»  National Review Online

November 21st, 2006

  From Neoconservatism to Paleorealism


All the buzz now is that neoconservatism — solving our national security problems by spreading democracy, at the point of a sword when necessary — is dead, and that we are about to turn back to good old Nixon/Kissinger/Bush-41 realism: Let the blighters have whatever despotic, homicidal, economy-destroying, women-and-minority-oppressing governments they want, so long as they don't impact our own national interests.

We hear that the Iraq Study Group looking into alternative policies on Iraq will recommend realist deal-cutting with the neighboring powers — particularly Iran and Syria — as the only way for us to engineer a non-humiliating exit. All the high principles of the past three years' worth of presidential speeches are soon, apparently, to be declared no longer operational. Iraq was to be turned into a functioning democracy, to be a beacon of rational government in the Moslem Middle East (MME). The Iranians, the Egyptians, the Syrians, even the Saudis would see the light. Then Islamic fundamentalism, no longer nourished by the pathologies arising from life under tyrannical regimes, would lose its appeal, and America would be safe from future 9/11s.

The neoconservative argument was never very convincing. Comfortable liberal democracies like Britain have proved to be just as capable of engendering jihadis as have MME despotisms. Some straightforward improvements in airline and port-of-entry security, with the assault on Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, have been able to thwart 9/11-style attacks for five years now, even while the Iraq campaign was heating America-hatred to boiling-point. The elections held in Iraq have made little impression on the rest of the MME, whose conspiracy-addled peoples regard them as an American ploy to put our stooges in power. Certainly the rulers of Iran do not seem to be trembling in their boots for fear of representative government seeping across the border from Iraq.

The whole neocon project has been a colossal failure. Even George W. Bush must now know this. The MME will not adopt consensual government any time soon. There is a case for KBO in Iraq — Adam Brodsky has put it very neatly — but nobody of any consequence thinks we shall remake that country in our own image, or anything like it. A lot of us never believed it anyway, though we are much too nice to go around now saying "I told you so."

To be fair to the neocons, they may have picked the wrong country to test their theory on. It may be that Iraq is a particularly hard case. Perhaps Syria, or even Iran, might have been a better bet. We can't know. We only know that the project failed decisively in Iraq, there is no detectable support in the U.S.A. for trying again elsewhere, and we need a comprehensive new policy for the MME.

If what we are hearing about the Iraq study group is right, and if the appointment of Robert Gates as our new SecDef points the same way, as it seems to, we are headed back to realism. The pendulum rarely swings back halfway, and my guess is that the coming realism will be of a particularly hard-nosed kind — a sort of paleorealism.

That will suit the American people, who have been getting a good close look at the MME, its peoples and their religion this past five years, and have formed definite opinions about them. Those opinions can be seen in any newspaper "letters" column, or heard on radio and TV phone-in programs. Sympathy and fellow-feeling for the shoeless fellaheen of the MME is … not widespread. One of the strongest themes in my own reader email — and a growing one, too — is the desire to have as little as possible to do with the MME, even to the extent of banning all MME immigrants and visitors.

The durn place isn't going to go away, of course. The West Asia-Northeast Africa arc — the stretch of nations from Libya through to Pakistan — has some evolving to do, probably into a sort of pre-1914-Europe configuration, three or four big powers (Iran, Pakistan, Egypt) jostling for hegemony while minority populations seek what foreign friends they can and lob the occasional bomb at visiting archdukes. Presumably the big nations will all go nuclear over the next 5-10 years. That will probably damp down the jostling — nuclear powers have strong incentives not to march armies into each other's territories.

On the other hand, the spread of nuclear-weapons technology to disorderly, corrupt, coup-prone, semi-civilized nations like those of the MME makes it ever more likely that nuclear weapons will be misplaced, sold, smuggled, or handed off to terrorist proxy groups. Far and away the most probable destination for such stray nukes is U.S. soil.

That is the great peril of the coming years, the one on which our security concerns should focus. Perhaps a democratizing revolution in the MME would have prevented this peril. In any case, no such revolution happened, and none is in prospect. If democracy does develop in the MME it will be autochthonous, not a consequence of anything we have done.

The MME powers will be playing the Great Game of Nations among themselves in the coming decades. Mainly we shall just watch, though occasionally we shall meddle, in our own commercial and geostrategic interests. Some of our meddling will be successful; some will be counter-productive. That's the game. In any case, attempts to foster democracy will not figure in our meddling.

That is all to the good. We have big, difficult geostrategic problems to deal with, in the MME and elsewhere. If we truly have woken from our neocon dreams of spreading benevolence and good government, we shall be able to face those problems with cold eyes, eyes no longer clouded by sentimentality or ideology. We shall then be able to console ourselves with the thought that some good might, after all, have come out of the Iraq blunder.