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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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No doubt appearances can be deceiving. If Kerry wins, there is every reason to expect within his administration a protracted clash between the neorealist elements and the neoliberals. But even the neorealists aren't as neo-real as they used to be. They may favor maintaining a norm of nonintervention (what kind of neorealist wouldn't?), but they will allow for sufficient exceptions on humanitarian and, yes, preventive grounds to satisfy the interventionist impulses of the neoliberals. Equally clearly, Kerry would be every bit as multilateralist at the beginning as the Bush administration was unilateralist--until, as seems likely, he runs up against the limits of his preferred ism, as Bush did before him.

My point is not that there are no foreign policy stakes in the outcome of this election. I don't much care for John Kerry's strategic instincts as revealed over his three-and-a-half decades in public life, and I don't relish living through the learning curve his administration will have to experience.

A second Bush administration will take office having had ample opportunity to learn from mistakes. But not only from mistakes. Also from its largely successful reorientation of security strategy to deal with a very serious new threat. George W. Bush may or may not win the election. If he does, it seems unlikely in the extreme that his critics, especially the most vociferous critics of the neoconservatives, will declare that they erred and that Bush's reelection constitutes vindication for the neoconservative position. They are too in love with their fear of monsters. But win or lose, the vindication of neoconservatism has already taken place, in that the Democratic candidate in 2004 has found it impossible to run for the Oval Office on a platform of its repudiation, but rather has embraced its central strategic insights.

Contributing editor Tod Lindberg is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and editor of Policy Review.