Opinion Is Neoconservativism Dead?

Hopes for a strong democracy in Iraq are melting in the desert sun and American neoconservatives refuse to admit the war has been a clear debacle. But their goal of democratizing the Middle East remains an admirable one.
Von Mariam Lau

When Germans talk about American neo-cons, the tone quickly tends to lapse into malice and sarcasm: Hey, those guys really bit off more than they could chew, didn't they? A bunch of mostly Jewish intellectuals in their think tanks actually thought they could roll through Iraq and reform the rest of the Islamic world? Democracy, ha ha ha!

But it's hard to concur with such critics when they seem to have little grasp about foreign policy themselves. Many people who pick on neocons in the name of international law apparently could really care less whether the Middle East ever achieves Western standards of democracy and human rights. "Why should you care about press freedoms in Jordan?" an American philosopher, Charles Taylor, asked me recently at a panel discussion about the Danish Muhammad cartoon dispute. The Left seems to have hung up its vaunted internationalism out of sheer dislike for the Bush administration's policies.

But it's true: The neocons completely misjudged the situtation. Iraq isn't going well. It looks like a civil war has started, pitting Iraqis against each other, Sunnis against Shiites, poor people against engineers, street gangs against the police -- everyone lives in fear. The hope for a secular, federal Iraq has melted. Architects of the war had depended on the Shiites to stabilize the country. But now they have their own torture chambers beneath the Interior Ministry buildings where Shiite militias flay the skin from Sunni prisoners. The problem with the neocons, though, isn't that they were wrong from the start -- in fact there's something noble about falling short of an ambition as grand as democratizing the Arab world. The problem is the playing down of a disaster that has turned into the neocons' favorite, almost Orwellian propaganda song. Whenever a neocon stops fantasizing long enough to admit there is a problem, he turns Hegelian and excuses every horror as a stone along the difficult road of progress.

Charles Krauthammer, one of the most eloquent neoconservative writers, recently argued in his column for the Washington Post: "Now all of a sudden everyone is shocked, shocked to find Iraqis going after Iraqis. But is it not our entire counterinsurgency strategy to get Iraqis who believe in the new Iraq to fight Iraqis who want to restore Baathism or impose Taliban-like rule? Does not everyone who wishes us well support the strategy of standing up the Iraqis so we can stand down? And does that not mean getting the Iraqis to fight the civil war themselves?"

No, Mr. Krauthammer, that wasn't the plan. The plan was for Iraqis to stand on the sidewalks and welcome the fall of Saddam with flowers and flags. The plan was to build a new government of elected representatives from every ethnic and religious group to lead Iraq into a new era of unity and freedom. The plan was for local police and a well-trained Iraqi army to protect the nation and make sure Iraqi parents could send their kids to school without worrying about kidnappings, suicide bombings, or plain old-fashioned mugging. The truth is that many of Iraq's police and soldiers participate in crimes like these and members of the military moonlight in rebel militias. Iraq has also become a new training ground for terrorism, like Afghanistan in the 1990s. Almost fewer people in Iraq -- Shiite or Sunni or Kurd -- feel inclined these days to identify first and foremost as "Iraqi" when it comes to building a new Iraq.

Neoconservative Fantasies

Neocons have another pet fantasy: that the Western media focus on bombings, murder, and collapse out of sheer malevolence, instead of showing us the places where hospitals have been erected, newspapers are printed, and fruit dealers ply their trade. Eckhard Fuhr, in Germany's right-wing daily Die Welt, has made fun of these criticisms. "It was no different in 1945," he writes. "Both the victors and the vanquished now focus on the siege of Berlin as an almost mythic struggle -- but what was happening during those crucial days in the provinces, say in Thüringen's forests, in the Hessian Knüllgebirge, in the Bavarian Allgäu? Almost nothing. Journalistic diligence would seem to require us to name every Iraqi town where no suicide bombings occur. Even body counts apparently have to be reported alongside the number of people who are still alive. The living, after all, represent a clear majority -- so please, enough of this blather about an American failure in Iraq."

Leading neocon thinker Francis Fukuyama has analyzed the mistakes that led to the Iraq debacle in his latest book, "America at the Crossroads." He believes we still don't know what long-term consequences will fall out of Washington's abandonment of international structures, or its wide-ranging sacrifice of diplomatic traditions that earlier American administrations, like Harry S. Truman's, had judged so important. ("It was almost as though the Bush Administration went out of its way to annoy the rest of the world," Fukuyama said last March in an interview  with SPIEGEL ONLINE.) But even Fukuyama fails to illuminate the most important weakness in the neocons' thinking: how people so opposed to state intervention, or "social engineering," in their domestic politics could place such fantastic hopes on forcing democracy on a foreign land.

Maybe it has to do with the neocons' romantic excitability, something Paul Berman described in his New York Times review of Fukuyama's new book. "Neoconservative foreign policy thinking has all along indulged a romance of the ruthless -- an expectation that small numbers of people might be able to play a decisive role in world events, if only their ferocity could be unleashed," writes Berman. "It was a romance of the ruthless that led some of the early generation of neoconservatives in the 1970's to champion the grisliest of anti-Communist guerrillas in Angola; and, during the next decade, led the neoconservatives to champion some not very attractive anti-Communist guerrillas in Central America, too; and led the Reagan administration's neoconservatives into the swamps of the Iran-Contra scandal in order to go on championing their guerrillas. Doesn't this same impulse shed a light on the baffling question of how the Bush administration of our own time could have managed to yoke together a stirring democratic oratory with a series of grotesque scandals involving American torture -- this very weird and self-defeating combination of idealism and brass knuckles?"

Good question. The but the truly sad part of this tale is that everyone on the opposing side -- whether the Democrats in America or the Social Democrats in Europe -- apparenlty have such a complete lack of ambition to grasp foreign policy and make spreading democracy and human rights around the world an international undertaking.

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