Neocons, Israel, Latin America, and Other Final Thoughts and Questions

Neocons, Israel, Latin America, and Other Final Thoughts and Questions

I want to thank Tom for participating in this discussion; I have re-read the book as we have had this discussion, and it has provided great illumination on what the text is about.  I have learned a great deal from the discussion and from the book.  I apologize for coming late with this entry; it was hard to get to this until the weekend, and I wanted to be certain I had fully re-read the book – Tom, just when you thought the discussion was over … a late and slightly polemical entry.  Apologies!

So.  I want to offer a final entry that covers a couple of (not-closely related) topics.  The first is the meaning of ‘neoconservative’ in Tom’s book.  These observations follow in part on Mark Shulman’s very valuable, historically informed post earlier.  The opening chapter on neoconservatism connects the conservative (in a generic sense) foreign policy of the post 9-11 period to the 1970s and especially 80s conservative foreign policy of the late Cold War and, in particular, the Reagan years.  That seems to me right in the general sense that 9-11 foreign policy did not come from nowhere; many of the senior actors (Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, Dick Cheney, Condaleeza Rice, etc.) had been around in more junior roles in the 1980s, as is usual in any presidential administration, and they had formulated their views in part – but, I would add, only in part – in relation to their experiences in the late Cold War and Reagan-Bush pere years.

What I am trying to figure out from the chapter on neoconservatism is what makes it ‘neocon’ as distinguished from just regular old ‘con’ – and that with reference to each of the 1980s and the post 9-11 period.  In that regard, I find Chris’s matrix suggestion a very useful one, and I hope he follows it up somewhere.  With regard to the 1980s, I’m not sure what makes the neocons specially separate from the cons, except for a focus, in Tom’s account, on support for Israel. 

Indeed, reading the posts and re-reading the book, I’m prepared to say that the core claim of the book, reduced to the essentials, is that neoconservative foreign policy is about support for Israel, as against the just claims of, well, the rest of the world; this foreign policy has essentially taken over American interests, and that a truly American Liberal foreign policy must reclaim it for America, rather than for Israel; the way to do so is, the last chapters suggest, is for a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict; and this conflict is what fundamentally stokes jihadi terrorism.  Resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict and you essentially resolve America’s terrorism problem, too – although the resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict does not appear to me, at least, to be proposed on terms that, were I an Israeli, would offer me much reason to feel secure (but I grant that I’ve never been there and leave that to others more expert than I).  

I realize that this is a caricature, but I don’t think it’s a completely unfair reading of the thesis, having read the book twice and in the light of the discussion here.  Tom, feel free to correct me, but the grand strategy appears to be one that treats the Palestine conflict as standing at the center of America’s terrorism security problem.  It seems to me to suggest, not precisely that terrorists are terrorists because of Palestine, but rather that the legitimacy of terrorism that some ascribe to it rests upon Palestine; make that legitimacy go away and terrorism would be seriously undercut.  And the reason I feel some confidence in saying that the defining feature of neoconservatism, in this account (as distinguished from anything else or any other approach to American foreign policy) is its stance on Israel, is that every other potentially defining feature – the willingness to use American military force, the assertion of American exceptionalism, etc. – are all things equally ascribable to American ‘conservative’ foreign policy as such.  Only the position on Israel appears to distinguish the neocons from the cons.  A liberal foreign policy would take aim at the very center of the problem, whereas neoconservatism creates it while merely conservative foreign policy perpetuates it. 

Again, I stress that I am creating a two sentence caricature, and you really do have to read the book both in order to have a nuanced sense of its position, as well to have a truly informed opinion as to how accurate this caricature is.  But it is enough true, in my view, to cause me to disagree.  I don’t think for a moment that the core issue of jihadi terrorism is the Palestine conflict.  I do agree that it is a part of it, and that grievances from it stoke core sentiments across the Muslim world, but I don’t believe in the least that the core of anti-modernity, core religious violence that drives jihad would suddenly depart were peace to break out in Palestine.  There is no real-world solution, short of the alternative-world elimination of Israel as such, that would satisfy the resentments; no complex negotiated peace that would address the real world issues that would satisfy either Hamas or forces of jihadi resentment worldwide.  I grant there is indeed a certain convenience for some of my neocon friends who support Israel to want to shift the whole analysis of causes of religious terrorism from highly specific and uncomfortable issues such as Israel/Palestine to a far more remote abstraction of modernity, religious zealotry, etc.  I don’t dispute that intellectual tendency.

Shifting the account of jihad to a specific geopolitical conflict, however, as though it were merely a geopolitical conflict and casus belli, is the converse of that admitted neocon tendency.  It is, in other words, equally convenient for those who do not want to have to consider, for example, the specific roots of violence in unreformed doctrines of religion, or the role of resource extraction autocrats exporting their own problems with legitimacy, or the destabilizing forces of the modern world on Muslim populations in Western Europe, or the effects of multiculturalism in espousing religious communalism in place of liberal democracy in Europe; or lots of other things.  It also has the effect of avoiding consideration of the profound ambiguity of referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the geopolitical source of jihadism, on the one hand, while refusing to consider that it is also as much or more a marker, a social stand-in, for all those other troubling issues, on the other.  Or having to consider that America is also an ideological and sometimes specifically religious enemy, as such, and not merely because it stands with Israel or has particular policies in the world.

Having tossed that rhetorical firecracker, as it were, however, let me shift to the definition of neoconservative – the definition today.  If I am unhappy with an account of neoconservatism that, to my mind, overemphasizes considerably Israel and the role of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one needs as a consequence an alternative account. The most useful definitional discussion of neoconservatism of which I am aware is Francis Fukuyama’s After the Neocons.  He has an extended discussion of what defines today’s neoconservatism, first as a domestic policy position, and then as a foreign policy position.  It is, Fukuyama says (I’m partly paraphrasing and partly quoting in what follows), one of four principal approaches to American foreign policy.  The others are

  • realism, emphasizing power, stability, and downplaying the internal nature of other regimes (Kissinger, Scowcroft, Baker, Powell, early and late Rice); 
  • liberal internationalism, hoping to transcend power politics in favor of law and institutions (no one in the Bush administration, but nearly all international law professors); and finally, what Walter Russell Meade has called 
  • “Jacksonian” nationalism, tending toward a narrow, security related view of American national interests and distrust of multilateralism (Rumsfeld, Cheney).  

What characterizes neoconservatism in relation to these other doctrines is that it is a form of foreign policy idealism, one that emphasizes the internal nature of regimes and downplays realism as such.  As a senior human rights theorist once remarked to me with some annoyance, back in the 1980s as neoconservatism was emerging as a distinct foreign policy doctrine, it is “conservatism’s evil twin of liberal human rights idealism.”  As for its internal characteristics, in reviewing Fukuyama, I have broken it out into seven characteristics:

  • It arose as a highly specific moralizing doctrine for promoting American security in the ideological struggle of the Cold War; it played idealist antagonist to conservative Kissingerian realism; 
  • although a doctrine about American security, it is not about power alone, but is also equally about American ideals, explicitly; it asserts that the internal affairs of other states matter – their attachment to democracy, human rights, liberal values – on their own as well as predictors of tendencies to war and peace with America; 
  • it conjoins a belief in the universal validity and appeal of fundamental American ideals with an equally firm belief in American exceptionalism; 
  • it sees American exceptionalism as not merely a fact about American power but a legitimate ordering of power in the world, hegemony wielded by a manifestly imperfect but still reasonably moral superpower providing a minimum level of security in a messy world; 
  • American power including its military might can and should be used for explicitly moral and ideal purposes, in ways not approved by realism, and;
  • it is skeptical of liberal internationalism and international institutions, not merely as a matter of their ineffectiveness but also because they are not, in its eyes, legitimate in the ways that democratic sovereigns are legitimate.

But it also adds a seventh – one which runs profoundly counter to the previous six, and which is drawn from neoconservatism as a domestic policy doctrine, and indeed that which defined it as a domestic policy doctrine:  Neoconservatism also holds a profound distrust of  ambitious social-engineering projects and a deep skepticism about the unintended consequences of large scale alterations to the social and political order by well intentioned reformers.  As Fukuyama lays out in detail – this is the heart of his attack on the neocons – this last was willfully ignored by the foreign policy neocons when they set off on the Iraq war, refusing to consider what they themselves had made a centerpiece of neoconservative domestic policy analysis – the tendency to unanticipated bad consequences by good intentions in large scale social engineering.

I lay these out here not in order to attack or defend them, but rather descriptively to state what neoconservatism is about – how it sees itself.  Tom’s account, whether of its emergence in the 1980s or its role in post 9-11 foreign policy, seems to me to neglect the internal characteristics of neoconservatism in favor of an account of it stressing mostly its support for Israel.  But I think it is hard to understand the policies that the neocons pushed without understanding those distinct themes – themes that have little to do with Israel and a lot to do with lessons taken, and sometimes mistaken, as Fukuyama argues, from the Cold War.  

It is especially hard to understand the tensions within the Bush administration without consideration of these separate strands of doctrine precisely because it was only ever fitfully and partly neocon.  It was, rather, a place of serious battle between three of the four foreign policy paradigms Fukuyama identifies (liberal internationalism was not really on the table, except in the permanent environs of the State Department).  On that account – neoconservatism doing battle with many aggressive non-neocons within the administration – the Iraq war becomes the victory of a coalition of neocons together with Jacksonian nationalists (Rumsfeld and Cheney), as against more cautious traditional realists (Powell).  Most important, the process of that coalition saw a group of extremely unidealistic Jacksonian nationalists find it expedient to adopt all the arguments and language of neocon idealism – democracy, human rights, etc. – but with little reason to think they believe(d) a word of it.  This Jacksonian nationalism is the most under-analyzed stream in American foreign policy approaches; Rumsfeld and Cheney have, it seems to me, a world view very distinct from either classical realism or neoconservatism, but it goes mostly unanalyzed.  (The argument over Iraq also saw the introduction of a quite new form of thinking – ‘idealism as the new realism’, as the term went a few years ago – the recognition that it was precisely the realism of the past, and the accommodation of bad regimes, that had led to things today, and that the “true” realist position was to adopt neocon idealism: Rice went this direction for a while, although she seems to have definitively moved back to her realist roots.)  

The focus on Israel, in other words, will only get you so far, or so it seems to me.  Likewise the focus on Latin America in the 1980s.  The concern about a doctrine of national security, the national security state, is a real and valid one. .  It was also, indeed, the animating rhetoric of anti-communist US allies in Latin American during the 1980s.  Great minds think alike – naturally – and I raised this very point somewhere, specifically citing it as a Latin American security ideology, in an article long before having seen Tom’s book, otherwise I would have credited it to him; I also raised it an a talk at AEI a couple of years ago, and saw people’s reactions run from entirely puzzled (the young) to bristling (those old enough to remember the 1980s) to having US policy compared to Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, or Salvador’s ‘national security of the nation trumps all’ ideologies.  Tom is right in raising it as a warning to the United States, and I applaud him for it.  But that is at the level of law and legal metaphor.  I mean, that is, that the United States is not a Latin American state, in fact, and it shares little social, legal, cultural history with those regimes.  The actual historical account of how those regimes came to adopt their national security state doctrines – starting with a hefty dose of something quite alien to internal US politics now or ever, the “special” guiding role of the military in ensuring the sanctity of the nation – does not suggest that the United States would draw on their experience in its own political ordering.  There is an important political and legal warning there for the United States – but it is by parallel, analogy, warning, and not by commonality of history.

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