Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Real NeoCons?

Peter Beinart, over at TNR, has a seemingly counterintuitive argument concerning liberals and neoconservatives. According to Beinart, the real neocons of today are liberals. You may say "wait, wait," but Beinart's correct and the reason why concerns the history of neoconservatism. I'll let Beinart explain by using the first two neoconservative journals, The Public Interest and Commentary, as examples.
The Public Interest dealt primarily with domestic policy. But, in foreign affairs, neocons displayed the same skepticism toward what Francis Fukuyama has called "utopian social engineering." Early neocon foreign policy was aggressive; Podhoretz and Kristol wanted to confront communist movements across the globe. But, for the neocons, preventing communist takeovers did not mean imposing liberal democracies. In Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous maxim, conservatism's key insight was that culture matters more than politics. And, if a nation's culture was not conducive to democracy, attempts to impose one would backfire. In her famed 1979 Commentary essay, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," Jeane Kirkpatrick ridiculed the liberal demand that Nicaragua and Iran shed their authoritarianism as a precondition of U.S. support. "No idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans," she wrote, "than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. This notion is belied by an enormous body of evidence." If neocons thought it utopian to believe Washington could rapidly end poverty, they thought it equally utopian to believe Washington could rapidly instill democracy. In both cases, they believed, such hubris was a particularly liberal vice.

As it turns out, that was wrong. In the wake of America's success in the cold war and the right's success in U.S. politics, the same hubris began to afflict many neocons themselves.
Beinart is on to something here. Today, young liberals value empiricism over ideology. They should, as empiricism is the tool most valued by Enlightenment philosophers or the classical liberals such as Locke, Humboldt, Rousseau and, if I may, Paine of which they are the heirs.

Ideology unconstrained by reality has given us the French Terror, Leninism, Stalinism, Fascism, and now Bush era neoconservatism. While I believe the majority of people on earth want to live peaceably and free, the United States must rely on the work of social scientists and experts on the ground to decide when democracy can plausibly be pushed overseas and when it must be nurtured slowly so the necessary institutions and economic vitality are there to sustain it.