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Iraq and the Neoconservatives

By Charles Kesler

As its new counterinsurgency strategy takes hold, the Bush Administration regards the war in Iraq with guarded optimism, pointing to encouraging signs that the "surge" is working or at least beginning to work. Baghdad appears to have pulled back from the edge of civil war. In Al Anbar province, local tribesmen have turned away from al-Qaeda and other foreign jihadists, and staked their future, at least temporarily, on cooperation with the Americans and the elected Iraqi government. The new Iraqi military and police forces are more numerous and better trained than ever, and suffer no shortage of recruits despite their predictable decimation by suicide bombers.

Even as the military tide in Iraq may be turning, however, political support in America for the war has reached new lows. Only two years after a GOP triumph in which the party renewed, indeed augmented, its control of the presidency, the House of Representatives, and the Senate, the voters in 2006 changed course, putting the Democratic Party back in charge of both houses of Congress for the first time in a dozen years. Although there were many reasons for the debacle, the public's dissatisfaction with the war, and with President Bush's leadership of it, loomed largest. His approval ratings have plunged to Nixonian depths, and his administration's reputation for competence now rivals Jimmy Carter's.

It was bad enough that the war continued. Neither the Gulf War of 1991 nor the campaign in Afghanistan after 9/11 had prepared Americans for the protracted conflict in Iraq. Nor had the administration, of course, which itself was caught by surprise. But in war surprises happen. What the public found less forgivable was the widening gap between the administration's overall view of the war and the realities of the war zone. "Shock and awe" did neither, at least for very long. Though our troops liberated millions, the Iraqis seemed strangely ungrateful, even resentful. Saddam swung from the gallows, but the onlookers cheered not for a free Iraq but for a Shiite leader. The weapons of mass destruction proved elusive, but not as elusive as Iraqi democracy, the establishment of which had become central to the administration's war aims.

Despite scores of presidential speeches on why America was fighting in Iraq, the public grew less and less sure why this was our war. Americans wondered more and more about the war's purpose, about what our victory would consist in. That is why the least effective anti-war taunt was "no war for oil." At least a war for oil would be understandable; the means could be linked to an attainable end. By contrast, the critics' most effective charge was that the Bush Administration was out of its depth, that the whole enterprise was fantastic, disproportionate, unwise.

Even if the surge policy works as promised, the latter criticism will not go away. For the surge is calculated merely to stabilize Baghdad and its environs, to make it possible to win hearts and minds there and in crucial provinces like Al Anbar. That is not victory; it is at best a necessary condition of victory over the jihadists, or of some other large purpose, not excluding American withdrawal. The surge is only a means, and what the American people wonders increasingly about is the end. If the administration or, more to the point now, Republican candidates for the presidency and Congress do not develop a better account of the purpose of U.S. policy in Iraq, then in 2008 the public may deal even more roughly with the party than it did in 2006.

The Bush Doctrine

At the heart of the administration's case for the war on terror in general, and for the Iraq war in particular, is the Bush Doctrine, which emerged piecemeal in the months after the 9/11 attacks. Originally an endorsement of punitive war against the sponsors of the 9/11 atrocities as well as the states that harbored or abetted them, the Doctrine soon evolved to include preemptive and preventive war, waged unilaterally if necessary, against terrorists and regimes that were plotting attacks against the United States, even if those attacks were not imminent.

The final point in the Bush Doctrine, the commitment to the global advance of democracy, emerged partly as an inference from the new embrace of preemptive and preventive war. Regimes that might pass along WMDs to terrorists simply could not be trusted with such weapons. Therefore those regimes must in the interim be denied dangerous nuclear technology, but in the long run be changed into peaceful, commercial democracies, which presumably would beat their WMDs into ploughshares. Regimes that export terrorism must in the long term be reformed, too. It would be far better to transform all these menacing regimes by subversion or conversion, however, than by preventive war, though the latter option is, as they say, never off the table. Hence arose that combination of soft and hard power which, in theory at least, characterized the Bush Doctrine's "forward strategy of freedom" in the Middle East.

Alongside this "realist" argument for democratization, the administration also advanced an "idealistic" one, discovering the imperative to spread democracy in America's own founding principles, or at least in a 20th-century, Wilsonian version of them. Both sides of this argument were important, because the administration claimed to have fused together the previously antagonistic strains of realism and idealism in American foreign policy. As President Bush declared in his Second Inaugural Address, "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one."

The Second Inaugural represented the high-water mark of the Bush Doctrine. In that speech (January 20, 2005), Bush mentioned ideals and idealism nine times but did not mention Iraq once. The message seemed to be that, despite the bloody insurgency already raging for more than a year, Iraq would sooner or later fall into place as a successful application of the Doctrine. Harking back to 9/11, the "day of fire," the president explained:

We have seen our vulnerability--and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny--prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder--violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom. We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.... So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

In trying to connect "the survival of liberty in our land" with "the success of liberty in other lands," Bush had to avoid two distasteful and unsustainable extremes. On the one hand, the link between our security and their liberty could be a nebulous kind of hope--that foreign nations would democratize more or less on their own (perhaps with some gentle hand-holding by the United Nations), and that our security would be an unintended beneficiary. But that would soon become a formula for frustration or resignation: American liberty "increasingly" would depend on something beyond our control, namely, other countries' domestic politics. At the opposite extreme, Bush's words might imply an imperial policy of democracy promotion or perhaps colonization, like the French in the early stages of their Revolution or Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Our freedom could not survive, in this view, unless we imposed democracy in "all the world," or at least the relevant parts of it, despite what the inhabitants of those parts might prefer.

Bush tried to find a prudent middle way between these idealist and ultra-realist traps, but he did not make much headway. He said that "the great objective of ending tyranny" is "the concentrated work of generations," an infelicitous phrase with no assignable meaning. He affirmed that "America's influence is not unlimited, but fortunately for the oppressed, America's influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom's cause." But he did not go on to promise that the U.S. military would be vastly enlarged, or radically re-tasked, or that any other concrete steps would be taken to match our influence to "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." Indeed, he counseled that "this is not primarily the task of arms," that "freedom, by its nature, must be chosen," and that the issue will in most instances be decided only when "the soul of a nation finally speaks."

Despite its noble sentiments and a few well-turned phrases, Bush's speech did not manage to match the means available to U.S. foreign policy to the ends that he proclaimed for it. In The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton emphasized that, particularly regarding national security, to will the end without willing the means is absurd. Bush's Second Inaugural is saved from absurdity by the fact that it wills, strictly speaking, neither the end nor the means. "Our country has accepted obligations," he said, "that are difficult to fulfill, and would be dishonorable to abandon." The U.S. is not necessarily in a quagmire but it is in a quandary: no one, least of all this president, wants to promise a series of Iraqs-further wars of liberation leading to democracy's spread in the Middle East and elsewhere. We will be doing well enough, he seemed to say, if we emerge from the current painful mess without dishonor.

Idealism and Prudence

The problem is that Bush wants to be both "idealistic" and prudent at the same time. He wants to take credit for proclaiming the lofty, breathtaking, galvanizing moral imperative, which is all of these things precisely because it is stubbornly opposed to the maxims of experience, impatient with the self-love integral to human nature, and insistent that duty requires maximum striving for the impossible dream, precisely because it seems impossible. That's his idealism. In that sense, global democracy is his War on Poverty. But at the same time he wants to be sober, responsible, and popular. He wants to bring democracy to every nation (and culture!) and to end tyranny in our world--but not immediately, and not by our efforts alone, and not at the expense of local customs and traditions, and not at the risk of our authoritarian allies, and not by force except in rare cases. These are all sensible limitations, of course, but what then is left of the original idealistic policy that made the blood race and the head swoon? He really can't have it both ways.

Or perhaps he can have it both ways--if there is a guarantee of some sort, in human nature or divine will, that history will make everything work out, that the idealist will ultimately be vindicated on realist grounds. And that is just the sort of guarantee that Bush routinely invokes in order to get his analysis from here to there, from prudence to idealism. "Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul," he said in the Second Inaugural. And so, he continued:

We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events. Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul.... History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.

Despite the disclaimer of inevitability, then, history does have "a visible direction" because history is the fitful, but certain, fulfillment of "the permanent hope of mankind." History guarantees that the soul's "longing" for freedom will eventually be satisfied in this world. In fact, in the deepest sense, history is the story of this unfolding of human nature and freedom. Bush's idealism is then the highest form of realism. Just because political liberty has never been universal, then, does not mean that it won't be in the future. For the "Author of Liberty" has written the love of liberty into human nature--not merely as a longing of the soul, but as the longing of the soul.

For its inspiration, the Bush Doctrine looks both to Abraham Lincoln and to Woodrow Wilson. It aspires, on the one hand, to a new birth of democratic freedom around the world, and on the other, to a new world order based on a new freedom that at last makes tyranny obsolete, and the return of tyranny, except perhaps for a glitch now and then, impossible.

But unfortunately for the administration's foreign policy, the Lincolnian and Wilsonian premises cannot be reconciled.

Lincoln once spoke of slavery as part of the eternal struggle between justice and injustice. In his last debate with Stephen Douglas, he said:

That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles--right and wrong--throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face form the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, "You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it." No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.

By contrast, Woodrow Wilson once spoke of World War I as "the culminating and final war for human liberty." Lincoln thought it impossible to end injustice and tyranny on earth; human nature, torn between right and wrong, divided between reason and passion, was permanently at war with itself. Wilson looked forward to the worldly culmination of liberty and justice. History guaranteed it, in some sense. President Bush sides with Wilson in the supreme confidence that history has "a visible direction," and that mortals are capable of "ending tyranny in our world."

In fact, he once went even further. At the National Cathedral in Washington, three days after 9/11, the president delivered one of his most beautiful and moving speeches. But in it he noted: "Just three days removed from these events, Americans do not yet have the distance of history. But our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil." To end not merely tyrannical governments but evil itself--now that's idealism.

All of the president's prudent or at least realistic hedging thus comports poorly with the rhetoric inflating his goals. Prudence is supposed to connect moral principles and actual moral choices; but in Bush's case, his lofty universals seem increasingly disconnected from the rather nasty choices presented by Iraq. So, in practice, the Bush Doctrine has undergone a certain detumescence. When he announced the surge last January, he made clear that "America's commitment [in Iraq] is not open-ended," that "if the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people...." What happened to the vital connection between "the success of liberty in other lands," e.g., Iraq, and "the survival of liberty in our land"? Iraq happened, that's what. And one could discern other signs in that speech that the administration was more eager to find an honorable path out of the war than to insist on victory--and Iraqi democracy--no matter what. It isn't that, as his detractors sometimes say, Bush doesn't really believe in his own doctrine, that it is mere rhetoric. On the contrary, he believes in it so much that he is astounded by how poorly it has worked out so far in Iraq. Wasn't history, not to mention Providence, supposed to be on democracy's side?

Democracy and the Neocons

There has been a scramble away from the Bush Doctrine, and from the Iraq war, by many who once were sympathetic to both. Notable among these new critics is Francis Fukuyama, whose America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy (2006) is his explanation of the Bush Administration's errors, and an attempt at a pedigree of its mistakes. The book is also his letter of resignation from the neoconservative movement.

One of America's best social scientists, Fukuyama is at pains to disclaim any relation between the Bush Doctrine, especially as applied in Iraq, and his own well-known theory of "the end of history," drawn from Hegel and Alexandre Kojève, which holds, among other things, that liberal democracy is the final form of human government, the culmination of universal history, and thus the eventual destiny of all mankind. This attempt to absolve himself of any blame for the Iraqi mess would go down better if he acknowledged the obvious affinities between his theory and the administration's assumptions.

As its subtitle suggests, however, the most interesting questions raised in the book concern "democracy, power, and the neoconservative legacy." Like many pundits around the world, though with considerably more intelligence, Fukuyama attributes the democracy project and its baleful consequences in Iraq to the neoconservatives in and around the Bush Administration. His distinctive argument, however, is that in pushing this agenda the neocons have deserted their own intellectual roots.

To prove his point, Fukuyama provides a valuable capsule history of the neoconservative movement, starting with the young Trotskyists gathered in Alcove 1 at City College of New York in the late 1930s and early 1940s, continuing through the founding of The Public Interest in 1965, and running to the present. The story is familiar, but Fukuyama tells it well and pays particular attention to the intellectual and political differences between the neocons' first and second generations, exemplified respectively by Irving Kristol and his son, William (an old friend of mine, incidentally).

Leo Strauss was an important influence on both generations, though more so in the Kristols' circles than in those around Norman Podhoretz at Commentary. Many neocons who wrote for The Public Interest (co-founded, and edited for decades, by Irving Kristol) learned from Strauss to distrust the pretensions of modern mathematical, value-free social science. In various ways, they discovered the limitations of homo economicus and the importance of culture, habits, beliefs, and religion to human conduct; and they learned how to look at modernity through pre-modern eyes. Twice burned (first by Communism, then by '60s liberalism) and thrice shy of abstract doctrines of right, they found much to admire in American bourgeois, middle-class life, and set out to defend it against its cultured despisers on the radical Left and in the academy. The spirit of this defense was empirical, pragmatic, anti-utopian. Bourgeois liberal society was the best that could be attained under modern conditions. Their quarrel with the anti-bourgeois liberalism of the New Left and its successors was not that their brand of radicalism would lead to socialism or Communism in America, but that it would demoralize a decent society and degrade liberalism itself.

The neoconservatives' anti-utopianism extended to foreign policy, too. In fact, foreign policy plays a large role in Fukuyama's list of their four basic principles: that the character of a regime is central to its internal--and external--policies; that American power has been and can be a force for good in the world; "a distrust of ambitious social engineering projects"; and "skepticism about the legitimacy and effectiveness" of international law and institutions. Though this is a rather idiosyncratic list, it suffices for Fukuyama's purpose, which is to illustrate the divide between the neocon generations.

The first generation understood these principles in a basically "realist" spirit. They believed in vigorously pursuing the national interest (indeed, the phrase became the name of another journal founded by Irving Kristol). But as opposed to foreign policy realists like Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger, the neocons did not accept a value-free view of that national interest. America deserved to assert its interest because the purposes for which we used our power, by and large, were good. For instance, in the 1970s, they (along with most conservatives) denounced Kissinger's policy of détente for obscuring the moral distinctions between our regime and the Soviets'. In 1980, in the single most important neoconservative essay on foreign policy, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," published in Commentary, Jeane Kirkpatrick attacked the Carter Administration's naïve moralism, which had led it to undermine America's authoritarian allies (Nicaragua's Somoza, Iran's Shah) because of their imperfect human rights records, thus inadvertently strengthening Soviet Communism, an infinitely worse, totalitarian regime.

Fukuyama is on to something when he contrasts this spirit of moral realism with the second generation's moral idealism. Indeed, he could have bolstered his case by delving more deeply into the first generation's writings. Consider this interesting paragraph from Irving Kristol's "Utopianism and American Politics," originally published in 1971:

Witness the typically American fuss and furor...over whether the elections in South Vietnam were truly democratic--and if they were not, what we should then be doing about it. The assumption seems to be that the original purpose of our intervention in Vietnam was to establish parliamentary government there, and that the absence of such government presents us with a crisis. But this is a childish assumption. We did not intervene for any such purpose. (At least I hope we didn't-I can't bring myself to believe that the men who make our foreign policy were quite that idiotic.) Our intervention was to help establish a friendly, relatively stable regime which could coexist peacefully with the other nations of Southeast Asia. If such a regime prefers corrupt elections to the kind of overt military dictatorship that more usually prevails in that part of the world, this is its own affair. It constitutes no problem for us....

Considering how stalwart his son and his magazine, The Weekly Standard, have been in the promotion of the Bush Doctrine and the war in Iraq, one imagines that Kristol family gatherings could get pretty...lively. In fact, however, the differences, while real, can largely be explained by a change in circumstances. Here is a parallel passage from Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy (2000), a book by Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan:

To many the idea of America using its power to promote changes of regime in nations ruled by dictators rings of utopianism. But in fact, it is eminently realistic. There is something perverse in declaring the impossibility of promoting democratic change abroad in light of the record of the past three decades. After we have already seen dictatorships toppled by democratic forces in such unlikely places as the Philippines, Indonesia, Chile, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Taiwan, and South Korea, how utopian is it to imagine a change of regime in a place like Iraq? ... With democratic change sweeping the world at an unprecedented rate over the past thirty years, is it "realist" to insist that no further victories can be won?

Kristol pêre and Kristol fils have some things to talk about, undoubtedly. But Bill's argument shuns any sort of precipitate idealism. It appeals to the same realism that moved his father. In the same neocon spirit, Bill looks at developments in the world and asks if democracy has not proven more resourceful and adaptable and contagious than any reasonable man, including Irving Kristol, would have thought 30 years ago.

This is not to say that many of the older neocons do not harbor doubts about the Bush Administration's Iraq policy. The late Jeane Kirkpatrick, for one, quietly expressed such doubts. (The senior Kristol has not written about the war.) But clearly, Fukuyama's notion that the younger generation has effectively abandoned neoconservatism needs further scrutiny.

Spreading Democracy

Neoconservatism began with a view of modern America as combining liberal democratic political institutions, and a bourgeois capitalist culture. The general opinion of first-generation neocons was that neither democracy nor capitalism, however, was self-sustaining. Daniel Bell, and Irving Kristol along with him, accepted a version of the great German sociologist Max Weber's theory that religion, specifically the Protestant Ethic, was the origin and driving force of capitalist accumulation. As Protestantism dribbled away in the 20th century, capitalism found itself in a kind of moral void, for which neither Social Darwinism nor the managerial ethic was an adequate substitute. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), Bell's magnum opus, argued that capitalism undermined the very culture that made it successful and morally admirable, to the extent that it ever was morally admirable. (Bell never embraced the neoconservative label, preferring to remain a social democrat.)

Kristol extended this analysis to American democracy. Even as capitalism depended on pre-capitalist religious impulses, so democracy's health depended on certain pre-democratic virtues of self-restraint, self-sacrifice, and statesmanship. He learned this argument from Strauss and especially from Strauss's student Martin Diamond, who was a close friend of Kristol's. Diamond had emphasized that America's political institutions were deliberately built on low but solid foundations. Designed by geniuses who took a dim view of human nature and a favorable view of the new science of politics, the Constitution created a government that would not require genius or even much republican virtue from citizens and office-holders. Instead, the institutions of government (e.g., bicameralism, separation of powers) would capitalize on politicians' self-interest, pitting them against each other in a grand scheme of checks and balances. Among citizens, a multiplicity of conflicting interest groups would mitigate the dangers of popular tyranny. Diamond worried that in the long run, however, this system would discourage and undermine the very virtues that had made possible its founding and its perpetuation through many crises. Kristol fleshed out this picture by offering various accounts of the culture that would be eroded by the polity's low expectations of human nature, pointing to the system's corrosive effects on religion and popular virtue (first agrarian, later bourgeois), and on Anglo-American legal culture and statesmanlike political education among the elites.

In general, then, the early neocons were cultural pessimists. They warned that capitalism and democracy were both drawing down the inherited cultural capital on which they depended; and neither capitalism nor democracy seemed capable of adding to that dwindling stock. They feared that bourgeois America, capable still of bourgeois virtues, was steadily losing ground to the bohemian, relativist America of the intellectuals. Robert Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (1996) is a reliable, if extreme, version of their pessimism.

But a strange thing happened on the way to Gomorrah. In the midst of decline, a resistance and regeneration began to take hold. It started as an intellectual and political revival, led by the mainstream conservative movement, which the neocons have never quite understood or appreciated. It broadened and deepened with the religious revival of the 1970s and 1980s, which helped to turn millions of evangelical Protestants and newly energized Catholics into faithful Republican voters. A religious revival was one of the last things that the neocons would have expected, but it gave them hope for the country. The electoral and policy successes of Reagan Republicanism, to which the neocons contributed in striking ways, confirmed that systemic renewal was possible, after all.

Though they had not anticipated these developments, the neocons easily adjusted to them. As anti-Romantics, they had never let their doubts about liberal society's viability ripen into an ideology of decline; as Democrats or ex-Democrats, they admired the moderate reform tradition (as they saw it) of 20th-century American liberalism. So individual neocons, mostly in the younger generation, had been advising and aiding politicians all along. The neocons' long-term pessimism never inhibited their short-term political efforts.

Intellectually, the crucial connection between the neocon generations came in the 1970s, when thinkers like Michael Novak began to argue that bourgeois or democratic culture had greater resources for replenishment than their fellow neocons had realized. Novak argued that far from being parasitic on Protestantism, democratic capitalism was itself a spiritual calling, a Christian mission in which entrepreneurs partook in God's own graceful creativity. Properly understood, capitalism reinforced Christianity (including Catholicism), and vice versa, though of course neither could be reduced to the other. Richard John Neuhaus and others focused on civil society, the realm of voluntary associations that Tocqueville had long ago pointed to as essential to a healthy democracy. By preventing government from usurping their functions, and by encouraging them in other ways, mediating institutions like churches could thrive, and revivify American culture.

In tracing the connections between culture and politics, neoconservative scholars followed in Tocqueville's and ultimately Aristotle's steps: Aristotle's "regime" was all about how politics shaped culture, and culture politics. For the first generation of neocons, many of whom were sociologists, culture probably seemed the predominant force. The second generation came increasingly to share Aristotle's confidence in the power of politics to shape culture--and thus of American power to help spread liberal democracy to countries whose culture hitherto had been profoundly inhospitable.

To be sure, as Bill Kristol noted above, since the mid-1970s the world has seen a democratic wave roll over country after country. This fact, plus the ease with which the former Soviet Union let its empire and then itself collapse, helps to explain the contemporary neocon enthusiasm for democracy promotion. If democracy could come to Estonia and sub-Saharan Africa, why couldn't it come to Iraq?

Political societies are not homogeneous, however; and every political wave eventually crests. The neocons got carried away by the apparent ease with which democratic transitions took place around the world. The conspicuous exception to democracy's spread was the Arab Middle East. That could have meant, as the neocons concluded, that its turn was next. But it could also have meant that there were cultural, religious, and political factors that had made it resistant to the democratic wave-and would continue to do so.

In America at the Crossroads, Fukuyama provides a neoconservative critique of today's neoconservatives, summoning the fathers, as it were, as witnesses against the sons. What he does not see, however, is that the democracy agenda has its roots in both generations. It is, roughly speaking, a combination of two ideas. The first is the fathers' notion that modern democratic institutions are rightly built upon enlightened self-interest and presuppose very little in citizen virtue, and that the theory of modern democracy rests on universal and very ordinary traits of human nature. The second is the sons' confidence in the ability of democratic politics to generate its own complementary culture. The first assures that modern democratic institutions--elections, representative government, free markets--are, in theory, within reach of almost any people on earth. The second reassures that even when these institutions are planted in inhospitable cultures, a pro-democratic culture will be able to grow from them.

Neocon Mistakes

The intellectual sources behind the neoconservatives' role in shaping and defending the Bush Administration's "forward strategy of freedom" thus reach deeply into the history of the movement. Doubtless, the second generation is more keen on democratization than the first, but the second's case for global democracy depends on a premise shared with the first.

At any rate, one thing that distinguishes neocons from all other conservatives is their willingness to identify their foreign policy with Woodrow Wilson. They don't much like Wilson himself ("hopelessly naïve," Max Boot calls him) but they are happy to think of themselves as "hard Wilsonians" or, in Fukuyama's case, "realistic Wilsonians." That is, they agree with his ends but not his means. Most of the neocons reject Wilson's reliance on international law and organizations to keep the peace; they prefer to rely, in hard cases, on the use of force by the U.S., alone or with its allies.

What of those ends? Wilson pledged to make the world safe for democracy, which is not the same thing as making the world democratic. But like President Bush and the neoconservatives, Wilson reasoned that to make the world safe for democracy would require making at least the leading nations of the world democratic. Also like Bush and some of today's neocons, he expected the currents of Progress to help speed the project along. But unlike them, Wilson rejected as impracticable the notion of rapidly democratizing most of the world. It was out of this vestige of realism that Wilson turned to the League of Nations to enforce international order. He may have been naïve, but he was not naïve about everything.

To make the world safe for democracy may require trying to keep some important nations democratic, but it cannot require making them all democratic because that is impossible, as almost everyone would admit. Besides, contra Wilson, the primary question for us is to make the world safe for American democracy. From that point of view, it is a judgment of prudence, not of categorical moralism, which countries are worth our blood and treasure. (In principle, most neocons would agree, but they do not draw the right conclusion regarding Iraq.) Germany and Japan after World War II were worth it. We did not want a third world war with them, and besides, they stood at the ramparts of the actual third world war, the Cold War, that was then about to begin. We wanted and needed to keep them on our side. And finally, they were good candidates for democratization, having enjoyed high levels of economic and social development and national unity, and having had some experience of parliamentary government.

As an abstract matter, Americans would like to see every nation in the world enjoy the blessings of liberty and democracy, because we know how fine these are. But the matter at hand is a question not of good will but of good policy. Is Iraq worth it?

President Bush and the neocons make a strong case that Iraq is important to America's own security, but the case for toppling Saddam was much stronger than the one for staying indefinitely to buy time for the Iraqis to democratize. Saddam was in violation of the peace agreements he had signed to end the Gulf War; had invaded his neighbors and would likely do so again; was supporting terrorism and sponsoring anti-Americanism throughout the Arab world, including a failed plot to assassinate former President Bush; refused to dispel, and indeed encouraged, the impression that Iraq had chemical, biological, and nuclear WMDs, some of which Saddam had used before; and withal he was a bloodthirsty tyrant. The writ to use force against him and his regime was cogent and persuasive. But the decision to turn that deterrent, punitive, and preventive action into the occasion for elaborate democratic reconstruction was, alas, ill-conceived. Iraq was not that important to us. It could seem that important to us, as important as Germany and Japan had been, only by imagining that an utterly transformed Iraq would become an outpost of liberal democracy in the Middle East, a bulwark against terrorism and Islamic fanaticism; and that Iraq in turn would utterly transform the whole Middle East into a land of milk and honey, not to mention democracy and peace.

It is never a good idea to multiply improbabilities as the basis of one's foreign policy.

In fairness to the president and the neocons, the decision to stay on as an occupying, democratizing force was taken on the assumption that the mission would be short and easy. Here the law of unintended and unanticipated consequences, the byword of the old neoconservatives, struck with a vengeance. (The neocons justly complained that the administration skimped on the number of troops in theater. Hence Max Boot's response to the charge that Bush has a neoconservative foreign policy: "If only it were true!")

Still, underlying the neocons' miscalculation was a weakness shared to some degree by the first and second generation alike, a tin ear for the genius of American democracy. They have always (there are exceptions, like Michael Novak) been a little suspicious of its first principles, of any first principles. The self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence strike them as slightly presumptuous-a little too much like Enlightenment abstractions, perhaps, for their own good. They don't strike George W. Bush that way, but what separates the Bush Doctrine from neoconservatism proper is precisely the note of evangelical fervor that animates his policy. The term "bourgeois" is also a dead giveaway that the neocons are not understanding the American people as they understand themselves. Americans don't think of themselves as bourgeois, even when they know what the word means. The term is academic, lifeless--in fact, a Rousseauean abstraction right out of the Enlightenment. It reveals the sense in which, for all their advocacy of democracy, many neocons nevertheless regard it as a rather middling, bourgeois thing. Democracy is a middle-class thing, and to that extent they are right. But many neocons often don't quite see what a high and difficult calling republicanism is. Paradoxically, their biggest mistake is not thinking too highly of democracy but not thinking highly enough of it. By underestimating it and what it requires of its citizens, they conclude that democracy is more easily exportable and transferable than it really is. And they neglect all the other forms of government between the best and the worst-forms that might be more congenial to many countries capable of something better than tyranny but incapable, at least now, of the best sorts of republicanism.

Bush embraced democratization as a kind of historical and divine imperative. The neoconservatives came to democratization from a far more modest view of democracy's virtues and benefits. But they ended up in roughly the same place.

It is difficult, though not impossible, to have an enduring liberal democracy unless it gets its first principles right, and unless it cultivates them by means of a good constitution and civic character. But this watchword is less prominent in the present-day expansion of democracy than you might expect. If it were, many democracies formed in the past few decades would not qualify. Most of them were not well founded, if they were founded at all; a lot of them just happened, without much forethought or civic conviction, and could just as easily unhappen.

Clarity and agreement on liberal principles was not foremost, either, in the minds of the Americans busily engaged in founding Iraqi democracy. There, in the usual State Department fashion, the controlling idea seemed to be to get as many factional leaders as possible around the biggest possible table, induce them to compromise or postpone their differences, subscribe to a pastiche of principles, often contradictory, that the U.N. will applaud, usher in the coalition government, issue their paychecks-and call it democracy and a day's work well done.

After the Bush Doctrine

The overarching political problem facing the administration is that the president has vastly over-promised in respect to Iraq. His words on the subject now carry little credibility beyond the 28% of the public who will support him regardless. If the surge brings greater stability to Iraq, he may be able to recoup some of that lost support, but probably not much. If the surge fails and Bush approves a phased withdrawal from Iraq, this bitter pill will hardly be a boon for him. If Osama bin Laden were captured or killed, Bush might enjoy a surge of his own, but only temporarily, because removing Osama from the scene will only make the Iraq war look more pointless and increase the pressure to leave. If terrorists succeeded in striking America again, the people would rally to Bush's side; but unless the terrorists came from Iraq, the administration would come under renewed pressure to close down the Iraqi war and hunt down the relevant suspects.

If Republicans mean to win in 2008, they will have to separate themselves, gently but unmistakably, from the Bush Doctrine. While honoring the president and all that he has achieved in the overall war on terrorism, candidates would be well advised to find new language in which to cast the war against the jihadists. The truth is that the punitive and preventive war components of the Bush Doctrine remain vital to national security and eminently defensible before the voters. But so identified is the Doctrine with democratization and the war in Iraq that it is doubtful whether Republican candidates could persuade the electorate to discriminate neatly between the Doctrine's parts. Within its global campaign for democracy there are reasonable, modest initiatives that might be preserved, too, but so wrapped up are these with the overall discredited tone of idealism that it will probably be hard, once again, to distinguish them publicly.

Might it be possible to endorse the whole Bush Doctrine but promise to interpret it in a less militant and more cautious way? The paradox--interpreting it more moderately than its author did--would prove awkward. And does any candidate want to keep reminding the voters of his connection, his dependence on George W. Bush?

In his Second Inaugural, the president commented that in Iraq we have "accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill, and would be dishonorable to abandon." That's an understatement. All honor to him and our brave troops for liberating "tens of millions" in Afghanistan and Iraq. "By our efforts," he said, "we have lit a fire as well--a fire in the minds of men...and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world." It is an unfortunate metaphor, mixing heat with light, destruction with illumination. But then again, perhaps it is the perfect metaphor for our predicament in Iraq.

Charles R. Kesler is a senior fellow of The Claremont Institute and editor of the Claremont Review of Books. Respond to the author here.

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