Sunday, June 16, 2013

Remember Neo-Conservatism?

In preparing for this post, I've spent some time digging through the recent columns of Charles Krauthammer to try to re-familiarize myself with an ideology which, even as intellectual fads go, had a brief and ignominious shelf-life, but which seems to still exercise a curious hold over the minds of our policy elite: Neo-Conservatism.  It has made for a surreal reading experience.  I've grown so accustomed lately to reading criticisms of Obama's recent speech on the War on Terror from leftists, liberals, and libertarians that I had almost forgotten the broad swath of the political spectrum which attacked it from precisely the opposite direction: insisting that Obama had basically given away the family jewels by promising action on Gitmo and disavowing, at least rhetorically, the framework of "perpetual war." Congratulations, Charles Krauthammer, you have made me more sympathetic to Obama's speech than Obama did himself.  I guess there's always a bigger fish.

Some of the most revealing quotes from the Krauthammer piece:

"Obama says enough is enough. He doesn’t want us on 'a perpetual wartime footing.' Well, the Cold War lasted 45 years. The war on terror, 12 so far. By Obama’s calculus, we should have declared the Cold War over in 1958 and left Western Europe, our Pacific allies, the entire free world to fend for itself — and consigned Eastern Europe to endless darkness.'

"Obama pretends that the tide of war is receding. But it’s demonstrably not. It’s metastasizing to Mali, to the Algerian desert, to the North African states falling under the Muslim Brotherhood, to Yemen, to the savage civil war in Syria, now spilling over into Lebanon and destabilizing Jordan."

"But the ultimate expression of Obama’s Dorothy Doctrine is Guantanamo. […] Other wars end, at which point prisoners are repatriated. But in this war, the other side has no intention of surrender or armistice. They will fight until the caliphate is established or until jihadism is as utterly defeated as fascism and communism. That’s the reason — the only reason — for the detention conundrum. There is no solution to indefinite detention when the detainees are committed to indefinite war."

It is worth reading the whole thing so as to recall (if, like me, you had almost forgotten) the mentality which shaped our foreign policy under the previous president and which reflects a permanent temptation in our political culture toward self-righteous bellicosity and moral chest-thumping.  

I think these quotes help us to see that both the best and worst aspects of Neo-Conservatism really have nothing to do with small-c conservatism at all, but with the legacy of the Popular Front-inspired liberalism of the 1930s.  To the Neo-Conservatives, the only relevant historical analogy is always Munich, circa 1938.  To the Popular Front which formed to resist fascism in those years they owe their democratic idealism (what's left of it), as well as their universalism.  But it is also to them that the Neo-Cons owe their abiding conviction that the world can be easily divided into light and dark, good and evil, sheep and goats.  The great danger of this Manichaean attitude is that it fails to recognize any potential for darkness within oneself or one's own society.  Human evil is a real thing, and the events in Syria and elsewhere to which Krauthammer alludes demonstrate its existence.  But such horrible acts of violence should not inspire us with a conviction of our own moral superiority and power to do good, but with a sense of the unrealized potential for evil in all of us, even in our own democratic societies.  If we do not do this, and instead persist in believing we are uniquely exempt from human temptations, then we will inevitably become blind to our own criminality (see Krauthammer's remarks above on indefinite detention).  

(This particular blindness too the Neo-Cons owe to the Popular Front, which often accused those members of its ranks who criticized the Soviet Union of being "objectively pro-fascist," even if they deplored fascism, because they doubted the credibility of its Marxist-Leninist frere ennemi.  And as so often happens, those who were most blinkered in their support for everything the Soviet Union and the other victorious Allies did in the name of defeating fascism were often the same intellectuals who, after the war, became apologists for every injustice committed in the name of anti-Communism.)

There are sometimes political forces in the world which need to be stopped by force of arms, and fascism was surely among them, but the crusade against Hitler should not be taken as the model for all human history.  Nor would it be anything other than twisted logic if the magnitude of Hitler's crimes gave us a false impression of our incapacity to do serious wrong.  

The trouble with bad guys and good guys, to the extent they exist, is that the former tend to distribute themselves rather liberally among all sects and creeds, while the latter are often not found uniquely among the ranks of any army or ethnic group, but rather among the ordinary people trying to survive and protect their families amid appalling atrocities committed by all sides.  One would think that contemporary Syria of all places would serve as evidence of this, rather than evidence of the cosmic struggle between freedom and slavery.

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