Brose: Neocons Are Just Alright

Writing at Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government, former Bush administration speechwriter Christian Brose has some fun with yesterday’s Foreign Policy Initiative inaugural event on Afghanistan:

All that you suspect is true. Bill Kristol, wearing a Viking helmet and a bone through his nose, exhorted the participants to invade Chad, just because. He may have listed other countries, but he was speaking in tongues and war whoops half the time, and my Neo-con-to-English translation kept dropping out. Bob Kagan followed, bare-chested (as usual), in full war paint, banging the Mayflower china with a combat boot, shouting that America needed to put 10 million men under arms to extend its hegemony (benevolent, of course) into the Arctic, shouting something about the road to Moscow leading through the North Pole.

I saw this with my own eyes, people.

If only. It would have been a lot more exciting, that’s for sure. As it was, the conference was a pretty staid affair. Some might even call it a love-fest.

Actually, according to my notes, Bob Kagan did, in fact, call the event “a bipartisan love-fest.” As I wrote yesterday, that was really the point of the whole exercise — to re-introduce neoconservative ideas into the foreign policy conversation by filing off all of its rough edges and revolutionary claims in a slick bipartisan package.


Brose takes the familiar tack of broadly accusing the neocons’ critics of conspiracy-mongering. I don’t think I’ve ever promulgated a conspiracy theory of neoconservatism — I recognize that their faction, like most political factions, has both a private and a public aspect. (In specific reference, though, to the little sub-group of neocons that gathered around Ahmad Chalabi in the 1990’s and conspired — or, if you prefer, “strategized in private” — to install him as the new U.S.-and-Israel-friendly leader of Iraq, I think the term “cabal” is clearly appropriate.)

Brose claims that “the neo-cons are really championing tendencies in U.S. foreign policy that run much deeper in American life than the pockets of their advocacy shops.” I don’t completely disagree with this. I think there has historically been a military interventionist streak in U.S. foreign policy, though neoconservatism clearly represents an amped-up, stereoidal version of this. Where I would break with Brose is that I think this is something we need to more carefully guard against, rather than more vigorously indulge.

It’s important to understand that, for the neocons, unilateral preventive war and global democratic revolution were not specific responses to 9/11 — these were ideas that they had developed over previous years. 9/11 simply occurred at a uniquely advantageous moment for them to see these ideas enacted, tragically, as policy. I certainly agree with Brose that it’s wrong to hold neoconservatives solely responsible for Iraq — though history will likely record the preventive invasion and occupation of that country as the key demonstration of their ideology’s fundamental unseriousness — but I think it’s quite clear that the invasion would not have occurred without their lobbying and activism, both inside and outside government.

While it is true the Iraq invasion had bipartisan support — something which in my view doesn’t defend the invasion as much as it questions the normative value of “bipartisanship,” and the techniques used to cultivate and maintain it — the neocons were unique in having developed a ready-to-wear ideology that placed the Iraq invasion within a broader framework of revolutionary global democratic transformation, in which the United States was unbound by international norms and procedures in order to enforce its will and protect its perceived interests however it saw fit.

In the debris- and limb-strewn wake of George W. Bush’s presidency, I think the idea that it’s bad to go around starting wars is pretty acutely understood by most Americans — and the neocons understand this. Which is why, as their website indicates, FPI will attempt to reintroduce neoconservative ideas by presenting a false choice between American “engagement” and “isolation.” As I wrote yesterday, there’s really no one in American politics right now who argues that we shouldn’t be “engaged” in the world, but there is a debate over the nature of that engagement. Right now the neocons have the bad end of this debate, but with the help of re-branding exercises like yesterday’s, they clearly mean to get back in the game.


For what I think is a very good explanation of neoconservative versus progressive views of American engagement with the world, here’s a segment of an interview I did recently with author (and former CAP fellow) Mike Signer (whose new book Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies contains a good chapter on the neoconservative tendency) on different interpretations of American exceptionalism.

Watch it:

Full transcript:

SIGNER: As a progressive, I do believe in American exceptionalism. I think that we have a unique privilege within the world community. We have an extraordinary history. We have always tried to do more than other nations to help human history along toward freedom and toward justice and toward fairness. That has to do with our past, with our people, with the ideas we’ve had, with our geography, with our economics, but there are a lot of different directions that that idea of exceptionalism can go. The most dangerous and pernicious is the one the neocons recently took us down, which I call “vulgar exceptionalism,” and it’s when America starts viewing ourselves as an exception to the moral rules and the legal culture that governs the world community of which we’re a part, and we say we should be different, we don’t have to play by everybody else’s rules, we don’t have to be a leader that other nations want to work with, and we can just demand and bully the rest of the world. That kind of exceptionalism, I think, is very dangerous because it causes us to lose our actual leadership -– it causes us to lose the moral capital that we’ve drawn, it causes us to lose our moral authority and legitimacy, and it ends up biting us, which has happened a lot in the last few years. We see how expensive it can be.

There’s a different type of exceptionalism, which I call “exemplarism” in the book, which means that we draw other nations to us through moral conduct, and through our pursuit of a world of rules which everybody would abide by, and through our generosity, and through talking to and communicating with the peoples of the world. And we’ve done this in the past. I would count the Marshall Plan after World War II, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Peace Corps, Bill Clinton’s Kosovo invasion -– there are a lot of different examples where we have put something on the line to create a world that is better and more just and more fair where we have also emerged from it as a moral leader. But those have been very different policies from when we just go off half-cocked and act in a belligerent and unilateral way when we don’t need to — and when it ends up ultimately undermining our security, the security of our allies, and of the moral authority than helps us function.