Stephen M. Walt

Yes, you can be a neoconservative, and still be wrong

Yes, you can be a neoconservative, and still be wrong

One of the nice things about writing for Foreign Policy is the energy and creativity of its leadership, as exemplified by their relentless quest for new publishing innovations. Just yesterday, for example, FP launched a new fiction section, clearly intended to highlight writing on international affairs that doesn’t have much basis in reality.

I refer, of course, to Elliott Abrams’ brief essay entitled "A Forward Strategy of Freedom," where he argues that neoconservative ideas and policies are responsible for the "Arab Spring." It’s been apparent for a long time that being a neoconservative means never having to say you’re sorry (or even admit that you’re wrong), but this essay displayed a degree of historical amnesia unusual even by neoconservative standards. It’s not really worth a sustained critique, so I’ll just make a few quick points.

First, there’s no evidence that the Bush administration’s "forward strategy for freedom" had anything to do with the Tunisian’s fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi’s tragic decision to set himself afire, an act of protest that started the wave of upheavals that has convulsed much of the Arab world ever since. Or is Abrams’ suggesting that Bush’s 2nd inaugural inspired Bouazizi? More tellingly, neither the liberal forces that drove much of the uprisings against the Mubarak regime nor the Islamic forces that have profited most from Mubarak’s departure give credit to Bush & co. for inspiring their efforts. And it’s not hard to see why: both the Muslim Brotherhood and the more fundamentalist Egyptian Salafis have been anathema for the neocons from the get-go.

Second, the entire neoconservative strategy for spreading democracy depended heavily on U.S. military power, and it focused almost entirely on countries like Iraq, Syria, and Iran.  The Bush administration in which Abrams served continued to coddle Mubarak, the Saudis, and America’s other authoritarian allies, for the same reasons that previous administrations did. The Arab spring emerged elsewhere, however, and had little to do with the deployment of American military power. Obama’s Cairo speech is a far more plausible candidate in this regard (though I’d have my doubts about its impact too), but strangely, Abrams doesn’t mention it.

Meanwhile, in the one place where the neocon strategy was fully implemented — Iraq — it was a colossal failure. The United States spent trillions of dollars and thousands of its soldiers’ lives, and the end result is a deeply divided society and a dysfunctional political system that is drifting steadily back towards authoritarian rule and is at least partly aligned with Iran. So what were the neocons right about?

Third, the neoconservative hypocrisy about democracy was exposed in 2006, when the United States refused to accept Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian legislative elections. You don’t have to like Hamas or its charter to concede that they won the election fair and square, but that didn’t stop the Bush administration from ignoring the outcome completely. In fact, Abrams subsequently tried to foment a Fatah coup against Hamas in Gaza, only to have his putative allies routed and discredited. Another neocon blunder, in short. And isn’t it a bit odd that this deeply committed apostle of democracy has no problem with Israel continuing to violate the human rights of the millions of Palestinians it controls via its illegal occupation of the West Bank and its continued restrictions on movement in Gaza? Why isn’t he pressing Israel to either give these people the right to vote, or to let them have a viable state of their own so that they can vote there? Some neoconservatives (e.g., Paul Wolfowitz) have been sympathetic to such aspirations, but as far as I know Abrams is not one of them.

Finally, let’s not lose sight of all the other things that neoconservatives got wrong. They were wrong about Saddam’s WMD. They were wrong about his alleged links to Al Qaeda. They were wrong that the occupation of Iraq would pay for itself. They were wrong that it would be easy to create democracy there once Saddam was gone. And given America’s toxic image in much of the Arab world, they were wrong to believe that fostering democracy in the Arab world would create legitimate and pro-American regimes.

Weighed in the balance, therefore, the neocons got far more wrong than right, and it would be refreshing if they’d just man up and admit it.