Stephen M. Walt

Would you buy a used foreign policy from these guys?

Pulling a familiar joker from the discredited neoconservative deck, last week Robert Kagan and William Kristol announced the establishment of a new think tank (or maybe it’s just a new letterhead), dubbed the “Foreign Policy Initiative.” The platform of the new organization is a watered-down version of the bellicose neoconservative program that worked so well ...

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Pulling a familiar joker from the discredited neoconservative deck, last week Robert Kagan and William Kristol announced the establishment of a new think tank (or maybe it’s just a new letterhead), dubbed the “Foreign Policy Initiative.” The platform of the new organization is a watered-down version of the bellicose neoconservative program that worked so well over the past decade, producing a disastrous war in Iraq and a deteriorating situation in Central Asia and bringing America’s image around the world to new lows.  Neoconservatives also helped derail efforts to reach a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thereby strengthening Hamas, threatening Israel’s future, and further damaging America’s global position. Question #1: Who’s paying for it?

The new group’s modus operandi is likely to be similar to the old Project for a New American Century: bombard Washington with press releases and email alerts, draft open letters to be signed by assorted pundits and former policymakers, and organize conferences intended to advance the group’s interventionist agenda. Other commentators have already greeted the launch with appropriate skepticism, but for me, the big question is whether their efforts gain any traction. If so, it would confirm what many people are beginning to suspect: there is virtually no accountability in American public life. On that score, it’s more than a little troubling to discover that a number of fairly reasonable people agreed to show up at the group’s initial conference on Afghanistan, being held today at the Mayflower Hotel.

Have we already forgotten just how much damage their earlier advocacy produced? The New York Times‘s Tom Friedman told a reporter from Ha’aretz has Iraq was “the war the neoconservatives wanted…the war the neoconservatives marketed,” and the ledger is quite clear: 4,000-plus dead Americans and over thirty thousand wounded, along with at least 100,000 dead Iraqis. Over two million Iraqis have fled the country and another two million are internally displaced. The price tag for the American taxpayer will probably exceed several trillion dollars, money we could certainly use these days. And what did we get for it? An Iraqi government that is sympathetic to Iran, hostile to Israel, and whose long-term future is still far from certain.

No one is infallible, of course, but this was a policy error of extraordinary proportions. And it was hardly their only blunder. As I’ve written elsewhere, if a physician misdiagnosed ailments with the same regularity that the neocons have misread world politics, only a patient with a death wish would remain in their care. In a country that understood that foreign policy was serious business and that prized competence over ideology, anyone with a track record like theirs would simply not be taken seriously. Indeed, if there were a robust culture of responsibility here in the United States, Messrs. Kagan and Kristol might have the decency to fall silent, or turn their attention to other matters. I’m not advocating censorship, of course, just a sense of humility appropriate to their achievements.

So the fate of the “Foreign Policy Initiative” should be regarded as a litmus test. Is the United States genuinely capable of learning from past mistakes, to include learning whose advice deserves to be ignored?

SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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