Sunday, January 7, 2007

Stephen Holmes on the neocons

Stephen Holmes has written a good essay about the neoconservatives, Neo-Con Futurology London Review of Books 10/05/06 issue, a review of After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads by Francis Fukuyama.  He writes:

As it turns out, Fukuyama’s book sheds considerable light on the cognitive biases and intellectual incoherence behind America’s catastrophic response to 9/11. Above all, it deepens our understanding of the administration’s twisted interpretation of the terrorist threat. From Fukuyama’s analysis of Bush’s foreign policy, we can distil five debatable but stimulating propositions. First, the fatal decision to invade Iraq was based on a genuine, not merely contrived, ‘conflation’ of the threat posed by rogue states with the threat posed by nuclear terrorists. Second, Cold War habits of mind and a misunderstanding of the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union contributed to the administration’s blurred reading of the new enemy and therefore to its decision to launch an ineffectual, misdirected and self-defeating counterattack. Third, the neo-con democratisation project, having become a widely publicised justification for the invasion after the fact, makes assumptions about the nature of the threat that clash with the basic theoretical framework of the administration’s war on terror. Fourth, non-military counterterrorism policies in Europe (multilateral police operations and proposed social programmes designed to aid the integration of Europe’s alienated Islamic youth), reflect a much clearer understanding of the terrorist threat than unilateral military intervention in the Middle East. And finally, the administration’s visceral hostility to multilateralism has led it to play down threats to US national security that can be managed only co-operatively.  (my emphasis)

Holmes expands on the ways in which neocon views of the Soviet Union during the Cold War developed into the Bush Doctrine of preventive war that was implemented by invading Iraq:

The Soviet Union collapsed because of ‘its internal moral weaknesses and contradictions’, Fukuyama tells us. But the neo-cons credited President Reagan with ending the evil empire by forcing the Russians into an economically unsustainable arms race. As we know from the case of bin Laden and the Afghan Arabs, the illusion of having brought down the USSR can reinforce latent psychological tendencies to megalomania. Fukuyama does not highlight this parallel. But his account suggests that many neo-cons, like many of the jihadists, experienced a high when the Soviet Union came crashing down in 1991, for somewhat analogous reasons and with distressingly analogous results.

It is also important to remember that during the Cold War neo-cons had adamantly opposed détente. They didn’t believe that the US should learn to coexist with the Soviet Union, insisting instead that it could win an uncontested victory. Coexistence, they argued, implied accommodation, which would turn into appeasement, which would soon dissolve into capitulation. After the Soviet Union unexpectedly fell apart, they did not revisit, or apologise for, their overestimation of the Communist system’s resilience and strength. On the contrary, they felt totally vindicated. Although they had been spectacularly blind-sided, they concluded that they had been brilliantly prescient. As a result, according to Fukuyama, they were unwilling to admit that their eccentric intuitions of impending danger might ever prove to be false alarms. This is why ‘so experienced a foreign policy team’ came to make ‘such elementary blunders’. They committed fundamental errors because their guiding principles, distilled from the Cold War stand-off, had become obsolete.

Excessively pleased with themselves, the neo-cons drew two lessons from the collapse of Communism. First, threats should be eliminated, not managed. Second, American security is invariably enhanced by the transformation of autocracies into democracies. That the democratic transformation of Eastern Europe was triggered not by an invasion but by the withdrawal of a foreign army apparently made little impression on them. All they knew was that the threat to the US from the Communist bloc had been eliminated by the more or less successful transformation of its former members into democracies or, at the very least, democracies in the making.  (my emphasis)

He also notes a "massive contradiction" in neocon thinking about democratization in the Middle East:

Tacitly, the neo-con advocates of Middle Eastern democracy are siding with the young men who might be tempted to join terrorist conspiracies against their clientalistic, kleptocratic and non-democratic governments, which are officially allied with the US. Al-Qaida is less like the KGB than the KGB’s implacable foe, the Afghan mujahidin, ‘freedom fighters’ supported by Ronald Reagan, among others. Today’s neo-cons no longer want to imitate Reagan by helping resentful young Muslim men regain their dignity through violent insurgency. Instead, they want to give them an alternative path to dignity: namely, liberal democracy. But the basic reason for supporting frustrated Muslim youth, that they deserve American support in their noble search for liberation, is the same.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on this massive contradiction. Although obvious in a way, it is seldom discussed; Fukuyama doesn’t seem to notice it. The neo-cons defend two diametrically opposed propositions: that the jihadists hate freedom at the same time as hating their own lack of it. On the one hand, neo-cons assert that Islamic radicals hate American values, not American policies, and deny that America’s past behaviour has in any way provoked anti-American violence. On the other hand, they imply that the 9/11 plot was inspired and implemented by terrorists radicalised by Arab autocracies allied with or sponsored by the US. This suggests that 9/11-style terrorists hate American policies, not American values. They hate not the principles of American liberty but, rather, America’s unprincipled support for tyranny. To promote democracy in the Middle East is to imply that such hatred is in part justified.  (my emphasis)

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