Michael Kinsley Doesn’t Get Conservative Foreign Policy

Michael Kinsley wrote a post about “neocon” foreign policy that misses the point in more ways than one. Here’s the crux of Kinsley’s argument:

“The great neocon theme was tough-minded pragmatism in the face of liberal naivete. Liberals were sentimental. They believed that people were basically good or could easily be made so. Domestically, liberal social programs were no match for the intractable underclass or even made the situation worse. In the world, liberals were too hung up on democracy and human rights, refusing to recognize that the only important question about other countries is: Friend or foe?

(Jeane) Kirkpatrick’s article, “Dictatorship and Double Standards,” was a ferocious attack on President Jimmy Carter for trying to “impose liberalization and democratization” on other countries. She mocked “the belief that it is possible to democratize governments anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances.” Democracy, she said, depends “on complex social, cultural, and economic conditions.” It takes “decades, if not centuries.”

Kirkpatrick thought that U.S. power should be used to shore up tottering but friendly dictators, such as Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua and the shah of Iran. Carter sat on his hands, she complained. Now we have an administration that — wisely or foolishly, sincerely or cynically — claims to have the aggressive pursuit of democracy everywhere as the focal point of its foreign policy. And the Bush Doctrine is said to have the fingerprints of neoconservatives all over it.

This is quite a reversal by America’s most influential group of intellectuals, yet it has received surprisingly little comment or explanation. The chief theoretician of the new neoconservatism is political scientist Robert Kagan. Writing in Commentary (where else?) in 1997, Kagan noted the difference between his notions and Kirkpatrick’s and had some fun at the expense of opponents who had been all for a high-minded foreign policy until the neocons started calling for one. But he had little to say about the reversal of the neocons themselves.”

Let’s start at the top: First of all, there is no such thing as a “neocon” foreign policy. Neoconservatives are just right-wingers who used to be on the left — nothing more, nothing less. Yes, they tend to have ideologically similar views about foreign policy, but that’s because conservatives have relatively similar views. If anybody wants to compare the foreign policy views of prominent neocons like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, & Bill Kristol to those of run-of-the-mill conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, Donald Rumsfeld, & Mark Steyn, go right ahead and try, but I don’t think there’s a dime’s worth of difference in their views.

Secondly, the reason that Kinsley doesn’t understand the shift in — let’s call it what it is, conservative foreign policy — is that liberals don’t subscribe to any sort of coherent foreign policy any more. That’s why Carter and Clinton were so bad at it. They were buffeted by whatever the prevailing political winds were and made decisions on the fly. This is also why 9/11 seems to have made such a small mark on the liberal psyche in this country: because when it comes to foreign policy, they’ve never gone beyond handling events on a situation by situation basis. How can 9/11 effect your foreign policy strategy if you have no foreign policy strategy?

Last but not least, the conservative view of foreign policy shifted after 9/11 because in many ways, we were still geared up to fight the Soviets, 10 years after the Cold War had ended. Our intelligence agencies were handcuffed and we didn’t have the inside info on these terrorist groups even though we knew they were a threat.

We were emphasizing containment, although as 9/11 proved, containment means little in the war on terrorism. After all, Afghanistan was completely contained on the very day Al-Qaeda hit the WTC & the Pentagon.

In the Middle-East, it was still all about stability. That made sense strategically in the eighties. We were using Saudi Arabia to keep oil prices low to help out our economy and to hurt the Soviets who needed high gas prices to help keep their economy afloat. Furthermore, back then, if we pushed too hard for Democracy in the region, all we would have accomplished would have been to push more countries into the waiting arms of the USSR.

Then after 9/11, conservatives woke up and said, “Hey, our foreign policy strategy isn’t designed to meet the threat that we face today, so we’ve got to make changes.” And so we have.

If Kinsley and his ilk don’t get this, that’s their fault because conservatives have been openly explaining it practically since a few weeks after 9/11. Maybe they should pay more attention…

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