Foreign Policy Initiative: Housebroken Neocons?

kagan.jpgAttending the Foreign Policy Initiative’s inaugural conference on Afghanistan today at the Mayflower Hotel, I was struck by how very little that was said was controversial. And that’s really the point — in the wake of Iraq debacle, for which the neocons are widely and rightly held responsible, it simply won’t do to bang the drum for American military maximalism. One has to be a bit slicker than that. And these guys are nothing if not slick.

As their website makes clear, FPI intends to re-brand and mainstream-ize neoconservatism as a “reasonable” and “moderate” — and of course “serious” — alternative to the rising tide of isolationist sentiment in American politics (the fact that no such tide of isolationist sentiment is rising in American politics is entirely beside the point.) This strategy was evidenced in the morning’s first panel, as Robert Kagan praised President Obama’s “gutsy and correct decision” on Afghanistan, but warned that “the United States is at a tipping point between desire to maintain extensive engagement in the world, as it has done since World War II, and the temptation to pull back…[Obama] has decided to maintain the commitment.”

This is a pretty obvious strawman (one that Kagan built more fully in this article last spring, arguing that American foreign policy has essentially always been neoconservative.) There is no real substantive argument for America “disengaging” from the world. There is, on the other hand, a real debate over the nature of that engagement, a debate that the neoconservatives have largely lost. No longer do we insist “with us or with the terrorists.” We now understand that international partnerships and multilateral institutions are key elements of America’s national security architecture. No longer do we insist that we are in a “global war on terror.” We now accept that we face a number of challenges from discrete groups and organizations, some of which work together, some of which compete with each other. No longer do we insist that “we don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.” It is now broadly understood that we do negotiate with our enemies in order to gain strategic advantage over other enemies. Ten years ago, the sponsors of today’s event would have condemned all of this as “weakness.” Today it was simply accepted as wisdom.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) said that she had been “panned” by some for her decision to participate in the “new neocon” event, but noting that explaining the Democratic position to this crowd was a hard job, said “if it’s a hard job, it takes a woman to do it.” To her credit, Harman acknowledged the negative effect of the Iraq war on the Afghanistan mission, stating that “we have under-resourced Afghanistan for too long, we took our eye off the ball when we went into Iraq. All of our resources were devoted to that effort.” Harman also said that the Obama administration must do a better job describing metrics for progress Afghanistan, and that the Congress has an important role to play in holding the administration accountable for whether benchmarks are being met.

Earlier in the day, John Nagl of the Center for a New American Security also explained his presence at the event by saying that “we used to have a bipartisan consensus in this country on foreign policy, especially when we had our sons and daughters at war, which is why I’m proud to be part of events like this.”

Bipartisan support for American foreign policy is important, and to the extent that the neocons demonstrate that they are genuinely interested in helping to maintain that — as opposed to simply using events like today’s to put a bipartisan face on the same old fantasies of global transformation — they should be welcomed to the conversation. But it’s important that neither they nor anyone else be allowed to forget or elide the disastrous consequences wrought by their fantasies in the past. Especially when they start calling for greater escalation in Afghanistan, and new wars elsewhere, as they inevitably will. It’s what they do.