In the summer of 2005 I was talking to a long-time Washington journalist who argued that Condolezza Rice had fundamentally shifted foreign policy. "She's gotten all of the necons out of the way," he said--citing the resignations of Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith and the shift of John Bolton to the U.N. When I brought up Rice's NSC successor Stephen Hadley, he denied that he was a neoconservative.
He was wrong.
Neoconservatism, in essence, is the view that the proper deployment of American force should solve all the world's problems. It originated, as Judith Klinghoffer showed, after the 1967 Middle East War, when Israel had to defend itself (albeit through a preventive strike) without any help from anyone but the U.S.--and with little enough of that. A number of prominent American Jews, many of them previously Democrats, concluded that since the United States was now Israel's only friend, it had to act forcefully and boldly around the world. That led them into alliances with leading anti-Communists such as Senator Henry Jackson. They opposed detente, supported Reagan's arms build-up, and, in some cases, argued that that build-up had somehow "defeated" the Soviet Union. In the 1990s a new generation of neocons began arguing for the overthrow of Iraq.
My informant evidently misinterpreted the changes early in the second Bush term. Wolfowitz and Feith did step down, perhaps because their boss Donald Rumsfeld had soured on the war they had plugged, perhaps, in Wolfowitz's case, because he wanted to get out of the line of fire now that the war had gone sour and no further attacks on Iran and North Korea were on the horizon, and perhaps, in Feith's case, for other reasons. Until about the middle of 2006, moreover, Rice and certain people around her--such as, perhaps, Phillip Zelikow--fed a lot of stories to the press that she had rehabilitated diplomacy as an alternative to force. But since at least the Lebanon war last summer, all that talk has seemed completely hollow, and with the President's unilateral decision to send 20,000 more men to Iraq, it has become farcical. The President, after disposing of Donald Rumsfeld (who felt the Iraqis had to do the job themselves), ignoring the Baker Commission, and finding his own generals lacking in vigor, decided more American force would solve the problem. Virtually the only two voices in favor of this step were second-generation neoconservatives, William Kristol of the Weekly Standard and Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. There really can be only one reason for the President's (and Vice-President's) decision: they agree, in their gut, with the idea that the United States has the right, the duty and the capability to impose its views upon the world, and that any other course of action spells disastrous weakness.
Because virtually no one else (except John McCain) now shares these views, we face a political and constitutional as well as a military and diplomatic crisis. The President and Vice President have set their judgment and that of a few ideologues against their own bureaucracy, a bipartisan majority of the Congress, and the American people, who registered their views in the election and continue to do so in polls. Because we have a conservative volunteer Army, the President--as he well knows and has actually remarked to friends--can get away with this without a national revolt. That cannot, however, make the policy a success.
The most appalling aspect of this ideology, to me, is not simply its rejection of any ideas of international consensus or international law--the ideas that were the foundation of our victories in the Second World War and in the Cold War--but its utter irresponsibility. Like so many Boomers over the last forty years, the purveyors of this policy assume they can have anything they want without paying for it. If they really feel American troops had to root out Middle Eastern extremism, they should be calling for a draft and the doubling, at least of our ground forces. But a draft would never pass, and might even affect their own children if it did--so a draft must not be mentioned. That contradiction alone should rule their ideas out of court, but the President of the United States appears to share the same view.
The 20,00 troops, in my opinion, cannot have a decisive effect on what is happening in Iraq, where, as I have mentioned several times, our casualty figures show that the insurgency is stronger than ever. It will be extremely difficult, as it was in Vietnam, to change strategy at this point. (The argument of Lewis Sorley, that General Creighton Abrams in 1969 turned US strategy into a success, has become popular for obvious reasons, but Sorley's own source--the transcripts of Abrams's conferences with his commanders--show how overstated it was. Abrams talked about possible alterations in strategy, but he did not even try to impose them on his commanders.) But the announcement, tragically, has shifted attention from what is actually happening on the ground--more and more ethnic cleansing and refugees--to the controversy in Washington. It will quite possibly tide the Administration over for another year, and after that, the election will take over the news, and the neoconservatives can start preparing their new stab-in-the-back legend about Iraq.
For all that, I see some reason to hope in the Congress's refusal to go along. It would behoove us all to study 1931-32 more closely; I have the distinct impression (as I suggested a couple of weeks ago) that by 1931 everyone understood Hoover's policies weren't working, but they didn't know what to do instead, and couldn't, anyway, with Hoover at the helm. That more or less describes where our foreign policy is today. The time has come, however, for the opposition to articulate a truly different vision of what America might stand for in the world and how it might conduct itself. I hope to take a crack at that myself in the next couple of weeks.