What the Neocons Got Right

Believe it or not, they made a few good calls.


When the editors at FP asked me to write 1,500 words on "What the Neocons Got Right" for the launch of their Middle East Channel, I jumped at the opportunity. To be sure, the topic generated a fair number of bipartisan guffaws and lame jokes among my friends: "It will be the shortest article you ever wrote," quipped one. "They got something right?" queried another. "How about 1,500 pages on what they got wrong?" still another partisan asked. Hilarity aside, neoconservatives have been derided by almost everyone for their misadventures in the Middle East — and there were many — during the George W. Bush years, but that does not mean their approach to the region was always, everywhere a total failure. The fact is, the neocons are a group of very smart people, as anyone who has ever spent some time actually reading Commentary or the Weekly Standard might know. They happen to hold a worldview that, at the moment, is not terribly popular. Of course, the primary reasons the neocons have encountered so much criticism has everything to do with their approach to the Middle East, which is not distinguished for its grasp of the region’s history, politics, and culture. Yet, a fine-grained understanding of the Middle East will not always produce superior policy, a fact all too often lost on the punditocracy.

Let me start out by saying that I do not believe the neocons got Iraq right. It may turn out right or it may not. It’s too early to tell. So far, the March 7 elections look pretty good as the counting gets under way, despite 36 deaths. Analysts will likely point to the hard, messy coalition bargaining that is sure to come as evidence that Iraq is moving in the right direction. After all, Iraqis are processing their grievances through democratic institutions, which says a lot about how far the country has come since the dark days of 2006 to 2007. Perhaps it’s my skeptical nature, but I am not ready to declare victory. We have seen too many "corners turned" and "watershed moments" in Iraq for me to be confident that anyone inside or outside the U.S. government actually understands Iraq.

The effort by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government to bar certain politicians from politics was one prominent warning sign that Iraq might actually be moving toward the "Arab mean" — Middle Eastern leaders have been reverting to this tactic since Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser invented it in the early 1950s. More profoundly, there seems to be an undeniable logic to Iraqi politics that concentrates power in Baghdad, which does not bode well for democratic development. It remains an open question whether the U.S. military’s almost seven-year mission in Iraq has undermined the unwritten codes, norms, and rules of behavior that governed Iraqi politics for the better part of a century before Operation Iraqi Freedom. We’ll just have to wait and see.

So what did the neocons get right? Syria, Iran, and democracy.

It probably wasn’t wise for George W. Bush’s administration to oppose the indirect Syria-Israel negotiations that the Turkish government organized in Istanbul through 2008. If the Israelis and Syrians want to make peace, the United States should help them. Despite this bungle, which actually came well after neocon influence in the administration peaked, the neoconservatives had a healthy understanding of what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime’s is all about: violence, repression, and duplicity. For all their faults, the neocons can read recent history pretty well, and they understood that endless shuttle diplomacy of various U.S. secretaries of state (with the exception of James Baker) brought the region no closer to peace and did nothing to alter Damascus’s strategic posture.

Indeed, the Syrians have a long history of doing just enough to keep their enemies at bay, while retaining the instruments to do considerable harm. This is not to suggest that Bill Clinton’s people had a Pollyannaish view of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, but neither Hafez nor his son, who took power in 2000, ever demonstrated the kind of flexibility that engagement was supposed to produce. Although Clinton’s first secretary of state, Warren Christopher, visited Damascus 29 times and his successor, Madeleine Albright, sipped tea with Hafez al-Assad on five occasions, the Syrians continued their support for Hamas and Hezbollah with political support as well as weaponry. The Syrians also never exhibited any flexibility on the peace process. During the 1990s, the elder Assad sent his foreign minister and other officials to one locale or another for talks with Israelis, but his emissaries consistently demanded that the Israelis return to the June 4, 1967, line without ever spelling out the nature of the peace they were offering. And of course, Damascus has never repudiated its strategic relationship with Iran.

To be fair, the Bush team dabbled in engagement with Damascus after the September 11 attacks, but those efforts were focused on counterterrorism. The goodwill did not carry over into other areas, including Iraq. True to form, the Syrians did just enough on al Qaeda to earn plaudits in some quarters while never restricting the group’s ability to injure the United States, its friends, and its interests in the region. For example, Bashar al-Assad never shut down the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq by way of Damascus International Airport.

It’s hard to sign up with the folks who seem all too willing to bomb Iran, but like Syria, the neoconservatives have a well-grounded view of the Iranian regime. George H.W. Bush tried engagement (remember "Goodwill begets goodwill" in his inaugural address?), so did Bill Clinton, and now Barack Obama has offered a hand to the clerical regime.

Yet all three presidents have very little to show for their efforts. Why? Did they not engage enough? Did Bush, Clinton, and Obama engage incorrectly? Unlikely. Rather, one needs to look at the ontology — yes, ontology, the metaphysical nature — of the Iranian regime. The Islamic Republic was founded in many ways on opposition to the West, and in particular, the United States. A good portion of Iran’s revolutionary narrative identifies the United States’ perfidy in undermining the aspirations and identity of the Iranian people. The litany of Tehran’s complaints against Washington is long. This is precisely why the Iranian leadership cannot make a deal with the United States. To do so would undermine the reason for the revolution and the Iranian leadership’s own reason for being. The neoconservatives seem to have innately understood — perhaps for different reasons — that the Iranians were quite unlikely to respond to U.S. overtures. This doesn’t mean that engagement is bad everywhere, even when it comes to Iran. The Obama administration may have been too sanguine about its ability to sway Iran’s leadership, but the policy does serve an important purpose. Engagement demonstrates that, unlike with the run-up to the Iraq war, Washington is willing to exhaust every possible avenue to resolve its differences with Tehran before taking more punitive steps such as sanctions or even military action.

The one other area where the neocons got it right is democracy. A few caveats. First, you don’t have to be a neoconservative to support democratic change in the Middle East — it’s simply the right thing to do. Second, the Freedom Agenda is all but dead, but that doesn’t mean that the neocons were wrong. It has become fashionable to say that the Bush administration made "egregious" errors promoting democracy in the Arab world. Yes, invading Iraq to transform the country and the region qualifies as egregious. Still, Bush’s forceful, public support for freedom and democracy in the Middle East had a profound effect on politics in the region. It did nothing less than change the terms of the debate in a way that Arab leaders could no longer control and allowed democracy activists to pursue their agendas in new ways.

Of course, democracy and reform in the Middle East did not begin when the Bush administration discovered the issue on or about September 12, 2001, or when the neoconservatives began pressing the issue. Still, with Washington watching, Arab authoritarians had to position themselves as reformers, making it more difficult for them to crack down on the real reformers. In Egypt, for example, opposition activists who were generally opposed to Bush’s Middle East policy ruefully acknowledged that Washington’s outspoken support for democracy provided them and their colleagues’ protection from the Egyptian state. Indeed, it seems that Bush and the neocons had moved the needle on democracy in the Middle East. The Arab Spring of 2005 was upon us, but then Hamas won the Palestinian elections in January 2006. Having never resolved the problem of what happens when nasty people are elected freely and fairly, the U.S. policy of promoting democracy in the region was left to wither. Nevertheless, the neocons were onto something.

Needless to say, Washington’s position in the Middle East was far worse after the ascendance of the neoconservatives during the Bush years. The region was further from peace, stability, and prosperity than when they found it in early 2001. Still, the neocons’ perspective on the nature of the Syrian and Iranian regimes were largely accurate, and their forceful advocacy of democracy and freedom in the Middle East may have grated on many, but it did much to advance those causes in a region once described as "democracy’s desert." Any number of observers would surely disagree with these claims, but I suspect that has more to do with politics than a careful evaluation of what the neocons have to offer to the foreign-policy debate.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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