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Analyses Last Updated: Feb 6, 2024 - 2:52:06 PM

What the Neocons Got Wrong.
By Max Boot, Foreign Affairs, March 10, 2023
Mar 10, 2023 - 11:42:06 AM

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Shortly after September 11, 2001, I became known as a “neoconservative.” The term was a bit puzzling, because I wasn’t new to conservatism; I had been on the right ever since I could remember. But the “neocon” label came to be used after 9/11 to denote a particular strain of conservatism that placed human rights and democracy promotion at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. This was a very different mindset from the realpolitik approach of such Republicans as President Dwight Eisenhower, President Richard Nixon, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and it had a natural appeal to someone like me whose family had come to the United States in search of freedom. (We arrived from the Soviet Union in 1976, when I was six years old.) Having lived in a communist dictatorship, I supported the United States spreading freedom abroad. That, in turn, led me to become a strong supporter of military action in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Traditional conservatives, such as U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, wanted to teach the Taliban and Saddam Hussein a lesson and then depart each country as quickly as possible. The neoconservative position—which eventually triumphed in the George W. Bush administration—was that the United States could not simply topple the old regimes and leave chaos in their wake. The Americans had to stay and work with local allies to build democratic showcases that could inspire liberal change in the Middle East. In this way, Washington could finally lance the boil of militant Islamism, which had afflicted America ever since the Iran hostage crisis in 1979.

Regime change obviously did not work out as intended. The occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were, in fact, fiascos that exacted a high price in both blood and treasure, for both the United States and—even more, of course—the countries it invaded. As the saying goes, when the facts change, I change my mind. Although I remain a supporter of democracy and human rights, after seeing how democracy promotion has worked out in practice, I no longer believe it belongs at the center of U.S. foreign policy. In retrospect, I was wildly overoptimistic about the prospects of exporting democracy by force, underestimating both the difficulties and the costs of such a massive undertaking. I am a neocon no more, at least as that term has been understood since 9/11.
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Today, I am much more cognizant than I once was of the limitations of American power and hence much more skeptical of calls to promote democracy in China, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Venezuela, and—fill in the blank. The United States should continue to champion its ideals and call out human rights abuses, but it should do so with humility and not be ashamed to prioritize its own interests. Foreign policy cannot be solely or even mainly an altruistic exercise, and attempting to make it so is likely to backfire in ways that will hurt the very people Americans are trying to help.

Above all, the United States must be more careful about the use of military power than it was in the heady days of the “unipolar moment” following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The era of great-power competition is back with a vengeance. Although the United States remains the world’s strongest military power and has interests and responsibilities around the world, it cannot afford to squander its strength in conflicts of marginal importance.

Twenty years ago, in early 2003, Saddam was clinging to power, and the Bush administration was preparing to launch an invasion to overthrow him. I would never have supported military action had I known that he was not actually building weapons of mass destruction, but what I really wanted was to get rid of Iraq’s cruel dictator, not just his purported weapons program. One of the central arguments that I and other supporters of an invasion made was that regime change could trigger a broader democratic transformation in the Middle East. I now cringe when I read some of the articles I wrote at the time. “This could be the chance to right the scales, to establish the first Arab democracy, and to show the Arab people that America is as committed to freedom for them as we were for the people of Eastern Europe,” I wrote in The Weekly Standard—the now defunct flagship of the neoconservative movement—a month after 9/11. “To turn Iraq into a beacon of hope for the oppressed peoples of the Middle East: Now that would be a historic war aim.”

In hindsight, that was dangerous naivete born out of a combination of post–Cold War hubris and post-9/11 alarm. I desperately wanted to believe that spreading freedom could solve the security dilemmas confronting the United States—that by doing good in the world, it could also serve its national security interests.

It would have been nice if it had worked out that way, but it didn’t, and I should have realized at the time how far-fetched the entire mission was. Who were Americans to think that they could transform an entire region with thousands of years of its own history? I am still kicking myself for not paying greater attention to a wise op-ed I ran in 2002, when I was the op-ed editor at The Wall Street Journal. Under the headline “Don’t Attack Saddam,” the experienced foreign policy hand Brent Scowcroft accurately predicted that an invasion of Iraq would require “a large-scale, long-term military occupation” and “swell the ranks of the terrorists.” I discounted such warnings because I was dazzled by the power of the U.S. military after its victories in the Gulf War and the invasion of Afghanistan—and dazzled also by the arguments of neoconservative scholars such as Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami that Iraq offered fertile soil for democracy. In hindsight, I am amazed and appalled that I fell prey to these mass delusions.

Like the war in Vietnam, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq offered a potent warning about the dangers of good intentions gone awry. The 2011 U.S. intervention in Libya under the Obama administration, which I also supported, later confirmed on a smaller scale those same lessons. The United States and its allies bombed Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces, leading to his overthrow and murder, but the result was not the blooming of a Jeffersonian democracy in the desert. To this day, Libya remains trapped in a Hobbesian hell of internecine warfare and lawlessness. In all those countries, the United States was so eager to spread democracy, just as it was once eager to contain communism, that it inflicted great misery on the very people it was supposed to be helping—and then left them in the lurch.

As a result, I am hardly alone in souring on wars of regime change. I have even become skeptical of trying to foment regime change by covert action or strict sanctions—policies that many still advocate in such countries as China, Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela, where odious, anti-American regimes have faced large protest movements in the recent past. Covert actions seldom work. Witness the failure of U.S.-supported rebels to topple the murderous dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the failure of U.S.-supported rebels to topple Saddam before 2003. Sanctions are often unavoidable when the United States wants to impose a cost on rogue regimes for their wrongdoing, but (with only a few exceptions, such as apartheid South Africa) they generally are not effective in bringing down autocrats.

Yet many of my erstwhile ideological allies have not reached the same conclusions about the folly of regime change. Last October, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), which is often described as a neoconservative think tank, released a paper calling for the “maximum support for the Iranian people.” Most of what the report recommended—such as using “cyber capabilities in support of protesters,” enabling “censorship circumvention,” expanding “human rights sanctions,” and condemning “Iran within international organizations”—was eminently sensible. Much of it, indeed, was already being implemented by the Biden administration. But FDD went too far in calling for an end to diplomatic efforts to get Iran to rejoin the nuclear deal that U.S. President Donald Trump foolishly exited in 2018. This was one of the worst foreign policy decisions in U.S. history. Iran had been abiding by the accord, but today, it is a nuclear threshold state with enough highly enriched uranium to produce at least one nuclear weapon.

The United States is running out of options to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The only obvious alternative to a diplomatic solution is a military solution. Years ago, I might have said this was a risk worth running (indeed, I basically suggested as much in 2011), but, given how advanced the Iranian nuclear program has become, I no longer believe that. As I wrote in 2019, air strikes are unlikely to destroy all of Iran’s well-protected nuclear facilities, and they could well trigger a regional conflagration. They could even backfire by convincing Iran to actually build a nuclear weapon. It would be wonderful if liberal protesters were to overthrow the regime and end its nuclear program, but most Iran experts seem to agree that there is no imminent danger of regime collapse. Indeed, protests that began in the fall have already waned. And there is no reason to think that any amount of U.S. intervention, short of outright invasion, could hasten the fall of the ayatollahs.

Opponents of diplomacy with Iran contend that the country would be strengthened by the windfall it would receive if it rejoined the nuclear deal and sanctions were lifted. In truth, the regime has no trouble funding its security forces and repressing dissent even without a nuclear deal. By one count, from mid-September 2022 to early January 2023, 516 protesters had been killed and more than 19,200 arrested. But even if it were true that a nuclear deal would strengthen the state’s capacity for internal repression, that would be a price worth paying for the United States if it actually led Iran to stop its rush to build the bomb. An Iran with nuclear weapons would threaten the United States and its allies and would likely lead some of its neighbors (such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey) to acquire nukes of their own.

    The United States is running out of options to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Of course, the whole debate is academic at the moment, because the hard-liners in Tehran have shown no willingness to rejoin a deal they abhor as much as U.S. and Israeli hard-liners do. No doubt, like other dictators around the world (such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un), the mullahs have studied recent history and drawn the logical conclusions: Qaddafi and Saddam were overthrown by the United States after giving up their weapons of mass destruction programs. Hence, any dictator who wants to stay in power should develop a nuclear arsenal. This is yet another way that the U.S. zeal in spreading democracy has backfired. The error was compounded in the case of Iran by Trump’s exit from the imperfect but important nuclear deal without having a Plan B. His decision will be scrutinized for years to come as a case study of the dangers of prioritizing politics above prudence in the conduct of foreign affairs.

At this point, there are few good options left with Iran. U.S. or Israeli covert action—assassinating weapons scientists or spreading computer viruses—will only slightly delay a program that can soon produce a nuclear weapon. Washington should keep trying to reach a diplomatic breakthrough, but assuming that fails, it will need to rely on deterrence and containment, as it did during the Cold War. That means resisting the spread of Iranian power by working through regional allies such as Israel and the Gulf states and making clear to Iran that any use of nuclear weapons would lead to its own destruction.

No matter how abhorrent the Iranian regime is, the United States should, if possible, return an ambassador to Tehran to open lines of communication. Likewise, Washington needs to maintain close contact with Beijing to avoid a nuclear confrontation, even as it condemns the regime’s egregious human rights abuses, from Xinjiang to Hong Kong. So, too, does the United States need to talk to Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman, even as it condemns the murder of The Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi and the imprisonment of dissidents. The United States cannot simply cut off a country that is a key ally against Iran and the world’s top oil exporter.

Dealing with repressive regimes is unsavory and unpopular—for good reason—but in most cases, the United States doesn’t have the luxury of simply cutting them off and slapping them with sanctions. Such policies may be morally satisfying, but they are not particularly effective. As I suggested in November, to the outrage of the right, the United States might be able to do more for the people of Cuba and Venezuela by easing sanctions in return for human rights improvements rather than demanding regime change. Likewise, it should not be afraid to offer North Korea an easing of sanctions in exchange for a freeze or rollback of its nuclear program, even if that results in more money for the country’s Stalinist regime. (Of course, Pyongyang has shown no interest in such a deal.)

Washington should still call out human rights abuses. It should still champion liberal dissidents, such as the Russian political prisoners Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and Ilya Yashin and the brave Iranian demonstrators risking arrest and execution. It should send military aid to embattled democracies, from Ukraine to Taiwan. Even though I am no longer as idealistic as I once was, I have not become the kind of self-styled realist who blames the United States for Russian aggression or thinks that it should sacrifice Ukraine as the price of peace. Nor do I approve of a president kowtowing to dictators (as Trump did). The United States remains the world’s most powerful liberal democracy, and it has a moral obligation to at least speak up for its principles.

But there is a crucial difference—one I did not sufficiently appreciate in the past—between defending democracy and exporting democracy. The United States has a better track record of the former (think Western Europe during the Cold War) than the latter (think Afghanistan and Iraq). Twenty years ago, many advocates of regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan, myself included, were misled by the U.S. success in transforming Italy, Germany, and Japan after World War II. What we failed to grasp was that these countries benefited from unique historical circumstances—including high levels of economic development, widespread social trust, strong states, and a blank slate created by defeat in a total war—that, it turns out, are nearly impossible to replicate. It was and is foolish to try.

    Outsiders can barely understand local societies, much less manipulate them successfully.

Even when it comes to defending democracy, Washington must sometimes make difficult decisions based on a realistic assessment of local conditions far removed from the airy abstractions favored in U.S. political debates. Both South Korea and South Vietnam were worth defending from communist aggression, but the Koreans showed greater skill and willingness to fight for their own freedom than the South Vietnamese did. The United States needs to be hardheaded in its assessment of where it has local partners that can be successful and where it doesn’t.

Ukraine easily meets the test, because its government enjoys the enthusiastic support of its people, and its military has shown itself to be skilled and motivated. By contrast, the regime that the United States and its allies created in Kabul after the overthrow of the Taliban never had sufficient popular legitimacy. As a result, the Afghan military had insufficient motivation to fight on its own. I still opposed the pullout negotiated by Trump and executed by President Joe Biden because I thought it was possible to keep the Taliban out of power at relatively low cost, and I feared the dangerous signal that a U.S. exit would send to other aggressors. Today, I favor maintaining U.S. military advisers in Iraq as a hedge against the power of Iran and the resurgence of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). But those are much more modest objectives than the ones I envisioned 20 years ago. The time I spent with U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past two decades gave me a greater appreciation for the importance of local dynamics. No matter how powerful or well intentioned, outsiders can barely understand local societies, much less manipulate them successfully.

At one time, for example, I believed that Ashraf Ghani would be an ideal president for Afghanistan because he was a Western-educated technocrat who wasn’t corrupt. When he came to power in 2014, I wrote, “If anyone is qualified to tackle Afghanistan’s problems, he is.” But he turned out to be a terrible wartime leader who did not rally his people and fled before the Taliban even entered Kabul. I didn’t expect much, by contrast, from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former television comedian. But he has turned out to be a Churchillian figure worthy of the United States’ unstinting support. In truth, even if Ukraine weren’t a liberal democracy, it would still make sense for Washington to back it in order to uphold the principle that international borders cannot be changed by force. (That was why Washington was right to defend Kuwait in the Gulf War and South Korea in the Korean War.) But that Ukraine is a liberal democracy makes it easier to rally to its side.

There is, of course, an age-old debate in U.S. foreign policy over the role of values versus interests. In the 1820s, when the Greeks were fighting a war of independence, many American philhellenes wanted to aid their struggle against the cruelty of the Ottoman Empire. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams resisted those entreaties, famously proclaiming that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” In the past, I have bridled at Adams’s words, which have often been cited by isolationists. But I now have a greater appreciation for his conservative wisdom. As it happened, the Greek rebels won their war of independence with support from France, Russia, and the United Kingdom. But far from ushering in a new Periclean age, they created a barely functional monarchy overseen by foreign kings and punctuated by military coups.

I still favor U.S. international leadership and support of allies, including a strong U.S. military presence in the three centers of global power—Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia—where their deployment is essential to maintain order and deter aggression. But I would no longer make democracy promotion the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, because I don’t have much confidence that the United States knows how to do it successfully and because other priorities (such as economic security and national security) have to be considered, too.

Biden discovered the difficulty of orienting U.S. foreign policy around support for democracies when he held a Summit for Democracy in December 2021. Some of the countries invited to the virtual meeting, such as India, Pakistan, and the Philippines, are hardly paragons of liberal democracy. Not invited were outright dictatorships, such as Singapore, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam, even though the United States has many shared interests with them. Predictably, the summit achieved little, because a mere commitment to democracy is hardly enough to mobilize joint action among 110 countries from all corners of the globe. Besides their democratic political systems, after all, what do Zambia and Uruguay really have in common?

Indeed, the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine does not break down neatly along democratic-authoritarian lines, with many democracies in the “global South”—such as Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa—refusing to sanction Russia. Unlike the broader group of the world’s democracies, NATO has staunchly supported Ukraine because most of its members—with the partial exceptions of increasingly autocratic Hungary and Turkey—are united by both values and interests. The U.S. alliances with Australia, Japan, and South Korea are success stories for the same reason, although it is worth remembering that the United States fought for South Korea long before it was a democracy.

    Hope is not the basis for a sound foreign policy.

The world is an ugly place, and U.S. officials must deal with it as it is, without imagining that they have more power to transform it than they really do. In the real world, the United States often has to work with regimes it abhors, whether China or Saudi Arabia. Only in the movies and the fantasies of progressive activists is the CIA powerful enough to overthrow any leader on the planet. Its actual record of covert action is far less impressive, and on those few occasions when it helped pull off successful coups, the results have usually backfired. The Iranian mullahs still teach their people about American perfidy by citing the U.S.-backed coup that overthrew Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953.

In the modern world, dictators have proved distressingly talented at using high-tech surveillance tools to suppress popular uprisings. Over the past 20 years, according to the scholar Erica Chenoweth, the success rate of mass protests has declined substantially. It was not terribly surprising, therefore, that China was able to put an end to protests against Xi Jinping’s “zero-COVID” policy through a combination of repression and conciliation.

Anyone expecting that a people power revolution will usher in a liberal, pro-Western government any time soon in Beijing, Tehran, or Moscow, if only the United States provides more support to protesters, is engaged in wishful thinking. Such hopes may come true, but hope is not the basis for a sound foreign policy. Washington should support liberal protesters with words of encouragement, communications technologies, and other nonmilitary assistance, but it should not count on their success, and it should keep in mind that when a dictatorship falls, the alternative is not always preferable. Remember that Ayatollah Khomeini followed the shah of Iran and that anarchy followed Qaddafi. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a war criminal who should be on trial in The Hague, but if he does lose power, his successor may not be a liberal figure like Navalny. It could be an even more reckless, ultranationalist hard-liner who might actually use Russia’s nuclear arsenal in Ukraine rather than merely threatening to do so. Even in Iran, today’s theocracy might be replaced not by a liberal democracy but by a junta of hard line generals that would be more secular but no less dangerous. There is, alas, little reason other than wishful thinking to expect that other nations will evolve along Whiggish lines into model, Western-style democracies.

Dictatorships are, in fact, proving more resilient than many democracies. Even in the United States and India, the world’s two largest democracies, freedom has been under siege in recent years. Elsewhere, in countries including Myanmar, Nicaragua, Russia, and Tunisia, democracy briefly took hold and then has been lost to cunning strongmen. Even in eastern Europe, where the spread of freedom in the 1990s inspired me and so many others across the world, democracy in Hungary and Poland has regressed. I have long ago been cured of the democratic triumphalism born of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now, I am much more acutely conscious of the difficulties of creating liberal democracies that last.

After two decades of bitter experience, I am trying harder than I did in my callow youth to reconcile the aspirations of idealism with the restraints of realism. I still believe the United States should continue to promote human rights and defend democracy, but I have sadly concluded that U.S. foreign policy should not fixate on exporting democracy. That may make me an ex-neocon—a neocon mugged by reality—if “neocon” is taken to mean “a fervent promoter of exporting democracy.” But in some ways, I am harkening back to the vision of the original neocons, who were united in their opposition to Soviet designs but hardly advocated a crusade for freedom abroad.

I now occupy a chair at the Council on Foreign Relations named in honor of Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, a former Democrat who was one of the most important neocon intellectuals in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was growing up. She first came to fame by writing a 1979 Commentary article called “Dictatorships and Double Standards” that argued for making common cause with “moderate autocrats friendly to American interests” despite their human rights violations. That led directly to her appointment as U.S. ambassador to the UN under President Ronald Reagan. As a member of Reagan’s cabinet, she did not want to support the United Kingdom during the 1982 Falklands War because she viewed the Argentine military junta as a bulwark against the expansion of communism in Latin America. Later, long after leaving office, she came to oppose the U.S. invasion of Iraq, arguing that “Iraq lacked practically all the requirements for a democratic government.” Kirkpatrick’s worldview should make clear that democracy promotion was hardly integral to neoconservatism as originally conceived.

So what was neoconservatism about? In the very first issue of the neoconservative publication The Public Interest, in 1965, its founders—Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol—expressed suspicion of all attempts to oversimplify complicated public policy issues by falling back on “ideology, whether it be liberal, conservative or radical.” That magazine would become a forum for dense, closely argued essays on vexing social science problems, not for sweeping ideological manifestos. In explaining the name of their magazine, Bell and Kristol cited the columnist Walter Lippmann’s definition of the “public interest”: “The public interest may be presumed to be what men would choose if they saw clearly, thought rationally, acted disinterestedly and benevolently." Sexist language aside, that remains a good guide to public policy, whether at home or abroad—and it is one that I regret to say I sometimes disregarded in my zeal to spread freedom.

Lippmann, it should be noted, was originally a liberal internationalist whose views were not all that different from those of the modern neocons. He began his long and influential journalistic career as a liberal idealist who helped draft President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points to “make the world safe for democracy” and ended it as a liberal realist who opposed U.S. intervention in Vietnam. That’s a trajectory I can understand.

Source:Ocnus.net 2023

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