Cons vs. Neo-Cons

by Henry on May 12, 2005

A shoe that has taken a little while to drop; mainstream conservatives are finally beginning to point out in public that the neo-con project of remoulding the world sits uncomfortably with traditional Burkean notions of prudence and culture. In a forthcoming article in conservative house journal, The National Interest (still to be published; hence no link), John Hulsman and Anatol Lieven argue that realism is not only more moral than neo-conservatism (it better reflects the moral duty to be prudent), but that it better reflects traditional conservative values as articulated by Burke and others. They have some harsh words for the neo-cons.

an ethic of ultimate ends – especially when linked to the belief that one’s nation is the representative of all that is good – has a dangerous tendency to excuse its proponents from responsibility for the consequences of their actions. For if ideals and intentions are seen as spotlessly, self-evidently pure, then not only the grossest ruthlessness, but the grossest incompetence is of comparatively little importance. The Iraq War and its aftermath have been the first real test of the neoconservative approach in action. It is not an anomaly of the neoconservative philosophy as some have argued. Rather, it springs fully formed like Athena from neoconservatism’s head.

Hulsman and Lieven also give short shrift to those like Krauthammer who have tried to blend realism and neo-conservatism into an uneasy cocktail.

Moreover, given America’s past historical record, the neoconservative combination of a professed belief in spreading democracy with a commitment to the limitless extension of American power and American interests in the Middle East is bound to be widely seen as utterly hypocritical. This is all the more so when – as advocated by Charles Krauthammer and others – the United States openly adjusts its public conscience according to its geopolitical advantage, talking loudly about democratic morality in cases that suit it, while remaining silent on others.

These tensions have been brewing for a while, and now appear to be breaking out into open warfare. It’s a little surprising that this hasn’t gotten much attention from bloggers, given the obsessive debates over who was or wasn’t a neo-con last year. Some conservatives are clearly worried that these divisions may help the Democrats take back the White House in 2008, and are trying to get the different factions of the conservative-foreign-policy-wonkosphere to pull together rather than against each other. But this fight isn’t just reshaping the foreign policy debate among Republicans; Democrats too are being pulled in. On the one hand, people like Peter Beinart of the New Republic are trying to pull hawkish Democrats into closer cooperation with the neo-cons in the fight to spread democracy. On the other, people like Hulsman (who I heard speaking a couple of days ago), are looking to create a “Truman moment” with Democrats rather than their Republican brethren. They have quite a lot in common with centrist internationalists like Charles Kupchan and John Ikenberry, who believe that America’s power is best preserved through recreating the kind of international institutions and relationships that underpinned American hegemony during the Cold War. While this fight may well have partisan consequences, it isn’t in itself a partisan battle. I’ll be posting more on this as it develops.

{ 19 comments }

1

P ONeill 05.12.05 at 4:00 pm

On a related note, it’s telling to see the right-wingers in such a huff about Pat Buchanan’s “World War II was a mistake” article, when all Buchanan did was take Dubya’s neocon-esque Yalta ball from last weekend and run with it. Maybe realising who the White House dog-whistled with that speech will scare some of the “cons” straight.

2

des von bladet 05.12.05 at 4:21 pm

Gosh, now if some bright spark (R, somewhere) observes that theocratic social engineering isn’t very Burkean either we could maybe finally convince the three educable persons who didn’t already know that there’s nothing very “conservative” about the Bush Administration’s agenda.

3

PersonFromPorlock 05.12.05 at 6:46 pm

Sorry, but traditional conservatives support Bush’s Iraq war precisely because it is the most prudent course of action. Anything short of taking the Arab world apart and rebuilding it to meet the minimum standards of 21st Century civilization would be a waste of time.

Where conservatives are critical of Bush is in his big-government tendencies. Between his love of federal solutions and his agressive foreign policy, Bush most resembles FDR, someone else who conservatives felt they had to support but could not love.

So far as religion’s role in the Bush administration is concerned, pish-tush! It’s public piety on the one hand and progressives telling each other scary stories ’round the campfire on the other.

4

Lee Scoresby 05.12.05 at 8:17 pm

“Sorry, but traditional conservatives support Bush’s Iraq war precisely because it is the most prudent course of action. Anything short of taking the Arab world apart and rebuilding it to meet the minimum standards of 21st Century civilization would be a waste of time.”

You mis-spelled “radical social engineers.” But thanks for making Henry’s point.

5

luci phyrr 05.12.05 at 8:18 pm

I think the schism the post alludes to is interesting, but to wonder if it might have electoral consequences?

Some conservatives are clearly worried that these divisions may help the Democrats take back the White House.

Have 1% of Republican voters heard of Burke? Can more than 5% name one political philosopher? Can Bush? (even as a grad student, I’ve read very few of them).

People voted Republican because they promised to kick ass. The Democrats, rather than argue that no one’s ass need be, or profitably should be, kicked, went along with the pandering, jingoist ride. Saying, “well, yeah, we Dems’ll kick ass too, but just with more allies, or competence/planning/securing libraries n’stuff.”

So they lost.

I think the only conservatives that might be having doubts about current Repub foreign policy are Buchanan/isolationist/nativist types, who’re probably still busy hunting illegal aliens on the Mexican border.

But maybe the Dems can peel that voting block off, along with all the “principled” libertarians around the internet.

6

praktike 05.12.05 at 8:35 pm

PersonFromPorlock, was that self-parody?

7

brian 05.12.05 at 9:02 pm

Being a bit of Burkean conservative myself, I am completely uncomfortable with Bush and the neocons. Sadly, I think many other are hopping aboard the GOP wagon in an effort to push through at least some of their agenda — though, ultimately, it requires selling out many of their beliefs.

8

brian 05.12.05 at 9:03 pm

And, despite writing code for a living, I managed to b0rk the link in my last comment.

9

moni 05.13.05 at 2:59 am

who believe that America’s power is best preserved through recreating the kind of international institutions and relationships that underpinned American hegemony during the Cold War.

Hm, keep in mind where John Negroponte is now, and where he was a couple of decades ago…

I get the point being made of course, and I guess it’s obvious you’re referring to the benign aspects of those international relationships, but the phrasing itself sounds a bit too generous when one thinks of the history of hegemony-underpinning strategies in Latin America, for instance. And not only there.

10

abb1 05.13.05 at 3:34 am

The Cons do, of course, support Neo-Cons as far as jingoistic and Islamophobic rhetoric is concerned, and they certainly are interested in plundering ME oil, but as soon as the project starts looking like a financial loss – it becomes an abomination.

11

Screwy Hoolie 05.13.05 at 8:55 am

The term neoconservative is helpful when discussing big-brained policy makers, but dispensationalist better describes those with their hands on the levers of power.

12

jet 05.13.05 at 10:14 am

Screwy, you’re smoking crack if you think the people behind Bush are dispensationalist. And your article portrays an extremely callow viewpoint of the subject.

13

Henry 05.13.05 at 11:27 am

Hi Moni

I’m actually not on either side on this. I suppose I’m closer to the Ikenberry types, if only because I do believe in international institutions – but I’m uncomfortable for exactly the reasons that you state with where this kind of alliance between center-left and center-right could end up.

14

Scott McArthur 05.13.05 at 2:14 pm

As far as I’m concerned Geopolitically America is the new Prussia/Germany (1815-1945). Her displays of force will not stop until some grievous harm is done to the motherland. Given her size and wealth this harm may not come in our lifetime. Everything else is a rationalisation. It’s about power and the ability to gain political advantage through force. There must be a spectacular failure of this strategy to change the elite mindset. Events like Korea, Vietnam and Iraq are scratches. Until the United States passes through a calamity comprable to the USSR’s or Germany’s WWII experiences, the country’s basic attitute towards armed violence will remain positive. And as it is unlikely that America will be harmed in such manner soon, it looks like we are stuck with an interventionist pro war America for the next epoch.

15

Uncle Kvetch 05.13.05 at 3:41 pm

PersonFromPorlock, was that self-parody?

Actually, I think that was John Bolton writing under a pseudonym, for obvious reasons.

16

moni 05.14.05 at 3:34 am

Henry, thanks for the reply, I know what you mean, it’s not really what you wrote but the general underlying assumptions when speaking of hegemony that I often have a problem with.

I’m not familiar with Ikenberry at all, I only heard Kupchan talk on a couple of occasions, and I probably shouldn’t say anything because I only got a superficial impression, never read anything he wrote. The impression is he sounded very optimistic, with a tendency to gloss over so many problems. It seems to me there’s no real questioning of the nature of that hegemony, only a wish that it could somehow be balanced at international level to bring out the bening aspects of it in a collaborative way… Which is a very nice thing to wish for, but how realistic is it, based on history and current affairs?

Basically, I’m not too convinced of the idea that the neocon project is somehow a radical departure from traditional conservative strategies in terms of foreign policy. Maybe it is, from the point of view of political debate within the US, I don’t know. But it doesn’t look that way if we look at the history of US military hegemony from the point of view of those who, outside of the US, bore the costs of it, rather than the advantages. Especially later in the cold war period.

17

Harry 05.14.05 at 5:49 am

I don’t see an article in “The National Interest” as evidence of any schism.

When veteran Republican senators start to seriously backpedal on Iraq and ME policy – that’s when you’ll know things are breaking apart.

And that may never happen.

18

Jerry 05.15.05 at 9:20 pm

“And as it is unlikely that America will be harmed in such manner soon, it looks like we are stuck with an interventionist pro war America for the next epoch.”

But dreams can come true, Scott. Just keep clicking the heels of those little red shoes.

19

ms_liberty 05.16.05 at 2:03 pm

Your blog was mentioned on Majoriy Report (Air America radio show). Good work!

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