Gerard Baker, the Times of London columnist, repeats in the 13 April edition the speculation that neoconservatism has fallen. As a label, he may be right. But the ideas it represents? Not likely.
Neoconservatism began in the recognition of a group of formerly leftist New York intellectuals that the centralizing reforms of government that Franklin Roosevelt set in motion had become a part of the American political landscape; that the old form of conservatism’s effort to turn back the clock to before Social Security and welfare was impractical and doomed. Rather than viewing government as the enemy, neoconservatives held big, growing, and unlimited government to be the problem. Rather than trying to end welfare, neoconservatives sought to moderate it and look for practical solutions that would encourage people who subsisted on welfare to get off. The neoconservatives were closer to the pragmatism of American founding fathers who tried to harness human nature to produce a desired outcome. The older conservatives favored turning back the clock’s hands.
When the Democratic party, forsook Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, and J.F.K, and threw their lot in with George McGovern, the neocons—who, like Jeane Kirkpatrick, had once been Democrats—didn’t. The same taste for moderation that led neocons to reject the draconian political prescriptions of the old right identified with what would have been the American founders’ view of Soviet communism, that its principles were as foreign to human nature as its rule. The neocons were vanguard Cold Warriors.
They would have none of the blame-America-firsters, who doubted—and continue to do so—that the U.S. was much of an example for anyone. Because the split between those Democrats who are skeptical of the fundamental character of the U.S. and the neocons is essentially ideological, the gulf between the two widened. But the neocon views on domestic policy—as embraced by Bill Clinton, for example—became mainstream American, as they remain today.
As most of the rest of the Democratic party clung even tighter to an increasingly skeptical view of the U.S. the neocons saw the U.S. as a moderate state that acts—if not always perfectly—as a force for good in the world. The coincidence of this view with that held by Republicans is interesting only because the common ground is shared with the rest of the American electorate, who agree that democracy is a good worth pursuing for both national self-interest and altruistic reasons.
Does the failure so far in Iraq show that promoting democracy should not be a key objective of U.S. foreign policy? Do this administration’s mistakes in executing policy discredit the aims of the policy? Helping the poor by giving them money doesn’t work because the lack of money is not the fundamental cause of the poverty. But people from Taiwan to the former East Germany to South America are better off as a result of the U.S.’ overall foreign policy objective of promoting democracy. Imagine if the Civil War had ended with a Southern victory that resulted in further splintering of what was left of the Union. What would have been the outcome of both world wars and the cold one that followed?
Mistakes there have been in advancing democracy. Force has worked in some places, and not in others. But the idea that promoting democracy should infuse American foreign policy is as old as the country and its intellectual fathers. Neoconservatism is no more responsible for this than it is for how this war has been fought. One important reason why the Left is eager to paint neoconservatism as the author of the idea of using foreign policy to advance democracy is that it recognizes a chance to discredit the entire notion—which is consistent with the dim view in which it holds the U.S, both domestically and abroad. And they may succeed…for a while.
But I think that Americans will return to our longstanding recognition that a more democratic world is not only safer for us and our friends, but better for those whose ability to control their lives is improved. The bottom of the argument over neoconservatism is what one thinks of democracy as a political system, and whether the U.S. possesses the moral reserves to remain actively engaged in shaping the world.
If we lose confidence in ourselves and withdraw from the effort to advance democracy, the terrorists will rightly consider themselves the victors. So will those within the country who remain convinced that the U.S. is something to apologize for.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here