The Duck of Minerva

Is neoconservatism still vibrant?

10 November 2007

I’m late in commenting on Joshua Muravchik’s long defense of neconservatism in the October issue of Commentary (republished by the Wall Street Journal here).

If you haven’t read it, I recommend doing so. Muravchik outlines the basic tenets of neoconservatism, explains why neocons find the war on terror so compelling (he compares it explicitly to the long cold war struggle against an evil empire), and defends the decision to attack Iraq. He also claims — like many other neocons — that the US must confront Iran.

Muravchik’s punchline certainly attempts to justify all the ink he spills. In regard to the Global War on Terror (GWOT), he asserts that “liberals and realists have no coherent approach to suggest.” Therefore, “neoconservatism remains the only game in town.”

I begin this examination with a quick summary of the basic tenets of the ideological conflict at the core of his argument:

(1) Our struggle is moral, against an evil enemy who revels in the destruction of innocents. Knowing this can help us assess our adversaries correctly and make appropriate strategic choices. Saying it convincingly will strengthen our side and weaken theirs. (2) The conflict is global, and outcomes in one theater will affect those in others. (3) While we should always prefer nonviolent methods, the use of force will continue to be part of the struggle. (4) The spread of democracy offers an important, peaceful way to weaken our foe and reduce the need for force.

On multiple occasions in the piece, the author references George Orwell and 1984, but the neocons who embrace the book seem only to have grasped Orwell’s moralism, not his critique of militarism and war.

It’s a fairly major flaw considering the stated preference for nonviolent methods. Conservatives like Samuel Huntington have long pointed out the threat militarism poses to American democracy:

to influence the political development of other societies would require an enormous expansion of the military power and economic resources of the American government. This in turn would pose dangers to the operation of democratic government within the United States.

Next, the specific foe in the GWOT is unclear. You might think that states potentially overtaken by “jihadists” are of special concern, but Muravchik argues with a straight face that Iraq did not take resources otherwise needed to confront the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Moreover, he ignores the fact that Iraq was a secular state under Saddam and that Iran is Shi’a while al Qaeda is Sunni.

Muravchik tries to make out that the neocons consistently support “hard Wilsonian” foreign policy, while too many self-identified liberals have sold out people living in various strategically important states in the name of expediency. Yet, Muravchik dismisses the idea that America’s military power could do anything useful in Pakistan to confront al Qaeda forces that have resettled there. At the same time, those forces are supposed to provide the greatest threat.

Indeed, when Muravchik justifies his framing of the “threat,” he engages in what many analysts would see as fantastic (and fanatical) threat inflation:

The terrorists are the shock troops of the jihadist or radical Islamist movement, a movement whose strength is limited but substantial—far greater than, for example, that of the Communists just after Lenin seized power in Russia. Jihadism has many times more supporters, its reach is more global, it has far more resources, and it has a natural constituency that Communism only pretended to have. Lenin and his band succeeded in fastening their grip on a backward country and used it as a springboard from which their heirs could contest seriously for world domination. Who is to say how powerful a threat radical Islam could become if allowed to metastasize further?

Muravchik praises the Bush administration’s “war on terror” for its “strong assertions of America’s righteousness,” without acknowledging the possibility that the Bush government might have been headed by corrupt and incompetent leaders. As David Bernstein explains, neocons who focus on domestic policy delight in explaining that “good intentions (as in failed Great Society programs) aren’t enough…throwing government resources at problems not only isn’t enough, but is often counter-productive.”

Muravchik certainly doesn’t think his favored policies are self-defeating. Rather, he blames the public’s turn against Bush and the Iraq war on various international enemies — as if American policy choices had nothing to do with the outcomes.

Neocons like Muravchik remain convinced that their own arguments and policy positions were right. You and I might argue that Iraq was a horrible mistake because Saddam ran a secular government that had no ties to al Qaeda and no means of producing nuclear weapons. Moreover, any effort to topple Iraq’s government was bound to stir up nasty sectarian violence that could easily erupt into civil war. These latter points are the arguments of George H.W. Bush, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney, circa 1991.

Yet, Muravchik refuses to apologize for the disaster that is Iraq policy:

Besides, whatever measure of responsibility may be placed on neoconservatives in this one matter, it pales in comparison to the errors of the realists in the George H.W. Bush administration who in 1991 chose to leave Saddam in power, and of the liberals in the Clinton administration who allowed Saddam’s defiance of his disarmament obligations to swell steadily over eight long years. Together, these failures left the problem of Saddam Hussein festering for George W. Bush to confront in the aftermath of 9/11, when it appeared in a more ominous light.

Finally, consider what I view as my favorite sentence in the entire piece. Muravchik criticizes “the likes of Carl Levin and Edward Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi” for their 30 years of opposition to numerous weapons systems and hard-line policies favored by the neocons:

Never once did they acknowledge error or revisit their own mistaken judgments, although in each case the neoconservative critique of those judgments was proved right.


Iraq. Iraq. Iraq.

The piece simply never attempts to overcome the many errors of the policies offered by Paul Wolfowitz et al — nor does it explain precisely what should be done about Iran.

I think we know how to explain these oversights.

Iraq. Iraq. Iraq.

Note: The Project on Defense Alternatives has a set of valuable links on neoconservatism here.