Ukraine is their golden opportunity to Make Neoconservatism Great Again, only this time, they’re rebranding as “realists” and dropping all the platitudes about “spreading democracy.”
Ben Domenech tries to chart a new course forward for Republican foreign policy, but his recommendation is simply for a re-branded version of 2000s Bush-era neoconservatism:
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has proven thus far to be a difficult puzzle for the American right. The reaction of conservatives to the foreign policy of the Barack Obama years was to slam his decisions as unserious, naive, or weak, inviting America’s enemies to exploit us. This is their natural posture, and one that has largely held despite Donald Trump’s very different approach to foreign policy. President Joe Biden’s administration has allowed conservatives to return to this posture in its first year, particularly in the misbegotten Afghanistan exit, which went so terribly and embarrassed Americans, even those who supported an end to the war.
The trouble with Ukraine for the right is that it cuts in several different directions, and leaves their leaders uncertain as to the proper and politically justifiable response. As I predicted last week, Trump himself is facing this difficulty today. But there is a path forward for conservatives that rejects both the reflexive anti-interventionism of the New Right and the reflexive interventionism of neoconservatism.
No, there isn’t, but just for shits and giggles, let’s continue.
In illuminating that path, it must be acknowledged that the latter approach [neoconservatism] set the conservative national-security agenda for a disastrous twenty years. Incepted in the debates over whether America should “go to Baghdad” in the 1991 war, the neoconservative domination of the right’s national-security vision was rooted in two premises. One was that America was positively obligated to advance the world toward the broad sunlit uplands of liberal democracy. (You might call it a progressive ethic.) The other premise was that America could do pretty much anything. This was an easy sell in the 1990s, in the golden moment when America actually could do nearly anything — outside the Mogadishu city limits, anyway. The reality of American power, the fact of what America could do, obscured the need for a debate on what America should do.
So far so good. Americans should by now have faced the reality that our military is not omnipotent and capable of “doing anything.”
We have lost the last four major wars we’ve fought: Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam and Korea.
Sometime around the April 2004 battle for Sadr City, the limits of what America could do came into focus. That focus became increasingly sharp through the next decade, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on to no discernible purpose, as the ISIS threat flared up, as America involved itself in the Yemeni war, and as Americans found themselves fighting and dying in the remote Sahel. Whatever sense of purpose attached itself to the post-9/11 wars ebbed away as Americans grasped that they were effectively locked into small and bloody conflicts, endless scraps with ferocious tribesmen and motivated fanatics, in faraway places of which they knew little and cared less. One of the neoconservative pillars was eroded, and eventually fell.
The other pillar — asserting an American mission to remake the world — experienced its apogee in January 2005, with George W. Bush’s second inaugural. “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world,” said the President, and he committed America to “[t]he great objective of ending tyranny.” That commitment lasted just under twenty-four months. By the close of that President’s second term, American objectives had diminished from ending tyranny worldwide to pacifying Anbar.
“Don’t all people yearn for freedom?” we have asked. And we assume the answer is yes. But the answer is no. Some people, perhaps most people, prefer other goods. Indeed, some people would rather be holy than free, or safe than free, or be instructed in how they should lead their lives rather than be free. Many prefer the comfort of strong answers already given rather than the openness and hazards of freedom. There are those who would never dream of substituting their will for the imam’s or pushing their desires over the customs and traditions of their families. Some men kiss their chains.
As good Americans, we may wish to say that all people deserve freedom. But to say that all people desire it is flat-out wrong.”
Set against this record of squandered lives and opportunity, the New Right’s reaction to it — a full-on descent into anti-interventionism that would be familiar to a prairie populist of 1937 — is completely understandable. Whatever the objective merits, their reaction is a rational one. The New Right anti-interventionists note, correctly, that they bear little responsibility for the parlous state of America’s national security now. But they err in their belief that their policy and ideological preferences represent a road not traveled.
Oh boy. Here we go. Here comes the classic Neocon “rebuke” of isolationism. They trot it out all the time as if it’s self-evident:
The destructive arrogance of neoconservatism is matched by the abysmal historical record of American isolationism and anti-interventionism, which took America out of the European tumult of the 1920s and 1930s, to no one’s benefit; and which also sank America into a brief period of quasi-isolationism in the post-Vietnam 1970s, culminating in real existential danger to America by that decade’s end.
It’s time to rebuke this nonsense once and for all. We hear it all the time. Establishment Republican types will say something along the lines of, “Yeah, sure, Neoconservatism has failed. But we can’t just be isolationist! That’s just as disastrous!”
No, it’s not. And it’s not even close.
The “isolationism that took America out of the European tumult of the 1920s and 1930s to no one’s benefit”–what is he speaking of here?
The rise of Hitler, of course.
First let me just say that I prefer the term “armed neutrality” over isolationism. I don’t want the US to be a hermit kingdom or isolated from the rest of the world. I just don’t want the US getting involved in foreign wars, meddling in the affairs of other countries, and playing the role of the self-appointed world police.
Second, if we had never gotten involved in World War I in the first place then we probably would’ve avoided all the “tumult” of the interwar period–in fact it wouldn’t have been an “interwar” period because there would have been no World War II.
President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to involve the US in World War I should rightfully go down as perhaps the worst decision ever made in United States history, and that is not an exaggeration. By 1917, when we entered, World War I was a stalemate. Had we not entered, it would have remained a stalemate and probably been resolved in an uneasy peace treaty between the Central Powers and the Entente. It wouldn’t have been an ideal outcome, but it would have probably made it resoundingly clear to all of Europe that all-out war in the modern age was futile, and disillusioned mass numbers of Europeans regarding the matter of war given the staggering losses both sides had suffered.
Instead, we got involved on the side of the Entente, which eventually broke the stalemate, turned the tide of the war and forced the German Empire to capitulate. The subsequent terms of surrender imposed on the Germans after the war were devastating and massively punitive, and caused such severe economic pain that it gave way to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Almost undoubtedly, there would have been no Hitler had the US not gotten involved in WWI.
Based on this, all the arguments against interwar period American isolationism–armed neutrality–are null and void. In other words, you can’t say that our “isolationism” during the interwar period enabled Hitler and the Nazis to rise up, because it was our entry into WWI that laid the groundwork for the fall of the Kaiser and the rise of Hitler to begin with.
Additionally, the article I linked above also argues that the Russians may have even been able to put down the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had they not been pressured to remain in the war by Wilson. But that’s a story for another day. The point here is that it was our entry into WWI, which was a stalemate until we tipped the scales toward the Entente, was ultimately the reason that Hitler was eventually able to seize power in the first place.
As far as the second example of isolationism Domenech brings up–the post-Vietnam 1970s era of “isolationism”–he doesn’t really make it clear what he’s talking about, but I’m assuming he means Iran.
This is yet another idiotic and short-sighted argument: it was America’s (and Britain’s) meddling in Iranian affairs going all the way back to the 1950s that ultimately sowed the seeds for the 1979 revolution. I’m talking about the joint US-UK overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who had the audacity to nationalize his country’s oil and take it out of the hands of the British. What an asshole! Iranian oil is Britain’s property! We overthrew the popular and democratically-elected Mossadegh (who was popular precisely because he promised to free Iran from the yoke of foreign powers) and reinstalled the Shah, who immediately began westernizing the country against the wishes of the more conservative Islamic majority, which ultimately rose up and overthrew the Shah in 1979, ushering in the theocratic mullahs who have ruled the country ever since.
Iran was yet another example of a problem that we created due to our government’s meddling and greed. The idea that American “isolationism” was what allowed the Mullahs to come to power is ridiculous, because it was American interventionism that sowed the seeds for the revolution in the first place.
I could keep going, too: we armed Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in the 1980s during the Soviet-Afghan war, ultimately sowing the seeds of 9-11 ourselves. That’s US foreign policy in a nutshell, right there.
It’s all a product of the monumental hubris and arrogance of our government. They are completely incapable of foreseeing the secondary and tertiary effects of their meddling and intervening. They truly believe they are all-powerful, that there are no consequences for their actions, and that they are the only ones allowed to have a say in anything.
Let’s continue with Domenech:
If the twin premises of neoconservatism have been shown wrong by events, then the twin premises of the anti-interventionist New Right — that America will be fine without any engagement abroad, and the world will allow us a peaceful withdrawal from the same — are being proven wrong this very moment.
Apparently Domenech has never heard of the sunk cost fallacy.
He’s essentially arguing here that we’re in too deep: seven decades of neoconservative aggressive interventionism have gotten us in such a mess that it’s impossible to cut bait.
I disagree. We need to just cut our losses and let the chips fall where they may while we still have the ability to do so.
There is no purpose in recapitulating the scope and meaning of the Ukrainian war here. Suffice it to say that if a “border dispute between Russia and Ukraine” — to borrow a phrase deployed by the New Right in its arguments against American involvement — proceeds in less than a week to the Russian dictator obliquely threatening nuclear war upon the United States, then we may have no real choice but to be involved.
Putin “threatened nuclear war upon the United States” precisely because we were and remain involved!
This is the M.O. of the neocons: they meddle and intrude in everyone’s business, and then when other countries get upset and do something about it, the neocons are like, “WHOA! THIS AGGRESSION IS UNACCEPTABLE! WE WILL NOT TOLERATE THIS!”
It’s like if I break into my neighbor’s house and he starts shooting at me, and then I accuse him of escalating the situation and behaving with unwarranted aggression.
I don’t mean going to war: that would be insane, futile, and disastrous, and the chances for an actual nuclear exchange, whatever it is, would be unacceptably high. I do mean doing things the New Right doesn’t wish to do: taking sides, rendering moral judgments, and sending guns and ammunition to the people of Ukraine.
Who the fuck are we to render moral judgements on anybody? How many innocent civilians have we slaughtered all over the world these past 30 years or so? I’ll give you a hint: more than anybody else has. Way more.
And what purpose would sending guns and ammo to “the people of Ukraine” serve other than to get them killed and drag out the war?
The American people agree with me. They didn’t one week ago. They do now. They do because the policy space in this sphere is shifting rapidly — right out from under the feet of everyone who believed that the inevitable conservative stance on national security was henceforth anti-war, anti-intervention, and isolationist. The New Right, focusing upon ideological and policy battles, failed to address the real arena where policy is made. It accurately took the measure of neoconservatives — and failed to take the measure of Americans.
It turns out that Americans grasp that it’s foolish to try to make people like themselves — but they sure are happy to lend a hand when they see people who are like themselves. It also turns out that Americans have a pretty good grasp of the national interest, and factor both sentiment and calculation into their preference on what ought to be done.
No, the American people are easily swayed by propaganda and fake news. Don’t act like the people have made this decision on their own free of any outside influence.
People instinctively had the right idea regarding Ukraine: stay out, it is not our fight, it does not affect us.
But then the war propaganda machine kicked into high effect: “Russia is killing civilians! Stand with Ukraine! Ghost of Kiev! Putin is the new Hitler!” and public sentiment shifted.
Again, this is the Neocon M.O.–manufacture public support for the war at all costs. 88% of Americans were against getting involved in World War II as of 1941. Then, Pearl Harbor changed everything. While I’m not saying Pearl Harbor was an inside job, I am saying that the government did not make any attempt to stop it and in many ways even encouraged the attack by provoking the Japanese with oil embargoes. Immediately afterward, the government got its cassus belli, which it wanted all along. Public sentiment swung overwhelmingly in favor of war.
What we see illuminated in the rapid shift of Americans on Ukraine is actually the pathway toward a moderate, realist, interest-based American national-security approach that falls into neither the cul de sac of the New Right, nor the dead end utopianism of neoconservatism. An America that has no messianic mission, does not automatically assume that it can do anything, and also possesses the self-confidence and competence to act as a force for good in the wider world, is an America that reflects what Americans actually want. It is an America where a real discussion of the national interest can be had, without the obscuring and distorting priors inflicted by neocons and New Right alike.
Okay, so basically it’ll be Neoconservatism without any of the sugar coating nonsense about “spreading democracy” and “defending freedom.” It’ll just be raw, unvarnished pursuit of global hegemony without any pretenses to the contrary.
The signal quality of this approach — not non-ideological, but perhaps prudentially ideological — is its ability to allow circumstance to shape American engagements. Pull away the millennial ambitions of a perfected world, and it becomes possible to grasp that America need not squander blood and treasure in Niger, or Yemen, or Helmand. Discard the rigid strictures of a belief that America can do no good, and it becomes possible to understand that America can see to its own interest and be a force for freedom in places like Ukraine, Korea, and Taiwan.
“America’s own interest” somehow equals “Ukraine, Korea and Taiwan.”
The Neocons still don’t get it.
They are still out here including countries thousands of miles away as “America’s interests.”
What does this prudentially ideological, interest-based national-security conservatism look like now? It is probably a singular focus upon the threat from the People’s Republic of China — our only true peer competitor and existential threat — coupled with an understanding that the peace of Europe, frayed as it is, must be maintained so we can keep that focus. It is probably a renewed attention to our southern border, where state collapse has rendered Mexico more antagonist than friend. It is probably the defense of a global order where America is the security hegemon, and the American dollar the currency of choice — not because we seek to rule, but because the benefits to Americans are so manifest, and so bountiful.
I don’t actually disagree with any of this, to be honest. My concern, though, is that our global hegemony is already donezo, and any desperate measures we take to try to preserve it may end up as an unimaginable disaster.
As in so many areas of American life, in the realm of foreign policy we have placed our trust in the experts, and see them squander and abuse it, leaving Americans feeling ignored and disrespected. It is time to listen to them, and in so doing, chart a path toward a clear-eyed foreign policy that maintains order, security, and peace, while seeking our national interest above all.
It is literally all about empire and keeping our rivals down.
Why are we so outraged by Russia’s incursion into Ukraine? Because annexing Ukraine makes Russia stronger.
And America’s foreign policy elite simply cannot tolerate that, ever. No country anywhere in the world is allowed to get stronger relative to us.
It is quite simply unacceptable.
This is idiotic, and ultimately it ends one way: with us at war with Russia and China. That’s a war we cannot hope to win.
Nor is it a war we need, either.
What we really need is a pursuit of “armed neutrality,” where we largely stay out of the affairs of the “old world” and stick to maintaining stability and order in our hemisphere–that means North America, central America and South America.
Obivously this is a pipe dream.
As we can see, the Neocons are already seizing Ukraine situation as their golden opportunity to return to prominence after nearly a decade out in the wilderness.