A review of America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order, by Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke
Imperial Designs: Neoconservatism and the New Pax Americana, by Gary Dorrien


Bashing George W. Bush has been the thinking person's sport for four years now. Foreign policy intellectuals play their own version of the game: bashing neoconservatives. This is Bush-bashing with a Ph.D. It has proven surprisingly popular, attracting onto the field not only liberals but also some traditional conservatives and many conspiracy theorists, for whom the neocons are the new Trilateral Commission. Sadly, a lot of this commentary is plagued by the same vices as Bush-bashing in general: chronic exaggeration, fast-and-loose connection-drawing, and over-the-top hyperbole. Reading it is enough to turn you into a fervent anti-anti-neoconservative.

This is a pity, because with Bush's re-election "the neoconservative question" is ripe for debate, and this high-stakes debate should be as well-informed as possible.

Instead, vitriol has already poisoned it. To blame are at least two propositions put forth by many critics of the neocons, including the authors of both these new books. The first is that there is such a thing as a tightly-knit and highly ideological community of neocons obsessed with unilateralism, military force, preventive war, and social engineering in the Middle East. It hardly helps that neocons have been defined not by themselves but by their critics. The second premise is that after 9/11, this group seized control of—Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke actually use the word "hijacked"—U.S. national security policy by virtue of their zeal and the on-hand nature of their pre-packaged agenda.

These premises lead many critics of neoconservatism, including these three authors, to make three crucial errors. First, viewing neocons as an ideological community invites these critics to treat neocon thinking as a self-contained text, subject to exegesis, as if it were a religious doctrine or a text-driven ideology like Marxism. (It may be relevant that Gary Dorrien is a professor of religion, not international relations.) This has one big consequence: it invites many critics to summarize and present neocon thinking (sometimes fairly, as in Dorrien's case) without rendering the crucial service of evaluating its validity compared to alternative schools of foreign policy thinking such as traditional realism and liberal institutionalism. 

Second, the "hijacking" imagery invites critics to oversell neocon influence. These and other commentaries suggest that when 9/11 drove up "demand," so to speak, for new policies, a single factor on the supply side—the ruthless zeal of neocon ideologues—caused Bush to adopt a new foreign policy. This overlooks the rest of the "supply" situation: the fact that other ideas on offer at the time were, to put it kindly, unpersuasive. Finally, the combination of these two premises leads nearly all critics to grossly mischaracterize post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy as systematically unilateralist and militaristic, when in fact is has been multifaceted and highly experimental.

Halper and Clarke are self-declared Reagan-style conservatives, though of an exceedingly curious kind. They draw inspiration from Howard Dean, and Clarke, for his part, is a resident fellow at the Cato Institute, whose foreign policy is usually called isolationist. They trace the intellectual roots of today's neocons to the people who first earned that label in the 1960s. This is bad intellectual history. The fact is, the first group called "neocon" wasn't especially homogeneous; the second group isn't much more so; and the two put together aren't at all. Even when today's neocons are literally the descendants of those so labeled in the 1960s, change is at least as evident as continuity in their assumptions about how the world works and what to do about it.

Carrying over the name from one group to the other is really a contrivance, based partly on sociology (both groups are intellectual, disproportionately Jewish, and not on the Left) and partly on occasional connections (some familial, some professional, as in: Richard Perle once worked for original neocon Scoop Jackson). But for serious analysis, the label comes close to having no utility. Yet Halper and Clarke, and to a lesser extent Dorrien, treat the later ones as organic extensions of the earlier ones. Halper and Clarke smooth out these exceedingly rough edges by talking more about family links, publishing venues, and topics of conversation than about the actual ideas that supposedly define this school of thought, or, as they call it, "political interest group." (Just out of curiosity: What is the "interest" in question?)

The original neocons were heavily concerned with the theoretical assumptions that lay behind government policies. They focused much more on domestic than foreign policy, which is emphasized by students of the original neocons, like Peter Steinfels, and is apparent in the pages of the paradigmatic neocon journal, The Public Interest. (The neocon circles atCommentary magazine are, of course, a slightly different matter.) They were famously impressed with the power and durability of culture, and approached large-scale government interventions with skepticism. Jeane Kirkpatrick's essay "Dictatorships and Double Standards" specifically extended this skepticism to the contention that the U.S. could fine-tune regime outcomes in the developing world. Like any set of serious people searching for solutions to big problems, the neocons disagreed with each other almost as much as they agreed. They had in common a repulsion for the New Left. But to treat them as a tightly-knit "ism" is like treating "Protestants" that way just because they all left Catholicism for vaguely related reasons.

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Even worse than homogenizing the first neocons is jointly homogenizing both groups called neocon. This is often done without much intellectual connective tissue ever being identified. Today's neocons are labeled on the basis of foreign policy alone, and are not assumed necessarily to share a single domestic policy position. Moreover, the litmus test for identifying a neocon today is said to be the belief that the U.S. is capable of crafting democracies in the Middle East and must set about that task. This belief would strike—has already struck—several original neocons as utopian and imprudent. It is better, or maybe it's worse, that Dorrien recognizes such differences but then, just as if he hadn't, lumps all these people into the same intellectual history anyway.

It should come as no surprise that critics also over-identify doctrinal similarities among today's neocons. It's easy to do: Just quote someone labeled a neocon as saying something, then designate that something as part of neocon ideology, and finally suggest that all neocons, including those in office, devote themselves to advocating that something. The result is not just homogenization but hyperbole. Neocons are skeptical of treaty guarantees? Halper and Clarke conclude that they are "instinctively antagonistic toward international treaties and agreements." Neocons often find military strength handy? Halper and Clarke conclude that they see "the use of military force as the first, not the last option of foreign policy." Neocons want to hit the Taliban and Saddam with bombs, not subpoenas? This shows they reject "the classic antiterrorism tools of police and intelligence work." They define today's main threat as violent Islamism in search of WMDs? They must share an "open hostility" to Islam.

And when the labeling reach exceeds the definitional grasp, things get messy. Dorrien says National Review is neocon, but Halper and Clarke don't put it on their list. Halper and Clarke say the Heritage Foundation is neocon, but Dorrien doesn't even list it in his index, even though both Heritage and NR backed to the hilt the signature neocon project of Iraq. Both books say Donald Rumsfeld is not a neocon. That doesn't seem controversial, since almost everyone says that. Except that he seems to me to meet the criteria Halper and Clarke adopt (on page 11) to define neocons. But he's out anyway. Both books say Daniel Pipes is a neocon. But Pipes is a well-known skeptic of Middle East democratization. Maybe they put him in because he likes to quote Bernard Lewis, and apparently neocons like to do that.

This feels less like rigorous analysis and more like teenagers haphazardly joy-riding through a think-tank with a paintball gun. Over fifteen years ago, Seymour Martin Lipset urged that the term neoconservative, while not useless historically, be dropped as "irrelevant to further developments within American politics." We should have been so lucky.

All this matters, instead of just being silly and sloppy, because the labeling game has a very specific effect on the debate over neoconservatism. When the two generations of neocons are shoved together, and their ideas are homogenized and then traced to alleged theoretical tap-roots like Straussianism, the overwhelming impression left with readers is that today's neoconservatives should be understood above all as an ideological community. And this misimpression has big implications. For one thing, as a debating tactic, it un-levels the playing-field from the start, by portraying neocons as ideologues who collide uncomfortably with reality. This leaves other foreign policy approaches free to claim that they, in contrast, are realistic or pragmatic, as virtually all of neoconservatism's critics do. Halper and Clarke identify "the fatal neoconservative flaw: conceptual overreach and the absence of pragmatism."

More important, treating neocons as an ideological community invites critics to treat their ideas as the product of an ideological heritage instead of as the product of hard-won, real-world experience. If they saw them as the latter, critics would set out instead to evaluate the validity of neocon ideas compared to other foreign policy proposals on offer. This should come naturally to Halper and Clarke. After all, they say neocons should be analyzed as a "political interest group," and political science research on that subject usually highlights competition between interest groups. But Halper and Clarke focus only on neocons in isolation. This leaves them saying, with many others, that neocons took over after 9/11 because they "were ready with a detailed, plausible blueprint." This suggests there wasn't competition between points of view, and that neocons took over foreign policy without a fight because they were zealous and well-positioned. 

This asks us to ignore the traditional realists and liberal institutionalists who were also full of advice and on the scene. As Norman Podhoretz says, it also asks us to believe "that strong-minded people like Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Rice could be fooled by a bunch of cunning subordinates." Consequently, it precludes consideration of the crucial possibility that maybe those people adopted key neocon proposals because rival approaches did not provide credible alternatives. After the Cold War, and especially after 9/11, U.S. leaders faced two overarching national security questions: What should U.S. grand strategy be in a "unipolar" world? And how should America deal with violent Islamism and its global ambitions? "Neoconservatism" can be understood as an alternative, on these two matters, to traditional realism and liberal institutionalism. And a careful reading of the facts, as opposed to a reading of some texts, suggests that the common stereotype is a caricature of the neocons, not a useful guide to them.

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America today stands astride the world as no other country in history. This is not because it is inherently more powerful than everyone else. Other states combined amply possess enough population, money, and technology to check America. America is daunting because, first, it has no close single rival, and second, it mobilizes its capabilities in defense spending at a higher rate than most. Neither condition seems likely to fade anytime soon. Here, neocons have a lot in common with realists but differ sharply with liberal institutionalists. Liberal institutionalists say unipolarity cannot last, so America should soften its (inevitable) relative decline by intertwining all countries in international institutions favorable to us, as they insist it did after 1945.

There are two problems with this. Ohio State University's Randall Schweller points out the first: "Had American policymakers…been persuaded by the chorus of scholars in the 1970s to late 1980s proclaiming that U.S. power was in terminal decline"—persuaded, that is, to accommodate rather than confront the U.S.S.R.—"the Cold War might have continued for decades longer." Instead, Reagan avoided decline "through bold policy choices." The record simply does not support the belief that America is inevitably declining now any more than then. Thus, neocons and realists are basically indistinguishable in proposing to maintain U.S. military power at least at present levels.

Second, realists and neocons are also agreed that international institutions and agreements are not reliable guarantors of security. This, too, is a response to real-world events. Yet many critics of neoconservatism, including Dorrien and Halper and Clarke, often fail even to mention events—regularly invoked by neocons (and realists) to explain this posture—such as Hitler's treaty violations, collective security failures of the League of Nations and the U.N., and Soviet arms control violations. Amazingly, these books don't even mention North Korea's violation of its 1994 agreement with the Clinton Administration. Neither book lets on that the U.N. failed Rwandans. Dorrien doesn't mention that the Kosovo operation would have been nixed had it required U.N. approval; Halper and Clarke only do so in passing. Don't expect Darfur to get much coverage in any second editions. Leave out little details like these, and it's easy to portray neocons as doctrinaire, and to avoid engaging substantively with their reasoning (not that some neocons don't return that particular favor).

Traditional realists urge caution in a unipolar world for the very different reason that restraint is the bold choice that can help keep the world unipolar, by avoiding frightening other countries into "balancing" against a threatening America. But this, too, is questionable. There is reason to believe that most nations do not balance against the U.S. as they do against others, because we are oceans away and have a history of benign intentions. The test of which side is correct is unfolding before our eyes, and so far the neocons have the field. Despite America's power and recent behavior, there is simply no evidence that other countries are even beginning to balance against us.

Moreover, the advice to tread exceedingly cautiously—proffered by some realists and especially by isolationists—is based on the flawed premise that the most likely source of long-term threats is an in-your-face American presence around the world. Sometimes the opposite seems the case. Warding off major threats means encouraging other major powers to remain peaceful rather than becoming dangerously aggressive. That requires an ambitious system of carrots and sticks, which, in turn, requires a ramped-up U.S. military; U.S. involvement in many regional conflicts; and a worldwide network of bases, landing rights, and allies. The most obvious example of this phenomenon is the fact that the extensive and expensive U.S. presence in Western Europe and northeast Asia after 1945 had pro-American, not anti-American, effects. Today, China is surrounded by weak states and might be tempted to pursue a war-making path to power and glory. If we want to make sure that its incentives are to be peaceful instead, we have to hem China in with U.S. allies and credible, if implicit, U.S. threats. That means keeping a toe in Japanese and Korean matters, in shipping-lane controversies, Chinese border disputes, and more. But if all that keeps China on a path of peace, economic growth, and
gradual liberalization, it will have paid off handsomely. Here, too, neocons and many realists are broadly agreed.

But aren't neocons overreliant on the use of force? A focus on a stylized neocon "ideology" misses some basic distinctions. The first is between challenges to U.S. primacy and other sorts of challenges. Like realists, most writers and officials called neocon don't advocate a massive U.S. presence in Latin America, South Asia, or sub-Saharan Africa, because those regions host no possible strategic competitors. A second distinction is between the possession of force and its actual use. Dorrien and Halper and Clarke suggest that neocons conflate the two, saying for example that neocons prefer war as a first resort and eschew other tools of foreign policy. But their evidence for this is sparse. Neocons like Paul Wolfowitz say America should vigorously contain China, not invade it. And even the hawkish are uncertain whether it makes sense to attack nuclear facilities in North Korea and Iran.

In sum, on the question of U.S. grand strategy in a unipolar world, a strictly liberal institutionalist agenda has not been persuasive even to Democratic leaders like Bill Clinton and John Kerry. And realists and neocons are divided by less than meets the eye.

On the subject of violent Islamism, neocons are made more distinguishable by their emphasis on political reform in the Middle East. But on this score, their rivals have less to propose by way of alternatives.

September 11 presented U.S. leaders with the second question: how to deal with the rise of violent Islamism and its global atrocities? It is not surprising that Bush did not adopt the liberal institutionalist agenda in the days that followed. Halper and Clarke speak for many when they recommend a grab-bag of law enforcement, renewed alliances, non-proliferation agencies, cooperation with non-governmental organizations, and restoration of America's pre-9/11 reputation. This amounts to the broad contours of foreign policy under the elder Bush and Bill Clinton. And that is the America against which al-Qaeda initiated the 9/11 plot to begin with, and the America that was vulnerable to that plot. This supposedly progressive vision gets us straight back to September 10. A more muscular approach was inevitable. Any U.S. government would have, for example, toppled the Taliban. But what then?

Many realists might have preferred to deter remaining rogue states and terrorists. But if deterrence works on these players, why didn't the fear of reprisal stop the Taliban from permitting the 9/11 plot to proceed from their territory? Why did they then reject Bush's 11th hour ultimatum? After that, why did Saddam not save his throne? Why does Iran not abandon its nuclear research even when our distaste is made clear? It's possible that these radical regimes became convinced that America would not strike them, even after Afghanistan, and that an even more unignorable lesson needed to be taught. This is why many realists joined neocons in arguing that Iraq was a logical occasion for teaching that lesson. But both schools are now unclear on whether these lessons are enough, or more are needed. Instead of revealing bloodthirstiness, this reveals an experimental approach. We simply don't know yet how the remaining rogue states will act. The jury is still out, and policy is properly tentative. In that spirit of flexibility of means, neocons don't seem afraid to acknowledge the desirability and even periodic indispensability of allies, which is why John Bolton launched the multilateralist Proliferation Security Initiative. (How do critics reconcile the PSI to the neocons' alleged dogmatic unilateralism? Dorrien does it by not mentioning it, Halper and Clarke by not explaining what it is.)

What about dealing with the terrorists themselves? Realists and liberal institutionalists have no policies custom-tooled to the novel fact that on 9/11 America was attacked by an organization that emerged from a subculture of sympathy, financing, and recruiting spread across more than a dozen countries. Small cells from that subculture, with minimal infrastructural support, have gone on to inflict further massacres in Bali, Madrid, and elsewhere. What exactly is the West supposed to do? Neocons distinctively argue that Mideast tyranny is the taproot of radicalism and that democratization will cut it off. This strikes liberal institutionalists as needlessly provocative and realists as recklessly meddling. But the notion that U.S. national security policy should be to change domestic arrangements in other countries isn't novel. Note that America focused on obliterating the Nazi and Soviet regimes, not their countries.

But on this issue more than any other, neocons are on weak ground. It is clear neither why authoritarianism might cause extremism in the Middle East but not elsewhere, nor how to create stable democracies. The administration's apparent assumption—that democracy is the default outcome when people are relieved of a vicious dictatorship—is not well-founded.

Then again, neocons do not seem single-minded on the subject, inasmuch as the administration simultaneously cooperates with many authoritarian regimes.

The neocon approach to unipolarity is bold but well within the American mainstream. Their views about the actual use of force are utterly conventional. Their take on deterrence is cloudy, but for now so is the evidence. Finally, their taste for political reform in the Middle East may not be persuasive to many (myself included), but the administration has stopped at one experiment, and its critics have precious few alternative strategies to offer. This approach blends ambition with
far more pragmatism than its critics give it credit for.

Halper and Clarke call their chapter on Iraq a "case study" of neocon assumptions, methods, and results. This is deeply disingenuous. That term implies that they selected Iraq from a wider sample of possible cases. But what other "case" fits their caricature? They have lost all perspective. It is reductio ad iraqum. And it has swept the nation.

A spectacular attack on America led U.S. military power to be applied to only two regimes in only one region of the world. Since the campaign against al-Qaeda is being pursued globally and not just in those two countries, most of it must be being waged bilaterally or multilaterally. It is, but you would never know it from these studies. Halper and Clarke say that neocons reject the "the full range of initiatives available…political, financial, legal, and diplomatic." But the administration approaches Iran and North Korea multilaterally. Syria faces economic sanctions, not invasion. Broadcasting in Arabic has been stepped up. And the Bush Administration is working daily with dozens of governments, gathering intelligence, tracing money, and tracking suspects.

And these governments are cooperating not because they are "bribed and coerced" but because they have a stake in defeating violent Islamism, too. This very much includes Russia, China, and also the European Union, which now officially identifies its number one security threat as terrorists armed with WMDs—practically a page torn from Bush's 2002 National Security Strategy. Yet Halper and Clarke decry "America alone" and say it is in a "virtual one-on-one confrontation with Islamic radicalism." While they're at it—why stop there?—they blame neocons for the Patriot Act and say America stands today at the brink of an "Orwellian reality." Their account initially seems breathless; it turns out they're hyperventilating.

Americans need to decide what to make of neoconservative ideas. It might be possible to make a case effectively demolishing them. So far, that case hasn't been made.