In Search of a Word


A reader:

So Roger Cohen wants us to be discerning enough to distinguish between the Roger Cohens of the world and neocons? “Neocon lite” to the rescue! I reiterate my view that this is the perfect term for stigmatizing Democrats whose influence deserves to wane.

My only concern with this is that it’s not always clear to me that people from the Cohen school actually do have a “lite” version of neoconservative grandiosity, as opposed to one that’s just slightly different. Let me quote a passage a co-wrote with Sam Rosenfeld that tried to popularize the phrase “neoconservatism with a human face”

Liberal hawks joined neoconservatives in taking advantage of the public’s post–September 11 engagement with the world to unveil a comically promiscuous military agenda. The New Republic first argued that the Bush administration should have deployed more troops to Afghanistan, then proceeded to argue in favor of the war in Iraq, then criticized the administration for failing to send more of America’s already overstretched forces to interventions in Liberia and Haiti, then urged action to halt genocide in Sudan, and now takes the view that the problem with Iraq is that hundreds of thousands of additional troops should have been sent there from the beginning. Though arguably imbued with loftier motives than its neoconservative variant (The Weekly Standard has variously argued for attacking Iran, Syria, and North Korea), TNR’s stance is still knee-jerk hawkishness that is oblivious to the realities of the situation. It deserves to be tuned out in debates every bit as much as blanket pacifism does. Just as serious opponents of war must be prepared to countenance some wars under some circumstances, serious advocates of using force for humanitarian purposes must be willing to acknowledge some limits to what can and should be done.

We are not realists. Rather, we agree with Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, that coercive humanitarian intervention, while useful and important, “can be justified only in the face of ongoing or imminent genocide, or comparable mass slaughter or loss of life.” Avenging past slaughter, which certainly took place in Iraq years before the U.S. invasion, is not a good enough reason. Using force to build a pluralistic liberal democracy where none existed before could count as a moral justification for war if we had any sense of how to feasibly engage in such an endeavor, but the evidence from Iraq and elsewhere indicates that we do not. Liberal hawks convinced themselves that the war in their heads was a classic humanitarian intervention, but wishing doesn’t make it so. Not merely in its execution, but on the plane of ideas as well, the humanitarian rationale for the war was, at best, neoconservatism with a human face. The confusion currently permeating the discourse only complicates efforts to construct a viable liberal foreign policy, and will continue to do so until it is checked.

That’s what I’ve got. The point, either way, is that merely professing humanitarian motives does not a humanitarian operation make. Virtually everyone who’s ever wanted to start a war anywhere for any reason in the modern world has professed idealistic motives. Maybe all those people even believed them — who knows? — but it doesn’t make a difference. It’s particularly instructive in this light to look at the rhetoric used to justify classical imperialism.