US Foreign Policy

Cutting through the Myriad Cons about the Neocons

in Program

This commentary appeared in the Daily Star on December 8, 2004. An Arabic version of this analysis is available here.

As the U.S. presidential election approached, many in the Arab world impatiently awaited the demise of the neoconservative ideology that they closely identified with President George W. Bush’s Middle East policies. Now that Bush has won re-election and a new cabinet is being formed, the region awaits the future course of U.S. foreign policy, as it will affect them. Not unnaturally, neoconservatives are again the subject of much scrutiny.

In the Arab world, vilification of the neocons is a sport. Branding someone a neoconservative has become a favorite insult in the Arab lexicon and a convenient way of discrediting an opinion. The strophes are familiar: Neocons have it all wrong; they know nothing about the world’s realities, and they are driven by contempt and hatred for the rest of the world, especially Muslims.

This simplification of neocon thinking reflects a limited understanding of the school of thought, as well as a desire to dismiss its relevance. Neoconservatism has been amalgamated with Zionism, caricaturized and stripped of all nuance by numerous pundits. No analysis of Bush’s Middle East policy has failed to mention the so-called “Clean Break” document of 1996, a policy paper written for, but not commissioned by, then Israeli prime ministerial candidate Benjamin Netanyahu, and authored by prominent neocons; or the letters of the Project for a New American Century. But little has been written to explain the underpinnings of neocon ideology.

The universalist values of the neocon school have deep roots in American political thinking. On foreign policy issues, neocons are driven by the notion of the inevitability and universality of democracy and free markets. In his “The End of History and the Last Man,” a seminal neoconservative work that is often quoted but rarely read, Francis Fukuyama argued that the collapse of all rival political ideologies (particularly Marxism-Leninism) had consecrated the American economic and political system. It was the lack of alternatives to this that explained why history had reached an end.

While many ridiculed Fukuyama’s naivete, or arrogance, few attempted to answer the fundamental question he asked: What will drive the world in the coming century? For Fukuyama, the pursuit of economic prosperity and political freedom would trump all other considerations. And because the U.S. has attained a high degree of political and economic development, it has a responsibility to spread and protect democratic and liberal advancements.

For his part, political scientist Samuel Huntington, who is no neocon (he opposed the invasion of Iraq and signed a letter highly critical of Bush’s foreign policy), believes that the search for identity will drive international politics in the decades to come. In the post-Sept. 11, 2001 world, Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory has come to be seen as embodying all that is wrong about how America views the world, and many outside the U.S. perceive this as the foundation underlying the neocon agenda.


But the blending of the two concepts of an “end of history” and a “clash of civilizations” illustrates poor comprehension of the neoconservative philosophy. Far from being racist, the philosophy is universalistic. It contends that all humans share the same aspirations: individual freedom and affluence. It magnifies the traits common to human beings and reduces the importance of cultural features distinguishing societies one from another. This is actually the most contentious element of neocon thought: it assumes that individualist pursuits supersede identity. In traditional societies, this is anathema. For neoconservatives, the U.S., as the world’s most advanced state, has a mission to spread universal values. This explains why they so often promote interventionist policies and are sometimes labeled democratic imperialists.

Huntington, on the other hand, puts identity first. He claims that modern societies have specific cultural traits so profound that they constitute distinct so-called “civilizations.” Religion is the ultimate fault line that divides humanity. In Huntington’s defense, his work describes the world as he perceives it; it does not advocate a civilizational clash. Far from calling for interventionist foreign policies to impose U.S. power, Huntington recommends U.S. restraint and to some extent disengagement from the world to avoid offending and alienating other “civilizations” with imported values.

Another erroneous take on neoconservatives is the illusion that they are united, dominant and Israel-first. The neocon “school” probably includes no more than a couple of hundred intellectuals who engage in constant debate over foreign policy issues. Real cleavages among them exist, as revealed by the bitter exchange between Fukuyama and arch-hawk columnist Charles Krauthammer. In a recent issue of The National Interest, an international affairs journal, Fukuyama put much of the blame for the Iraq crisis on Israel-first neocons like Krauthammer. In the Arab world, neocons are said to espouse right-wing Israeli views with few second thoughts. However, few remember that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was booed at a pro-Israel rally in 2002 when he mentioned the suffering of the Palestinians, or that he pointedly met with the drafters of the so-called Geneva Accord – Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abd Rabbo.

Many foreign policy practitioners and analysts respect the neoconservatives’ intellectual brilliance and political perseverance. They credit the neocons with putting democratization in the Middle East at the top of their agenda. The neocons have rightly identified lack of freedom as an obstacle to peace and stability in the region. Bush echoed this when he broke with decades of U.S. complacency with regard to Middle Eastern authoritarianism. As he put it in November 2003: “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe – because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”

However, what is most controversial is the neocons’ policy recommendations that flow from this basic assumption, as well as their dismissal of other sources of anger directed against the U.S., including the Arab-Israeli conflict. For them, America has the power to shape or determine the face of the world. This belief explains why neocons were so convinced that democracy could flourish quickly in Iraq. They also believe in the morality of force, and see military action as a viable means of inducing reform. To neocons, morality of intention supplants other considerations linked to the use of force.

However, many take issue with neocon assumptions concerning U.S. power and its role in the world. Traditional conservatives do not share the neocons’ zeal to spread democracy and their definition of national interests. The critics worry about U.S. overstretch and the costs of forward policies. Senator Pat Roberts, a Republican, put it bluntly when he declared: “In fighting the global war against terrorism, we need to restrain what are growing U.S. messianic instincts – a sort of global social engineering where the United States feels it is both entitled and obligated to promote democracy, by force if necessary.”

Realists argue that the U.S. should pick its fights and refrain from promoting its values. They doubt that American-induced reform can succeed and believe that cooperating with states to combat terrorism is better than trying to change the nature of these states. And neoliberals, who share the democratic aspirations of neocons, believe that for U.S. power to be efficient and lasting, multilateral cooperation and careful use of force are required.

The neoconservatives may yet lose influence in the second Bush administration as a result of the high costs of the Iraq war. Traditional conservatives still carry much influence in Republican circles, and moderate Republican senators may be instrumental in defining the course of foreign policy. Yet should Bush come around to this view (and nothing in his recent appointments suggests this is the case), neoconservatives will still have a voice in foreign policy-making.

Understanding the neocons is more useful than denigrating them. Bush’s victory means that we have at least four more years of coping with them. Therefore, know the neocons for what they are.

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