Why Neoconservatism Was and Is Right
by Michael Rubin
The following is the English translation of a chapter from the German book Verratene Freiheit: Der Aufstand im Iran und die Antwort des Westens.
George W. Bush left office with a public approval rating of just over one-third, tied with Jimmy Carter as the most unpopular president since Richard Nixon. Unpopular at home, Bush's tenure also saw anti-Americanism reach unprecedented levels. In Germany, favorable attitudes toward the United States declined from 78 percent, when George W. Bush took office to 31 percent when he left office. In 2007, Turkey gained the distinction of becoming perhaps the most anti-American country, with only nine percent of the country reporting a favorable view of the United States. Much of the disapproval of Bush, both in the United States and abroad, centered on his administration's response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and his embrace, at least partially, of a neoconservative foreign policy.
Much of the media, both in the United States and abroad, misconstrue neoconservatism. Too often, critics of U.S. policy use it as a straw man argument defined amorphously as opposition to whatever those critics believe. Others characterize neoconservatism as unrestrained militarism. The most malicious commentators use it as a synonym for Jewish dual loyalty. Such characterizations are nonsense, and the result of academics, commentators, and officials who believe if they can label and libel an idea, they need not debate it.
So what do neoconservatives believe? First, that democratization and traditional liberal values should be intertwined with national security policy. Rather than simply make realist calculations about what is in the United States' short term foreign policy interest at any given time, neoconservatives believe that there is intrinsic strength in alliances among democracies, that friendship should matter in foreign policy, and that long-term security derives from transformative diplomacy. The intercession of human rights and individual freedom with foreign policy therefore becomes a national security interest. Hence, President George W. Bush's statement in his second inaugural speech, "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world." The flip side of such belief is austere realism about the nature of some adversaries. Far from being the Utopians which some critics claim, neoconservatives see adversaries starkly. While many American and European proponents of a realist foreign policy embrace engaging adversaries, underlying such an approach to diplomacy too often is an assumption of their adversaries' sincerity. Neoconservatives harbor no such illusions and so seek to combine diplomacy with military power. While neoconservatives are not trigger-happy, they do recognize that a strong defense can both deter would be aggressors and enhance diplomacy.
The Failure of Realism
The last quarter century validates neoconservative analysis. Take Iraq: On December 20, 1983, Donald Rumsfeld, Ronald Reagan's Middle East envoy, met Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Reagan sent Rumsfeld to re-establish relations with Baghdad which had been severed years before. The White House and State Department feared growing Iranian influence. While no one believed Saddam to be a liberal ally--U.S. intelligence had earlier confirmed Saddam's use of chemical weapons--Rumsfeld did not broach the subject. Human rights were not top of his agenda. His handshake with Saddam, caught on film by Iraqi television, was a triumph for diplomatic realism.
The aftermath is well known. The Iran-Iraq War would continue for another five years, leaving several hundred thousand more dead on the battlefield. Still, U.S. officials sought to engage Saddam. On January 12, 1990, Senator Arlen Specter traveled to Baghdad where, the next day, he met Saddam Hussein. For Saddam, the visit was useful, for Specter believed the Iraqi leader's talk of peace and, over the next few months, undercut proposals by his colleague Senator John McCain to extend military sanctions on Iraq. Hussein used the delay to rebuild his military. On August 2, 1990, he ordered his tanks into Kuwait. In subsequent years, Saddam subsidized waves of Palestinian suicide-bombers, effectively ending the Oslo peace process.
The chain of events is clear: The international community had innumerable opportunities to stop Saddam's ambitions. The fickleness of European powers and many American administrations, more interested in contracts than in human rights or good governance, not only allowed Saddam to get away with murder, but also set the stage for further war. Saddam's career was a model of realist blowback.
Critics attack Operation Iraqi Freedom because intelligence regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction proved wrong. This is a multibillion dollar scandal which should be more seriously investigated, but it is not a condemnation of neoconservatism. The status quo with regard to Iraq was not tenable. Sanctions were collapsing amidst French, Russian, and Arab greed. Post-war inspectors found no nuclear and few chemical and biological weapons, but they did find documents and presidency minutes which show with absolute certitude that Saddam Hussein was determined to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction program as soon as sanctions collapsed. Containment had failed.
Critics of the war in Iraq conflate two issues: First, the decision to go to war. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, that was a decision with wide support amongst divergent policy circles. The second was the decision not simply to replace one dictator with another. That was the debate in which neoconservatives prevailed. Accordingly, as U.S. troops entered Iraq, President Bush promised freedom and democracy. But rather than establish a stable democracy, terrorists and militias began to tear the country apart. After hundreds of billions spent and the sacrifice of more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers, it is right to ask whether democracy in Iraq was not a fool's dream.
It was not. President Harry S Truman faced similar questions about Korea. Critics accused him of embroiling America in open-ended war and losing touch with reality. They said democracy was alien to Korean culture. Time proved them wrong. Any juxtaposition of nuclear North Korea with democratic South Korea shows the value of Truman's policy.
Is Diplomacy a Panacea?
Iraq was not the only country in which diplomacy and a realist embrace backfired. From the moment that Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, realists have sought desperately to engage Iran. There has not been a single U.S. administration that has not extended an olive branch to the Islamic Republic, only to have it swatted away with clerical disdain.
The European Union has fared no better. The Iranian nuclear challenge was the first major international challenge outside Europe on which the European Union sought to lead. In many ways, the coming Iranian bomb is a testament to the failure of European diplomacy. When Iranian president Muhammad Khatami spoke of a desire for a "Dialogue of Civilizations," he played European leaders for fools. Between 2000 and 2005, the height of the dialogue, European Union trade with the Islamic Republic almost tripled. Rather than moderate Iranian behavior, Tehran invested the hard currency windfall into its military and nuclear program. Indeed, in a June 14, 2008 debate with advisors to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Khatami's former spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh admitted as much. While Ahmadinejad is pilloried in the West because of his Holocaust denial and the illegitimacy of the 2009 election, Western diplomats too often ignore that the Islamic Republic's reformists remain as invested in that regime's nuclear program and, indeed, claim credit for it. Realists praise the power of diplomacy and engagement, too often they ignore how adversaries employ insincere negotiation as a means to advance weapons program. The Soviet Union developed its biological weapons capability despite agreements banning such development, and the Islamic Republic has come to the verge of nuclear weapons capability despite its protestations that it adheres to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Neoconservatism also provides a better answer to the fight against terrorism than does realism. Too many U.S. and European officials and academics misunderstand terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic. Those who employ it make a cost-benefit calculation and conclude that they can gain political objectives through the murder of civilians. When diplomats and academics ponder root causes and seek compromise and concession, they increase the benefit of terrorism and drive down relative costs. The Middle East provides myriad lessons as to how such conciliation backfires. The Oslo Peace Process which saw Israel evacuate portions of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon, and Israel's complete disengagement from Gaza five years later all provide windows into how compromise with terrorists backfires.
While American, European, and United Nations officials lament cycles of violence in the Middle East, seldom do they consider that suicide bombings developed and rose in frequency after the 1993 Oslo Accords ushered in a period of engagement. Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat repeatedly used terrorism as a tactic. In 1996, a rash of suicide bombings hit Israel. Only after the West employed extraordinary pressure and Israel responded with limited military force, did Arafat reign in terrorists. Arafat's reaction demonstrated both his culpability and the effectiveness of coupling diplomatic and military strategies. Arafat also provides an example about how diplomatic incentives backfire. Documents seized by Israel at the Palestinian Authority's former Jerusalem office and Arafat's compound in Ramallah detail how the Palestinian Authority manipulated exchange-rates on European Union aid to build a slush fund to pay for another five years of terror. Indeed, Palestinian terror has grown in proportion to European Union aid.
Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon was as disastrous. The day after the completion of Israel's withdrawal, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah declared, "The road to Palestine and freedom is the road of the resistance and intifada! It should be neither the intifada that is framed by Oslo, nor that which is negotiated by the compromising negotiator in Stockholm. All you need is to follow the way of the martyred people of the past who shook and frightened the entity of this raping Zionist community."
It was not only Hezbollah which saw Israel's retreat as a sign of weakness, but also Iran and Syria. The Syrian government facilitated supply of Iranian missiles to Hezbollah bolstering not only rocket quantity but also quality. As a direct result of Israel's withdrawal, Hezbollah found itself with an arsenal exceeding 10,000 missiles. Empowered by the withdrawal, on July 12, 2006, Hezbollah launched a cross-border operation which resulted in the deaths of five Israeli soldiers and the capture of two others. Within hours, Israel was at war with Lebanon. Its withdrawal backfired. The lessons of Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon are clear. Adversaries who do not desire peace will further conflict.
Israel re-learned the same lesson after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Rather than bring peace, terrorists filled a vacuum which sparked further conflict. From 2006 through 2008, Hamas terrorists fired more than 1,600 rockets indiscriminately into Israeli civilian centers. The Israel Defense Forces responded with precision military strikes against terrorist infrastructure and known terrorists. While the UN Human Rights Commission may condemn Israel for its military operations in Gaza, it is only Israel's willingness to utilize military force which prevents Hamas and Hezbollah from renewing the previous scale of their attacks, as the Iranian and Egyptian governments have facilitated resupply of Hamas and Hezbollah so that today, every square meter of Israeli territory is vulnerable to terrorist groups wielding missiles. Nevertheless, the threat of aerial bombardment and targeted assassination prove a greater disincentive than international conferences and mini-bars at 5-star hotels.
The Importance of Democracy
Whether President George W. Bush was more unpopular among U.S. diplomats or European leaders is hard to ascertain. In many intellectual and foreign policy circles, Bush generates irrational hatred which many commentators conflate with neoconservatism. Bush's crime, it seems, was not unilateralism, but his unwillingness to conduct business as usual. Diplomats live to engage, but Bush rightly determined that diplomacy and the validation it bestows upon partners are not always appropriate. On June 24, 2002, addressing the failure of Arafat's dictatorship, Bush declared, "If liberty can blossom in the rocky soil of the West Bank and Gaza, it will inspire men and women around the globe who are equally entitled to the benefits of democratic government." He applied the same policy toward Iran, placing the U.S. squarely with reformists and democrats, declaring on July 12, "As Iran's people move towards a future defined by greater freedom, greater tolerance, they will have no better friend than the United States of America."
Such rhetoric was not entirely new, but Bush's initial determination to adhere to it was. On August 15, 2002, Bush warned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that the U.S. would not supply Egypt with new foreign aid in response to the jailing of a leading democracy activist. It is the White House, and not traditional NGOs, that led the drive to cool relations between the United States and the Saudi autocracy, despite continued American dependence on oil. The era of cynical realpolitik looked to be over.
In the face of a more principled policy, Europe and the United Nations proved fickle. Former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine said moral clarity was "simplisme." European leader remained largely silent as Libya assumed the leadership of the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
Arguments that Arabs, Iranians, or Asians are unable to grasp democracy are wrong. India is the world's largest democracy. Lebanese and Iraqis have repeatedly braved bombs and bullets to vote. It is an irony of history that the first free elections in Syrian history occurred in January 2005, but no Syrians were allowed to vote: Only Iraqis lined up outside the Iraqi embassy in Damascus.
Afghans, too, have an unprecedented opportunity to develop because of neoconservative-driven reforms. It is trendy to say that Afghanistan never changes, but every government has created change. Precedent is difficult to reverse. Military force has stabilized a regime which, while far from perfect, has restored opportunities to women which the Taliban had denied. It is silly to say that Afghanistan must remain static and unchanged through history, and it is simply not in U.S. or European security interests to allow a vacuum to develop in which terrorists could find safe haven.
Still, elections alone do not define a democracy; although critics often use their result to condemn the spread of democracy as a policy goal. Indeed, after Hamas won Palestinian elections in January 2006, the Bush administration cooled noticeably on democratization. Hezbollah's challenge to Lebanon and Shi'i domination of Iraqi politics also provided fodder for critics.
The problems in these cases were two-fold. First, was a failure to address the existence of party militias. Militias exist only to impose through arms what they cannot win at the ballot box. They intimidate voters and undercut the validity of any election win. Under such circumstances, the United States was correct not to embrace Hamas' victory. U.S. support should never be an entitlement.
Second, foreign ministries and international organizations anxious to oversee successful elections often sacrifice representation for easy management of election day. This was the problem with Iraq's January 2005 elections. Rather than vote for individuals, Iraqis voted for political parties, whose leaders compiled lists of candidates. In descending order, one candidate would enter parliament for every 31,000 votes the party received. Under this system, aspiring politicians owed their future not to voters but to the party leaders who compiled the lists. Instead of encouraging Iraqi politicians to debate security, sewage and schooling, the party-slate system encouraged them to engage in the most extreme sectarian or ethno-nationalist rhetoric to prove their mettle to party leaders. United Iraqi Alliance leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, for example, would place politicians who toed a Shiite chauvinist line ahead of, say, moderates who sought national reconciliation. Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani tolerated no politician from Kirkuk who prioritized economic development over his hard-line position on autonomy. Demagoguery flourished, and stability faltered. Recognition that systems matter is the main reason why heated debates over election design has marked the months preceding every subsequent Iraqi election.
Neoconservatism also offers the best solution to the Iran crisis. While some hawkish pundits advocate bombing Iran, most neoconservatives do not: Bombing Iran may delay the Islamic Republic's nuclear program, but it will not end it and it will create a costly backlash. The only lasting solution would come with regime change brought not by military force, but from within because of augmented Iranian civil society. Here, it seems that neoconservatives agree with the Iranian people.
The Iranian nuclear threat is really a threat of the command-and-control over nuclear weapons. Should the Islamic Republic acquire nuclear weapons at any time, it would not matter whether hardliners or reformers were in control: more extreme elements such as the Office of the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps which would control their use. Only when the structure of the theocracy is disbanded can the Iranian nuclear challenge be contained.
After President Barack Obama sought negotiations with Iranian leaders, Iranian people began chanting, "Obama, Obama, Ya Ba Mah, Ya Bah Unah;" "Obama, Obama, Either you are with us or you are with them." Rather than chant, "Down with America," Iranians began chanting "Down with Russia," signaling upset with Russian refusal to take a tougher line on Tehran. Signs in English have proliferated in Iranian protests. As one Iranian human rights activist quipped, "That's not because protestors are practicing their English," but rather because they want the Western audience to understand their wishes and desires. If true democracy came to Iran, the country may not be pro-Western: Iranian grievances against the West are real. But it is doubtful that Iran would be a threat to other countries. If the Iranian people have learned anything since the Islamic Revolution, it is to resist Islamist demagoguery. The Iranian people are far more moderate and cosmopolitan than their unelected leadership. The same is true with North Korea, Syria, Libya, Venezuela and China.
The age of autocracy should pass. The representatives of dictators should not be toasted in the West, even if they are wealthy with oil. Diplomats and policymakers should not dismiss the notion that men and women around the globe are entitled to the benefits of democracy, despite the rejoicing of Iraqis, and the growing chorus of Iranians, Lebanese, and Palestinians demanding freedom. For too long, European Commission officials, self-righteous non-governmental organizations, and self-described peace groups have subverted human-rights standards for narrow political agendas. They have done irreparable harm to those suffering at the hands of dictators and terrorists. When ordinary civilians suffer at the hands of repressive regimes, the West should not be embarrassed to substitute all manner of coercion for empty rhetoric. The cost of pretending that engagement with dictatorship is successful is often far higher than a broader strategy with transformative diplomacy at its core and democratization as its goal.