May 01, 2008

Neocon Nation?

Not too long ago, Sam Francis noted a certain ?confessional? quality to Irving Kristol?s attempted definition of the ?neoconservative persuasion.? Neocons in the beltway are supposed to pretend that they?re good vanilla conservatives, representatives of the real America; Kristol fils is actually pretty good this. You?re not supposed to talk about stuff like the ?historical task? of neoconservatives being to ?convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.?

I had similar feelings while reading Robert Kagan?s ?Neocon Nation? in the interesting new journal World Affairs (which implausibly includes Andrew Bacevich, Christopher Hitches, Lawrence Kaplan, and Kagan all on the same conflicted editorial board).

In ?Neocon Nation? Kagan is doing the same thing he did in his history of American foreign policy: trying to convince everyone that AIE was founded by a band of New England Puritans in the 17th century and that Commentary was widely read aboard the Mayflower. Neoconservatism = Americanism. (I actually think that Kagan is getting at something here, and that there really is a terrible militant idealism that?s endemic to America, but I?ll save this for another post?) Anyway, Kagan proves all this by culling some rhetorical flourishes from politicians past. For instance, Hamilton once said, Americans? beliefs were ?written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature? See! he clearly would have invaded Iraq. Case closed.

Whatever one wants to say about this, what?s interesting about this article are its gems, many of which, some of Kagan?s allies might think, reveal a bit too about the neocon persuasion. 

Let?s start off with this:   

?The first thing that could be said about this neoconservative worldview is that there is nothing very conservative about it.?


?The oldest, and in some ways most potent, critique has always been that of genuine conservatism, a powerful counter-tradition that goes back at least as far as the debates over the ratification of the Constitution in 1787.?

?Neocon Nation? is a nice companion volume to Bill Kauffman?s fantastic new book, Ain?t My America, which traces the history of antiwar conservatism.

“Today, most of those old battles are forgotten.”

Sadly true. 

Then there?s some very strange rhetoric in which Kagan almost defines neconconservatism, er ?Americanism,? as incoherent, reckless, and militantly ideological:

?But Americans in the days of FDR, Truman, Acheson, and after them Eisenhower and Kennedy, sought precisely what Taft feared, a ?preponderance of power? and ?situations of strength? at strategic points all across the globe. They pursued an ideologically laden containment strategy that theoretically could lead America to war anywhere on the planet, and which did lead it straight into Vietnam.

“As Truman enunciated his famous doctrine and Acheson set about implementing the strategy of containment, the great realists of the day howled in disgust. Walter Lippmann denounced containment as a ?strategic monstrosity? because it seemed to promise endless confrontation everywhere.

(As an aside, George Kennan, the man who actually coined the term ?containment strategy,? wasn?t much interested in this kind of foreign policy and actually wanted Europe to develop as a ?third force? so that it could resist the Soviet Union, and not Uncle Sam.)

Moving on, Kagan actually puts partisanship aside and breaks down the old ?Republicans are from Mars, Democrats are from Venus? clich?s that in other contexts he?s tried to perpetuate.

?Indeed, there was scarcely a moment in the Cold War when true realists were not appalled by the direction the United States was taking. What could a realist make of Kennedy?s promise to ?pay any price, bear any burden,? or Jimmy Carter?s human rights policies, or Ronald Reagan?s self-righteous moralizing about the ?evil empire???

They were all equally self-righteous and reckless!  Why Even the Clintons were neocons!

“[Samuel Huntington, representative of the realist tradition] chastised Clinton administration officials who ?boast[ed] of American power and American virtue? and who ?lecture[d] other countries on the universal validity of American principles, practices, and institutions,? who professed America?s superior wisdom and foresight. He was appalled at Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when she told the world, ?If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.?

?plus ca change?

?These days critics of neoconservatism repeat these same complaints, often culling from these old critics to make their case.?

?plus c?est la m?me chose.?

?American foreign policy?s most astute critics have always understood that it is not conservatism but this liberal and progressive idealism that is the engine of American expansionism and hegemonism.?

And then Kagan brings us to the dilemmas of 2008.

?Even between the so-called neoconservatives and the liberal internationalists, between the advisers to Republican and Democratic candidates for the White House, the differences, as David Rieff rightly notes, ?are more in the nature of a family quarrel,? the ?interventionist family.?

Kagan is good enough to remind me why I don?t go in for the ?Obama Con? bargain (put simply, The Man of Hope might be really liberal, multiculti, and silly, but he?ll get us out of Iraq and dramatically change our foreign policy):

?When Barack Obama talks about foreign policy, he evokes not Chomsky but Kennedy and insists America must be the ?leader of the free world.? It must lead the way ?in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.? Its ?larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom.? He insists, in phrases that should appall any true realist, that the ?security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people.??

Kagan?s represents the polar opposite of the kind of figure I?d like giving advice to the next president; however, while reading his article, I couldn?t help ironically agreeing with just about everything.

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