The Magazine

The Referendum on Neoconservatism

From the November 1 / November 8, 2004 issue: It's already over, and the neocons won.

Nov 1, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 08 • By TOD LINDBERG
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In the National Security Strategy and in a series of presidential speeches that historians will study for their insight long after George W. Bush and the rest of us are dead, this administration, with a little help from its friends, outlined a new strategic doctrine that is going to guide national security policy for the next 50 years, regardless of who wins the 2004 election.

More or less at a stroke, the United States made several things clear: (1) It intends to do what is necessary to remain the world's foremost military power by an order of magnitude sufficient to discourage all other states from attempting to compete militarily, thereby encouraging the peaceful resolution of disputes between states. (2) The United States will hold governments responsible for what takes place with their consent within their borders: The proposition that state support for terrorists with global reach may have regime-ending consequences will discourage states from allowing terrorists to operate. (3) The nexus of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction is so dangerous that in certain instances, the United States will act preemptively or preventively against states rather than allowing threats to gather; this, in turn, will discourage some (though, alas, not necessarily all) states from the pursuit of such weapons. (4) The best way to secure the peace is through freedom and democracy, because free, democratic states want to live in peace with each other; the United States should therefore be at the forefront of the promotion of freedom and democracy.

Now, there is no getting around the fact that Iraq illustrates the complexity and difficulty of this reorientation of U.S. strategic doctrine. Would that the task before us were easier. Iraq--so, too, Afghanistan--has offered innumerable lessons, some of them quite painful. And it would surely have been possible for the Democratic candidate for president in 2004 to set up the election as a referendum on the "neoconservatives"--I revert to quotation marks because I am once again speaking of the monsters of the febrile imagination of their critics.

All that would have been necessary was for the Democratic nominee to: (1) repudiate America's position of power in the world in favor of multipolarity, encouraging others to rise by reducing American military capacity and withdrawing from existing security commitments; (2) encourage Americans to come to terms with future acts of terrorism on our soil and against our interests abroad, rather than overreacting in such a way that we cause more of what we are trying to mitigate; (3) forswear all preemptive or preventive war options as violations of international law and instead warn of consequences that will follow an attack on us, assuming we can figure out who is responsible and what their address is; (4) advocate a return to the doctrine of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states, which would entail the abandonment of any effort to promote democracy in Iraq in favor of immediate withdrawal, as well as a posture of indifference toward genocide, ethnic cleansing, and the like.

And yet for some reason John Kerry has not chosen to run on such a platform. Rather, he says he wants America to be "respected" but before that, "strong." He proposes to increase the size of the military. He says he wants a more effective war against al Qaeda. He has insisted that he holds preventive military action in reserve. He insists that in using the term "global test," he was surely not suggesting that anyone abroad would have a veto over his actions as president in defense of U.S. security. He clearly favors working with our democratic allies not just because they are allies but because they are democratic and have a valuable contribution to make to our mutual deliberations. And he is open to support for humanitarian intervention in Darfur.

George W. Bush, meanwhile, can hardly be said to have run away from his National Security Strategy, or from his support for freedom and democracy, even in the face of an extreme test in Iraq. On the contrary, he has forcefully reaffirmed its central tenets, and points to Afghanistan's first election in its history as a success. At the same time, he does not seem to be in any great hurry to topple additional governments. Prudential considerations weigh heavily.

What we have here, I submit, is not a referendum on neoconservative strategic doctrine but a question of who will best implement that doctrine going forward. The case Kerry states is against neoconservative national security policy not in principle, but as executed.