The Future is Neocon

The Future is Neocon

by Author(s): Joshua Muravchik

TO COMPARE the records of realism and neoconservatism we must first define our terms. Realism consists of two mutually contradictory propositions. One holds that states are bound to behave according to their innate interests. Thus, Hans Morgenthau argued that politics is “governed by objective laws” whose “operation [is] impervious to our preferences.” The other holds that states may deviate from their interests but ought not do so. Thus, George Kennan argued that “the most serious fault” in U.S. foreign policy was the tendency to take a “legalistic-moralistic approach to international problems.” Without resolving the inconsistency we may stipulate that realism posits that states do or should hew closely to a tight conception of the national interest, revolving around matters of geography, resources and power.

Neoconservatives were originally a circle of writers who proclaimed no “ism.” Their approach to foreign policy consisted of what Max Boot has called “hard Wilsonianism.” As one such neocon, I would stipulate that the essential tenets, in contradistinction to realism, include giving a greater weight to moral considerations, attributing larger importance to the ideological element of politics and above all favoring a more contingent assessment of the national interest. While realists believe that we will be safer by seeking to avoid unnecessary broils, neocons believe that we will find more safety using our power to try to fashion a more benign world order. On these points, neocons are liberal internationalists. Where they part company from liberals is in a greater readiness to resort to force and a lesser appreciation of the United Nations. (Realists think little better of the UN, and neither are most of them squeamish about using force, but since they define U.S. interests so narrowly, they see fewer occasions for it.)

U.S. policy has rarely mirrored one school or another in perfect reflection. Policy ordinarily flows from a confluence of sources, including some—for example, domestic politics—that have nothing to do with strategy or philosophy. Nonetheless, it is relatively easy to identify policies that have been more influenced by one school than another.


HOW HAS the United States fared when policy hewed closely to the realist or the neocon approaches?

The most important points of comparison are the respective aftermaths of the two world wars. Following the first, the United States spurned Wilson’s architecture of peace and turned instead to realism. Realists may claim that the ensuing twenty years, the most catastrophic era of American foreign policy, ought to be charged up to “isolationism” rather than laid at their doorstep. But this would be a semantic dodge. Isolationism is nothing more than realism in an extreme variant. And U.S. policy in the 1920s and 1930s was not strictly isolationist. On the contrary, these years saw the creation of the foreign service, continued activism in the Western Hemisphere, invigoration of the “open door” in the Pacific and repeated efforts to solve Europe’s financial crisis, amidst a general emphasis on the economic side of international life. What were averted were Wilson’s high idealism and the commitment to using American power to preserve the peace. In short, it was an era of realism. And it led directly to the most disastrous event in human history, a war that snuffed out some 60 million lives, including more Americans than have died in all of our other foreign wars combined.

After the Second World War, in contrast, America turned to what we would today recognize as a “neocon” approach. By this I mean that we set out on the most globalist path that any noncolonialist power has ever undertaken. We formed alliances in Europe, Northeast and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the antipodes; girdled the globe with military bases; fostered international institutions that helped restore the world economy and gave away an impressive fraction of our income in foreign aid. Above all, we proclaimed a strategy that defined the entire world as the arena in which we would confront our new adversary. This insistence that our own security was linked to the security of others in every corner of the world was the very antithesis of “realism.” Senator Robert Taft bemoaned that we were acting as “demigod and Santa Claus to solve the problems of the world.”

At the time, these policies were termed “liberal internationalist”; the term “neocon” had yet to be coined. But they were muscular policies (we were spending roughly 10 percent of our GNP on defense), to which today’s neoconservatism is the heir much more than today’s liberalism. While realist policy following the First World War led to unparalleled disaster, neocon policies after the second achieved what was arguably the most perfect success in the history of statecraft—our relatively bloodless victory over a foe possessing the most ponderous military machine ever assembled.

Of course, containment was not a perfect strategy. It led to woe in Vietnam. And, too, realists made their contributions to containment, notably the anti-Soviet alliance Henry Kissinger forged with Communist China. But the overall strategy was of neocon design, and it was brought to successful conclusion by the arch-neocon, Ronald Reagan. He rhetorically challenged the “evil empire”; fostered guerrilla war against Communist regimes in godforsaken places; promoted universal democracy; and undermined mutually assured destruction by means of “Star Wars.” These successful tactics were decried by realists as reckless diversions, just as they were cheered at every turn by neocons. Indeed, neocons helped to shape them. Jeane Kirkpatrick was one of their principal intellectual architects. Richard Perle steered the administration’s nuclear-weapons policies. Elliott Abrams was the point man for the “Reagan Doctrine,” which itself was formulated not by Reagan but by neocon columnist Charles Krauthammer.

The Soviet Union presented a challenge—partly conventional military, partly unconventional military and above all ideological—for which realism was not designed and to which it had no answers.


NOW, WHAT about the post-cold-war world?

The first challenge was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The path to this event was paved by one of America’s most nakedly realist sallies, our quiet support for Iraq in its war with Iran in the 1980s. This is reported to have included sharing intelligence and funneling arms from third countries, as well as averting our gaze from Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. Had it not been for this support, Saddam Hussein might have been in no position to make a grab for Kuwait in 1990, nor perhaps would he have assumed American acquiescence. This assumption was reinforced by the assurances offered by our ambassador, April Glaspie, that the United States does not intervene in intra-Arab quarrels. Whether she was to blame for this much-criticized message or was merely following orders, it undeniably represented a realist sentiment.

The decision to force Iraq to disgorge its prey was taken by a realist president surrounded by realist advisors like James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell. But this necessary action received more solid backing from neocons than from other realists, some of whom, such as Patrick Buchanan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, James Schlesinger, Russell Kirk, and columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, among others, echoed most liberals in opposition to the war.

The war concluded on a consummately realist note—the decision to leave Saddam in power. The principal justification given for not marching on Baghdad to oust the dictator ourselves was that this would exceed the UN mandate under which we were fighting. But this does not explain our response to the large insurrection against Saddam that broke out at war’s end. Although we had ordered the grounding of all Iraqi military aircraft, we allowed an exception for the helicopters used against the rebels, and when Saddam’s loyal Republican Guard battalions passed close to American lines on their way to suppress the uprising, we made no effort to hinder them. Neither keeping those choppers grounded nor scaring off Saddam’s troops would have violated any mandate or involved us in more fighting. So another reason must be found for our cynical complicity in Saddam’s retention of power. In a joint essay some years later, former-President George H. W. Bush and former–National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft claimed that they did in fact want Saddam removed from power, but they also offered an insight into the realist calculations that led them to act otherwise. “Neither the U.S. nor the countries of the region wished to see the breakup of the Iraqi state,” they wrote. “We were concerned about the long-term balance of power at the head of the Gulf.”


BY THE mid-1990s we found ourselves faced with a series of local bloodlettings that raised humanitarian concerns more than ones of security. In general, neocons would treat purely moral concerns, such as human rights, as a higher priority than would realists. In the episodes in question, the specific issue was whether America should use force in situations in which the stakes were more moral than strategic in nature.

In the 1870s, Bismarck had summed up the realist position when he commented that stemming mayhem in the Balkans was “not worth the healthy bones of a single Pomeranian musketeer.” To be sure, most American realists today would offer disaster relief to save foreign lives, but they would draw a sharp line against risking American lives to rescue others. The neocon position is a bit harder to distill. Most neocons would endorse military action for purely humanitarian reasons in some circumstances. Where and when would depend on some intuitive arithmetic about how many foreign lives might be saved and how many American lives might be lost in the process.