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Is Neoconservatism Even A Doctrine At All?

Ed Note: The discussion of neoconservatism starts here and continues here. Ali Eteraz jumps in to respond to the latest round, here.

Daniel Koffler says that when it comes to foreign policy, neoconservatism is neither liberal internationalism, nor illiberal expansionism, but really just an elitist and intellectual project, defined primarily by its belligerence, exceptionalism and (Straussian) secrecy. Koffler comes up with this third category because he is intent on showing that neoconservatism is not a "movement" like the other two foreign policy views, and therefore cannot quite qualify as a "nationalism."

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that neoconservatism is a conspiratorial cabal. In Koffler's words: "an exclusively elite movement with limited membership."

That gives neoconservative foreign policy too much credit. Intellectual and elitist movements (even conspiracies) usually have some kind of identifiable structure to them. Yet, neoconservative foreign policy, since 2001, has been a morass of empty slogans and ambiguous declarations. It has been an idea in construction. It was never settled on where it was going. It was for this reason that it put forward nebulous ideas like "terror" and "axis of evil" and "doctrine of integration" and "with us or against us." If anything, neoconservatism is the 21st century version of 19th century nativism, the 1920s Red Scare and 1950s McCarthyism — yet another instance of America panicking in the face of a global encounter.

We know this because before 9/11, and before being elected President, the Bush foreign policy shop had said that that they would not focus on international humanitarianism as Clinton had done (I believe this was in Rice's Foreign Affairs article in 2000). Yet, after 9/11, humanitarianism — in the form of "nation-building" — was the first thing out of the neoconservatives' mouths (which as Ahmed Rashid points out they then botched). No rhyme, no reason. That's why one day Bush was talking about Islamofascists and the next acknowledging that the term wasn't accurate, why one day we were entering Iraq because of WMD and the next day because of Saddam's links with Al-Qaeda. That's why one day we were declaring war on all state-sponsors of terror and the next day we were hobnobbing with Saudi Arabia.

Now, nearly every faction —- from neo-conservatives to liberal hawks to libertarians (like Koffler) — objects to understanding neoconservative foreign policy as inherently devoid of any content. Neoconservatives themselves reject this idea because they think it smacks of confusion, and my, it couldn't be that they had no idea what they were doing. Liberal hawks reject it because they feel extra guilty for being duped by a movement that had no idea what it was doing. People like Koffler reject this reading because in order to justify their preferred projects it is more effective to demonize neoconservatives as a cabal than to recognize them as people who had little idea of what to do when thrust into Hillary Clinton's 3 AM scenarios.

As much as I'd like to believe that neoconservatism was a conspiracy that broke out after 9/11, the more reasonable explanation is that the people we had in charge were utter incompetents who, when confronted by the world coming to their shores, didn't know what to do, so they did everything under the sun. Pre-emptive war? Yes, we do that! Humanitarian war? We do that too! 100 years war? That too! Nation-building? Sure, why not! Empire? Fuck yeah! (as a Bush advisor told Ron Suskind in slightly different terms). War on terror? Check! World War IV? If we include Iran, yeah baby!

The fact is, and as pitiable as it sounds, on 9/11 America got hit in the head with a mallet, and rather than taking a moment to get a sense of who we were, our government started behaving like a punch drunk boxer.

Neoconservatism foreign policy is 21st century American hyperventilation. It is panic, and panic is a far worse characteristic in a government than institutional corruption. People like Koffler who actually oppose neoconservatism shouldn't give it historiographical credit.

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