The delusions of neoconservatism

By Ryan McCarl

Last week, the Chicago Friends of Israel sponsored a talk by Richard Perle, a neoconservative who has served in various defense-related positions in the U.S. government and in hawkish think tanks.

Perle espouses a view of international relations that is often stunningly naïve and that has been thoroughly discredited by America’s recent experience in Iraq. Perle has recently recanted his support for the invasion of Iraq, although he was one of the war’s most prominent advocates. In September 2003, just as the insurgency was beginning to heat up, Perle said, “And a year from now, I’ll be very surprised if there is not some grand square in Baghdad named after President Bush.”

Oops. But Perle’s support for invading Iraq was by no means an aberration or a deviation from his usual views. Instead, the invasion was a policy prescription perfectly consistent with Perle’s neoconservative perspective. It is that perspective which thoughtful observers from all sides of the political spectrum must confront and denounce.

Neoconservatism is a hybrid of liberal international relations theories and faith in the efficacy of military power—American and Israeli military power, in practice—to promote political change. According to neoconservatism, the rise of illiberal ideologies, most recently the rise of radical Islam and the terrorism it sometimes inspires, is the primary threat to the U.S. and its allies.

This threat, neocons say, is a threat different in kind as well as degree from traditional threats to global security. Radical Islam is a particularly menacing threat because its adherents seek martyrdom and have no “return address,” so they cannot be deterred; because they are ruthless and have no sense of the sanctity of human life; and because they are an ontological threat to free societies as they do not accept the right of human beings to live free of state-sponsored Islam.

A lot of this sounds reasonable so far, and it sounded especially reasonable in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Recent research by Robert Pape and other scholars, however, shows that there is significant reason to doubt the assertion that Islamist terrorism is primarily motivated by religious rather than political concerns.

Terrorism is a particularly disgusting form of asymmetrical warfare employed by a weaker party against a stronger. But if it is a political rather than a religious phenomenon, then the neoconservative prescription of invasion and occupation in response to terrorist threats would make less sense. Much evidence shows that occupation itself, rather than “hatred for freedom,” provides the major impetus for terrorism.

In any case, concern about the threat of radical Islam is only one plank of the neoconservative platform. The others, which include a belief in the pacifying power of democracy and the efficacy of using military might to remake societies, are much shakier.

Neoconservative drum-beating for war with Iran—a war which Perle advocates “as a last resort” to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons—relies on an uncomfortable mix of realpolitik (nukes would enable Iran to advance its interests in the Middle East), apocalyptic worries about a second Holocaust (nukes would enable Iran to “wipe Israel off the map,” as Iranian President Ahmadinejad once ill-advisedly said he would like to do), and a sudden sympathy for international law (or at least the nonproliferation regime, which Israel itself is almost universally believed to have violated).

Throw in a bit of humanitarian concern for the oppressed Iranian people, a conviction that war with Iran will be easy and will only require air strikes, and some rehashed rhetoric about “transforming the Middle East” and turning Iran into a “democratic ally in the war on terror,” and you’ve got yourself a neoconservative case for a war that, if undertaken, will probably be even more disastrous and counterproductive than the Iraq War.

In the 1990s, when neoconservatives were busy complaining about the lack of “moral clarity” showed by President Clinton’s diplomatic restraint in his dealings with China, neoconservative ideas could be dismissed as delusional warmongering completely divorced from reality. But with the formulation of the Bush doctrine of preventive warfare and the invasion of Iraq, this delusion became the official policy of the most powerful nation on earth. That’s how we came to be seen as the biggest threat to world order rather than a reliable guarantor of that order.

We must understand that the Iraq failure was not primarily a failure of troop levels or tactics, but a failure of ideas. Those ideas are as bad today as they were in 2002, and President Bush will find them just as disappointing if he attempts to apply them to Iran.