What Does It Mean to Be a Neocon? A Reply to My Critics

by Reihan Salam

On Monday, I published a short column arguing that despite the Iraq debacle, I continue to identify as a “neocon,” and I offered thoughts as to why. The column has met with an almost uniformly negative response. In “Why No One Should Still Be a Neocon,” Daniel Larison, an articulate proponent of strategic independendence who writes for The American Conservative, describes the neocon impulse as “the impulse to interfere where we aren’t welcome, to dictate to those that reject our advice, and to try to control what is beyond our grasp.” Daniel Drezner regrets that I hadn’t read his recent (gated) International Security article, “Military Primacy Doesn’t Pay.” Joshua Keating suggests that my definition of a neocon is overly broad, and he finds it odd that I don’t address current foreign policy controversies involving Syria, Russia and Ukraine, and Iran’s nuclear program. And though there have been a number of other replies, many of which I’m sure I haven’t seen, the most helpful, from my perspective, was that of Tom Scocca of Gawker, who asked one of his colleagues, Reuben Fischer-Baum, to contrast U.S. expenditures against those of a bundle of other countries (Saudi Arabia, India, Brazil, Russia, Italy, U.K., France, China, Germany, and Japan) not just in defense, but also in health and education. I’ve borrowed the chart below, with thanks to Scocca and Fischer-Baum for having taken the trouble to prepare it. Scocca writes that I am “a sloppy thinker who is deeply confused about history and how the world works,” and he concludes that my “incoherence and ridiculousness” represents a kind of public service in that it demonstrates the extent to which neoconservative thinking has been discredited. You’d almost get the sense that Scocca isn’t a fan of mine.

So who am I calling a neocon? I’m calling a lot of people neocons, including people who’d never dream of applying the label to themselves. My column was admittedly somewhat idiosyncratic, as my intention was to reframe the discussion about neocons. Rather than engage with a caricature (“neocons are people who believe in waging war as the first option”), I sought to identify what I take to be a serious, if contentious, view (“now is not the right time for large-scale strategic retrenchment”). I tried to address, briefly, the notion that U.S. defense expenditures are unreasonably high, a subject to which I’ll return. And I also wanted to highlight that while the Iraq experience has taught us about the limits of military power, we shouldn’t forget that there was a time when U.S. policymakers were so dismissive of humanitarian considerations that they aided and abetted in a humanitarian disaster through their malign neglect. Linking these ideas together was a tricky undertaking, and my column was decidedly imperfect. I am, however, glad to have sparked an interesting discussion that has surfaced a lot of resentments, misconceptions, and prejudices, my own very much included.

First, I should note that definitions of “neocon” vary. As Keating argues, I was using a broad, and perhaps overly broad, definition:

Why do I still believe that the U.S. should maintain an overwhelming military edge over all potential rivals, and that we as a country ought to be willing to use our military power in defense of our ideals as well as our interests narrowly defined? There are two reasons: The first is that American strength is the linchpin of a peaceful, economically integrating world; and the second is that we know what it looks like when America embraces amoral realpolitik, and it’s not pretty.

That is, I identify neoconservatism with the belief that U.S. military primacy and U.S. global leadership are valuable and worth sustaining, and also that we ought to define our interests broadly rather than narrowly.

This definition encompasses a wide range of foreign policy thinkers, many if not most of whom would eschew the neoconservative label. That shouldn’t be too surprising, as almost all of the terms I’ve used have contested meanings. For example, U.S. primacy could refer to the preponderant U.S. power that flows from our high defense expenditures relative to rival states. Or it could refer to the latent power the U.S. would possess even if we had a much smaller defense budget. When I use the term “global leadership,” I’m referring to the willingness of the U.S. to bear a disproportionately large share of the costs associated with securing the global commons and fostering cooperation among states to achieve various shared goals. Among those commonly identified as neoconservatives, there is a range of opinion regarding the wisdom of various interventions and also the relative virtues of unilateralism or multilateralism. The popular view is that neoconservatives favor the unilateral exercise of American power, yet a number of thinkers in this tradition, like Robert Kagan, Jeffrey Gedmin, and Gary Schmitt, among many others, have emphasized the importance of the coordination function of U.S. global leadership. For the U.S. to successfully provide the public good of a secure global commons, it needs to secure the support of other states, whether through formal partnership arrangements or through tacit cooperation.

Because I’ve defined foreign policy neoconservatism so broadly, some of my interlocutors object that my definition encompasses all recent U.S. presidential administrations, including the Obama administration. Though I wouldn’t describe the president as a neoconservative, I’d actually agree that the U.S. foreign policy establishment is by and large committed to the idea of U.S. global leadership, and that the differences that tend to attract the most political attention are differences at the margin, e.g., we’re not disagreeing over core security commitments in industrial Eurasia and the Gulf, but rather over how we ought to balance competing considerations in addressing Iran’s nuclear program, or prudential questions regarding the nature of the U.S. role in chaotic regions. My concern, however, is that this commitment to U.S. global leadership is not universally embraced by the public, and it is eroding in some segments of the political class, on the libertarian right and also on some segments of the left.

What’s so important about U.S. global leadership? Shouldn’t other countries bear their fair share of the burden of protecting the sea-lanes and undertaking combat operations? As Kindred Winecoff has put it, “some sectors of the economy are natural monopolies,” and just as it “wouldn’t be efficient to have 100 different telephone companies putting up poles all over the place,” my view is that we are better off when the U.S. spends disproportionately on its military than if some larger number of states engaged in arms races. One reason why the U.S. is well-placed to serve this function is that the U.S. is an offshore power. It is relatively isolated from other potentially powerful states. And so when the U.S. increases its military strength, it is not as threatening to, say, Japan as it would be if China were to do the same.

This, incidentally, is part of why the increase in America’s relative military power since the Soviet collapse hasn’t prompted a particularly strong balancing response from other states, with the partial exception of Chinese rearmament, which needs to be understood in the context of rising Chinese wages and the fact that the Chinese military had been allowed deteriorate for decades after China’s economic opening in 1978. If anything, it is remarkable that China’s balancing response hasn’t been stronger, as the post-9/11 era has seen the U.S. expand its strategic footprint in Central Asia and it has also seen a (marginal) improvement in the U.S. relationship with India. China is surrounded by potential sources of chaos (to its west), potential rivals (to its south and to its east), and the U.S. has been involved in high-intensity combat operations almost continuously since 2001 while Chinese forces have not clashed with foreign forces since 1979. For all the anxieties about rising Chinese military power, and I take rising Chinese military power very seriously, it is interesting to note that the Chinese haven’t gone much further. I would argue that while the Chinese want to put themselves in a position in which they can resist and counter U.S. military coercion, they also recognize that they benefit in many respects from a U.S.-led global order.

A number of U.S. allies, particularly in Europe, have sharply reduced their military expenditures in the post-crisis years as they’ve come under intense fiscal strain. One concern critics of high U.S. military expenditures often raise is that U.S. allies are free-riding on U.S. military expenditures. My view is somewhat different. I do believe that some allied countries ought to spend more on their militaries. Yet it is important to keep in mind that the U.S. military and allied militaries are complements. The U.S. specializes in high-intensity combat operations while allied militaries tend to specialize in support functions and post-conflict stabilization. The underlying reason for this division of labor is that coordination is difficult under any circumstances, but particularly in combat operations. It is thus important to have a unified command and a shared institutional culture. The U.S. has had a notoriously difficult time forging such a culture across branches of the U.S. military, and working with partner militaries adds a new layer of complexity. The fact that the U.S. bears the burden of high-intensity combat operations is less than ideal, and there are, to be sure, other countries that have made substantial contributions, including Britain and Canada. But it is hard to get around the fact that the size and scale of the U.S. military means that we are best placed to take on this role, while the risks involved in outsourcing post-conflict stabilization to allied militaries are much lower. I realize that this is not a very politically satisfying argument — it would be much easier if I could say that we can parcel out combat operations in a more equitable fashion across allied militaries. And I’d be all for moving in that direction to the extent possible. I just don’t think it’s a realistic option, at least for now, and the risks involved in transitioning from our current division of labor to a new one are considerable.

So why do you favor invading countries and increasing the military budget? Having used the term neoconservative in lieu of stating that I favor preserving U.S. military primacy and U.S. global leadership, I led at least some of my readers to believe that I was advocating all kinds of things I do not in fact favor, e.g., perpetual war, or a sharp increase in military expenditures. When I asked one of my correspondents what in particular he objected to in the column, he wrote that I “see military power as waning (and overstated by conventional metrics) and therefore want to double down on that.” He’s right that I see U.S. military power as waning. The utility of certain kinds of military force has declined in a denser, more connected world. The Iraq experience demonstrates that while the U.S. has the tools to cause a functioning state to collapse, it doesn’t have the tools to successfully suppress insurgencies at an acceptable cost, which is why I believe that Iraq-like interventions are not the future. Counter-insurgency is a labor-intensive endeavor, and thus an extremely expensive undertaking for an affluent country with a competitive labor market. Capital- and firepower-intensive military functions, in contrast, are better suited to our strengths. Yet I do not believe that we ought to “double down” on military expenditures; rather, I believe that we ought to reallocate resources across the military budget, and I am open to the possibility that we might be in a position to spend less without sacrificing our ability to serve as a global public goods provider.

What about this chart that Tom Scocca and Reuben Fischer-Baum put together?

It looks like the U.S. does not spend as much on health or education as Saudi Arabia, India, Brazil, Russia, Italy, U.K., France, China, Germany, and Japan whereas it does spend roughly as much as those countries combined on defense. In my column, I make the following observation:

You may have seen one of those charts illustrating how much the U.S. military spends on defense vs. other countries. Slate recently ran just such a chart to show that America’s 2012 defense spending surpasses that of China, Russia, the U.K., Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy, and Brazil combined. The implicit message of these charts is “Wait a minute, you guys—doesn’t this seem like overkill?” There is no question that there is waste in the U.S. defense budget, and that our military could deploy resources more effectively.

But these charts are misleading insofar as they gloss over a pretty important fact, which is that personnel costs are much higher in rich countries than in poor ones. Stack up the U.S. against the same list of countries on health or education spending and you’ll find that we spend an impressive amount in those domains too. The health and education sectors, like the military, are sectors that depend on hiring and retaining trained personnel. Keeping smart, hardworking people in these sectors means paying wages high enough to keep them from taking jobs elsewhere, including in sectors where productivity growth is much higher. That is expensive. Personnel costs absorb half of the U.S. military budget, as opposed to a third of China’s. There are things we can do to contain high and rising personnel costs. Tim Kane, an economist at the Hoover Institution and an Air Force veteran, has written an excellent book on how the military can manage its human resources. And of course we could rely more heavily on drones and other labor-saving technologies. But as long as the military intends to employ talented Americans, it’s going to be expensive. Liberals who want to raid the defense budget to finance social programs and libertarians who want to slash it to finance tax cuts need to wake up. A weaker U.S. military will mean a more dangerous world, and that will jeopardize everything that matters. [Emphasis added]

Scocca writes the following:

So on health care—where the amount we spend is recognized across party lines as a national crisis and a scandal—our government is spending only 75 percent as much as those other countries’ governments. On education, we’re spending 58 percent as much. Our military spending is the anomaly. But who needs facts when you have ideals?

In fact, the contrast Fischer-Baum’s chart illustrate between the United States and other countries fits the story I have in mind perfectly.

The idea I was harping on in the passage above is known as Baumol’s cost disease, a concept we often reference in this space. Rapid productivity growth in modern economies has led to a bifurcation between what William Baumol, the economist who first identified the cost disease, calls the progressive sector (in which productivity grows rapidly) and the stagnant sector (in which it does not). The disease part of the disease is that over time, the output of the stagnant sector will grow unaffordable relative to the output of the progressive sector. Think about how much more expensive a hospital stay or a year of college tuition has become over time relative to a given amount of computing power. It is also true, however, that rising productivity means a growing economy and rising purchasing power. Baumol argues that the way around this dilemma is to have government play a larger role in financing health and education.

There are many ways to approach the cost disease. We could, for example, reject the notion that the education and health sectors are necessarily stagnant, which is to say intrinsically resistant to productivity-enhancing business model innovation. I am sympathetic to this view. I also believe, however, that as our society ages and as the importance of human capital investment increases, there is a large and important role for government in helping to finance health and education expenditures through progressive taxation. The benefits from technological advances made in the progressive sector benefit the defense sector, as they benefit health and education, but because it is labor-intensive, it is best understood as part of the stagnant sector.

With this in mind, let’s revisit Fischer-Baum’s chart. What we do see is that the U.S. spends 75 percent as much as the aforementioned countries on health and 58 percent as much on education. And this is limited to public sector expenditures. Total U.S. health expenditures in 2012 amounted to $2.8 trillion, which is substantially higher than $1.6 trillion in public sector health expenditures. Private health expenditures represent a larger share of total health expenditures in the U.S. than in many of the other countries in the basket. Something similar obtains when we look at education. Fischer-Baum finds that the U.S. is spending $811 billion on education. U.S. education spending is somewhat higher as a share of GDP than the average across the OECD countries, but not by much (about one percentage point). Yet U.S. government military spending matches government military spending in the basket of countries while U.S. government spending on health and education does not exceed total government spending on health and education in the countries in the basket. What exactly is going on here?

It helps to understand that in the United States, the public sector often engages in indirect spending through the tax code to subsidize various activities, including spending on medical care and education. Focusing on direct public expenditures thus understates the extent of the government’s role. This preference for indirect, and usually regressive, spending over direct spending obtains across many different domains, but this preference does not obtain in the defense sector, or rather it does not obtain to the same extent. There is widespread agreement that there is a place for private sector innovation in the delivery of health and education services, but the scope of private sector innovation in the provision of defense services is limited, for a variety of reasons. We have always relied on private defense contractors to build weapons systems and to provide support services, and private military contractors have expanded considerably in the post-9/11 era and they are capable of doing valuable work. But the military is the purchaser of these services, which swells the military budget. In contrast, the use of tax expenditures masks the extent to which government contributes to the purchase of “private” health and education services. So you can see why we’re not dealing with an apples-to-apples comparison if we want to understand the way in which personnel costs contribute to military expenditures and health and education expenditures. Direct government spending is a much bigger part of the picture in defense than it is in health and education.

Moreover, as I’ve tried to establish, U.S. military expenditures aren’t just meeting the U.S. demand for security. They represent an investment in a global public good. U.S. health and education expenditures have spillover benefits that enrich other societies (see Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson on cuddly vs. cut-throat capitalism), yet U.S. health and education expenditures are different from military expenditures insofar as we don’t generally try to educate and tend to the health care needs of European, East Asian, and Gulf Arab populations with American health and education professionals. My analogy is inexact, but I hope my point is clear. Fischer-Baum’s chart helpfully illustrates that when the U.S. tries to do any of the valuable and important things that we turn to government to do, it does so really expensively.

On a tangential note, Scocca claims that the amount we spend on health care “is recognized across party lines as a national crisis and a scandal,” and I will concede that I do not share this widely-held view. Like David Cutler, the Harvard economist who served as one of the intellectual architects of President Obama’s coverage expansion effort, I see it as perfectly natural that affluent societies will spend more on medical care over time; the relevant question is whether our financing mechanisms are well-designed, and whether we’re getting value for money. I’d suggest that similar questions are worth asking when we think about defense expenditures — are we getting value for money? Are we achieving our goals? I believe that we can definitely do better on these fronts in the national security domain, a subject I’ve addressed in the past.

Why did you bring up the 1971 war, and do you even understand what was going on? Scocca shares his thoughts on Nixon and Kissinger:

Salam presents Nixon and Kissinger as embodying the opposite of a vigorous right-wing military interventionism. People in Cambodia and Laos (to say nothing of Chile) might find this a surprising historical interpretation. It’s certainly a peculiar case study for Salam’s purposes—the trouble in 1971 was not so much that Nixon was not bold enough to use arms against Pakistan as that he was unwilling to do anything whatsoever, including using diplomatic or financial pressure, to rein in the brutality of his allies in the Pakistani junta.

Trying to define Nixon and Kissinger out of the interventionist camp, Salam describes them as “too taken with treating the world as a chessboard.” But their amoral gamesmanship in Pakistan was itself the result of the great moralistic military struggle against Soviet Communism. The Bengalis were never the point. War is a chain of events and decisions, ever more removed from the original plan or purpose (thus our campaign to punish the perpetrators of 9/11 sent us to Afghanistan, because the Taliban was sheltering bin Laden, and the Afghanistan war effort required us to cooperate with the Pakistanis, who eventually ended up sheltering bin Laden themselves).

Trying to define Nixon and Kissinger out of the interventionist camp, Salam describes them as “too taken with treating the world as a chessboard.” But their amoral gamesmanship in Pakistan was itself the result of the great moralistic military struggle against Soviet Communism. The Bengalis were never the point. War is a chain of events and decisions, ever more removed from the original plan or purpose (thus our campaign to punish the perpetrators of 9/11 sent us to Afghanistan, because the Taliban was sheltering bin Laden, and the Afghanistan war effort required us to cooperate with the Pakistanis, who eventually ended up sheltering bin Laden themselves).

I should note that I do not believe that neoconservatism, as I’ve formulated it, and “vigorous right-wing military interventionism” are the same thing. The reason is that I’d first want to know what we mean by “vigorous” and “right-wing.” Is right-wing interventionism intrinsically different from left-wing interventionism? In 1971, Indira Gandhi’s left-wing government intervened in Bangladesh for a variety of reasons, including humanitarian reasons. The left-wing Vietnamese government intervened in Cambodia. These were both interventions I see as having done more good than harm. The U.S. intervention in Iraq, in contrast, is one that I see, on balance, as having done more harm than good. Is the difference that the first were left-wing while the last was right-wing? I don’t think so. And as for “vigorousness,” I’ll just say that I try to avoid such terminology, because I don’t think war is something to celebrate, notwithstanding how my piece has been interpreted.

I agree that the problem in 1971 was that Nixon was not willing to use U.S. leverage to coerce the West Pakistani government into ending the slaughter. My point — not very well-made — is that whereas we now live in an era, after the Helsinki Final Act and the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, when human rights considerations are very much a part of the foreign policy conversation, we once lived in an era in which human rights considerations were largely discounted. I understand that this point might seem obscure, but I saw it as a useful counterpoint — the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad is not the only anniversary we ought to remember.

As for Scocca’s point about amoral gamesmanship, it is worth underscoring that had Nixon and Kissinger intervened in the Pakistan crisis, it would have been to intervene on behalf of the West Pakistani government. This illustrates that all interventions are not created equal, which is why I do not endorse all intervention. Rather, I believe that armed intervention is a tool that ought to be used sparingly, but that sometimes ought to be used.

Scocca concludes by identifying me with the neoconservative spirit:

Here the neoconservative spirit reveals itself. What he supports is good war, waged by good people for good reasons, to achieve good ends. That’s great. I suppose I support clean nuclear energy, myself—energy from nuclear power plants that never have accidents and which dispose of their radioactive waste in a safe and sustainable manner.

I see this differently. What I believe is that there can be such a thing as a good war fought for good reasons to achieve good ends, and that though these cases might be rare, we need the capabilities to fight and win such wars.