1 March, 2008Issue 7.2North AmericaPolitics & Society

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How I Learned to Love the Neo-Cons

Daniel Hemel

Tom Farer
Confronting Global Terrorism and American Neo-Conservatism:
The Framework for a Liberal Grand Strategy

Oxford University Press, 2008
251 pages
ISBN 978-0199534739

Tom Farer’s new book “should be required reading for [US] presidential candidates.” So says Middle East expert Steven Simon in a book-jacket blurb that, like most book-jacket blurbs, is so over-the-top that one wonders whether it might be tongue-in-cheek. And yet I am inclined to agree with Simon’s statement. Farer’s book should be required reading—or, at the very least, required skimming—for anyone engaged in foreign policy debates on either side of the Atlantic.

This is not because the book presents particularly persuasive arguments—although, occasionally, it does.

This is not because of the author’s credentials—although Farer, an eminent international lawyer, is certainly well-credentialed. In the past, he has led the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and advised the US State and Defense departments. At present, he is the dean of international studies at University of Denver, a programme whose alumni include current US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Rather, this book should be required reading for foreign-policy discussants because it is a perfect example of how not to discuss foreign policy. It presents a cautionary tale to those who toss around the term “neo-conservative” as if it were a Frisbee. The difference is that with a Frisbee, (usually) no one gets hurt.

Farer’s argument, in short form, is that Western democracies face a pair of existential threats. One threat stems from terrorist groups such as al Qaeda who are hostile to liberal values. The other threat stems from the so-called “neo-conservatives” who—like al Qaeda—are waging a war against liberalism. These “neo-conservatives” are “jihadists in their own right,” but they aren’t adherents of Islam: they are Christians and (mostly) Jews. Instead of hiding in the Tora Bora cave complex, they have stationed themselves in the Pentagon office complex.

Farer’s prescription for the first threat, “global terrorism,” seems sensible: it’s easier—and measurably more cost-effective—to win new friends than to kill your enemies. After the December 2004 tsunami devastated Indonesia, the world’s most populous majority-Muslin nation, President Bush pledged nearly $1 billion in disaster relief. According to polling data, 79 percent of Indonesians said their opinion of the US improved as a result. As America’s stock rose, Osama bin Laden’s support among Indonesians eroded—from a 58 percent approval rating before the tsunami to a 35 percent rating once the relief efforts were underway. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, these poll numbers indicate that the total number of al Qaeda supporters in Indonesia dropped by 54 million. Each “heart and mind” cost the US just $17.60 in aid. Obviously, these calculations are crude and ignore other factors that may have contributed to the downturn in bin Laden’s popularity, but it does seem likely that $1 billion in aid to Indonesia has done more to stem the spread of al Qaeda’s ideology than $3 trillion in Iraq war spending.

Throughout his discussion of terrorism, Farer is deliberate about defining his terms. He rejects the notion that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”; instead, he calls on world leaders to adopt a “single, powerful definition of terrorism’s gross criminality.” He argues that any action intended to harm civilians and intimidate a population is “terrorism,” whether it’s perpetrated by a government or by a non-governmental organization such as al Qaeda. He argues that a clear definition of “terrorism,” endorsed by the United Nations, will make it all the more difficult to state and non-state terrorists to hide behind the façade of moral relativism.

Yet after his careful commentary on the definition of terrorism, Farer makes a much weaker attempt to define his other titular term, neo-conservatism. Sometimes, “neo-conservative” refers to a small group of (largely Jewish) American intellectuals who stood up in defense of Israel in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The neo-cons contested the UN General Assembly’s accusation that “Zionism is racism,” an accusation that commits the very crime that it alleges. At other times, “neo-conservative” refers to a much larger group of US Republican Party members—including “the Christian Right,” Vice President Dick Cheney, and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. At that point, the term “neo-con” has been stretched so far as to be useless—and inaccurate. The original neo-cons have spent much of their lives fighting against “paleo-conservatives” such as Cheney and Rumsfeld. The original neo-cons blasted President Gerald Ford, believing that he was too cosy with the Soviet Union; meanwhile, Cheney and Rumsfeld held high-ranking posts in the Ford White House. The original neo-cons believed that the US should have overthrown Saddam Hussein after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991; Cheney was the defence secretary at the time and one of the key players in the decision not to march onto Baghdad. But Farer—who has just warned us not to assume that terrorists everywhere ascribe to a one-size-fits-all ideology—then turns around and tells us that Republicans everywhere ascribe to a one-size-fits-all ideology. (The party is “an almost pure aggregator and reconciler…of right-wing programmatic ideas and values,” writes Farer, who is evidently tone-deaf to the considerable disharmony within the party today.)

Frequently in Farer’s account, the neo-cons take the blame for mistakes made by the rest of the Republican administration. This assessment seems like a logical impossibility. Even while the neo-cons still held prominent posts, they never held as much sway as Cheney and Rumsfeld. And by the middle of 2005, most of the prominent Pentagon neo-cons—including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Pentagon officials Douglas Feith and Richard Perle—had left their government jobs. The neo-cons’ stock has fallen so low that a year ago, the Economist declared that “the neocons are being relentlessly marginalised in Washington.”

If the neo-cons were the driving force behind US foreign policy, one would expect to have seen US foreign policy change when the neo-cons entered office, and one would expect to see that policy change again once the neo-cons left. Neither of those expectations would have been fulfilled. Farer draws a distinction between President Clinton’s foreign policy and George W. Bush’s—Clinton “did not ask the country to entrust him with wartime power to spread the American Way”—but the distinction is a weak one. After all, Clinton didn’t bother to “ask the country”: he sent US troops into Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo without congressional authorisation, managing to make George W. Bush look like a consensus-builder by comparison. Bush’s aggressive exercise of his executive powers—allegedly encouraged by his neo-con advisers—was in fact par for the course. Moreover, the policy of regime change in Iraq, also allegedly part of the “neo-con project,” was on the books long before the neo-cons rose to (mostly mid-level) posts in the Bush administration. In 1998, Clinton signed an act declaring that “it should be the policy of the United States to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein.” The legislation had passed the House of Representatives on a 360-38 vote and had passed the Senate by unanimous consent. “Regime change” wasn’t a scheme cooked up behind closed doors by a bunch of neo-cons in a Pentagon office; it was a foreign policy goal enshrined in federal law.

Now, five years after the Iraq war, the neo-cons are gone but the US force in Iraq is there to stay. Indeed, the Bush administration has increased the number of US troops in Iraq since the most noteworthy neo-cons left the Pentagon. Bush has kept the Guantanamo Bay detention camp up-and-running, and he has insisted on its power to use waterboarding tactics against terror suspects. Whoever is responsible for these policies, it’s not the neo-cons, who were shunted aside at the beginning of President Bush’s second term.

As much as liberals like Farer (and like me) might have disagreed with the neo-con officials in the Bush administration, we should not dance to their demise. Neo-conservatism is just one of the traditions that colours Bush administration foreign policy—and it’s the most palatable of them all. The “paleo-conservative” mainstream of the Republican Party has oscillated between realism and isolationism for decades. Rice and Cheney both self-identify as “realists”; classically, realism has referred to the belief that international politics is the pursuit of power, not the pursuit of morality. Realists are willing to use military force to smash potential rivals; unlike the neo-cons, they are downright contemptuous of those who propose to use US forces for humanitarian ends. The realists reached the apex of their influence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Henry Kissinger was national security adviser and then secretary of state. Meanwhile, isolationists such as failed Republican presidential candidates Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul want the US to crawl back into its shell and let the rest of the world handle the rest of the world’s problems. They go as far as to call for US withdrawal from the UN and other multinational groups. Isolationists fought (successfully) to keep the US out of the League of Nations and have fought (less successfully) to distance the US from the League’s successors. The Bush administration’s hostility toward international institutions is in keeping with the isolationist tradition.

Of course, Republicans who are not neo-cons would love to blame the Iraq mess on their neo-con comrades. Realists would be thrilled if the neo-cons served as the fall-guys. But liberals shouldn’t let the realists get away with this sleight-of-hand. Liberals like Farer (and like me) have more in common with the neo-cons than with the realists and the isolationists. Certainly, liberals and neo-cons have their differences: compared to the neo-cons, we liberals have a more sanguine view of international institutions and a more sceptical view of the use of force. But we agree with the neo-cons and not with the realists or the isolationists on many of the big issues facing the US (and UK) today. We agree that democratic governments should stop genocide and crimes against humanity whenever and wherever we can. We agree that democratic governments should seek UN approval for overseas interventions but that they should not be stopped by a Security Council veto. We agree that the US (and UK) were right to intervene in Kosovo and wrong to stay out of Rwanda. Yes, many liberals diverged from the neo-cons in the run-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003. But that invasion never would have been necessary if the first President Bush had followed the neo-cons’ advice and toppled Saddam in 1991. Unfortunately, George H.W. Bush was a realist who in 1991 was gearing up for a Republican presidential primary campaign against the isolationist Buchanan. As in countless cases in the history of US foreign policy, human rights took a backseat to politics. Inside the first Bush administration, the neo-cons lost the debate over intervention. Inside Saddam’s Iraq, thousands of Kurds and Shiites lost their lives.

The aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War wasn’t the first—or the last—time that neo-cons and liberals stood together on the side of human rights while realists and the isolationists advocated an amoral foreign policy. One such episode occurred in the early 1970s, when the realist Republican administration of Richard Nixon was pursuing a policy of “détente” with the Soviet Union and ignoring Moscow’s human rights abuses. The card-carrying neo-conservative Richard Perle, then an aide to Democratic Senator Scoop Jackson, drafted the amendment that required the Soviet Union to respect its citizens’ right to emigrate before it could receive trade preferences from the US. Much to Nixon’s chagrin, the amendment passed. Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov praised Scoop Jackson’s amendment as a “policy of principle.” Ultimately, the Soviet Union caved in, allowing hundreds of thousands of Jews to exit the country—and to escape persecution.

Two decades later, neo-conservatives—including Perle, Wolfowitz, former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, and former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick—led the campaign for US military action to protect Bosnian Muslims from Slobodan Milosevic’s killing machine. The first President Bush and his realist advisers (including Colin Powell, then chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff) balked at aiding the Bosnians. In August 1992, a group of 33 prominent neo-cons formally endorsed the presidential candidacy of Democratic Bill Clinton because they believed he would do more to stop Milosevic. Perle and Douglas Feith even went to work as advisers to the Bosnian Muslim government.

Today, an alliance between liberals and neo-cons is necessary once again. Neo-cons have been outspoken critics of Chinese repression in Tibet. Until her death, Jeane Kirkpatrick was a member of the Committee of 100, a group of celebrities, politicians, and intellectuals agitating for Tibetan self-determination. The neo-conservative journal Commentary has criticised the Bush administration’s “uninspiring” defence of Tibetan rights. Neo-cons have also pushed the Bush administration to stop the genocide in Darfur; several leaders of the movement are calling for a military intervention to halt the killing. Whether or not we believe that such an intervention would be prudent, liberals have to acknowledge that the neo-cons are taking Darfuri deaths more seriously than the realists and isolationists are. On these and other issues, when liberals look across the aisle for allies, we find that the neo-cons are the only friends we’ve got.

Foreign policy makes strange bedfellows, and it’s especially strange to see Tom Farer, who has spent his life fighting for human rights, cosying up to the realists. Farer suggests that “in terms of its implications for international order,” realism is more benign that neo-conservatism. He justifies this position by arguing that in the US, realists are more likely than neo-conservatives to favour the “status quo.” But for the US, “status quo” has meant inaction on Rwanda (where the 1994 genocide killed 800,000), inaction on Darfur (where 400,000 have perished already), and inaction on the Congo crisis (where the death toll is 5 million and counting). This isn’t to discount the devastation wrought by the invasion of Iraq. However, more innocent civilians have died because US foreign policy was too “realist” than because US foreign policy was too “neo-conservative.”

I don’t mean to exaggerate the extent of the overlap between liberalism and neo-conservatism. But the overlap between liberalism and neo-conservatism is greater than the overlap between liberalism and realism, and it is greater than the overlap between liberalism and isolationism as well. We should be wary of rhetoric that—intentionally or not—serves the realists’ and the isolationists’ ends.

One of the lessons of Farer’s book is that the only way to understand a rival is to imagine oneself inside the rival’s mind. Quoting a counter-terrorism expert, Farer writes: “Terrorists are human beings who think and act like we do.” But sometimes it seems Farer forgets that neo-cons are human beings as well. And not infrequently, they think quite like us liberals after all.