Neoconservatism was the talk of the town in the early 2000’s as it became associated with President George W. Bush’s strategy in the War on Terror. But just as quickly as it burst onto the scene, neoconservatism fell out of favor in the mid 2000’s as the war in Afghanistan dragged on and the war in Iraq exploded. Today, neocon is largely used as an insult by people who oppose the Iraq war, even if they started out as fervent supporters.
But the neoconservative foreign policy is not defined by the Iraq war. Neoconservatism is a worldview and a mission, not a strategy. If a particular strategy fails, that does not necessitate abandoning the mission.
I have no illusions that people will read this and suddenly adopt an expansive view of foreign policy and America’s role in the world. I write this for two reasons. First, being a loyal member of a minority opinion, I feel it is my duty to justify myself. Anyone who believes strongly and recognizes he is opposed by the many should state his case and ensure his principles are known.
Second, I believe this history of neoconservatism foreign policy is cyclical. Neocons were politically influential before the current moniker, fell into the minority, and rose again before being marginalized again. When neoconservatism again becomes an important philosophy that determines American policy, it is my hope that a few more people will have an understanding of the principles behind it, rather than entirely associating it with a single endeavor.
First, some house cleaning. The term neoconservative was first applied to former Trotskites who became conservative after they were “mugged by reality” according to Irving Kristol, a leading neocon of that generation. Since then, neocon has had various meanings, but for this purpose I am using the term as it was applied during the early stages of the George W. Bush administration, to mean someone who not only supports an interventionist foreign policy but also the goal of democratization.
The main justification for this brand of neoconservatism is what’s known as democratic peace theory. Simply put, democratic peace theory is the proposition that democracies do not go to war against each other. There are many theories as to why this happens, but the evidence is clear. Countries that were bitter enemies for centuries, such as Great Britain and France, become allies following their mutual adoption of democratic principles.
There are many reasons to want other countries to democratize, aside from purely altruistic motivations. A measure of capitalism naturally follows in democracy’s wake, creating new customers for America. Poor, oppressed people don’t buy iPhones or Ford F-150s. Democracies are also more stable as changes in power are achieved with the ballot box instead of coups or civil wars. As the world’s hegemony, it is in American interest to foster stability. We used to do that by promoting strong men, but as we’ve seen, that often merely delays the instability.
But the number one reason is peace. As I look at American history, I see we fought Britain twice, both times for the very survival of our nation. We fought Germany twice, and the second time was far deadlier than the first. We fought Iraq twice, and the second time was far deadlier than the first. We have so far only fought North Korea once, and we all hope the current talks bear fruit, but we are routinely on the brink of a second conflict that could be the deadliest war in American history.
America should only ever have to fight a country once.
There are certain points in human history where a relatively small amount of effort could prevent catastrophe. Think of how many tens of millions of lives could have been saved if instead of maximizing Germany’s punishment after World War I and going home, the Western democracies had worked to secure a democratic Germany. A stable democracy does not put Hitler in power.
Continuing the war until Germany was occupied and democratized may have cost thousands of lives, but saved tens of millions.
Similarly, a nascent democracy was forming in Russia before the Communists launched a coup and sparked a civil war. America and other Western powers sent minimal aid to the anti-communists, but were too exhausted from World War I for any serious involvement. How many trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives did we spend trying to halt the spread of communism during the Cold War when we could have strangled it in its crib? Imagine a Twentieth Century without the Soviet Union or communist China or North Korea or Cuba.
In the 1980’s, we supported Afghanis against their communist government propped up by the Soviet Union. When they finally won and the Soviets left, so did we. What if we had stayed and supported Afghanistan, not with troops but with aid and advice. Maybe the government would have been strong enough to crush an insurgent group known as the Taliban, and then bin Laden would have had no where to hide and plot his terror attacks.
In 1991, we crushed Saddam’s military four days into the ground war. By encouraging Iraqis to rebel and then walking away, we taught them we could not be trusted, thus making our second attempt that much more difficult. If instead of declaring victory and heading home we had supported the Iraqis who rose up against their dictator, maybe we could have saved all the blood and treasure we spent the second time around.
A coupe of years after we left Iraq for the second time, we were back to combat the apocalyptic terrorist group known as ISIS that had conquered most of northern Iraq including its second largest city. ISIS was a rebranded al Qaeda in Iraq, which was nearly wiped out in the war but left to fester and re-emerge when American troops pulled out.
These are but a few examples. In each instance, the time, effort, and cost of securing permanent victory was considered too high at the time. In each instance, the cost of failing to secure victory was far, far higher.
The Western democracies were tired and angry in 1918, and did not realize they were setting the stage for the most destructive war in human history with their peace treaty. And therein lies the difficulty. It is easy to see the cost in dollars and lives in the present. We know that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost thousands of American lives and over a trillion dollars. We don’t know the cost to future generations for our failure to secure final victory.
In 1945, the Allies demanded unconditional surrender and occupied Germany and Japan for years while establishing modern democratic governments. Germany and Japan have been allies ever since. The occupations and the Marshal Plan cost a pretty penny, but the benefits to America have been enormous.
We have seen that democratization can work and we have seen the benefits. We have also seen the consequences of failure. Our task is to remember these lessons when we grow tired of war, tired of seeing flagged draped coffins flying into Dover Air Force Base, tired of spending our tax dollars on other people. Unless we finish the mission and turn former enemies into friends, the war is not over, merely postponed, and it will be waiting for our children.