Politics & Policy

Going Neocon

Is Obama getting mugged by reality?

During his Nobel Peace Prize–acceptance speech today, Barack Obama said, “For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world.” He cited the historical example of Adolf Hitler and the present-day example of al-Qaeda. This rounds out a year that has seen a succession of real-world object lessons that bear out the claims of the intellectual tendency known as neoconservatism: Iran has rejected a torrent of American obsequiousness and will not be charmed out of pursuing nuclear weapons; its population, meanwhile, is clamoring for a robust American defense of democracy; a far-left American president has determined that a significant surge of American troops is the only way to win a faltering war effort in a far-off Muslim land; that same president has acknowledged that “we’ve achieved hard-earned milestones in Iraq” and is using the basis of those achievements as the model for his new ramp-up strategy.

In these, three convictions often linked with neoconservative thought have been affirmed:

1. No matter how technologically advanced and interconnected the world becomes, there will be bad actors, and their obstinacy will remain intact. Every regime cannot be made to acquiesce through appeals to common humanity. Some can only be made pliant through threat and, if necessary, force.

2. Populations living under despotic leadership are at all times engaged in a desperate struggle for liberty. Moreover, these populations look to America, the world’s longest-running constitutional democracy, for moral and material support. All the shallow resentment of the arrogant “world police” evaporates when truncheons start coming down on the heads of dissidents. America needs to be there when support is requested.

3. A willingness to apply overwhelming and innovative military force remains critical to America’s wars — regardless of their asymmetric natures. Similarly, America cannot afford to abandon or wind down her military efforts as a response to solely temporal considerations. Short wars have to be won; long wars, more so.

While recent developments in global conflicts have authenticated these notions, there remains a fundamental tension between their logical policy implications and the foundational political bearing of Barack Obama. The president has not yet implemented a “phase II” approach — that is, an effective sanctions regime — to motivate an intractable Iran; he has not offered unwavering support to Iranian democrats; he has not spoken plainly of victory in Afghanistan; he has purposefully created an air of confusion over his commitment there; and he has not embraced American success in Iraq.

Why not?

The answer is no less connected to neoconservatism than are the international realities that now give rise to the question. Irving Kristol said, almost too memorably, “A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” With that definition in mind, an eminent national-security personage put this perfectly phrased query to me over the summer: “Is Obama too arrogant to get mugged by reality?”

An excellent question. What the president calls his “philosophy of persistence” looks increasingly like the vice of conceit. The new White House imperiousness explains Obama’s inability to offer full-throated praise for the Iraq War — an undertaking he staunchly opposed. It also explains his devotion to de-fanging Iran through the voodoo of his personal allure (and to his correspondent obtuseness on Iran’s democrats).

It does not explain his purposefully jumbled message of surge and recoil in Afghanistan. On the uncompromising reality of war, Obama has sought a particularly Obamaesque solution: compromise.

The president has been partially mugged. Reality has accosted him and shaken him down for concessions, but it is only a temporary arrangement. Obama’s “persistence” is, for the time being, intact. That explains the contradictions contained within his war speech.

However, by invoking evil in his peace speech, he has obligated himself to a more decisive course of action and perhaps a new moral seriousness. For there is a deeper neoconservative concern that serves as the foundation upon which the architecture of democracy promotion and hawkishness are built. This is the belief in good and evil, reality’s parting gift to the mugged. Sometimes thought of as a quaint and outdated proposal, the assertion that virtue and wickedness are real is at the heart of neoconservative support for American power in the world. The Taliban — which beheads innocents, chops off voters’ hands, and subjects women to lives of brutal servitude — is evil. So, too, are Iran’s mullahs, who sentence teenagers to hangings for the “crime” of homosexuality. Defeating these parties is its own reward. As evil is now part of Barack Obama’s war lexicon, he must make this point, and he must speak of victory. For once evil is invoked, compromise is off the table. Evil demands defeat.

None of this is to say the president has until now lacked a moral compass. To the contrary, in these and other matters Obama has held fast to a comprehensive model of right and wrong. It is the present-day liberal model, wherein right comprises those things accomplished or pursued without approval from the West and wrong covers most anything America and Europe hope to effectuate outside their own borders; right is that which strives for peace, even at the cost of long-term suffering, and wrong is any American act of war. It is not hard to see how this code is at odds with Obama’s present national-security obligations. It is equally evident that he has had an uneasy time managing the contradiction.

It is perhaps now dawning on Obama that it is not just neoconservatives who believe in an America that conquers evil abroad. In fact, that conception of American morality is older than the relatively new one Obama espouses. War presidents have appealed to this aspect of American exceptionalism for centuries. Among other things, the War of 1812 was an attempt to eradicate the evil of monarchic rule; the Civil War, a push to eliminate the evil of slavery; World Wars I and II, fights to destroy the evil of totalitarian ideologies; and the Cold War, a triumph over the “Evil Empire.”

If Obama has not yet been mugged by reality, he is at least being shaken by ever-dropping approval ratings. In his role as war president, he may find an opportunity to halt the slide. A new Rasmussen poll shows that 53 percent of voters support President Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, while 47 percent support his plan to begin a troop drawdown in 18 months. This means a majority — slim though it may be — do not accept the conception of morality advocated by present-day liberals. Perhaps this is a reality up to the task of mugging our commander-in-chief.

– Abe Greenwald is policy adviser and online editor with the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington.

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