Saturday, July 22, 2006

Neo-Conservatism and the Bumperstickers of Reality

The classic bumper sticker is "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." I've been thinking about it lately with the world on the edge of exploding and it strikes me that we're looking at a new foreign policy twist, "If you thought diplomacy wasn't working, try belligerence."

Diplomacy is frustratingly slow and accommodating of people who do horribly awful, evil things to the innocent people they rule over. Sometimes, it means slapping the wrist or even rewarding people who, all other things being equal, ought to be called to account for what they are doing. Sometimes, it seems to deny justice in the name of retaining an immoral status quo instead of charging into righteous battle. The neo-conservatives deemed it unnecessary, indeed harmful to the interests of the US and the world. And that is a big part of the reason why we are today where we are.

To understand the current state of affairs, it would might help to try to make sense of the foundational beliefs of this theory. Neo-conservatism was a combination of four strange threads:

One part came from Francis Fukuyama who argued that there is a natural state to governments in this age. If you left a government alone, the view held, a liberal democracy would appear. It is the end state, the goal, towards which all people are striving. Those under oppressive regimes look to the west, especially the United States, because we embody the form of governmental structure based on individual freedom that they desire.

The second thread came from the classic contemporary conservative thought -- absolute faith in the private sector and absolute hatred for the public sector. Corporate capitalism is good and corporations ought to be running the show because they are the only source of effective, efficient action.

The third thread is that we have technically advanced to such a point that military action -- powerful pin-pointed air attacks and small special force-based covert operations -- could be used to quickly change political leadership without spending much money or political capital.

The fourth is the oft discussed Straussian line that marries the Platonic distaste for democracy with a linguistic strategy for allowing the people to be more than happy to surrender their power. The people are not smart enough to be in control, so the key is to speak in code so that they willingly hand over their power thinking they are in power. This is essential so that the leaders can do what really needs to be done and not worry so much about its popularity. The unending war on terror and all of its various names are transparent attempts to wrest all power from the people, approved by the people, for the well-being of the people.

Put the four of these together and what you get is the view that the leaders of the US can at any time get rid of a horrible regime with little cost, allowing instant democracy to pop up in its place, and enrich our own corporations generating profits to trickle down to Americans and outsourced jobs in other nations thereby creating greater stability and morality worldwide. If this is possible, using diplomacy, which only serves to keep evil dictators in power, as your primary foreign policy tool is deeply immoral for American leaders.

So that's neo-conservatism. Damn shame it didn't work. Bill Bennett said that there was nothing wrong with his gambling because he didn't bet the house. Damn shame he and his neo-con pals can't say the same thing with regard to foreign policy. We did bet the house on this theory, and damn shame we threw snake eyes. We are now seeing the effects of abandoning all diplomatic efforts for the belief that a quick and painless success with a small force in Iraq would usher in a century of unbridled American dominance over the globe allowing us to reshape geopolitics as it pleased us (and those CEOs who were pioneers in settling this brave new world). General Shinseki, in arguing that we would need many more troops on the ground to succeed in Iraq, didn't just have a minor quarrel with the architects of the war in Iraq, his proposal undermined the entire theoretical framework. A ceasefire in Lebanon is not desirable because of this theory.

But we are now talking to North Korea and Iran, something that must be killing the neo-cons because it is something that used to be viewed, in their annoyingly pedantic way, as "rewarding bad behavior." They view diplomacy as weakness, but even the neo-conservatives now realize -- mostly, anyway -- that their grand experiment has failed and left us in a state of extreme weakness. They bet the house and lost. We don't have the chips to play high stakes anymore. Bogged down in Iraq where we could beat an entirely predictable insurgency, our military card is beaten on the table. Our diplomatic efforts are now widely viewed as jokes because we have spent every bit of goodwill and prestige that we had. When confronted with serious international problems, our leader wants to joke about pigs instead of addressing grave problems with the gravitas they require.

So what now? Step one: bury neo-conservatism and bury it deep. Call it what it is. Explain it and how it failed. Make the term "neo-con" toxic in contemporary discourse the way conservatives attacked the term "liberal." Clearly document the failures of this administration and inextricably tie them to this theory and its presuppositions. Describe the situation as one of different views of the world. Show how we offer an approach explicitly different and show how it has been successful.

The problem is that Democrats in DC, the powerful ones, the Clintons and Bidens and Liebermans, saw it coming and hedged their bets. "What if the neo-conservative theory actually works?" they worried. "What if this unrestrained, technologically advanced belligerence really does spread democracy and freedom and bring huge windfall profits to the Republicans biggest contributors? If we aren't side by side with them, it could break us." And so they backed it just in case, figuring that if it worked their neo-moderate, new Democrat playing around the edges would keep them around. If it failed, they figured just being in the other party would inoculate them from the taint. And this is why there is so much concern around the Lieberman/Lamont race -- because no one hedged more than Lieberman. If he succeeds, it will mean that Democrats will be completely unable to bury neo-conservatism; it will mean that those in power in the party were those most complicit in allowing this empirically disgraced political theory to linger.

We stand right now at a curious place. The world could settle down, continue to flame up locally, or, heaven forbid, the whole thing could catch fire. I wish to hell I could be optimistic about it, but I just keep seeing the bumpersticker: "If you thought arrogant, ignorant belligerence was expensive, try lame-duck, stuck in a quagmire belligerence."