In 2003 I did not just support the Iraq War, I supported an ideology associated with many of the most vocal proponents of that war: neoconservatism. The purpose of this post is not to criticise Tony Blair for his decision to go to war, although one has to admit that Iraq in 2016 is not the liberal democratic paradise of which many had dreamed, but to note that neoconservatism as an ideology is a soiled good.
There is no simple definition of neoconservatism and neoconservative writers have not all sung the exact same tune with the exact same words. In my opinion neoconservatism is about promoting democracy abroad, opposing regimes hostile to American interests, championing American military strength, and not shirking from using that military strength to further these ideals. The dream was a world reshaped in the American image. Neoconservative thinkers believed, as Francis Fukuyama put it, “history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will.” While neoconservatives are interested in more than foreign policy, it is the foreign policy aspect that has dominated discourse. It is that upon which I focus.
The neoconservatives are ideologues. Like other ideologues they believe that their ideology is right in the moral sense. They had, in their own minds, “moral clarity.” George Bush admitted that the book that influenced his view on foreign policy was Natan Sharansky’s The Case for Democracy. Bush also recommended his aides read the book. Sharansky divided the world into two types of countries: free societies and fear societies. He applied a simple test: “Can a person walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm? If he can, then that person is living in a free society. If not, it’s a fear society.” (pp.40-41). Sharansky formulated his argument based on his own experiences as a dissident in the Soviet Union. If one lives in a fear society, dissidents are arrested and thrown in prison. Fear societies become repressive and tyrannical. He argued, “There is a universal desire among all peoples not to live in fear.” (p.38) His book is a blue print for overturning every single middle eastern dictatorship, and to do so, if necessary, by force: “The free world should not wait for dictatorial regimes to consent to reform….if we condition reform on the agreement of nondemocratic leaders, it will never come. We must be prepared to move forward over their objections.” (p.278). It is a seductive argument. I was seduced.
With such an ideology, in order to morally justify using force for regime change one does not need a fear society to have Weapons of Mass Destruction that could threaten American interests. Regime change is carried out for the good of the citizens of the living in the regime of fear. Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya informed President Bush that the Iraqi population would welcome American soldiers “with sweets and flowers.” Yet, one could argue, if intervention for the good of the citizens is sufficient, why pick on Iraq rather than any other country? The Weapons of Mass Destruction becomes a way of selling the military action to the population at home. (I am interested in the ideology, not the legality of the war, so there is no need to get into discussions as to United Nations votes and whether Bush and Blair did or did not believe Iraq had WMDs.)
At the time of the so-called Arab Spring the cracks began to appear. When there were huge demonstrations in Egypt against President Mubarak, the neoconservatives cheered on regime change and democracy. The hawks in the Israeli government, thought by many to be in line with the neoconservative ideal, were of a contrary opinion. They had a more realist view. If democracy led to the Muslim Brotherhood in charge of Egypt, they would prefer Mubarak. The Israelis thought the American neoconservatives hopelessly naïve.
Syria has been no better. While President Assad was busy killing his countrymen by the hundreds of thousands, the neoconservatives clamoured for his removal. They wanted America to provide massive military assistance to the so-called moderates opposed to his rule. However, these “moderates” were not necessarily moderate. Besides, it hardly helps either democracy promotion or American interests if weapons that America provided to these so-called “moderates” end up in the hands of the head-choppers of Al Qaeda and ISIS.
The problem with neoconservatism is therefore stark. Despite the view of the neoconservatives that the vast majority of people would far prefer a free democratic society than a dictatorship, when given a chance for the type of democracy that the neoconservatives have in mind, citizens of countries do not necessarily take it. Moreover, while the ideological position of believing you are right might be fine in theory, the empirical reality might be vastly different. One should not ignore what is patently obvious: neoconservatism is the God that failed. The neoconservatives need to be mugged by reality.