Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Neither Neo Nor Con

Which could be the title of this essay on neo-conservatism by one of its holdouts, Robert Kagan. I'm another such holdout, and while I don't agree with all Kagan says (some of the history is overly simplified and needlessly dualistic), I think this, which I take as his thesis, is unarguably true:

The tendencies associated these days with neoconservatism are more deeply rooted in American traditions than the critics care to admit, which means they will not so easily be uprooted, even by the coming epochal presidential election.

Of course it's expressed in defensive terms, as Kagan is one of a handful of scapegoats who have maintained their views in the face of a pajama-clad lynch mob.

In fact, the problem for those who have sought to end this history of American expansiveness, both in decades past and today, is that this tendency toward expansion, this belief in the possibility of global transformation, this “messianic” impulse, far from being aberrant, is a dominant strain in the American character. It is certainly not the only tradition. There are counter-traditions, conservative, “republican,” pacifist, socialist, and realist. But in every generation these forces have done battle, and in almost every generation the expansive, moralistic, hubristic American approach has rolled over its critics, sometimes into victory and success, sometimes into disappointment and calamity.

I don't know all periods of American history equally well, but it certainly is true in the period I have studied most deeply (1790-1865) and I recognize it in the periods I know more superficially. It may not be a distinct strain, a set of qualities embodied in a class of politicians or voters, as it has been lately. It may have been dispersed among different impulses and movements -- in the evangelical "Benevolent Empire" movement, say. And ur-neo-conism and its ur-antithesis sometimes spoke out of the same mouth, as with J.Q. Adams.

This, however, seems needlessly simplistic for an essay that allows itself to run to some length:

What are the sources of its enduring power? One source is the American commitment to universal principles embedded in the nation’s founding documents, and the belief that these principles are not debatable but are, as Hamilton suggested, written in the stars by the hand of God. Americans believe they know the truth, and they do not admit alternate truths. Democracy is the only legitimate form of government, and America as the greatest democracy is the most legitimate of all. American foreign policy’s most astute critics have always understood that it is not conservatism but this liberal and progressive idealism that is the engine of American expansionism and hegemonism.

Using words like "liberal" and "progressive," with their modern freight, in a historical context is always a curve ball, whether deliberate or not.

Curve ball or not, however, something amoral and compelling has been driving us, and Kagan sees it:

The story of America’s first century is not one of virtuous restraint but of an increasingly powerful nation systematically eliminating all competitors on the North American continent. The story of its second century is not one of caution and a recognition of limits but of a steady and determined rise to global dominance. Patrick Henry failed to defeat the Constitution; John Randolph failed to stop the rush to war and big government in 1812; conservatives did not steer the nation away from Manifest Destiny or prevent war with Spain, or World War I, or the many interventions of the twentieth century. Five years after the end of the Vietnam War, which seemed to presage the rejection of the Achesonian principles that led to the intervention, Americans elected Ronald Reagan, who took up those principles again with a vengeance.

So, up to the present. Kagan takes a brief aside to try to shake off the scapegoat mantle, pointing out the idiocy of so many contemporary left-siders who enthusiastically put everyone they dislike in one box and label it "neo-conservatives": "Few people considered George W. Bush a neoconservative before 2003, or Dick Cheney, or Donald Rumsfeld, or Condoleezza Rice, who actually made a point in the 2000 campaign of saying that she was a 'realpolitiker.' ”

As for the Iraq War, rather than the horrific and wrenching turn away from good old American ways that so many of its critics wish to see, I agree with Kagan that it's more likely a continuity of them.

If the Bush administration inherited the specific rationale for war from the Clinton administration, the larger worldview in which that rationale made sense it inherited from the entire sweep of American history. The effort to explain the war as the product of manipulation by a handful of “neoconservatives” is an effort to escape what for many may be a more troubling reality: that there is something in the American character which leads it in this direction. Americans have an image of themselves as a peace-loving people who generally mind their own business unless blatantly provoked. This self-image is profoundly at odds with reality. So many Americans must find a way to explain American behavior that seems out of character.

As always, the hindsight view depends a great deal whether the war goes well or not.

The search for an extraneous explanation is an old tradition. The Spanish-American War was probably the most popular war in American history, uniting left and right, southerners with northerners, Theodore Roosevelt with William Jennings Bryan. But when the aftermath of the war left a sour taste in the mouths of many, a new account of the war emerged, according to which a very small number of people had managed to manipulate the levers of power and the emotions of millions in order to pursue their imperialistic conspiracy. This account became the accepted version of events, so much so that to read many history textbooks today, you would imagine that the war was foisted upon an unsuspecting nation by a handful of cagey “imperialists”—Roosevelt, William Randolph Hearst, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Alfred Thayer Mahan—rather than having been launched enthusiastically by a bipartisan majority in Congress that all but trampled McKinley in its rush to war. When Americans came to regret their equally enthusiastic rush into World War I, many chose to blame the nefarious manipulations of bankers and munitions makers. Opponents of American entry into World War II, from Charles Beard to Robert A. Taft, insisted that Franklin Roosevelt “tricked” or “lied” the nation into war. Today it is the Iraq War, once approved by an overwhelming bipartisan vote in the Senate and by large majorities of Americans, that is now inexplicable except by reference to a neoconservative conspiracy. There may be an echo here of what Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style in American politics,” except that this time it is not the populist yahoos but the Hofstadters themselves looking around for secret conspiracies.

The defensive note, again. Worth reading, whether you agree with it or not, but only if you can see a neo-con without feeling your blood pressure rise. Which I suppose won't give Kagan much of an audience.