The real dream of the neocons is not simply to defeat the Islamic State but also to engage in a renewed bout of regime change around the globe. Toppling the Syrian regime has been a long-standing goal of the neocons. In August 2013, the Foreign Policy Initiative—the successor to the Project for a New American Century (headed by William Kristol and Robert Kagan), which was itself the successor to the Committee for the Free World, which was the successor to the Congress for Cultural Freedom—issued a letter to Obama imploring him to take out Bashar al-Assad. At the time, Fouad Ajami wrote, “The regime itself—its barons, its secret police, its elite military units and its air bases—ought to be legitimate targets, and the same is true of Assad’s presidential palace.” That mantra is now being revived. In a New York Times op-ed, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham wrote that to stop the Islamic State, it would be necessary to end the civil war in Syria and to create a political transition “because the regime of President Bashar al-Assad will never be a reliable partner against ISIS [an alternate name for the Islamic State]; in fact, it has abetted the rise of ISIS, just as it facilitated the terrorism of ISIS’ predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq.”
But in asserting that Assad and Al Qaeda are united, McCain and Graham are engaging in semantic jiggerypook that is reminiscent of older claims that Saddam Hussein was allied with Osama bin Laden. What’s more, had Obama ousted Assad a year ago, it might well have expedited rather than retarded the rise of the Islamic State. McCain and the Foreign Policy Initiative, among others, have consistently declared that a moderate opposition could take power in Syria, but whether moderation backed by U.S. arms, which seem to have a penchant for ending up in the hands of militant Islamic rebel groupings, would really carry the day is a rather iffy proposition.
It’s also the case that the neocon program for combating the Islamic State is considerably more expansive than anything Obama should contemplate. According to Max Boot:
We need to send many more advisers and Special Operations Forces to Iraq, backed up by airpower, to aid not only the Iraqi security forces but also the Kurdish peshmerga and the Sunni tribes to fight back against ISIS—and . . . we should also step up our aid to the Free Syrian Army to put pressure on ISIS on the other side of the border.
Then there is the distinguished historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. In the Weekly Standard, she invokes Burke’s sulfurous “Letters on a Regicide Peace” to issue a demand for an apocalyptic struggle against the Islamic State:
With such an enemy, there cannot be a “red line” defining how far, and no further, we may go; a “no troops on the ground” policy, limiting our involvement in the war; an “end-of-war” strategy that prescribes at the outset when and how the war will be terminated. On the contrary, a war with such an enemy is a total war.
But America has already witnessed the depredations that the penchant for war without limits, domestic or foreign, has inflicted upon its reputation and democracy. It was Burke, after all, who warned about imperial hubris: “I must fairly say, I dread our being too much dreaded. It is ridiculous to say we are not men; and that as men, we shall never wish to aggrandize ourselves in some way or other.”
THE UNITED States lacks the ability to suture the suppurating wounds of the Middle East. At most it can attempt to cauterize them. What the neocons are offering, though, is a message of power worship, one that is a recipe for a permanent revolution abroad that will further ensnare the United States in foreign predicaments that it cannot reasonably hope to resolve. In this regard, the neocons themselves appear to have lost their confidence and are eager to blame America first for its foreign woes. In 2004, Joshua Micah Marshall perceptively observed in the New Yorker that the neocons, buffeted by the descent of Iraq into civil strife, were starting to exchange an imperial “tone of mastery” for “fire and foreboding.” Gone was the “hopeful talk of a liberal-democratic domino effect.” “As we head deeper into our version of the 1930s,” wrote Robert Kagan recently in the Wall Street Journal, “we may be quite shocked, just as our forebears were, at how quickly things fall apart.” And so the counsel of these warrior intellectuals is a curious mixture of defeatism and false bravado. All that the United States has to offer the rest of the globe, it seems, is unremitting combat.
“There can be no such thing as a little war,” the Duke of Wellington said, “for a great nation.” That is why warfare should never be a matter of convenience, guided by the triumph of hope over experience. Uncle Sam shouldn’t have to cry uncle. But the very measures that the neocons advocate to reestablish American power would erode it. As Obama grapples with the rise of the Islamic State, however, it’s also becoming increasingly clear that he saw what he wanted to see in Iraq and Syria. His missteps have given a new lease on life to the crew that is responsible for much of the mess in the first place. Now that the region has become more inflamed than ever, Obama’s dream of extricating the United States from foreign entanglements has turned out to be a mirage that the neocons are deftly exploiting.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.
Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore/CC by-sa 2.0