There’s been some talk of late about a an alleged decline in the GOP’s hawkish consensus. Several Republican candidates for president have expressed skepticism about our intervention in Libya. The operation in Afghanistan, now the longest war in American history, is also raising skeptical eyebrows among some on the right. More broadly, conservatives are sharply divided on how likely the Arab Spring is to eventuate in a viable pathway to democratization in the Middle East. America is just about flat broke, the awareness of which hangs over everything these days–for conservatives in particular. Finally, in the service of vindicating their dovish instincts, the liberal mainstream press is eager to focus on Republican doubts. Continuing presidential debates are sure to bring more such opportunities.
While there is clearly some war fatigue on the right at the moment, the deeper doubts about our war policies are driven by the flux and uncertainty sweeping over the Middle East, as well as a sense of overstretch catalyzed by President Obama’s postmodern interventionism in Libya. Fundamentally, the current moment of uncertainty about our wars in the Middle East is an appropriate response to the tumult reshaping the region. What Republicans need most now is a more accurate assessment of what is happening in the world. Only on the basis of such an assessment can a policy for the future be shaped.
There is an apparent lack of fit between traditional social practices and cultural attitudes in the region and the demands of modern entrepreneurship and governance. In the Middle East, loyalty to kin and tribe trump broader notions of citizenship and rule of law. The resulting endemic corruption has discredited the political leadership, the bureaucracy, the police, and even the emerging business class. The state remains a predatory clique exploiting, mismanaging, and when necessary buying off a society that withholds its taxes and tends to its own. The result is persistent poverty, rampant inflation, and massive unemployment, in countries groaning under the weight of massive cohorts of the frustrated young.
The rebellion sparked by all this signals, not spontaneous nation-building, but further social collapse. The most likely scenario right now is the Middle East as Pakistan writ large: a chaotic stand-off between a weak middle class, a strong military, and rising Islamism among the numerically dominant poor, with loyalties to kin and tribe continuing to undermine efforts at institution-building. The continuing chaos only accentuates the economic crisis, making further political explosions and a regional turn toward Islamism or unstable autocracy more likely. Like Pakistan, Egypt’s greatest hold on us is now its threat of imminent collapse. We are facing a region-wide archipelago of quasi-failed states at a moment when we have lost the capacity to prop them up with infusions of money and arms.
With the Middle East slowly turning into a series of tin-cup-rattling failed states, and with Obama blithely embarking on a postmodern adventure in supposed humanitarianism when real military dangers threaten at every turn, why shouldn’t conservatives question where all this is leading? Hawkish democratizing optimists have chosen to overlook both Obama’s internationalist justifications for war in Libya and his refusal to quickly go for the kill. In doing so, they are hoping to forge a hawkish, bipartisan consensus in the country as a whole. This is a mistake, and is leading instead to the very opposite result. What Americans urgently need right now is a foreign policy that makes distinctions between our greater and lesser interests, and above all, a policy based on a realistic assessment of what is happening in the Middle East.
Over the long term, I believe that we as a country are headed toward a new hawkish realism. The future will likely be hawkish, because the Middle East is moving dramatically out of the American orbit. When the dust of the so-called Arab Spring settles, we are likely to face something resembling a Huntingtonian clash of civilizations. That doesn’t necessarily mean full-scale regional war, although that is clearly a possibility with a nuclear Iran standing astride Gulf. But it does mean, at minimum, a chaotic Middle East, constantly tottering, Pakistan-like, on the edge of state failure, and riven by powerful Islamist currents. The terrorist threat will increase. Most worryingly, the nuclear ingredient in all the chaos will grow. Of necessity, this will turn America more hawkish.
At the same time, with our economic resources dwindling, and with the impossibility of occupying and controlling an entire region, we are going to have to find a way to deploy our military more selectively.
In this new and more dangerous context, neither democratizing hawkishness nor internationalist dovishness will work. Both of those policies depend on an optimistic assessment of the Arab Spring, and the most likely scenario is now negative instead.
The high tide of George W. Bush’s democratization strategy has passed. It seemed to some for a moment that the tenuous settlement in Iraq might serve as the model for a sweeping Arab Spring, the outcome of which would be to quiet our adversaries over time. Increasingly that is looking like a pipe-dream.
At the same time, Obama’s naive and grandiose efforts to lever his own identity and a new American empathy into a changed Middle East has failed as well. Obama’s policy of dealing with terror-supporting regimes has also failed miserably. It’s most important achievement is the time and opportunity it gave Iran to become a nuclear power.
Middle East optimism–be it of the right or the left–is dying. Out of its ashes, the more measured and realist hawks of the future will emerge. These hawks will in no way be isolationist, but they won’t be setting off on humanitarian or democratizing adventures either. From this viewpoint, today’s gentle internal policy debate on the right is a sign of strength. As the deterioration and danger in the Middle East grow ever more undeniable, the threat to American interests will be palpable. In that environment, Democratic dovishness will fade and the new, more realist Republican hawks will rule.