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<nettime> Neocons critiqued (text version)
Wolfe Charles on Wed, 18 Feb 2004 17:33:45 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Neocons critiqued (text version)

Learning to Love the Neocons
By Morgan Meis and Steven M. Levine

Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense
Eds. Kagan and Kristol
Encounter Books, 2000

Present Dangers, a collection of essays by some of the most prominent
contemporary neoconservative thinkers, was published in the year 2000. It is
thus, in chronological time, several years old. It was also published before
the events of September 11 and is thus, in more than one sense, a document
from another world. Nevertheless, and seemingly paradoxically, it happens to
be one of the most important documents for understanding current American
foreign policy. To have it in one's hands is to have a kind of play-book of
the neoconservative project. Not only does it help to explain what has
happened, it is also imbued with a predictive power: it tells us what is
going to happen. Because it is organized largely on a country by country
basis, the reader can, as it were, flip to one of the countries in question
and find out what the US is trying to affect there. If only other aspects of
life had such comprehensive companion volumes.

The mind of today's neocon is predominantly concerned with four countries:
Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and China. All of them, in different ways, oppose
'American interests' as well as aspiring to some form of regional dominance.
All of them will be vigorously opposed in these designs, whether by direct
regime change (Iraq), or a long-term and complicated policy of negotiation
and containment, a new style of Great Game (China). All of the essays beat a
fairly consistent drum along a number of different themes. The world is a
dangerous place (the neocon's steadfast ontology). The fall of the Soviet
Bloc, engineered by neocon foreign policy, opened up an enormous opportunity
for the forwarding of American interests. Those interests are also, directly
or indirectly, co-extensive with the interests of all humanity. The
opportunity was shamefully squandered during the nineties by an aimless and
visionless foreign policy that both misunderstood the real dangers of the
world and selfishly concentrated on domestic enrichment (the 'its the
economy, stupid' quip of the Clinton administration pops up in essays
throughout the volume). Even George Bush the First, it is implied though
never stated outright, turned out to be a bit of a wimp after all and heired
us the continuing frustration of Saddam Hussein. Indeed, the current debate
between some of the important figures around Bush I and some of the figures
around Bush II is better understood especially after reading through James
Ceaser's essay in the volume, "The Great Divide: American Interventionism
and its Opponents."

The key word, when all is said and done, is Internationalism. The neocons
are for it and they have a detailed plan as to what it looks like. The
grounding idea is a simple one. There is a fortuitous (if not miraculous)
coincidence between interest and morality in the case of the United States
of America. As William Bennett puts it:

For the United States, the relationship between morality and foreign policy
should not be nearly as complex and vexing an issue as some would have us
believe. While some self-procalimed 'realists' argue that the United States
must pursue its 'national interests' divorced from considerations of
morality and must abjure the aim of advancing its liberal democratic
principles around the world, and while some liberals seem to think that
American intervention overseas is justified only if undertaken for
principled, selfless reasons, our historical traditions remind us that
foreign policy has always been most successful when interest and principle
converge. It is, indeed, our great fortune that historically, principle and
interest have been virtually indistinguishable on the big issues that the
nation has confronted.

This is to say that, within reason, when the US takes upon itself to forward
its own agenda, it is also doing something positive for the peoples of all
the nations of the world. There are limits, of course, all conservatives are
sensitive to limits, but the coincidence of goals is remarkable. What is
also clear is that, to the neoconservative mind, the events of September 11
have little changed the world, their agenda, or American foreign policy. If
anything, the reverse is the case. The world for them is still one of nation
states battling with one another for power and control. The globalization
they foresee will be one in which states have wider and deeper interaction
with one another but always as states. The phenomenon of the EU, for
instance, is thus essentially an anomaly, the exception that proves the
rule. One can almost hear them snickering across the Atlantic. They do not
think that the power or coherence of the American nation is going to go away
very soon and they advocate an aggressive policy of fulfilling this

The upshot of this worldview is that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda
essentially represent an occasion for an already established foreign policy
and in no way a re-making of it. The proof of this pudding is in the eating
of it, which we are doing daily. Every recommendation that this book puts
forward is currently in some stage of activation by the Bush administration.
Richard Perle writes that there absolutely must be regime change in Iraq.
Reuel Marc Gerecht writes that Iran is actually not engaging in any real
process of liberalization and that much more pressure must be put on the
regime. Nicholas Eberstadt writes that North Korea is a wily regime that
cannot be coddled and must be cut off. Ross H. Munro writes that China has
always seen itself in direct competition with us and that our approach to
China must become decidedly more confrontational. The Metternich of our
time, Paul Wolfowitz, paints a broad picture of a new kind of American
international activism and there is nary a Castlereagh in sight. A glance at
the morning paper should suffice in the way of real world confirmation.
Present Dangers is not a book of theory or speculation, it is a manual. One
wonders that a group with neo-Straussian tendencies could be so forthright.


An interesting aspect of Present Dangers and of the neocon program in
general, Straussian and non-Straussian alike, is its stress on the autonomy
of 'the political'.  This stress is partially generated by the fact that the
neocons have always been a little uncomfortable about the underside of
Capitalism.  Until Daniel Bell let the cat out of the bag concerning the
effects of capitalism on the protestant work ethic, neocons went blithely on
(they still do) about societal and moral breakdown as if that breakdown (if
it was that) had nothing to do with the single most important social
sub-system, i.e., capitalism. This is doubly astounding if we consider that
many of the neocons closest allies (the right wing of the 'Washington
consensus' including the religious right) treat Capitalism as if it were
providence itself in motion.  How Capitalism and the free market can be the
key to everything good and holy, while not implicated in things evil and
profane, is a mystery on par with the logical structure of the trinity.

The neocons iterate this same incoherence concerning capitalism when it
comes to foreign policy.  Kristol and Kagan indicate this by leaving out of
Present Dangers any discussion of international economics or Latin America,
the continent in which 'economic diplomacy' has had the most visible
effects.  To discuss international economics is to be too Clintonian-too
soft hearted. For the neocons, international politics should not be seen as
advancing the national interest defined simply in terms of economic gain
(although this too), but should also be about lifting one's country "into a
place of honor among the world's great powers" (p. 23).  Honor is a word
that is used often in Present Dangers.  This could be a laudable gesture
insofar as the neocons wish to see foreign affairs as something grander than
merely the bringing to bear of technical procedures for the global
management of capitalist relations.

Indeed, foreign affairs for the neocons is "an art, not a science" (p. 13).
It is an art because there is no pre-arranged calculus that will tell us
both the aims and means of international political action. Foreign affairs
is about practical judgment, and for this one needs leaders who have
experience and wisdom.  This notion of international political action-a
notion that has significant affinities with the Republican tradition of
Aristotle and Machiavelli-accounts for the neocons almost obsessive
preoccupation with the concept of leadership.  Only leadership can negotiate
the difficult and unpredictable terrain of international politics by
rallying the polis or nation in the face of enmity and crisis.

Thus the renewed interest in Theodore Roosevelt who "implored Americans to
look beyond the immediate needs of their daily lives and embrace as a nation
a higher purpose in the world. He aspired to greatness for America, and he
believed that a nation could only be great if it accepted its
responsibilities to advance civilization and improve the world's condition"
(p, 22-23). This 'leadership principle' thus commits the neocons to the
priority of the nation state-a leader, after all, cannot lead a global
bureaucracy based in Brussels.

The stress on leadership, the nation state, and honor, could, as we said
above, be the display of a laudable commitment to a 'humanistic' and
agonistic international politics.  (Of course, for neocons the technical
management of domestic politic by a self-chosen elite is taken for granted).
However, the role that these notions play in the neoconservative scheme is
precisely to undermine the possibility of such a politics.  These notions
are in fact meant to buttress US hegemony and its political management of
the globe.  These concepts are not meant as prescriptions for political
actors in general (and so would be a call an agonistic 'politics of honor')
but only for US policy makers.  We can act according to our particular
interests formulated in light of the agonistic logic of the state system,
but this is not appropriate for others.  Here, our enlightenment heritage
comes in to help: although we are a particular nation with particular
interests, we are a nation that has a universal interest at its foundation.
Thus, the political hegemony of the US is not the hegemony of a particular
interest, but the hegemony of the universal interest itself.   However,
since the nation state system is also still in effect, raison d'etat is also
still in effect.  Thus, even though our interest is a universal interest, we
can, at our own choosing, withdraw from projects that might imperil our
interests narrowly defied.

What makes the neocon arguments concerning US involvement in the world
compelling is precisely its outright appeal to the idea of universalism and
its hidden appeal to the universalism of global capitalism's, i.e., the
extent to which global capitalism is transforming the global order.  Even
though neocons want to avoid this untidy terrain, this terrain, whether they
recognize it or not, makes their arguments concerning US power persuasive.
This is because to the extent that national sovereignty is eroded by global
capitalism, the prospect that US power is the de facto agent for maintaining
and extending global order becomes ever more unavoidable.  The neocons have
come to occupy this internationalist space even while trying to sculpt it
toward the interest of the US and its policies. The neocons are thus in the
position of trying to jump ahead of history by making it stop, by stretching
this moment of hegemony into an era.


The neocon movement is setting the agenda for global politics and, as much
as the left would like to contextualize this agenda socio-economically, it
cannot contextualize it away completely. Although there are many leftists
who are concerned with internationalism, globalism, etc., they tend to do so
in a manner that bypasses the political altogether in search of root causes.
The left is going to have to enter the fray or be rendered marginal in a way
that will dwarf previous marginality. This is another way of saying that
criticizing American power does not dissolve the responsibility for making
real world choices and decisions about the wielding of this power. There may
be instances where the goal of Internationalism, the extension of a
structure in which notions like 'right' and 'equality' can be defended, will
create an overlap between left and right.

Given this potential overlap, one wonders what the specifics of a left
internationalism would look like. Is it even possible from an American
perspective that has often been naturally disinclined to such an option? But
the fact is that there has always been such a possibility within the
American left, waiting like a germinis rationalis for the right situation to
burst forth. In this respect, the emergence of the so-called
'anti-globalization movement' was a significant moment in the history of the
American left.  Unlike the European left, imbued ideologically by the
universalism and internationalism of Marxism, the American left has for the
most part focused its attention on cultivating a decent society on America's
shores.  Of course there have been exceptions to this rule, but most of
these exceptions have been a product of European influence perpetuated by
European immigration (Jewish Garment Workers, Midwestern German Socialists,
etc.)  Such exceptions inevitably become subject to the twin pressures of
Jeffersonian notions of production and democracy, and the religious moralism
that runs through the American body politic, left and right.  The first
pressure lead to such things as the Port Huron statement, while the second
leads to the instant, sometimes hysterical, suspicion of power, and to a
view of the world that sees it through the single lens of good and evil.
The 'anti-globalization' movement rightly recognizes that to institute
certain 'Jeffersonian' ideas about production and democracy one can no
longer ignore the fact that local possibilities are inextricably bound up
with global productive mechanisms.  To effect certain changes on the local
level one must challenge the 'Washington Consensus', i.e., the set of
self-understandings shared by the business and financial elite, as well as
the elite of both major political parties.  This consensus holds that
neo-liberal policies should govern global financial mechanisms as well as
the policies of national governments.  In challenging the dominance of the
'Washington Consensus', the anti-globalization movement has shed one element
of the historical legacy of the American left, (its Jeffersonian localism)
only to fall into the other legacy of the indigenous American left, a hyper
suspicion concerning power.  A suspicion of power is of course appropriate
for the left.  What is not appropriate is a moralization concerning the
exercise of power that prevents one from engaging in a discussion of what is
properly political, i.e., the collective exercise of power to ascertain
self-determined goals.  This inability to deal realistically with
power-which is, after all, the currency of international relations-has the
paradoxical result that some in the anti-globalization movement argue for
international activism concerning economic relations while remaining
quietistic or counterproductively negative concerning international
politics.  It is easier to turn one's head in moral self-assurance then to
seriously engage in a re-thinking of the global political space.

This is potentially catastrophic insofar as the neocons are ready and able
to espouse a global political vision.  This is a vision being enacted around
the globe right now. Wolfowitz and Perle, for instance, have positions at
the highest levels of American government. Ultimately, with its newly honed
interventionist agenda, the neoconservative movement has grabbed hold of
territory that the left used to have some claim to. In fact, a great irony
is that the claim was carried over by some of the first generation of
neocons who smuggled in a dash of Trotskyism when they joined the right for
the great battle against Stalinism.

There is no going back to Socialist Internationalism; the tectonic plates of
historical transformation have shifted the grounds. But this is not to say
that a new brand of left internationalism cannot be born from those ashes.
Such a position is gestured at obliquely when leftists make arguments
opposing some aspect of American foreign policy with the possibility of
another. (When they ask, for instance, why the US fought the Gulf war but
stood idly by for the Rwandan genocide.)

The question that must be asked is whether they really mean it. Will they
permit the use of American power when it promotes causes that would
otherwise be associated with their own positions or wont they? Any leftist
position will have to hold a line between American imperialism on the one
hand and political irrelevance on the other. It will have to stomach the
possibility of accepting American military intervention when such
intervention would contribute to the extension of the very rights that the
American left defends at home. It would be, in this sense, a kind of New New
Deal for the entire globe.

But this Newer Deal would hold dear the concept of the self-determination of
peoples. Unlike the neocon movement, for whom economic exploitation is the
dirty secret best kept out of polite conversation, left internationalism
would also export the continuing struggle against rampant free marketism,
which only seems to bother the neocons when it leads to US weapons
technology showing up in Beijing and never when it constitutes something
close to slave labor in Latin America or south-east Asia. But left
internationalism will also have to swallow the bitter stew of a lesson or
two from Tony Blair or, more palatably, Joschka Fischer.

The idea that the left must dutifully unwrap its banners and dust off the
papier mâché puppets for a peace movement every time military intervention
becomes an option is political automatism and will result in an
aestheticized left whose sole function is street theater. The left has
learned from - and been burned by - its past universalism. But there is
Universalism and there is universalism and a left that cannot distinguish
between the two has ceded the international version of activism to the
neocons, who slipped their Marxism into their back pockets and set up shop
at the Pentagon. In order to have the moral authority to bring questions of
economic exploitation, self-determination, international law, etc., into the
fray the left must also be able to show that it is not solely in the project
of securing its own convenient moral high ground. The neocons ought not be
taken lightly, especially since they have pilfered something from the
arsenal of the left even as they are misusing it. What they have pilfered,
simply, is the idea that the world can be changed.

( This article appeared in a different form in Radical Society.)
from oldtownreview.com

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