TCS Daily

Why Neo-Conservatism Best Defends America

By Michael Brandon McClellan - June 16, 2004 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series on neoconservatism and American foreign policy.

The neo-conservative strategic paradigm has become the rhetorical punching bag of pundits across the political spectrum. Not only leftists, but isolationist-leaning conservatives and libertarians have consistently scoffed at what they view as the far-fetched arrogance of a paradigm that seeks to implement regime change and build democracy in the autocratic and religiously radical Middle East. With each setback in Iraq, they have professed their alleged vindication. With each mounting casualty toll, they have demanded an expedited withdrawal from the Bush administration. They are wrong.

Criticism without advocacy of a sufficient alternative contributes nothing to US national security. Wars are not won through deconstructionist paradigms, and in the context of the War on Terror, the United States cannot afford a meandering foreign policy. Catch phrases like "multilateralism" and "soft-power" are sound-bites intended to poll well. However, crafting sound-bites and crafting sound strategy are two very different things. Whatever alternatives are proposed to replace the neo-conservative paradigm must effectively address the gritty reality of fighting Jihadist terrorism on a global scale. All proposed alternatives must pass a fundamental litmus test -- they must offer a viable plan to solve the Middle Eastern problem, and solve it in a permanent fashion.

The Middle Eastern problem is quite simply that, as it currently exists, the region exports radical Islamic terrorism that directly threatens the safety of the United States. In the post-Cold War, post-September 11th world, the Jihadist threat constitutes the single greatest danger to US national security and to civilization itself. The prospect of a terrorist nuclear weapon being detonated in an American city is horrifying. It is also not far fetched.

Whereas the Soviet nuclear threat during the Cold War could be effectively contained and deterred through concepts such as "Massive Retaliation" and "Mutual Assured Destruction," the terrorist threat cannot. Men who view suicide bombing as a path to martyrdom are not persuaded through a rational cost-benefit calculus analyzing the destructive power of our arsenals versus their own. Unlike the Soviets, the terrorists themselves have little to lose. International terrorists provide few targets, other than themselves and the hidden infrastructure that supports them. While terrorists with specific goals like territorial independence or unity, such as the Chechen rebels or the Irish Republican Army, have been historically very difficult to deter, groups such as al Qaeda present an even greater challenge. They are directly affiliated with no specific nation state (with Taliban Afghanistan being somewhat of an exception), and accordingly make imposing retaliatory, deterrent costs an exceptionally difficult task.

Rather, as September 11th made abundantly clear, Jihadist terrorism must be engaged and vanquished. Successfully engaging and ultimately defeating such terrorists is a multi-faceted long-term endeavor, necessitating far more than augmenting homeland security and pursuing al Qaeda fugitives. Winning the War on Terror mandates an offensive thrust into the wellspring of Islamic terrorism, the Middle East itself. That strategic reality is effectively put forward in the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism of 2003.

More commonly known as the "4D" strategy, the plan sets forth four essential elements for attaining victory in the War on Terror. The US must: 1) defeat existing terrorist organizations, 2) deny terrorists the support of nation states, 3) diminish the underlying factors that lead people to embrace rather than shun terrorists like Bin Laden, and 4) defend the US homeland and its interests abroad. While the defeat and defend elements of the strategy address the immediate short term goals of crushing al Qaeda and bolstering homeland security, the deny and diminish elements address the long-term necessities of making Islamic terrorism less deadly, and permanently eroding its base of support.

For obvious reasons, the short-term objectives of the defeat and defend elements of the National Strategy are relatively uncontroversial. Few serious foreign policy thinkers will argue against the necessity of improving homeland security and pursuing the al Qaeda terrorist network that orchestrated September 11th. The deny and diminish elements, however, are a different story. These elements are not merely reactive, but proactive, seeking to address the underlying Middle Eastern status quo that has spawned the Jihadist cause and permitted it to become the virulent, ominous scourge it is today. The strategy fundamentally recognizes that the unlike the status quo in say Polynesia, Latin America, or Eastern Europe, the status quo in the Middle East poses an unacceptable danger to the United States and the world.

Pursuing Democratic Realism

It is in this capacity that the neo-conservative strategic framework has ascended to the center of US foreign policy. At its most basic level, "neo-conservatism" -- or what Charles Krauthammer has more aptly titled "democratic realism" -- prescribes a two part strategy for addressing the Middle Eastern problem. First, selective regime change must eliminate anti-American tyrants who are likely to ally opportunistically with terrorists who are at war with the United States. Second, upon the ashes of the deposed tyrants, liberal or semi-liberal democracies must be forged in their stead. In essence, such prescriptions are the "deny" and "diminish" elements of the National Strategy.

Democratic realism recognizes that the United States must pursue a "realist" strategy of manipulating and managing the international environment to provide security. It also however, adds a vital and unique caveat. Democratic realism puts forth the idea that ultimately, democracy can undermine the Jihadist movement better than any propped-up dictator. Metaphorically speaking, democracy can heal the patient's deep wounds from within, whereas repressing the fundamentalists via proxy through a friendly strongman merely applies a band-aid -- a band-aid that is liable to fall off at any time in the future.

By prescribing "democracy", the democratic realist framework does not refer to mere popular sovereignty and a singular free election. A one-vote, one-time scenario that places a Hitler or an Ayatollah Khomeini in power, will solve nothing. Rather, building democracy means building constitutional liberal democracy, a free economy, and the rule of law. Nations with such a government have proven remarkably peaceful, productive, and prosperous. Liberal democracies have solved virtually every desirable human objective better than any other system. Such is derived from men and women working towards their own ends, as opposed to those of the collective or the state. In a liberal democracy, a national leader can only compel the action of the collective with the consent of the collective. Freedom of choice directed by the rule of law is a powerful anti-septic, perhaps the most powerful in history. Prosperity and liberty make thin gruel for revolutionaries and terrorists alike.

Such democratic construction is an ambitious endeavor. However, the neo-conservative vision is a far cry from an idealistic or reckless Wilsonian crusade. In 2004, democratic realism is the most pragmatic form of realism. The massive nature of the task merely reflects the tremendous danger of the threat.

Regime change will only effectively alter the Middle Eastern status quo if bolstered with the permanence of democratic construction. Likewise, defeating terrorist organizations and defending the US homeland depends upon altering the terrorist-producing status quo of the Middle East. Locating and pursuing al Qaeda operatives and hardening US targets at home and abroad are vital, necessary measures. Alone, however, such measures are insufficient. If hostile regimes are permitted a nexus to terrorists, the terrorists will eventually arm themselves with WMD and use them against the United States. If the underlying terror-supporting factors in the Middle East are not addressed, more terrorists will simply emerge in al Qaeda's stead. Abandoning any element of the 4D strategy risks the grave potential of overall strategic failure.

As will be shown next, in Part II of this three part series, the alternatives to the neo-conservative strategic paradigm are dangerously insufficient.

The author is a frequent TCS contributor. Part II of this series will be published next week.


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