The Blog

Neoconservatism's Big Tent

How distinctively neoconservative is President Bush's foreign policy?

8:00 AM, Jul 11, 2005 • By PAUL MIRENGOFF
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

FOR LIBERAL AND CONSERVATIVE CRITICS of the Bush administration, it is an article of faith that neoconservatives have hijacked American foreign policy. The neocons accomplished this, the theory goes, by selling their half-baked ideology to a president too unschooled, dim-witted, or panicked to resist it. Yet, as Charles Krauthammer noted in his excellent essay The Neo-Conservative Convergence, none of the president's most influential foreign policy counselors--not Dick Cheney, not Donald Rumsfeld, not Condoleezza Rice--was considered a neoconservative prior to 9/11. Rice, in fact, is the protégé of Brent Scowcroft, a leading proponent of the opposing foreign policy school known as "realism." Cheney, too, had been associated with that school through his key role in the "realist" administration of the first President Bush.

The argument that the strong-willed Cheney and Rumsfeld were brainwashed by neoconservatives in lower levels of the current administration is too implausible to entertain. Thus, one of two things must be true: Either they switched to the neoconservative approach in response to the events of 9/11 ("mugged by reality," as Krauthammer would have it) or the administration's approach is not distinctively neoconservative.

Let's test the latter proposition by considering the four major policies and decisions at the center of Bush's foreign policy response to 9/11: (1) Going to war in Afghanistan; (2) Going to war in Iraq; (3) Attempting to achieve democracy, rather than merely stability, in postwar Afghanistan and Iraq; and (4) Adopting strong and universalist pro-democratic rhetoric that identifies the spread of freedom as the central principle of our foreign policy.

The first decision--war in Afghanistan--was virtually unopposed when made, and even today receives little second-guessing. No one can seriously contend that neoconservative thinking was necessary to reach that decision.

The decision to fight in Iraq is another matter. However, viewing this decision as the product of neoconservatism requires assuming away a primary stated reason for going to war--the belief that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. If the Bush administration genuinely believed that Iraq possessed WMD, neoconservatism cannot be considered a prerequisite for favoring war. Indeed, President Clinton, supported by the leaders of his party, seriously considered going to war with Iraq over its WMD program in 1998, three years prior to 9/11. If WMD could cause a liberal party to take us to the brink of war in the pre-9/11 context, it could have led the same liberals over the brink after we had been attacked. Had Clinton backed away even then, his decision would have had more to do with being gun-shy than with being ideologically liberal.

But perhaps Bush and his advisers didn't believe that Saddam had WMD in 2002, and lied about this matter in order to invade Iraq for neoconservative purposes. One problem with this theory arises from the fact that foreign governments, including such decidedly non-neocon ones as Chirac's France, believed that Saddam had WMD. Moreover, it makes no sense to suppose that President Bush would assert the existence of WMD as a primary justification for war if he didn't believe this assertion. Bush knew that we would eventually occupy Iraq and that, if no such weapons were found, it could cost him reelection. Similar thinking applies to others within the administration. They would have realized that peddling a view with respect to WMD that they knew to be false would eventually end their influence, and probably their careers.

The claim that the administration is the captive of neoconservatives would be much more persuasive if its proponents could point to evidence that President Bush (not this or that adviser) would have invaded Iraq even if he had thought Saddam possessed no WMD. The administration has, of course, continued to defend the intervention in Iraq even though no WMD have been found, relying in part of neoconservative sounding arguments about promoting freedom and democracy. But the administration's claim that our military action has been beneficial hardly demonstrates that it would have undertaken that action knowing then what it knows now about WMD. That remains an open question.

What of the decision to attempt to bring about a democratic Afghanistan and Iraq after toppling the Taliban and Saddam? In Iraq, for example, we could have tried to install a strongman in the hope of quickly ending the chaos and promoting stability. Instead, we have advanced a difficult democracy-based agenda consistent with neoconservative principles.