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Neocon Nation: Neoconservatism, c. 1776

“The Iraq War will always be linked with the term ‘neoconservative,’” George Packer wrote in his book on the war, and he is probably right. The conventional wisdom today, likely to be the approved version in the history books, is that a small group of neoconservatives seized the occasion of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, to steer the nation into a war that would never have been fought had not this group of ideologues managed somehow to gain control of national policy.

This version of events implicitly rejects another and arguably simpler interpretation: that after September 11, 2001, American fears were elevated, America’s tolerance for potential threats lowered, and Saddam Hussein naturally became a potential target, based on a long history of armed aggression, the production and use of chemical weapons, proven efforts to produce nuclear and biological weapons, and a murky relationship with terrorists. The United States had gone to war with him twice before, in 1991 and then again at the end of 1998, and the fate of Saddam Hussein had remained an unresolved question at the end of the Clinton administration. It was not so unusual for the United States to go to war a third time, therefore, and the Bush administration’s decision can be understood without reference to a neoconservative doctrine. After September 11, the Bush administration weighed the risks of leaving Saddam Hussein in power against the risks of fighting a war to remove him and chose the latter, its calculus shaped by the terrorist attacks and by widely shared suppositions about Iraq’s weapons programs that ultimately proved mistaken.

If one chose to believe this simpler version, then the decision to invade Iraq might have been correct or mistaken, but the lessons to be learned from the war would concern matters of judgment, tactics, and execution—don’t go to war based on faulty intelligence; don’t topple a foreign government without a plan to bring order and peace to the country afterwards; don’t be so quick on the trigger; exhaust all possibilities before going to war; be more prudent. But they would not raise broader issues of foreign policy doctrine and grand strategy. After all, prudence is not a foreign policy. It is possible to be prudent or imprudent, capable or clumsy, wise or foolish, hurried or cautious in pursuit of any doctrine. The intervention in Vietnam was the direct product of the Cold War strategy of containment, but many people who think the Vietnam War was a mistake nevertheless do not condemn containment. They believe the war was the misapplication and poor execution of an otherwise sound strategy. One could argue the same was true of Iraq.

One could, but very few critics of the war do. The heated debate in the United States over the past few years has not been so much about bad intelligence, faulty execution, or imprudence in Iraq. In his book The Assassins’ Gate, Packer claims that he is unable to explain why the United States went to war without recourse to the larger doctrine behind it. “The story of the Iraq war,” he writes, “is a story of ideas about the role of the United States in the world.” And the ideas he has in mind are “neoconservative” ideas. His premise, and that of most critics, is that neoconservatism was uniquely responsible for the United States going to war in Iraq and that, had it not been for the influence of neoconservative ideas, the war never would have occurred.

To examine this premise requires first understanding what people mean by “neoconservative,” for the term conjures very different images. For some, it is synonymous with “hawk,” to others, it is an ethnic description, and to still others, it is a term to describe anything evil—I once heard a Cornell professor earnestly define neoconservatism as an ideological commitment to torture and political oppression. But when employed fairly neutrally to describe a foreign policy worldview, as Packer does, neoconservatism usually has a recognizable meaning. It connotes a potent moralism and idealism in world affairs, a belief in America’s exceptional role as a promoter of the principles of liberty and democracy, a belief in the preservation of American primacy and in the exercise of power, including military power, as a tool for defending and advancing moralistic and idealistic causes, as well as a suspicion of international institutions and a tendency toward unilateralism. In the hands of more hostile critics, the neocons are not merely idealistic but absurdly and dangerously hubristic about the unlimited capacity of American power to effect positive change; not merely expansive but imperialistic, seeking not only American pre-eminence but ruthless global dominance; not merely willing to use force, but preferring it to peaceful methods; and not merely tending toward unilateralism but actively spurning alliances in favor of solitary action. Even these deliberately polemical caricatures point to something recognizable, a foreign policy that combines an idealist’s moralism, and even messianism, with a realist’s belief in the importance of power.

The first thing that could be said about this neoconservative worldview is that there is nothing very conservative about it. But a more important question is, how “neo” is it? A central contention of those who insist that neoconservatism explains the Iraq War is that the doctrine is not only new but outside the foreign policy traditions that have guided the United States throughout its history. Where, for instance, did the idea of promoting democracy come from? To find an answer, Packer, along with many others, feels he must follow a winding intellectual path back to Leo Strauss, or to Leon Trotsky, or to the Jewish experience after the Holocaust. The point is that the “neoconservative” foreign policy of the Bush years needs to be understood as an alien presence in the American body. The further implication is that once this alien worldview is exorcised, the United States can return to its traditional ways and avoid future Iraqs.

Is this right? Is it true that moralism, idealism, exceptionalism, militarism, and global ambition—as well as imprudent excesses in the exercise of all of these—are alien to American foreign policy traditions? The question must seem absurd to anyone with even a passing knowledge of American history. But then, perhaps, it is also very American to forget the past so willfully.



To understand where the idea of promoting American principles by force comes from, it is not really necessary to parse the writings of Jewish émigrés. One could begin with less obscure writings, like the Republican Party’s campaign platform of 1900. In that long-forgotten document, the party leaders, setting the stage for what would be William McKinley’s crushing electoral victory over William Jennings Bryan, congratulated themselves and the country for their recently concluded war with Spain. It was, they declared, a war fought for “high purpose,” a “war for liberty and human rights” that had given “ten millions of the human race” a “new birth of freedom” and the American people “a new and noble responsibility . . . to confer the blessings of liberty and civilization upon all the rescued peoples.”

Or one could go back further, for the Republican Party’s moralism was not “neo” even in 1900. In the 1850s, William Henry Seward, the party’s founder, New York’s governor, and, later, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, declared it America’s duty “to renovate the condition of mankind” and lead the way “to the universal restoration of power to the governed.” Seward himself was only expanding on the beliefs of earlier American statesmen, such as Henry Clay, who had spoken of America’s “duty to share with the rest of mankind this most precious gift,” who pushed for war against Britain in 1812 to defend America’s republican “honour,” who was willing to go to war with Europe over the fate of Latin American “republics,” and who sought to place the United States at the “centre of a system which would constitute the rallying point of human freedom against all the despotism of the Old World.”

Before Clay there was Alexander Hamilton, who, like George Washington and others of the founding generation, believed their young republic was destined for greatness and even primacy on the global stage. Hamilton believed America would “erelong, assume an attitude correspondent with its great destinies—majestic, efficient, and operative of great things. A noble career lies before it.” With twenty years of peace, Washington predicted in his farewell address, the United States would acquire the power to “enable us in a just cause, to bid defiance to any power on earth.” Jefferson foresaw a vast “empire of liberty” spreading west, north, and south across the continent. John Quincy Adams considered the United States “destined by God and by nature to be the most populous and powerful people ever combined under one social contract.” To all the founders, the United States was a “Hercules in a cradle,” powerful in a traditional sense and also in a special, moral sense, because its beliefs, which liberated human potential and made possible a transcendent greatness, would capture the imagination and the following of all humanity. These beliefs, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, were neither exclusively Anglo-Saxon nor Burkean accretions of the centuries but, in Hamilton’s words, were “written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature by the hand of the divinity itself.” And these ideals would revolutionize the world. Hamilton, even in the 1790s, looked forward to the day when America would be powerful enough to assist peoples in the “gloomy regions of despotism” to rise up against the “tyrants” that oppressed them. James Madison saw as the “great struggle of the Epoch” the battle between “Liberty and Despotism,” and America’s role in that battle was inescapable.

The twentieth century, of course, rang with the rhetoric of greatness, moralism, and mission. “Is America a weakling to shrink from the world work of the great world-powers?” Theodore Roosevelt asked when he accepted the vice-presidential nomination in 1900. And he roared the answer: “The young giant of the West stands on a continent and clasps the crest of an ocean in either hand. Our nation, glorious in youth and strength, looks in the future with eager eyes and rejoices as a strong man to run a race.” This young, muscular America was “the just man armed,” and when World War I came, Roosevelt and others of his generation regarded it as America’s second great moral crusade. The Civil War had been the first. “As our fathers fought with slavery and crushed it, in order that it not seize and crush them,” Roosevelt declared, “so we are called on to fight new forces.” Henry Cabot Lodge called World War I “the last great struggle of democracy and freedom against autocracy and militarism.” Woodrow Wilson, in his message to Congress in 1917, used language that would make George W. Bush’s speechwriters blush: “The right is more precious than peace,” he proclaimed, “and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts,” for “democracy” and against “selfish and autocratic power.” The day had finally come when America was “privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness.”

The first decades of the twentieth century saw a steady stream of military interventions in the affairs of Latin American and Caribbean peoples, often launched with the professed aim of “teaching them to elect good men” (Woodrow Wilson) or lifting them “up out of the discord and turmoil of continual revolution into a general public sense of justice and determination to maintain order” (Elihu Root). And yes, as critics then and later claimed, there were, as always, other motives at work. But along with protecting American investments, successive American presidents, from Taft to Wilson to Harding to Coolidge, also undertook painstaking if often unsuccessful efforts to establish and support functioning democratic systems. In Nicaragua, the Marines intervened in 1912 and then remained for the better part of two decades, guarding not only American financial interests but also a flawed but functioning electoral process with the hope, as Henry Stimson put it, “that if a generally admitted fair election could once be held, it might serve as a guide and pattern toward which the minds of the Nicaragua people might turn in the future.” Having once “been shown by Americans that such an election was possible,” Nicaraguans “would be encouraged in the future to adopt permanently a system of free elections with their own efforts.” This seemed to Stimson “to be a goal worthy of every possible effort.”

Such aspirations, and others even more purely idealistic, drove American policy in every decade of the twentieth century. Even in the “isolationist” 1930s, there was the concern over Japan’s plundering of Manchuria and depredations in China—all ignored as not worthy of serious comment by hard-headed Britain and the European powers but in the United States producing the moral outrage, the diplomatic protests, and the economic embargoes that ultimately convinced the Japanese to launch their attack on Pearl Harbor. Then there was the great moral crusade against Nazism and fascism—a battle for democratic civilization and the “four freedoms.” And then, of course, there was the Cold War, which began with Harry Truman declaring that the nations of the world must “choose between alternative ways of life” and that it was the duty of the United States to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation” and assist them “to work out their own destinies in their own way.” In the middle there was John F. Kennedy proclaiming America’s determination to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” And, at the end, there was Ronald Reagan citing the words of Thomas Paine and promising to “begin the world anew” by vanquishing an “evil empire” and leading the world into a new era of freedom.

It is hard to believe that Americans today have really forgotten this long history, if for no other reason than their history textbooks for the past three decades at least have been devoted almost entirely to revealing this dominant tradition in American foreign policy as imperialistic, chauvinistic, militaristic, and hypocritical. Can a generation raised on the teachings of William Appleman Williams and Walter LaFeber believe that the alleged sins of neoconservatism—excessive idealism, blinding self-righteousness, utopianism, hubris, militarism, and overweening ambition, and throw in if you want selfishness and greed—are somehow new sins? Has the American academy so badly failed to get its message across? Or is it necessary to whitewash the past in order to win a political argument in the present?



The idea that today’s policies represent a decisive break from the past would certainly come as a surprise to the many critics of American foreign policy across the generations, for there has not been a single criticism leveled at neoconservatism in recent years that was not leveled at American foreign policy hundreds of times over the past two centuries.

The oldest, and in some ways most potent, critique has always been that of genuine conservatism, a powerful counter-tradition that goes back at least as far as the debates over the ratification of the Constitution in 1787. The supporters of the new federal Constitution—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison—insisted that the concentration of energy and power in the federal government was essential if the United States was to become a world power capable both of protecting itself and achieving its destined greatness on the world stage. “Let Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness!” Hamilton exhorted in the Federalist papers. But Patrick Henry, a leader of the anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution, accused Hamilton and his allies, not unfairly, of seeking to “convert this country into a powerful and mighty empire.” This, Henry insisted, was a betrayal of the nation’s true purpose. “When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: liberty, sir, was then the primary object.”

That quotation is a favorite chestnut of Patrick Buchanan and that ancient confrontation has recurred in almost every generation since the founding. At the core of this conservative critique has always been the fear that “empire,” however one might define it—in Henry’s day, it meant simply a wide expanse of land under a single, strong central government—is antithetical to, and ultimately destructive of, American democratic and republican virtues. A big, expansive foreign policy requires a big, powerful central government to advance it, and such a government imperils American liberties. It also imperils its democratic soul. As John Quincy Adams memorably put it in 1821, America might become “the dictatress of the world,” but she would “be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

In one way or another, all the major critiques of expansive, ambitious, idealistic American foreign policy have been shaped by this concern about overweening ambition and the temptations of power. It may not even be right to call this inclination “conservative” but rather, as Bernard Bailyn long ago suggested, a manifestation of American “republicanism”—a deep and abiding suspicion of centralized power and its corrupting effects on the people who wield it. Such fears have been expressed by conservatives, liberals, socialists, realists, and idealists alike over the past two centuries.

Today, most of those old battles are forgotten. No one recalls that John Randolph of Roanoke and John Taylor of Caroline—more Jeffersonian than Jefferson himself—railed against the War of 1812 as having no justification in terms of American interests. It was merely, and appallingly, a “war for honour,” a “metaphysical war” that, by requiring a strong federal government to wage it, would end in “the destruction of the last experiment in . . . free government.” Few remember that when President James Monroe set forth his famous doctrine in 1823, he was not staking out a restrictive isolationist worldview but, on the contrary, a progressive, expansive view of America’s role in the world. His critics, led by Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, attacked him for gravely departing from what they, too, insisted were American foreign policy traditions. The Mexican-American War is the one war Buchanan likes—he lovingly calls it “Jimmy Polk’s War.” But most conservatives at the time did not, for although a struggle primarily to open new territory for slavery, it was fought under the idealistic and expansive, if hypocritical, banner of liberty and “Manifest Destiny.” Its opponents included anti-slavery northerners and conservative Whigs like Daniel Webster, who had long exhorted his expansionist countrymen to cease and desist: “You have your Sparta. Embellish it!” In the early 1890s, the increasingly progressive Republican Party stood for “the future greatness and destiny of the United States,” favored an intrusive government at home (by the standards of the day), and shared James G. Blaine’s ambition for an active and intrusive role “in global affairs and in the improvement of the world.” The guardians of the conservative tradition were the Democratic Party of Grover Cleveland, and it was Cleveland’s forgotten secretary of state, Walter Q. Gresham, who uttered another classic statement of the conservative critique when he warned Americans against their “impulse to rush into difficulties that do not concern” them. “To restrain the indulgence of such a propensity is not only the part of wisdom, but a duty we owe to the world as an example of the strength, the moderation, and the beneficence of popular government.” Americans did not listen, however, and rushed into war with Spain for Cuba’s freedom, and into the Philippines pursuing their “high purpose” of raising the natives up to self-sustaining civilization.

The battles continued and intensified in the “Wilsonian” twentieth century. Conservatives fought Wilson’s interventionist foreign policies partly because they saw in them the extension of his progressive domestic policies, which they regarded as bordering on despotic. The more radical progressives like Randolph Bourne believed the war to make the world safe for democracy would undermine democracy in the United States, and given the undemocratic excesses of the Wilson years—which dwarf anything that has occurred since September 11—Bourne was not entirely mistaken.

In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s it was Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dean Acheson pitted against the followers of Robert A. Taft. The “Mr. Republican” of his day has long been in bad odor for opposing the war against fascism. But his objections to America’s global involvement, including against Nazi Germany, were not those of a bumpkin or redneck, which he certainly was not, but of a highly sophisticated conservative critic of American ambition and hubris. “We should be prepared to defend our own shores,” Taft warned, “but we should not undertake to defend the ideals of democracy in foreign countries.” Otherwise the United States would become a “meddlesome Mattie, interfering in trouble throughout the world,” with “our fingers in every pie.” It would “occupy all the strategic points in the world and try to maintain a force so preponderant that none shall dare attack.” Like Patrick Henry, John Taylor, and John Quincy Adams before him, he worried about the effect of so much power on the health of his republic. “How long can nations restrain themselves from using such force with just a little of the aggressiveness of Germany and Japan?” he asked. “Potential power over other nations, however benevolent its purpose, leads inevitably to imperialism.”

But Americans in the days of FDR, Truman, Acheson, and after them Eisenhower and Kennedy, sought precisely what Taft feared, a “preponderance of power” and “situations of strength” at strategic points all across the globe. They pursued an ideologically laden containment strategy that theoretically could lead America to war anywhere on the planet, and which did lead it straight into Vietnam.

Old-fashioned conservatives were not alone in raising these concerns. Beginning around the time of World War II, the “realist” school leveled similar criticisms of American foreign policy. Again, it is not much recalled today, but the original realists cut their teeth fighting against FDR, Truman, and Dean Acheson. As Truman enunciated his famous doctrine and Acheson set about implementing the strategy of containment, the great realists of the day howled in disgust. Walter Lippmann denounced containment as a “strategic monstrosity” because it seemed to promise endless confrontation everywhere. He warned it would either bankrupt the nation or lead into an unnecessary and catastrophic war, and some would argue it did both. The realists were joined by the left which, though from a different angle, came to similar conclusions about the dangerous and destructive tendencies of American foreign policy. The left attributed these tendencies to the dominance of capitalists. The realists attributed them to the foolishness of the American people and what George F. Kennan called their “moralistic-legalistic” sensibility. And the conservatives blamed it on progressive liberal utopianism. But otherwise their collective criticisms had much in common.

None of those who criticized American foreign policy believed that what they were fighting against was an aberrant, esoteric, or alien strain. For William Appleman Williams and the left-revisionists, American imperialism was not some deviation from tradition foisted on an unsuspecting nation by clever ideologues; it was ingrained in the American capitalist soul. Whether in Southeast Asia in the 1960s or the Philippines in 1898, it was empire not by accident nor empire as conspiracy but “empire as a way of life.” For the realists, America suffered from a long utopian tradition, which they traced back to Thomas Paine and, a bit unfairly, to Thomas Jefferson, a tradition that ran through Wilson and to the postwar American faith in the United Nations. More worrying still was America’s “messianic” impulse, what Hans Morgenthau called America’s “nationalistic universalism,” which claimed “for one nation and one state the right to impose its own valuations and standards of action upon all other nations.” He and other realists warned in the late 1940s and 1950s—and Henry Kissinger repeated the warning in the 1960s and 1970s—that Americans must give up their “dream of remaking the world in their own image” and rein in their “limitless aspirations for power,” lest in a nuclear age they bring the whole world to ruin. Critics of neoconservatism these days look back longingly to the 1940s and 1950s as the imagined heyday of some “democratic realism,” but true realists do not share in the nostalgia.

Indeed, there was scarcely a moment in the Cold War when true realists were not appalled by the direction the United States was taking. What could a realist make of Kennedy’s promise to “pay any price, bear any burden,” or Jimmy Carter’s human rights policies, or Ronald Reagan’s self-righteous moralizing about the “evil empire”? The Cold War, contrary to today’s reconstructed mythology, was not waged coolly and methodically by calibrating realists or sweetly and idealistically by institution-builders, but aggressively and stubbornly by passionate, fearful, and intensely ideological men absolutely convinced that American power and principles alone were the world’s salvation—a self-righteous conviction that drove both realist and left-leaning critics to distraction. Only the conservatives suspended their criticism in what was for them first, last, and only a war against Communism.

These criticisms did not end with the Cold War. On the contrary, American behavior after the Cold War seemed to fulfill some of the worst fears of conservatives, realists, and left-revisionists. There were George H. W. Bush’s interventions in Panama and the Persian Gulf, undertaken in pursuit of a “New World Order.” There were Bill Clinton’s “humanitarian” interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, as well as the eastward expansion of NATO, all in pursuit of “democratic enlargement.” During the years of the first Bush administration, the realist scholar Robert W. Tucker warned against triumphalism and “The Imperial Temptation.” During the Clinton years, Ronald Steel, Lippmann’s biographer, warned against the “Temptations of a Superpower.” Buchanan accused both the Bush and Clinton administrations of “reenacting every folly” that had ever brought great powers to ruin, “from arrogance to hubris, to assertions of global hegemony, to imperial overstretch, to trumpeting new ‘crusades.’” In the 1990s, Samuel P. Huntington complained bitterly about American “arrogance,” “hubris,” and “unilateralism,” and warned that “at least two-thirds of the world’s people” saw the United States as “intrusive, interventionist, exploitative, unilateralist, hegemonic, hypocritical” and the “single greatest external threat to their societies.” He chastised Clinton administration officials who “boast[ed] of American power and American virtue” and who “lecture[d] other countries on the universal validity of American principles, practices, and institutions,” who professed America’s superior wisdom and foresight. He was appalled at Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when she told the world, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”

These days critics of neoconservatism repeat these same complaints, often culling from these old critics to make their case. They have rediscovered Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr. They pore over the writings of Williams and Charles Beard and summon their wisdom against the present neoconservative foreign policies. They read Noam Chomsky and nod in agreement when he writes that “the United States has become the most aggressive power in the world, the greatest threat to peace, to national self-determination, and to international cooperation.”

But Chomsky wrote that in 1968. And, of course, Beard, Williams, Niebuhr, and Morgenthau did not wage their dissenting battles against neoconservatism but against the policies of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson.



What does it tell us that decades-old critiques of American foreign policy seem so strikingly apt and useful in critiquing today’s “neoconservative” foreign policies? What it tells us, quite simply, is that what many consider the neoconservative aberration may not be such a great aberration after all. The tendencies associated these days with neoconservatism are more deeply rooted in American traditions than the critics care to admit, which means they will not so easily be uprooted, even by the coming epochal presidential election.

In fact, the problem for those who have sought to end this history of American expansiveness, both in decades past and today, is that this tendency toward expansion, this belief in the possibility of global transformation, this “messianic” impulse, far from being aberrant, is a dominant strain in the American character. It is certainly not the only tradition. There are counter-traditions, conservative, “republican,” pacifist, socialist, and realist. But in every generation these forces have done battle, and in almost every generation the expansive, moralistic, hubristic American approach has rolled over its critics, sometimes into victory and success, sometimes into disappointment and calamity.

What are the sources of its enduring power? One source is the American commitment to universal principles embedded in the nation’s founding documents, and the belief that these principles are not debatable but are, as Hamilton suggested, written in the stars by the hand of God. Americans believe they know the truth, and they do not admit alternate truths. Democracy is the only legitimate form of government, and America as the greatest democracy is the most legitimate of all. American foreign policy’s most astute critics have always understood that it is not conservatism but this liberal and progressive idealism that is the engine of American expansionism and hegemonism.

The other source is Americans’ perfectly natural, if seldom acknowledged, ambition for power and wealth, an ambition that has never ceased to drive Americans outward for the better part of the past three centuries. In this respect, America has behaved precisely as old-fashioned realist theory would predict. It has consistently sought greater power and influence and the tangible and intangible rewards they bring. It is a puzzling irony, as Fareed Zakaria once noted, that so many realists dislike American policy precisely because it so nicely conforms to their model. More like Puritan moralists than Machiavellian pragmatists, they wish America would practice restraint as a virtue.

The expansive, moralistic, militaristic tradition in American foreign policy is the hearty offspring of this marriage between Americans’ driving ambitions and their overpowering sense of righteousness. These tendencies have been checked at times by overseas debacles, or by foreign powers too big and strong to be coerced into acceptance of the American truth. At those times, the counter-traditions have been able to assert themselves and take temporary control of American policy, as in the 1930s or in the 1970s. But these victories have been fleeting. The story of America’s first century is not one of virtuous restraint but of an increasingly powerful nation systematically eliminating all competitors on the North American continent. The story of its second century is not one of caution and a recognition of limits but of a steady and determined rise to global dominance. Patrick Henry failed to defeat the Constitution; John Randolph failed to stop the rush to war and big government in 1812; conservatives did not steer the nation away from Manifest Destiny or prevent war with Spain, or World War I, or the many interventions of the twentieth century. Five years after the end of the Vietnam War, which seemed to presage the rejection of the Achesonian principles that led to the intervention, Americans elected Ronald Reagan, who took up those principles again with a vengeance.

Today, many hope that the war in Iraq will quench once and for all Americans’ messianic impulses and their belief in the virtues of power. But will it? Are Americans, either Democrats or Republicans, prepared to forfeit either their power or their belief in America’s exceptional role in the world? Back in the 1960s, the historian Stanley Hoffmann posed a choice for Americans in the title of his book: Primacy or World Order? He knew then, and it remains true today, that for Americans this is not a choice. As the former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine observed (during the Clinton administration), most “great American leaders and thinkers have never doubted for an instant that the United States was chosen by providence as the ‘indispensable nation’ and that it must remain dominant for the sake of humankind.” And as Robert W. Tucker observed (during the first Bush administration), Americans may have sought international order, but for them “international order implies [American] leadership.” That leadership imposes “special responsibilities others do not have,” but in the American view it also “confers a degree of freedom others do not enjoy.” As prominent liberal Democrat and former Clinton official Ivo Daalder has put it, “without American primacy—or something like it—it is doubtful that the rule of law can be sustained.”



Today we are allegedly consumed in a great debate over the nation’s foreign policy. But what kind of debate is it really? At the level of politics and policy, the sides are not as far apart as they would like everyone to believe. Even between the so-called neoconservatives and the liberal internationalists, between the advisers to Republican and Democratic candidates for the White House, the differences, as David Rieff rightly notes, “are more in the nature of a family quarrel,” the “interventionist family.” Today’s argument takes place within the narrow parameters of a common paradigm. Both sides share a belief in American primacy, including military primacy. Both sides have no difficulty agreeing with the statement of John Kerry during the last presidential campaign that “America must always be the world’s paramount military power, but we can magnify our power through alliances.” When Barack Obama talks about foreign policy, he evokes not Chomsky but Kennedy and insists America must be the “leader of the free world.” It must lead the way “in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.” Its “larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom.” He insists, in phrases that should appall any true realist, that the “security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people.” He wants to increase the defense budget, to expand the size of American ground forces by adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 to the Marines to ensure that the United States has “the strongest, best-equipped military in the world.” He talks about “rogue nations,” “hostile dictators,” “muscular alliances,” and maintaining “a strong nuclear deterrent.” He talks about the “American moment” and how we need to “seize” it. He says we must “begin the world anew,” echoing, as Ronald Reagan did, Thomas Paine’s messianic call. Conservatives, realists, and those on the left may cavil, but the compelling force of this tradition is hard to withstand because it reflects deep convictions and long-standing ambitions. Even its most sober-minded critics sometimes can’t help being swept up in it.

These days few people are more vigorous spokesmen for the conservative critique than George F. Will. Over the past couple of years, he has been a steady voice of disapproval against those who would presume to advance American principles of democracy and liberalism by force or other impatient means. “On foreign policy,” he writes, “conservatism begins, and very nearly ends, by eschewing abroad the fatal conceit that has been liberalism’s undoing domestically—hubris about controlling what cannot, and should not, be controlled.” And of course exhibit “A” of this misguided hubris was the intervention in Iraq—a war fought for the “delusory goal” of implanting a democracy there “that would inspire emulation, transforming the region.” Conservatives ought not to have had to learn “on the job” about “the limits of power to subdue an unruly world,” Will chides, or succumbed to the “generous but preposterous assumption” that a people like the Iraqis could “spontaneously” flourish under a democratic regime “without long acculturation in the necessary habits and mores.”

Here is the classic conservative critique of America’s progressive and idealistic approach to the world, and yet even Will has not always been able to resist succumbing to the illusions he identifies. In the waning years of the Cold War, when the triumph of democracy around the world seemed inevitable, Will sounded rather different themes. While celebrating the invasion of Panama by the first President Bush at the end of 1989, he adumbrated the essence of what today is known as “neoconservative” thought. “Because of American interventions in this decade,” he wrote, “this hemisphere has two more democracies—Grenada and Panama—than it would have if America husbanded its power differently.” The invasion of Panama “punctuates a decade of recovery of national purposefulness and a year of militant democracy.” It was the “story of American attempts to comprehend the rights and responsibilities that come with the possession of great power and the enjoyment of democracy.” The invasion of Panama was about democracy, Will insisted, not about interests. After all, Noriega never threatened to close the Panama Canal but, on the contrary, promised to keep it open. American national interests, Will admitted, if “narrowly construed,” could not justify the invasion. But this was not an argument against the intervention. It was an argument “against the narrow construing of national interests.”

A “constant” of America’s “national character,” Will explained, and “a component of American patriotism” had always been this “messianic impulse.” It derived from the belief that America’s “national identity is bound up with acceptance of a responsibility to further democracy.” And while there had always been “many Americans who reject that premise” and who have insisted that America “has no responsibility toward democracy abroad,” nevertheless a majority of Americans have “always thought otherwise.” The “restoration of democracy” was part of “a tradition with a distinguished pedigree. It holds that America’s fundamental national interest is to be America, and the nation’s identity (its sense of its self, its peculiar purposefulness) is inseparable from a commitment to the spread—not the aggressive universalization, but the civilized advancement—of the proposition to which we, unique among nations, are, as the greatest American said, dedicated.” Well.

Guided perhaps by such impulses, Will, during the run-up to the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003, was an enthusiastic supporter, penning column after column about the need to remove Saddam from power, and occasionally sounding very neocon indeed in explaining why. “If Iraq’s next government derives its powers from the consent of the governed,” he wrote in the months before the war, “the entire region may be changed.” At the time, he even chastised those who “too pessimistically” believed that the Arab world was culturally and historically unfit “to experience democratization.”

When the war went badly, Will, like many others, turned against not only the war but also against those who had supported it on the same grounds that he had supported it. He returned to assailing such “generous but preposterous assumptions” that, if not discarded, could lead Americans into “many Iraqs.” But who could be counted on to resist those beguiling assumptions, and the messianic crusades they were likely to produce, if even George Will could not resist them, if indeed this “messianic impulse” was a “constant” in America’s “national character”?



Which brings us back to the question of whether “neoconservatives” dragged the United States into war in 2003. As a purely practical matter, the suggestion has always presented a puzzle. How did they do it? Few people considered George W. Bush a neoconservative before 2003, or Dick Cheney, or Donald Rumsfeld, or Condoleezza Rice, who actually made a point in the 2000 campaign of saying that she was a “realpolitiker.”

Then there was the matter of public opinion. The war was, as American wars go, immensely popular, both before and immediately following its launch—more popular than the wars in Kosovo and Bosnia, or the invasions of Panama and Grenada, and about as popular as the Persian Gulf War of 1991. It remained popular even after weapons investigators discovered none of the suspected caches of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons materials or the programs that the intelligence services of two American administrations and several European countries believed were there. A Washington Post/ABC News poll in April 2003 found that, nevertheless, more than 70 percent of Americans supported the war, and a CBS poll revealed that 60 percent of Americans believed it had been worth the sacrifice even if no weapons of mass destruction were ever found. A month later, a Gallup poll found that 79 percent of Americans considered the war justified with or without conclusive evidence that Saddam Hussein had possessed weapons of mass destruction, and only 19 percent believed the discovery of such weapons was necessary to justify the war. The war lost popular support only as it began to look as if the U.S. military was bogged down in a seemingly endless and possibly losing effort.

The nation’s political leaders were similarly supportive up to that point. The key vote in the Senate in the fall of 2002 passed 77-23, with 29 of 50 Democrats voting to authorize the war. Many will argue, correctly, that members of the Senate were under pressure, that it is always difficult to vote against a president’s request for authority to wage war. But it is not impossible, as a majority of Democrats proved when they opposed the resolution authorizing the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. And if Democrats were cowed into voting to approve war in October 2002, this only reflected their fear of a popular backlash against them if they opposed it. No doubt some members of Congress who approved the war resolution in 1917 felt similar apprehensions.

Still, the breadth of support was remarkable. In 2002, those voting to approve the war included everyone with even vague plans of running for president in either 2004 or 2008—not only John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Joseph Biden, but also Thomas Daschle, Tom Harkin, and Chris Dodd—as well as other Democrats who had no such plans such as Harry Reid, Byron Dorgan, Jay Rockefeller, and Charles Schumer, along with Republican moderates such as Chuck Hagel, Olympia Snowe, and Arlen Specter. One can only speculate abut whether Barack Obama might have voted against the war had he been in the Senate in the fall of 2002. If Dodd and Harkin voted for it, either out of conviction or out of some distant thought of future presidential plans, would Obama alone have made a different calculation?

So were all these people neoconservatives—Cheney and Rumsfeld, Kerry and Clinton, Harkin and Hagel? In a way, yes. They all belonged, in one way or another, to the same expansive tradition in American foreign policy that these days curiously goes by that name. They all believed in American power and the ability of the United States to use that power to beneficial ends in the world. Most had at one point in the previous decade supported the use of force, whether in Iraq or Panama, or in Bosnia or Kosovo, with or without allied support, with or without UN Security Council authorization, and sometimes in pursuit of American interests that were more ideological than tangible. They may not have all agreed that it was the right thing to send ground troops to Iraq in the spring of 2003, even though they voted to approve war. But did any of them stand for a foreign policy doctrine that opposed such action as a matter of principle?

The Bush administration had not brought a new doctrine to bear in considering the Iraq question. The specific rationale for the war it inherited from the Clinton administration. The fear of Saddam’s weapons programs, the concern that his weapons might someday end up in the hands of terrorists, the belief that containment was failing, that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant and a serial aggressor—all these arguments had been made in public and in detail in the years when the Clinton administration grappled with the problem of Iraq. These were the arguments used to justify the use of force when President Clinton ordered four days of bombing and missile attacks against suspected Iraqi weapons production facilities. Neither George W. Bush nor all his clever speechwriters ever managed to come up with a rationale for removing Saddam that had not already been laid out by President Clinton and his top advisers in the late 1990s.

Even Bush’s call for democracy in Iraq was unoriginal. In 2003, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Bush declared that “a new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region. Success in Iraq,” he added, “could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace, and set in motion progress towards a truly democratic Palestinian state.” This statement has been singled out by critics of Bush and neoconservatism as proof of idealistic hubris. But if so, the statement only repeated sentiments expressed by Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, who argued in 2000 that “the best way to address the challenge Iraq poses is through a government in Baghdad—a new government—that is committed to represent and respect its people, not repress them; that is committed to peace in the region. . . . The future of Iraq will affect the way in which the Middle East and the Arab world in particular evolve in the next decade and beyond.”

If the Bush administration inherited the specific rationale for war from the Clinton administration, the larger worldview in which that rationale made sense it inherited from the entire sweep of American history. The effort to explain the war as the product of manipulation by a handful of “neoconservatives” is an effort to escape what for many may be a more troubling reality: that there is something in the American character which leads it in this direction. Americans have an image of themselves as a peace-loving people who generally mind their own business unless blatantly provoked. This self-image is profoundly at odds with reality. So many Americans must find a way to explain American behavior that seems out of character.



The search for an extraneous explanation is an old tradition. The Spanish-American War was probably the most popular war in American history, uniting left and right, southerners with northerners, Theodore Roosevelt with William Jennings Bryan. But when the aftermath of the war left a sour taste in the mouths of many, a new account of the war emerged, according to which a very small number of people had managed to manipulate the levers of power and the emotions of millions in order to pursue their imperialistic conspiracy. This account became the accepted version of events, so much so that to read many history textbooks today, you would imagine that the war was foisted upon an unsuspecting nation by a handful of cagey “imperialists”—Roosevelt, William Randolph Hearst, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Alfred Thayer Mahan—rather than having been launched enthusiastically by a bipartisan majority in Congress that all but trampled McKinley in its rush to war. When Americans came to regret their equally enthusiastic rush into World War I, many chose to blame the nefarious manipulations of bankers and munitions makers. Opponents of American entry into World War II, from Charles Beard to Robert A. Taft, insisted that Franklin Roosevelt “tricked” or “lied” the nation into war. Today it is the Iraq War, once approved by an overwhelming bipartisan vote in the Senate and by large majorities of Americans, that is now inexplicable except by reference to a neoconservative conspiracy. There may be an echo here of what Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style in American politics,” except that this time it is not the populist yahoos but the Hofstadters themselves looking around for secret conspiracies.

And of course it is not just the conspirators who need to be revealed, but also their willing dupes. Maureen Dowd, in her New York Times column earlier this year, chastised Hillary Clinton for her vote to authorize the Iraq War in 2002. Dowd accused Clinton of voting for the war only to prove that she was man enough to lead the nation, and the columnist reflected on past instances of such behavior: “Why didn’t JFK simply toss out the CIA plan developed under Eisenhower to send 1,200 exiles to overthrow a popular Cuban leader with a force of 200,000? He felt the need to prove himself. Why did LBJ ignore his own solid political instincts to listen to Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk about Vietnam—falling under their stupid sway because they had been JFK’s advisers? . . . Why did W. let Cheney and Rummy lead him into hubristic disaster? He, too, needed to prove himself—and outdo Daddy.” Or as Bill Gorton put it in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, “That was what the Civil War was all about. Abraham Lincoln was a faggot. He was in love with General Grant. So was Jefferson Davis. Lincoln just freed the slaves on a bet.”

The idea that momentous decisions of war and peace can be explained by human insecurities and personality quirks obviously has a certain useful appeal. The American diplomatic history syllabus these days features a book, Fighting for American Manhood, which explains how “gender politics provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars.” But whatever truth there may be in such explanations, they also serve to obscure what to their authors may be a more troubling reality: that American leaders did what they did because it was in keeping with their worldview and with the essential character of the nation they led.

After all, as Dowd presumably knows, Johnson’s decision to continue and escalate American involvement in Vietnam in 1964 and 1965 reflected the judgment of many Americans, not just McNamara and Rusk. Not only was the editorial board of Dowd’s own newspaper in favor of it at that time, but so too was the Times’ most heralded and astute observer of the situation in Vietnam, David Halberstam. In 1965 Halberstam wrote that he could not “stomach” the idea of withdrawal; Vietnam was “vital to our national interest;” withdrawal would damage America’s “prestige throughout the world;” and the “pressure of Communism on the rest of Southeast Asia” would grow unacceptably. Johnson may have agreed with this assessment, and perhaps he ignored his sound political instincts not because he lacked the guts to overrule Dean Rusk but because he thought it was the right thing to do.

Is it possible that Hillary Clinton also thought she was doing the right thing in 2002? When Clinton rose on the Senate floor to cast her vote in favor of the resolution “to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq,” the arguments she used were neither novel nor obviously disingenuous. They were the old Clinton administration arguments with which she was very familiar from her own experience in the White House. Thus Saddam Hussein, she noted, was “a tyrant who has tortured and killed his own people, even his own family members, to maintain his iron grip on power.” He had used “chemical weapons on Iraqi Kurds and on Iranians, killing over 20 thousand people.” He had “given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al-Qaeda members.” He had “invaded and occupied Kuwait,” and when the United States withdrew its forces after driving him out, he had taken his revenge against Kurds and the Shiites “who had risen against Saddam Hussein at our urging.”

Clinton also noted in 2002 what has since been quietly and conveniently forgotten—that in 1998 the Clinton administration had changed its policy toward Iraq “from containment to regime change” and had begun “to examine options to effect such a change.” She, like Berger and other Clinton officials, worried that containment was collapsing. If “left unchecked,” Hussein would “continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons. Should he succeed in that endeavor, he could alter the political and security landscape of the Middle East, which as we know all too well affects American security.” This much, she said, was “undisputed.” The question was, what to do about it?

Clinton’s answer expressed the views of what might be called the liberal side of Rieff’s “interventionist family.” She opposed a “unilateral attack,” for if the United States went to war “alone or with a few allies,” such action would “come back to haunt us.” International support and legitimacy were “crucial” because, “while the military outcome” was “not in doubt,” “after shots are fired and bombs are dropped, not all consequences are predictable.” This was a prescient observation, though the unpredictable consequences Clinton feared at the time were that Saddam Hussein would use his chemical and biological weapons or would provide them to “terrorists” who could “torment us with them long after he is gone.”

While preferring to win international support for military action, however, Clinton disagreed with those who insisted the United States “should only resort to force if and when the United Nations Security Council approves it.” The UN remained an imperfect organization. Security council members sometimes vetoed action “for reasons of narrow-minded interests,” and she pointed to the example of Kosovo, when the Clinton administration had been forced to go to war without the Security Council’s approval because Russia had refused to agree. Once again, “in the case of Iraq, recent comments indicate that one or two Security Council members might never approve force against Saddam Hussein until he has actually used chemical, biological, or God forbid, nuclear weapons.” Clinton believed it was still worth trying, if only to put those who opposed action in an “indefensible position.” But she made clear that the United States could go to war with or without a UN authorization.

Casting a vote to authorize war, Clinton declared, was “the hardest decision I have ever had to make,” but “I cast it with conviction . . . Perhaps my decision is influenced by my eight years of experience on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue in the White House watching my husband deal with serious challenges to our nation.” Perhaps it was also influenced, she said, by the fact that she was a “Senator from New York who has seen all too closely the consequences of last year’s terrible attacks on our nation. In balancing the risks of action versus inaction, I think New Yorkers who have gone through the fires of hell may be more attuned to the risk of not acting. I know that I am.”

No doubt there are things Hillary Clinton would have done differently had she been sitting in the White House in the spring of 2003. It is possible she would not, in the end, have gone to war. But there was certainly nothing in Hillary Clinton’s own foreign policy doctrine that precluded her from going to war. The Clinton administration had itself used force on several occasions, in Somalia, Sudan, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and, of course, against Iraq. It had used force without UN authorization. It had bombed and fired missiles into Iraq over the heated objections of France and other allies, and it had done so based on the same evidence of Saddam’s weapons programs that the Bush administration used to justify its war. Certainly there was nothing in the worldview of the Clinton administration to stop it from going to war against Iraq in 2003, and much to support it—which is why nearly every former Clinton official and many Democrats in and out of Congress did. Only when the war went badly did it turn out that, as in 1898, 1917, 1941, and 1965, Americans had once again been lied and tricked into war.



History will judge whether the decision to invade Iraq was a mistake or not. But if it was, what kind of mistake was it? Was it an error of judgment and calculation or an error of doctrine, and if the latter, which doctrine? We could have such a debate, but we are only pretending to have it now.

Critics of the Iraq War often compare it to Vietnam. But there was something more fundamental, and perhaps also more honest, about the debate over Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. When David Halberstam and others of his generation turned against the war, their objection went beyond personalities, tricks, and lies. The problem was not McNamara or Rusk or the misguided American military or the dishonest politicians. The “real problem,” Halberstam wrote, was more basic. It was “the failure to examine the assumptions of the era”—the widely shared assumptions about the nature of the Communist threat, about American interests in a place as far off as Vietnam, and above all, about the role of America in the world. It was the whole idea, which lay behind containment and the Truman Doctrine, of a “manifest U.S. destiny in the world,” the whole notion that the United States was the possessor of transcendent truth and was its best and only defender. Acheson and Truman and the whole postwar establishment saw the world in terms of good and evil, that “the great threat to the world was Communist” and that it was the role of the United States to resist. Halberstam himself had once believed this, but when he turned against the war he also professed to abandon the worldview that had produced it. Now the United States and the Soviet Union appeared to him as “just two new great powers struggling to find their balance,” each with an equal and equally absurd messianic vision.

Today, a true debate about foreign policy doctrine would examine not some fictitious neoconservatism but what remains the dominant worldview that Halberstam and his generation came to criticize. That worldview has its critics in the intellectual world, today as in the past—from Chomsky to Buchanan to John Mearsheimer—but in the political world those who even remotely stand in criticism of this dominant approach—Ron Paul, Ralph Nader, or Dennis Kucinich, for instance—can barely fight their way onto the ballot. In 2008, as in almost every election of the past century, American voters will choose between two variations of the same worldview.

There is much to question in that philosophy. And there is also much to praise. People understandably want a foreign policy doctrine that produces only the results they desire and avoids all errors. Unfortunately, no such doctrine exists. A doctrine that precluded war with Iraq would also likely preclude going to war over Kosovo, just as a strategy that guaranteed America would never go to war in Vietnam might not have been successful in the Cold War. Realists and left-revisionists and genuine conservatives may continue to claim that they have the formula for success, but on the rare occasions when their formula has been tried, it, too, has ended in failure or been rejected by the American people. Today, some self-professed realists, such as Michael Lind, celebrate the great virtues of Dwight D. Eisenhower, chiefly because he did not send combat troops to Vietnam. But these virtues mostly eluded Ike’s contemporaries, who wondered whether a foreign policy based as heavily on threatening nuclear war (as Eisenhower did on more than one occasion) and on CIA-engineered coups (as in Iran and Guatemala) was really so brilliant. Of course, the deeply confused Lind himself once wrote a book insisting that Vietnam, even though a disaster, was “The Necessary War.”

In fact, 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?

Robert Kagan is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Transatlantic Fellow at The German Marshall Fund. He is the author of The Return of History and the End of Dreams (Knopf).

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