Politics & Policy

From Neoconservatism to Paleorealism

Iraq now.

Whatever you think of the Iraq War, you can’t fairly accuse George W. Bush of lack of clarity about our war aim. That aim is, as the president has told us many times, to “stand up” an elected Iraqi government that will be able to deal with its own security problems, internal and external. And this war aim is imbedded in a larger strategic doctrine, the one we have got used to calling “neoconservatism”: to assure our own security, and to drain the swamps of jihadist terrorism, by spreading consensual, constitutional government around the Muslim Middle East (MME).

#ad#Alas, it is getting more and more difficult to find anyone who believes that this war aim is attainable by any methods we are actually willing to employ. I know a handful of such people — but then, I hang out a lot with hardcore Bush supporters. Outside those dwindling precincts, belief in a stable, independent, and democratic Iraq is fast going the way of the Hollow Earth Theory, Orgone Therapy, and Muggletonianism. The Iraq War is a bust, and its fast-sinking prospects are dragging down the whole neoconservative project with them.

All the buzz now is that neoconservatism is as dead as mutton, and that we are about to turn back to good old Nixon/Kissinger/Bush-41 realism: Let the blighters have whatever despotic, kleptocratic, homicidal, economy-destroying, women-subjugating, minority-oppressing governments they want, so long as they don’t impinge on our own national interests.

We hear that the Iraq Study Group looking into alternative policies on Iraq will recommend realist deal-cutting with the neighboring powers — particularly Iran and Syria — as the only way for us to engineer a non-humiliating exit from the war. There are skeptical things to be said about that. Henry Kissinger said some of them on Sunday in a New York Post op-ed (not on the Post’s website):

Diplomacy — especially with an adversary — can succeed only if it brings about a balance of interests. Failing that, it runs the risks of turning into an alibi for procrastination or a palliative to ease the process of defeat without, however, eliminating the consequences of defeat.

Be that as it may, it is clear that all the high principles of the past three years’ worth of presidential speeches are soon to be declared no longer operational. Iraq was to be turned into a functioning democracy, to be a beacon of rational government in the MME. The Iranians, the Egyptians, the Syrians, even the Saudis would see the light. Then Islamic fundamentalism, no longer nourished by the pathologies arising from life under tyrannical regimes, would lose its appeal, and America would be safe from future 9/11s.

The neoconservative argument was never very convincing. Comfortable liberal democracies like Britain have proved to be just as capable of engendering jihadis as have MME despotisms. Some straightforward improvements in airline and port-of-entry security, with the assault on al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, have been able to thwart 9/11-style attacks for five years now, even while the Iraq campaign was heating America-hatred to boiling point. The elections held in Iraq have made little impression on the rest of the MME, whose conspiracy-addled peoples regard them as an American ploy to put our stooges in power, steal Iraqi oil, and advance Israel’s ambitions of world conquest.

As for turning Iraq into a democratic nation, it is increasingly doubtful that Iraq can hold together as a nation of any kind. Certainly the rulers of Iran do not seem to be trembling in their turbans for fear of representative government seeping across the border from Iraq.

The whole neocon project has been a colossal failure. Even George W. Bush must now know this. The MME will not adopt consensual government any time soon. There is a case for KBO in Iraq — Adam Brodsky has put it very neatly — but nobody of any consequence thinks we shall remake that country in our own image, or anything like it. A lot of us never believed it anyway, though most of us are much too nice to go around now saying “I told you so.”

To be fair to the neocons, they may have picked the wrong country to test their theories on. It may be that Iraq is a particularly hard case. Perhaps Syria, or even Iran, might have been a better bet. We can’t know. We only know that the neocon project has failed decisively in Iraq, there is no detectable support in the U.S.A. for trying again elsewhere, and we need a comprehensive new policy for the MME.

If what we are hearing about the Iraq Study Group is right, and if the appointment of Robert Gates as our new SecDef points the same way, as it seems to, we are headed back to realism. The pendulum rarely stops halfway in its swing, and my guess is that the coming realism will be of a particularly hard-nosed kind — a sort of paleorealism.

That will suit the American people, who have been getting a good close look at the MME, its peoples, and their religion this past five years, and have formed definite opinions about them. Those opinions can be seen in any newspaper “letters” column, or heard on radio and TV phone-in programs. Sympathy and fellow-feeling for the shoeless fellaheen of the MME is… not widespread. One of the strongest themes — and a growing one, too — in my own reader e-mail is the desire to have as little as possible to do with the MME, even to the extent of banning all MME immigrants and visitors. (People ask) What need to have any relations with them other than arms-length commercial ones? Most especially: Why let them into our countries?

The durn MME isn’t going to go away, of course. The West Asia-Northeast Africa arc — the stretch of nations from Libya through to Pakistan — has some evolving to do, probably into a sort of pre-1914-Europe configuration, three or four big powers (Iran, Pakistan, Egypt) jostling for hegemony while disgruntled minority populations make trouble across borders and lob the occasional bomb at visiting archdukes. Presumably the big nations will all go nuclear over the next 5-10 years. That will probably damp down the jostling — nuclear powers have strong incentives not to march armies into each other’s territories. Probably the region will separate into Shiite and Sunni blocs, with Iran (pop. 69m) and either Egypt (79m) or Pakistan (166m) as bloc leaders.

On the other hand, the spread of nuclear-weapons technology to disorderly, corrupt, coup-prone, semi-civilized nations like those of the MME makes it ever more likely that nuclear weapons will be misplaced, sold, smuggled, or handed off to terrorist proxy groups. Far and away the most probable destination for such stray nukes is U.S. soil.

That is the great peril of the coming years, the one on which our security concerns should focus. Perhaps a democratizing revolution in the MME would have prevented this peril. In any case, no such revolution happened, and none is in prospect. If democracy ever does develop in the MME it will be autochthonous, not a consequence of anything we have done.

The MME powers will be playing the Great Game of Nations among themselves in the coming decades. Mainly we shall just watch, though occasionally we shall meddle, in our own commercial and geostrategic interests. Some of our meddling will be successful; some will be counterproductive. That’s the game. In any case, attempts to foster democracy will not figure in our meddling.

That is all to the good. We have big, difficult geostrategic problems to deal with, by no means only in the MME. If we truly have woken from our neocon opium dreams of making everybody love us by spreading benevolence and good government, we shall be able to face those problems with cold eyes, eyes no longer clouded by sentimentality or ideology. We shall then be able to console ourselves with the thought that some good might, after all, have come out of the Iraq blunder.

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