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NeoConservatism: Still Alive and Kicking

October 2nd, 2007 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

A few nights ago, I briefly registered my reticence to reject neo-conservative foreign policy in light of the progress we have made in Iraq.

Joshua Muravchik has written an extended defense of neoconservatism in light of the recent proclamations of its demise. He takes a strong stance on the issue, concluding that in light of a war that has been thrust upon us, neoconservatism is "the only game in town."

He begins by outlining the history of neoconservatism and the core tenets of its foreign policy, tenets which he again summarizes at the end of the piece:

(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.

Along the way, he highlights where and how neoconservatism succeeded in foreign policy (see: ending of the Cold War), as opposed to the "realist" and "idealist" policies which were decidedly less successful.

From there, Muravchik dismantles the objections to neoconservatism that have been raised, but does so in balanced and responsible fashion. He concludes:

In sum, the most persuasive criticisms of the Iraq war—that we sent too small a force, that we erred in dismantling the Iraqi state, that we would have been wiser to concentrate on Iran—do nothing to impeach neoconservatism. And as for the criticisms that do aim at the distinctly neoconservative tenets of the war—that we should have deferred to the UN, that we should have avoided resorting to force, that we should not have tried to bring democracy to Iraq—none is persuasive.

The heart of the neoconservative approach to this war, however, depends upon whether democracy will ever become the dominant form of governing in the Middle East. In his own post about the lessons he has learned from the war, Joe Carter wrote:

I no longer believe that Arab nations are capable of sustaining liberal democracies. The empirical evidence for this belief is overwhelming: Arab culture is currently unable to sustain democratic forms of government. Some people will decry this belief as racist or xenophobic. But it is simply being realistic. I used to think that Samuel Huntington was an intelligent crank; now I think he's prophetic. As he once noted, the Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous. Thinking that freedom could take root in the blood-soaked soil of Arab culture was a naive assumption. Iraq has disabused me of such notions.

While Murachivik concurs that this is a difficult problem, he disagrees that Iraq has proved liberal democracies cannot thrive in the middle east. He writes:

Neither Bush nor anyone else can know if this strategy will work. There are two obvious areas of uncertainty. One has been expressed well by Kesler:

The conspicuous exception to democracy’s spread was the Arab Middle East. That could have meant, as the neoconservatives concluded, that its turn was next. But it could also have meant that there were cultural, religious, and political factors that had made it resistant to the democratic wave—and would continue to do so.

Kesler here makes the neoconservatives sound more assertive and uniform than I think is fair, but he is certainly right that we do not know whether Arabs will in fact embrace democracy any time soon or, for that matter, ever. And we also do not know—we can only suppose and hope—that if they do, democracy will work to pacify Arab political culture. That is the second uncertainty.

Was it irresponsible of Bush to rest such weighty national concerns on an unproved supposition? It would have been irresponsible had there been any better-tested or more plausible alternatives available. But none has yet been suggested, unless one counts those who persist in believing that stronger U.S. efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict will solve everything else. (If that were the case, attacks on America should have subsided during the 1990’s, the decade of our most vigorous efforts to broker just such a peace; instead, they crescendoed.)

Thus far, Bush’s strategy has scored some steps forward and some back. All in all, as Freedom House reported this year, “the Middle East continues to lag behind other regions in the development of free institutions.” But, the Freedom House report immediately continues, “the fact that progress has been made since the September 11, 2001 attacks gives some cause for optimism.” Although no country in the region (apart from Israel) can be judged “free,” the number counted as “partly free” (as opposed to “not free”) has risen from 3 to 6 (or 7 if one counts the Palestinian Authority). If appreciable progress is to come, it will require more years, which is why Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks of “a generational commitment.”

In other words, if anything has been disabused, it has been the neoconservatist optimism that such changes could happen quickly. This is why I disagree with Joe's proposition above (and his apparent rejection of the universality of Western culture). The appropriation of Western ideas of government by Middle Eastern countries would reverse hundreds of years of culture trending in the opposite direction. To expect the cultural and political ethos to change substantially in five--or ten or even twenty--years is hopelessly optimistic.

In all, Muravchik seems to be taking a more far-sighted perspective on the war and neoconservatism than many of their critics. His piece is, if only for this reason, essential reading for those interested in the future of American policy. The jury is still out on our performance in the war, which makes patience and a cautious hesitation to change courses too quickly the prudent approaches. As I pointed out before, we must indeed learn from our mistakes, but take the greatest care to learn the right lessons.
More reading:

My review of "Neoconservatism."
To Make Amends: The Hardest Thing in this World is to Live in It

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.