It's not unusual for would-be policymakers and pundits to use an alternative policy view to highlight how they, if in power, would do things differently. Presidential campaign season, which we are now entering, breeds this genre more than any other. All of this is routine in Washington and it's hardly a surprise that folks are now jockeying to stake out "their" unique position to distinguish themselves from current policies or even one-time allies.
But, as much as this is standard Washington behavior, it's still the obligation of those engaged in it not to distort or misrepresent the policy perspective they are standing themselves up against. Yet that is precisely what Ron Asmus and Ken Pollack have done with their op-ed ("The Neoliberal Take on the Middle East," Washington Post, 22 July). Not content to make a straightforward argument about what policies they would pursue if they were in charge, they create a cartoon account of neoconservative positions to make their own position look sensible and serious.
Of course, the conceit of the piece is that there is a cohesive "neoconservative" movement. And precisely because that is not the case, journalists, pundits and policy analysts have felt free to label virtually everyone and anyone they (typically disagree with) as being neoconservatives. In the mouths of some, it merely means "hawk;" in others, "Jews;" and, in others, individuals who have at one time or another written in Commentary or the Weekly Standard. So, using those criteria, I'm sure Pollack and Asmus can find the odd statement or comment to supposedly bolster their view of what "the" neo-con position is. But, if that is not what they are up to, then, speaking as the head of one of the leading neo-con think-tanks, their portrayal paints with too broad a brush and is a caricature of the neo-con approach to national security affairs.
To start, they describe the neoconservative policy toward the Middle East as one of "coercive democratization." What they mean by this is not precisely clear; however, the thrust of their point seems to be that neo-cons are one-note johnnies. According to Asmus and Pollack, "the invasion and reconstruction of Iraq are not an exception but a precedent that, if need be, can and will be replicated elsewhere." Got a problem in Iran, Saudi Arabia or Egypt - hey, invade it, colonize and force democracy down its throat. Sounds silly, it is silly, and no serious neo-con thinks that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem states of the Muslim Middle East. How one approaches Syria will differ substantially from how we engage Egypt.
Next, there is the accusation that "Neocons don't' like nation-building." My first response of course is to say, "Who does?" After all, nation-building is difficult and takes a long-term commitment to make it work. And even then it may not. But it is precisely the neo-cons like us who have been willing to make the case for it - in Iraq now and in the Balkans previously - and, do so, despite the constant stream of criticism from other elements within the Republican Party, libertarians and traditional conservatives alike, who think neo-cons are wasting national treasure on wooly-headed efforts to transform governments and societies. Asmus and Pollack, as longtime Washington players, know this perfectly well but chose to ignore it.
And the idea that neo-cons are opposed in principle to nation-building is a particularly fallacious charge given the fact that, within the past few months, Asmus himself has signed not one, but two, public statements with well-known neo-conservatives that were designed to generate support for nation-building in post-war Iraq. Again, he knows better.
Moving on, Asmus and Pollack assert, "Many neocons are skeptical about the peace process." So much so that "they prefer to do nothing, excusing the inaction by insisting that Arab autocrats first convert to democracy." On the first point, they are of course absolutely right. Moreover, neo-cons have every reason to be skeptical about a peace process that has been long on the latter but producing virtually none of the former. But, that said, it precisely the neo-con policy of insisting on reforms within the Palestinian Authority that have created the first significant break in the talks since Oslo. It is hardly "inaction" that has led to Arafat's reduced position and opened the way for real progress.
Finally, Asmus and Pollack conclude their piece with a fusillade of accusations, the overall substantive point being: neo-cons revel in the US acting a rogue behemoth - talking about "empire and American primacy as a legitimate goal," tossing aside "international rules and norms" and "eschewing traditional alliances as burdensome." First, "talking" about empire is a way of suggesting neo-cons want America to be an empire but without actually saying so. And while there has been some loose talk about empire and imperial requirements by some within the neo-con ranks, the reality is, no one is actually suggesting the U.S. assert its permanent sovereignty over foreign lands and peoples to create a real empire. To the contrary, as Robert Kagan recently argued at the American Enterprise Institute on the question of whether the United States was, or should be, an empire:
Nor of course does our desire to maintain American primacy mean, as Asmus and Pollack suggest, that we don't care about the health of America's alliances or whether or not the U.S. abides by international norms. As Ron Asmus in particular knows, we have been supportive of NATO, NATO's expansion and reform, and efforts to rebuild ties to and among our democratic allies in Asia. Just last April, William Kristol testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that:
Again, Asmus knows as much, having signed two statements with leading neo-cons that explicitly called for NATO to take a principal role in post-Saddam Iraq and co-authored an op-ed with Robert Kagan ("Commit for the Long Run," Washington Post, January 29, 2002) in which they argue that the present "strategic challenge" is not one "we can or should meet alone. We need to strengthen the traditional alliances that can stand with us over the long haul, not neglect them in favor of temporary ad hoc coalitions." And, finally, I challenge Asmus and Pollack to find more than one neo-con that has argued that American policy should be to ignore the traditional tenets of "international law" or that "might makes right." Except in their own minds -- and those of some Europeans -- where does this comic book version of neo-cons views exist?
I will leave it up to others to speculate why Asmus and Pollack believe they need to create this straw neo-con man. But, in doing so, they offer up the vague outlines of an alternative foreign policy vision - one they call "neoliberal." Two statements stand out: Neoliberals "believe that coercive democratization is bound to fail" and "believe in political preemption first and military preemption only as a last resort." Last resort? Bound to fail? All I can say is that the people of Iraq should be glad that neo-liberals aren't in charge now. And I'm sure the peoples of Nicaragua, Grenada and Panama are equally happy they were not in charge when we toppled their respective despots.
And, if "coercive democratization" more broadly means using aggressively all the tools of American statecraft to reform regimes, then, I'm sure the peoples of Poland, South Korea and South Africa are glad they too were not left to the vagaries of neoliberal policymakers. Are the impoverished and tyrannized populations of the Muslim world really going to take comfort in a policy perspective that, as Asmus and Pollack put it, says that "true success will come only from a long-term effort to help push Arabs to reform their societies from within." Do neo-liberals really think that this is a strategy likely to work with Syria, in Lebanon or with Persian Iran? Whatever the shortcomings of "coercive democratization," it has at least the virtue of realizing the dangers we face now and the corrupt and thuggish character of the regimes in place today. As the late editor Michael Scully once said: "neoconservatives are liberals who have been mugged by reality, while neoliberals are liberals who have been mugged by reality but refuse to press charges."
As two former policymakers wrote in the wake of September 11: "we need to chart a more ambitious agenda." In the Arab world, "illegitimate anti-Western governments inch closer every day to acquiring weapons of mass destruction, posing a threat to millions. Must we wait for another attack before we use our power and influence to compel change?" And even "when Osama bin Laden is in his grave, we'll still have a duty to ourselves and to the world to use our power to spread democratic principles and deter and defeat the opponents of our civilization." "Compel," "use our power," - reads like a recipe for "coercive democratization" to me. The authors: Robert Kagan and Ron Asmus.