Kristol's now familiar description.

As the Vietnam Syndrome took hold of America, conservative mistrust of the neocons was evident. Buchanan himself notes that the neocons have always been willing to reach accommodations with non-conservatives. In the 1970s their first choice for president was not the reliably Republican revolutionary Ronald Reagan, but Scoop Jackson. When Jackson declined to take up their banner, neocons flocked to Reagan, enhancing suspicion that they were Johnny-come-latelys to the conservative cause.

But with Reagan's victory in 1980, neocons began to translate their philosophical critiques into governing practice. People like Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations, and Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz at the Pentagon were all associated with the hawkish strategy of the Reagan years towards the Soviet Union.

Buchanan and Halper and Clarke are quite correct in pointing out that today's neocons differ in important respects from the Reagan hawks. For one thing, the early Reagan version did not pursue an unstinting commitment to the universal application of democracy around the world. Indeed, Kirkpatrick first came to the attention of Ronald Reagan after he read her famous 1979 critique of Jimmy Carter in a Foreign Affairs article entitled, "Democracy and Double Standards." In it she castigated Carter for insisting on democratic reforms in countries that were allied to the United States in the Cold War. For the Reagan-era neocons, the emphasis was on defeating communism. If that required some temporary alliances with some unappealing dictators like the Shah of Iran, then so be it. This is strikingly different from today's neoconservative view that the United States can only be safe if democracy is encouraged everywhere, especially in the Middle East.

Foreign policy perceptions of America's proper role and capabilities evolved rapidly. The lessons most observers (not just those on the Right) drew from the Reagan years was the efficacy of military strength and the significance of America's steady ascendancy. That was reinforced in 1991, after the Gulf War, when the United States crushed Iraqi forces. It was also that war that frustrated many neoconservatives and others, including Britain's Margaret Thatcher, believing as they did that the United States should have completed the task and toppled Saddam Hussein then.

In the early 1990s, however, neocons could still speak convincingly of the unipolar moment. By the time the George W. Bush Administration took office, the neocons had high hopes of real influence. Even so, they could not count one of their number among the foreign policy principals in the administration--not Cheney nor Powell nor Rice nor Rumsfeld. At the secondary level of deputies, neocons did hold some influential positions: Wolfowitz at the Pentagon, Steve Hadley at the National Security Council, Lewis "Scooter" Libby in the Vice President's office. But there were few signs before September 11 that they were able to convert this influence into serious policy initiatives.

In those early months the neoconservatives were preoccupied principally with China and believed that a confrontation with Beijing was inevitable. But when a U.S. surveillance plane was brought down by unfriendly Chinese attention in April 2001, the administration backed off, leaving many neocons frustrated at what they saw as a U.S. humiliation.

Certainly there were some victories for the neocon belief in the right of the United States to act unilaterally. The Kyoto Protocol on global warming was rejected, and the United States withdrew its signature from the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court. But Halper and Clarke and Buchanan are surely not right in suggesting there was much evidence that the administration was moving towards the neocons' hard-line position on Iraq at that time.

After September 11, the entire stance of U.S. policy changed. An attack on Iraq was ruled out initially, but it was soon clear that it had only been deferred. But does this mean that the neocons had suddenly become ascendant in the uppermost counsels of the administration?

To answer that we need to look at the other players in the administration. Here, James Mann has written the one truly indispensable account of the construction of Bush foreign policy. His historical narrative of the major foreign policy figures in the Bush Administration: Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, Wolfowitz and Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, explains how the thinking of these very different political figures steadily converged over decades.

Mann argues that for Cheney and others--like Rumsfeld and even Powell, neither of whom could ever be described as neoconservatives--the Iraq War was consistent with their own belief in the efficacy of U.S. power. That belief had built steadily over three decades or more in policymaking. They came of political age in an era when the United States steadily restored its global ascendancy after the catastrophe of Vietnam, and grew in military power and self-confidence.

By the late 1990s much of what the neocons had been saying about the proper exercise and scope of U.S. power had already been accepted, even by the Clinton Administration, which went to war in the Balkans largely for moral and humanitarian reasons--and for which it was enthusiastically applauded by neoconservatives (though not most conservatives, including Buchanan). The Kosovo War, moreover, was fought without the United Nations' authorization that the neocons' critics seem to believe is essential.

Indeed, as Mann astutely points out, it was the often unhappy experiences with allies in these crises that created the steadily broadening consensus in the United States in favor of dissolving many of the bonds of multilateralism. Thus, when the United States dismissed aid from other nato countries (except Britain) for the Afghan campaign after September 11, it was the uniformed military--not hard-line, unilateralist neocon civilians--who declined the offer.

Clinton also initially rejected some other multilateral constraints, dismissing the International Criminal Court (although he would disingenuously sign the treaty a few weeks before leaving office, knowing it would never pass the Senate). He also pressed ahead with missile defense plans despite the obvious confrontation it would eventually provoke with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

In sum, by the time George W. Bush came to office, the steady accretion of U.S. military power and success, its political and economic reach, and the mirrored decline in other countries' power were established facts that gradually emboldened foreign policy thinkers of all persuasions to take a more skeptical view towards global political constraints on American action. It was Madeleine Albright, no less, Clinton's secretary of state, who famously asked Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "What's the point of having this great army of yours if you're never going to use it?" If you believed in the overwhelming virtue of U.S. power, as most people did by 2001, the case for action was persuasive. If you could topple hideous regimes like Saddam Hussein's and remove threats, even if they seemed remote, why wouldn't you?

Neocons did not reject multilateral activity for the sake of it, nor did they wholly reject any notion of seeking global legitimacy for U.S. action. They believed, on the contrary, that such legitimacy would be bestowed retrospectively, in the light of military and political success. This was the Field of Dreams approach to foreign policy: "If you build it, they will come." If the United States wielded its might successfully, in the end the world would see it was right and would want to associate with Washington.

The September 11 attacks added a new element to the mix. The United States had an overwhelming military advantage but had suddenly been humbled by 19 men with box cutters and one-way plane tickets. You didn't have to be bamboozled by neoconservative "deceptions" to accept the changed conditions that made broad U.S. action against perceived threats attractive.

This is not to say that the Bush Administration's approach to Iraq in late 2002 was accepted on all sides. But the circumstances of the previous 25 years meant that those who were skeptical about the wisdom of such action were up against the powerful examples of recent history: the Cold War, the Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and the easy U.S. hegemony these experiences seemed to point to.

The ascendancy of neoconservatives in the Bush Administration, then--if indeed it can be called that--was not some twisted, un-American aberration, as its critics contend. The neocon case was rooted in the major traditions of U.S. foreign policy: morally assertive, internationalist, forceful, and seen in a new, post-Cold War light. So the question now is not how to mend the damage from these years of neocon recklessness, but whether the assumptions on which U.S. policy has been based for several years now may be proved false by events in Iraq. Have the setbacks there so weakened the reality of U.S. power that U.S. self-confidence, which has been waxing steadily for a quarter of a century since Vietnam, may now be on the wane? Was the Bush Administration's decision to fight terrorism by focusing hard on its state sponsors and the broader political conditions that give rise to it, rather than on the narrower target of the terrorists themselves, misdirected? Is conventional U.S. military superiority of little use when confronting this new threat?

Essay Types: Book Review