US Foreign Policy: Explaining the Debate - Part One
Joshua Muravchik, IslamOnline.net:
IslamOnline.net's Muslim Affairs department is providing special coverage of the US role in Mideast change. Neo-conservative scholar Dr. Joshua Muravhick contributes a two-part series on the domestic debate. Part one maps foreign policy schools of thought inside the United States. Part two explains different stances on the US policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East.
Sorting out the various schools of thought about American foreign policy is difficult for Americans, so it must be pretty confusing to foreign observers. To decipher our debates requires knowing their background. The roots of the various positions are found in earlier arguments going back to World War II. Therefore, I will offer a historical description covering four periods: the Cold War; the period between the end of the Cold War and the attacks of 9/11; the beginning of the war in Iraq; and the situation today. READ MORE
1. The Cold War
During the earliest days of the Cold War, the main divide was between isolationists and internationalists. The internationalists believed that the two world wars had proven that we could not separate our own fate from the state of the world around us. The isolationists preferred that we mind our own business. But the aggressiveness of Soviet expansion in 1945 through 1948, coming on the heels of the world war, wiped out the isolationist camp. So, from 1948 until around 1968, Americans were pretty much of one mind about foreign policy.
The Vietnam war divided us again. Americans split over whether we should be in Vietnam. Opponents of the war mostly came to believe that the war was not just a single mistake, but rather the outcome of an overall approach to the world that was too militantly anti-Communist. As President Jimmy Carter put it, we were guilty of an “inordinate fear of Communism.”
From the peak of the Vietnam war until the end of the Cold War, the main dividing line in US foreign policy debates was between “hawks” and “doves” or “hard-liners” and “soft-liners.”
It was in this context, in the 1970s, that “neo-conservatism” arose. The debate between hawks and doves was not, for the most part, a debate between conservatives and liberals, but rather a debate between liberal hawks and liberal doves. This was because foreign policy is almost always a secondary concern in American politics, and the labels “liberal” and “conservative” were mostly determined by domestic issues: Liberals tended to favor more government programs and help for the poor whereas conservatives tended to favor smaller government and lower taxes. In those times, there were very few conservative intellectuals.
As the debates between the liberal doves and the liberal hawks grew intense, the doves invented the term “neo-conservative” to describe the hawks. It was intended as an insult, and, at first, the liberal hawks (of whom I was one) rejected it angrily. But eventually we accepted the label.
Neo-cons were sometimes more hawkish than traditional conservatives. Why? Because traditional conservatives had historically been isolationists. Although they had turned away from isolationism in the late 1940s along with most other Americans, they continued to worry that America might reach too far.
The traditional conservatives, in other words, were “realists” in foreign policy, i.e., they wanted America to only become involved in places and ways that affected very clear American interests.
The neo-cons, in contrast, were “idealists,” i.e., they wanted America to exert itself for moral or ideological reasons and, also, they believed that America’s interests were enmeshed with the interests of many other states and could not easily be disentangled.
Thus, although both conservatives and neo-conservatives tended to be hawkish about the Cold War, the conservatives usually saw it in "great power" terms, as a struggle between Russia and America, while the neo-conservatives usually saw it ideologically, as a struggle between Communism and freedom.
2. Between the Cold-War and 9/11
After the Cold War, the term “neo-conservative” largely disappeared. After all, it was the Cold War that had defined “neo-conservatism,” and the Cold War was over. But in the course of the debates about the war in Bosnia, from 1992 through 1995, it became apparent that there continued to be a distinctive mindset on the part of those who had been neo-cons during the Cold War. As the Serbs carried on their bloody campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against Bosnian Muslims, and American presidents--first George H. W. Bush and then Bill Clinton--refused to do anything effective to stop it, a movement grew up demanding intervention in Bosnia. It consisted mostly of neo-cons. Why? Traditional conservatives believed that America had no interests at stake in Bosnia; what was going on there could be seen as a tragedy or even an outrage, but it was not our problem and therefore we should not spend our own lives or treasure over there, they said. Liberals believed that Bosnia was a problem that deserved our attention and even our money but they were reluctant to use force, and they preferred to see the problem handled by the UN.
Neo-cons shared the moral concerns of the liberals about the wanton abuse of Bosnian Muslims' human rights. They also believed, in contrast to the traditional conservatives, that America did indeed have a concrete self-interest in stopping the slaughter, namely that, if this kind of violent aggression was allowed to go on, the whole world would become more lawless and dangerous. Where neo-cons parted company with liberals was that they believed that the UN could never be counted on to act effectively, and that the only way to stop the Serbs would be for America to use force.
Thus by the end of the 1990s, one could distinguish three main camps: the liberals, who tended to be idealists but generally reluctant to use force or act outside of the UN; the conservatives, who had no use for the UN and no reluctance to use force, but were “realists,” defining American interests in a narrow way; and finally the neo-cons, who were idealists like the liberals, but, like the conservatives, were not reluctant to use force and saw little value in the UN.
3. From 9/11 Through the Iraq War
When George W. Bush ran for president, and during his first months in office, he seemed very much the traditional conservative. He showed little interest in foreign policy, focusing instead on domestic issues like cutting taxes. When he did address foreign policy, he sounded like a realist, even a bit of an isolationist, criticizing his predecessor Bill Clinton for having gotten America involved in too many places, such as Bosnia. But 9/11 changed everything, especially Bush himself, who took a new interest in foreign policy and a new approach to it.
At first 9/11 pulled the country together, and there were few differences among Americans. This continued through our invasion of Afghanistan, which harbored the terrorist group that had attacked us; ousting the Taliban was supported by all camps in America. But Bush’s decision to turn next to Iraq, and also some of the president’s belligerent rhetoric, created divisions--although at first these were muted. Most citizens, commentators, and members of Congress supported the war. But the divisions grew wider and deeper.
Among liberals, there were critics who objected to Bush’s willingness to go ahead without the approval of the UN; they were unhappy about going to war and sometimes with Bush’s provocative rhetoric.
Among conservatives, there were doubts about fighting some place as distant as Iraq and even larger doubts about the president’s declared mission of fostering democracy in the Middle East, which they believed was unrealistic.
Neo-cons, in contrast, were strongly in Bush’s corner. From this came the widespread notion that Bush’s administration had somehow been taken over by neo-cons. But this impression, while understandable, was false. There just weren’t many neo-cons in the Bush administration, and none of the top people--Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, Rice--were neo-cons. It is true that, after 9/11, Bush went through a metamorphosis from a position of traditional conservatism, and that he adopted policies that had a distinct neo-con ring to them. But we will have to wait until he leaves office and writes memoirs to understand how this transformation occurred.
4. The Situation Today
As America has found itself in a much deeper thicket in Iraq than Americans anticipated, the war has naturally grown more unpopular and new divisions have appeared.
There are some voices, like Congressman John Murtha’s--but not many--calling for the United States to withdraw from Iraq now. But most of the strong critics of Bush’s policy agree that, if we pulled out now, we would likely pave the way for a bloodbath in Iraq along sectarian lines. Moreover, it is widely perceived that Iraq has become a showdown between America and jihadism, and that allowing the likes of Zarqawi to drive us out would have powerful repercussions.
On the other hand, the widespread disillusionment with the war has led to a variety of calls for setting a future deadline for US withdrawal or for other formulas to hasten our departure.
It has also led to a lot of criticism of the Bush administration. Some comes from conservatives, who were always doubtful about the mission of democratizing the Middle East, and some from liberals, who were all along opposed to using force without the UN’s authorization.
It also comes from Francis Fukuyama, a onetime neo-con who has announced his split with neo-conservatism; he believes that we “overreacted” to 9/11.
There are also many neo-cons, such as William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, who supported the war and still support it, but who have criticized the administration for various of its tactical decisions, especially not sending enough troops to provide security and seal Iraq’s borders, and perhaps also the decision to disband the Iraqi army.
In contrast, there are still some neo-cons, like the writer Victor Davis Hanson, who argue that the troubles we are having in Iraq are the kinds of troubles to be expected in warfare, and that it will all turn out all right if we don’t panic and retreat.
Every major war has rearranged our foreign policy alignments. By the time the war in Iraq is over, for better or worse, they will have been rearranged again. Such is the natural flow of policy debate in a democracy.
Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at AEI.