Walt Responds

Walt Responds

by Author(s): Stephen M. Walt

JOSHUA MURAVCHIK would have us believe that neoconservatives are just energetic liberal internationalists, even though neoconservatives used to condemn liberals at every opportunity while trumpeting their own unique approach for remaking the world in America’s image. By pretending now that neocons were merely good-old-fashioned Wilsonians, he seeks to claim credit where none is due and to deny responsibility for neoconservatism’s failures.

Muravchik begins by blaming World War II on realism, implying that the war would have been prevented had neoconservatives been in charge. This is silly, neoconservatism did not even exist before World War II. In any case, the interwar period was characterized less by realist policies than by misplaced idealism (remember the Kellogg-Briand Pact?) and it is no accident that one of the classic realist works, E. H. Carr’s Twenty Years’ Crisis (1939), was an incisive critique of idealistic interwar diplomacy.

More importantly, had neoconservatism been around back then, its emphasis on ideological purity would have been a recipe for disaster. The key strategic problem in the 1930s was the presence of several revisionist dictatorships: Germany, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union. This meant that any serious attempt to stop Hitler required cutting a deal with the even-more murderous Stalin. Presumably, that is a policy no true neoconservative could condone. Instead, neoconservatives would have had America use force to topple all these tyrants and impose democracy, at immeasurable cost. World War II was a tragedy, to be sure, but the policies Muravchik decries allowed the United States to pay a comparatively small price and emerge the world’s dominant power.

Muravchik’s portrayal of the postwar order is equally off base. The true architects of containment were realists who understood that the United States had to take the leading role against the Soviet Union, while recognizing that multilateral institutions like the United Nations and NATO could be useful means to that end. Containment cannot have been of “neocon design,” as Muravchik suggests, because there were no neocons back in 1950. Moreover, those who emerged later—such as Irving Kristol—opposed containment and favored rollback instead. Neoconservatives are also openly skeptical of international institutions and especially contemptuous of NATO. If they had been an influential force after World War II, the alliances that won the cold war might never have been created and World War III would have been more likely.

As expected, Muravchik tries to recruit Ronald Reagan into the neocon pantheon, but his own account contradicts this claim. Muravchik terms America’s support for Iraq during its war with Iran “one of America’s most nakedly realist sallies,” and says it led to the 1991 Gulf War. Has he forgotten that U.S. support for Saddam began under Ronald Reagan? And does Muravchik think it would have been better to let Iran win?

Muravchik concludes by claiming that realism “had virtually nothing to suggest in the face of terrorism” except “breaking America’s friendship with Israel.” Wrong again. After 9/11, realists called for a laserlike focus on al-Qaeda and warned that invading Iraq was a foolish diversion. Realists advocated tough-minded diplomacy toward Iran and Syria and evenhanded engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as part of a broad effort to undermine Islamic extremists. No realist ever advocated “breaking friendship with Israel”; instead, they prefer to treat Israel as a normal country while opposing its self-destructive effort to colonize the Occupied Territories, an approach that would be better for the United States and Israel alike.1

Neoconservatives had a different answer to 9/11. The result: we are bogged down in Baghdad, the Taliban is back, Osama bin Laden is still at large, Hezbollah and Hamas—not to mention Iran—are more powerful, and Israel is closer to becoming an apartheid state. If you think this is progress, then stick with the neocons.

Finally, Muravchik claims neoconservatives “treat purely moral concerns . . . as a higher priority than would realists,” yet his response evinces little concern for ordinary human beings. He expresses no remorse at the suffering that neoconservative policies have wrought and seems mostly concerned that the neocons are now “taking their lumps” over Iraq. What matters to him is political standing in Washington, not the hundreds of thousands of needless Iraqi deaths, the millions of refugees who fled their homes, or the tens of thousands of patriotic Americans killed or wounded. So let us hear no more about the neoconservatives’ “moral” convictions. Amid such company, the realists who opposed the war can stand tall.


1For realist approaches to the post-9/11 world, see my “Beyond Bin Laden: Reshaping U.S. Foreign Policy,” International Security, vol. 26, no. 3 (Winter 2001/2002); and the bipartisan report of the Iraq Study Group, chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton.