When the Iraq Study Group was due to report and the news of Robert Gates’s nomination for Secretary of Defense was breaking, press opinion speculated that the Bush administration was undergoing an ideological shift. James Baker, III and Gates were both known as solid realists, compared to former neoconservative Bush officials like Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith. For the neocons, the Iraq War was both their moment in the sun and, seemingly, the final nail in their coffin. Even though President Bush ultimately rejected the ISG’s recommendations, Iraq’s descent into chaos has greatly discredited neoconservatives, and it seems unlikely that post-Bush foreign policy will be crafted by this group.
Or will it?
Consider how Iraq reflects on neoconservatism, especially its stated goal of exporting democracy to Iraq using the American military. Iraq’s democratic experiment is failing, but not necessarily because its failure was a foregone conclusion. If one looks at the composition of the Iraqi government, most of its leaders are Iraqi exiles, people who clearly are not in a position to adequately represent the Iraqi people. It is no wonder that the Iraqi government is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy. Moreover, in the first year of the occupation, the United States was not ready, willing, or able to properly govern and reconstruct Iraq. Such negligence and incompetence were instrumental in nullifying what little legitimacy the U.S. and the Iraqi government it sponsored had, without even considering the democratic readiness of Iraq’s civil society or its historical sectarian divisions. Even then, the sectarian killings that dominate Iraqi news today are a relatively recent calamity. Doubtless, there are policymakers who believe neoconservatism should not be abandoned precisely because the Iraqi operation they had advocated so strongly was so badly handled.
Moreover, although neoconservatism by definition seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon, its ideological roots go all the way back to Wilsonian Liberalism; its central tenets have been a part of American foreign policy for a long time, but often in different guises. Liberal policymakers believed that the U.S. should use its economic and political pulpit to promote democracy and development around the world, preferably multilaterally. Today’s neoconservatives, although they often push for unilateral action, advocate much the same things. Liberalism fell into disfavor shortly after World War I, and America retreated into isolationism. Then World War II began.
Post-war U.S. foreign policy became more worldly and aggressive. Truman’s administration pledged that contemporary foreign policy was different from 19th-century imperialism because it placed primacy in the advancement of human rights and democracy and pledged to support anti-communist fighters around the world. As Cold War tensions deepened, the United States became increasingly involved with the affairs of other countries, ostensibly spreading “freedom” while hindering communism.
More often than not, these interventions became foreign policy calamities, as Iraq’s will certainly become if the situation does not improve considerably. The U.S.’s current standoff with Iran is rooted in one of the CIA’s first covert operations, the overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh. South America’s current tide of populist leaders is a reaction against the many U.S.–sponsored dictators who prevented the spread of communism to South America, but did so with extremely brutality.
Even under so-called realist administrations, the U.S. continued to project its power abroad. Saddam Hussein had been gambling that post-Vietnam America would not have the stomach to fight him, yet the first Bush administration deployed troops in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The 1993–1994 Somalia mission that many associate with the Clinton administration was actually initiated by the first Bush administration.
U.S. history is replete with aggressive international ventures, some of which became Iraq-like catastrophes. Clearly, if policymakers had really learned from the catastrophes of Vietnam and other foreign policy failures, the invasion of Iraq would not have happened. In the same vein, the belief that the Iraq War will discourage future U.S. administrations from international operations is misinformed and does not align with historical considerations.
Moreover, as global communication has advanced considerably, it has become easier for American citizens to internalize international events. People are pushing the government to do more to stop genocide, help development, or just conduct a more outward looking foreign-policy. The interest in stopping the ongoing genocide in Darfur comes to mind.
Neoconservatism will rise again, but likely in a different form. The failure of Iraq could be blamed on the incompetent execution by Bush officials instead of something fundamentally wrong with the idea of foreign interventions. Since World War II, the United States has conducted aggressive foreign policies, even when past policies had disastrous consequences that weakened national security over the long-term. The Internet and other media have not only made international issues much more accessible to average Americans, but they have also facilitated Americans’ ability to advocate on a mass scale in an organized fashion. If and when Iraq becomes a liability for a future administration, I would not be surprised if that administration is embroiled in an international debacle of its own.