Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The post-neo con strategy?

Political discussion is filling these days with conservatives who have seen the light that neo-con idealism was a very bad idea - repenting of it, and returning to the timeless truths of stability-oriented realism. Who? William F. Buckley, Francis Fukuyama, among others. John Podhoretz, in the New York Post, discusses this in the context of Rich Lowry's new National Review essay on the new "to-hell-with-them" hawks. Here.

As Podhoretz frames Lowry's argument:

CAN the War on Terror be won? America's inability to secure a victory in Iraq against the insurgency suggests to many people of good will and good sense that it really can't be. They believe the enemies of the United States are motivated by a force more powerful than we reckoned - by a religious ideology that has seduced hundreds of millions of people who prefer its stark certainties to the ambiguities and confusions of Western bourgeois life.

We can't beat it, they say, and we can't join it. So what is left for us? Just to say "the hell with them."

Richard Lowry's very important piece in the new issue of National Review is about the "to-hell-with-them hawks." They are, in Lowry's words, "conservatives who are comfortable using force abroad, but have little patience for a deep entanglement with the Muslim world, which they consider unredeemable, or at least not worth the strenuous effort of trying to redeem."

They look at Iraq's decimated civic culture and they wonder at the naiveté of a president who believed he could bring Western-style liberty to the place. They look at the Muslim world and they see Hamas elected by Palestinians and months of rioting over supposedly offensive cartoons by people who are happy to celebrate suicide bombers.

President Bush's prescription for ultimate victory in the War on Terror was bringing freedom to those who are not free, because the longing for freedom resides in every human heart. Ludicrous sentimentality, say the to-hell-with-them hawks. Muslims don't want it and they don't deserve it and we shouldn't be trying to give it to them.

Lowry's answer is this: "Confident predictions about which cultures are or are not capable of democracy have the aspect of unassailable truth - right up to the point that they don't. Representative Arab government will be impossible until it happens."

The project in Iraq is an effort to change the terms of the discussion in the Arab Muslim world. Lowry has come up with an elegant and original way of putting the visionary aspect of the Bush freedom doctrine in real-world terms: "The contemporary Middle East has featured a competition of radicalisms - who can be religiously purer, and more hostile to the West? The project in Iraq is an attempt to shift the terms of the competition to who can better deliver peace, prosperity and representation."

The to-hell-with-them hawks - among them Lowry's own mentor, William F. Buckley - have found a middle ground between the merely partisan opposition arguments of the Democrats and the poisonous attitudes of the far-right isolationists.

Their argument seems hard-headed and unsentimental. People are trying to murder Americans, and such people ought to die. Kill as many of the bad guys as you can abroad. Strike Iran from the air if you have to. Do whatever you must to secure the homeland. Don't let Arabs run the ports. Racially profile Muslims and Arabs out the wazoo. No crocodile tears for the excesses at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib.

What's missing here is what has been missing from the most hard-headed discussions of Iraq since the end of the 2004 election, and that is an understanding of just why President Bush formulated the freedom doctrine.

The problem is that the policies advocated by the "hell hawks" and by defeatist Democrats offer no real possibility of an end to the war against Islamic radicalism. It will go on forever.

And if it does, it seems certain that at some point in the next few decades, millions
of people are going to die in a successful terrorist assault using weapons of mass destruction.

I admit to a certain sympathy to the to-hell-with-them hawks. The bet made by the Bush administration was never merely one of Wilsonian idealism. It was always one that said - thus winning the endorsement of hard-headed realists about war such as Victor Davis Hanson - that the old realist strategy of stability was a key element in what had produced a successful strike against the United States, and the likelihood, over enough time, of successful and catastrophic strikes to come. But the problem could not be resolved by more application of the same old realist doctrine. Realism had to accept that idealism about political systems and the terms of rule in the Middle East, in particular, had to be changed radically. It was always something which was a roll of the dice. It was a strategy designed to introduce sharp and quite possibly revolutionary and reactionary (ie, Islamist) changes on the region. But the status quo was killing us, and had to change. Idealism was, in fact, the new realism.

The problem with this, of course, is that democracy - as all Burkeans understand - is a culturally very specific phenomenon, one that builds on slowly accreted institutions and cultural dispositions. Freedom may be a yearning for people everywhere, but democracy is not, and even if it is, the conditions under which it thrives are delicate, even in existing democracies such as our own, not robust. In any case, as my very intelligent Egyptian graduate student points out in his writing, the blunt fact - and he should know, having been a prosecuting judge in Egypt prosecuting Muslim Brotherhood terrorists - is that, with the varieties of Western promises, whether socialism or capitalism or anything seemingly having failed the Middle Eastern masses, they are determined to give Islam a shot. Democracy will ratify that. It might deratify it, if the system remains democratic long enough to evolve, or it might be one vote, one time.

One of the peculiar shifts in the political discourse of the United States is to watch how idealists in foreign policy, on the left - those who endlessly preached the virtues of idealist, human rights promoting, values laden, even if destabilizing policy by the United States - have so thorougly shifted ground to become the new realists. It was a mistake to take out Saddam. He could have been contained (and, presumably, his even crazier sons, too, but we'll charitably leave that). It is quite remarkable to hear that line from the left that used to pony up to demands for policies that would have been quite as destabilizing. And then conservatives, who had long preached stability as its own value - preaching, however, not precisely Burkean stability within a society, stability of the social order, as a value whether or not the society is democratic or deeply respectful of human rights, but instead preaching the stability of the international political order at any price in values, which is not quite the same thing - suddenly got behind regime change for idealist reasons.

Most of us, when thinking sensibly and not partisanly, want both those things. We recognize that political and social stability is an important thing, foundational to other virtues in society. We recognize the value of stability even in situations that are, in profound ways, otherwise unjust. The reason is that the instability that is the alternative is that which we associate with failed states, the Thirty Years War, the war of all against all - more exactly, every man for himself and God against all. There is a wonderful passage in the middle of that great, now somewhat neglected novel by George Konrad, The Loser, in which, in the midst of the first days of the 1956 revolution in Hungary, the narrator is simply trying to get together enough troops and police to restore order so that some negotiations can take place without many, many people getting killed.

It wasn't that he thought the existing order was just. It was, instead, that he had had enough of revolution and war to know what the alternative would be, massacres and piles of corpses. Of course, we also want democracy, justice, and human rights, too. It would be nice if there were never any tradeoffs. It would be nice if there were, as the Catholic theologians put it, a unity of the virtues. But it seems far more likely that we live in the world Isaiah Berlin described - plural and sometimes incommensurate and sometimes incompatible social goods.

Well, George Bush, with my blessing then and my continued blessing now, rolled the dice that you can't really have one without at least a measure of the other. As the human rights activists liked to say, before they decided to become hard-hearted realists, no justice, no peace. If you don't change the fundamental social terms of the Middle East, there is no possibility of winning the war on terror. There are immense contradictions in this, of course - the House of Saud would have to fall, which for oil reasons cannot be high on the Bush administration list. I expected that liberal human rights types would criticize the administration primarily for its failures to execute its own idealism - the idealism of the Bush second inaugural. But that wasn't what they said - instead they took on his idealism, and abandoned their own (not for good - just so long as it is associated with - horrors - a Republican).

But now you have conservatives who are questioning the idealism-is-the-new-realism strategy. Their grounds are simply that the idealism cannot be achieved, and if it is, it will be only to deliver a bunch of Islamist regimes. Some of us think that would be, on balance, historically better than the current situation, of faux-modernity carrying the full weight of authoritarianism by vicious Middle Eastern satrapies. At least it has moral and realist clarity about who our enemies are. The question, however, is what the newly repentant conservative realists think the new strategy should be. The answer, as Podhoretz and Lowry observe, is essentially to abandon the forward strategy, the offensive strategy.

It will not, I sincerely hope, have escaped notice in the Pentagon and the Office of Policy Planning in the State Department that if, as the re-realist conservatives claim, Americans do not have the patience to build reasonably stable, reasonably democratic societies, we will need a new strategic doctrine. The only one that I can see is a defensive one - one that attempts to draw the lines at the borders, at the airports, at the ports, in the screening of people, while leaving it to others to determine what goes on beyond our borders. We may make raids and forays out into the world to deal with threats, but our offensive strategy will be a raiding strategy, not one of persistence. It may seek to attack particular targets within places that provide safe havens for transnational terrorists - it may seek to attack the terrorists.

What it will not do is what Bush essentially undertook after 9/11 - to take down regimes that harbored terrorists or else presented unacceptable risks of arming terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. What made the Bush approach "war" instead of merely the Clinton's administration's desultory policy was not the willingness to attack terrorists - even the Clinton administration was occasionally willing to do that. It was the willingness to bring down regimes that provided the havens for terrorists, and finally, in rolling the dice on change in the Middle East, to seek to change the social equation, and not merely the political one, on which all terrorism, finally, rests. That is what the returning realists seek to give up. No doubt war is a poor method of social engineering. But certainly, in my view, the old strategy of unjust stability merely served as the harbinger of more devastating attacks that ran an unacceptable risk of successful catastrophic terrorism using WMD. It could not go on. A defensive strategy, especially one drawn at the borders of the United States, or still worse, one that relies on the "international community" and multilateralism or liberal internationalism - this is the most vacuous and unconvincing part of Fukuyama's argument in his new book - will not keep America safe, not in a struggle with an enemy on the historical offensive. The roll of the dice was - and is - the right move.

No comments: