Neocon America?

There is a broad sense in which I agree with Robert Kagan’s essay on our “Neocon Nation” in the latest issue of the surprisingly-interesting new World Affairs. I agree with his contention that neoconservatism is not an alien virus injected into the American political bloodstream by a cabal of perfidious ex-Trotskyite Straussians; rather, it's a particular manifestation of an interventionist spirit in American affairs that runs all the way back to the founding era. And I agree, as well, with his argument that this spirit continues to dominate our politics, and probably will continue to do so – that the post-Iraq rediscovery of various forms of non-interventionism, realism and anti-imperialism on the part of the American center-left is likely to be temporary, that many of the Iraq War’s current crop of conservative critics discovered their aversion to spreading democracy by force of arms only well after things went badly in Iraq (Kagan singles out George Will, effectively, on this point), and that in a fundamental sense, “in 2008, as in almost every election of the past century, American voters will choose between two variations of the same worldview.”

But there are two major problems with the essay. The first is the broadness of its argument, which elides the fact that those “variations” within the interventionist camp can be very significant indeed, and that the shared belief in "American power and the ability of the United States to use that power to beneficial ends in the world" is for many critics of neoconservatism the beginning of the argument, rather than the end of it. The second problem is the weird is/ought fallacy that pervades the entire piece, in which the long-running marginality of the anti-interventionist critique – and its tendency to be employed with 20/20 hindsight, after interventions have gone badly, and then abandoned when the next chance to flex America’s might rolls around – is treated as evidence that policymakers and intellectuals should ... continue to ignore it. If America is by its very nature prone to foreign misadventures - and I think Kagan somewhat overstates this case, but for the sake of argument let's concede the point - then surely the task of policymakers and intellectuals, in the wake of one such misadventure, is to draw lessons from What Went Wrong that might be profitably applied to future debates and crises, and that might strengthen the (weak) hand of the anti-interventionist camp the next time war fever grips the nation. At times in the essay Kagan allows that such a discussion might be useful, but only when he's complaining that the Iraq War's critics aren't actually interested in having it; his own contribution to the argument over what lessons we should draw from the Iraq War consists of variations on this concluding peroration:

... the expansive, idealistic, and at times militaristic American approach to foreign policy has produced some accomplishments of world historical importance—the defeat of Nazism, Japanese imperialism, and Soviet Communism—as well as some notable failures and disappointments. But it was not as if the successes were the product of a good America and the failures the product of a bad America. They were all the product of the same America. The achievements, as well as the failures, derived not from innocence or purity of motive, and not because Americans abided by an imagined ideal of conduct in the world, but from the very qualities that often make Americans queasy: their willingness to accumulate and use power, their ambition and sense of honor, their spiritedness in defense of both interests and principles, their dissatisfaction with the status quo and belief in the possibility of change. Are we really interested in abandoning this course?

But the larger takeaway from Kagan's essay is that there's absolutely no danger of our abandoning this course, because we are a "neocon nation" by our very nature. And if this is the case - if the current vogue for foreign-policy modesty among our politicians is as opportunistic and temporary as Kagan thinks it is - then maybe, just maybe, the aftermath of the Iraq invasion would be a good time for foreign-policy commentators to ponder what distinguishes our successes from our failures, and how we might temper our crusading spirit with enough humility and caution to avoid certain types of debacles in the future. Put another way, if Kagan is right about the fundamentals of America's character and America's foreign policy, then his own argument suggests that those fundamentals need more critics, rather than more champions.