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America’s Neoconservatives — All Muscle, No History?

How have U.S. hawks managed to interpret history to their advantage?

September 15, 2004

How have U.S. hawks managed to interpret history to their advantage?

Most former great powers have experienced failure following an ill-advised use of force or an overly aggressive military posture.

Cases in point are the experience of Louis XIV, Napoleon III, Wilhelm II and even the French and British governments during the 1956 Suez crisis — and that’s not even counting the obvious megalomaniacs, like Napoleon I, Hitler and Stalin..

These often-disastrous experiences have made France, Germany, Britain and other nations wary of resorting to military action in international politics. They know that what may seem like a bold move can quickly induce catastrophe.

In fact, the United States is unique among great powers — past and present. Only in America is it possible to construct a historical narrative that exclusively associates hawkish positions with success, while linking dovish ones with failure.

This historical narrative has given rise to a tradition of ideological hawks, of which neo-conservatives are only the latest manifestation. They see the use of force, or the threat to use force, as the preferred solution for most security challenges.

However, the ongoing difficulties in Iraq threaten to undermine this narrative — and could bring about a seismic change in American strategic culture.

The historical case that the ideological hawks make is a straightforward one. They argue that the onset of World War II resulted from U.S. isolationism and appeasement in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Likewise, the Korean War in 1950 followed a refusal to state clearly America's determination to defend South Korea. And the era of détente in the 1970s is viewed as allowing the Soviet Union to approach the U.S. level of power. Finally, skittishness about confronting Saddam in 1990 encouraged him to invade Kuwait.

In other words, the lesson to be drawn from these events is that U.S. foreign policy setbacks come from being too reserved about flexing the nation's muscle.

By contrast, the willingness to use and threaten the use of force won America's wars and consistently increased its global power and influence.

Most notably from the perspective of today's ideological hawks, it was President Reagan's arms build-up during the 1980s — much derided at the time — that caused the Soviet Union's collapse.

Of course, the one exception that leaps off the page is the Vietnam War. There, the United States quickly used force to roll back communism — only to discover belatedly that it launched a war that could not be won. Does this not render the ideological hawks' position moot?

Not at all. Ideological hawks have rejected the interpretation that the prosecution of the Vietnam War by Presidents Johnson and Nixon should be viewed as a cautionary tale regarding the use of force.

Instead, they blame the U.S. defeat on Washington's micromanagement and a reluctance to give the military the tools and support necessary to win — including expanding the war to countries neighboring Vietnam.

However, the success that ideological hawks have claimed for themselves in guiding U.S. foreign policy is not so much a reflection of their inherent wisdom as of luck — they simply were in the right place at the right time.

More to the point, they were not in the wrong place at the wrong time, which was not for the lack of trying on their part. There were many occasions when hawks did not control the levers of power — and when an over-eagerness to use force may have been destined to fail and induce a national calamity.

In the early 1950s, General Douglas McArthur pressed for a full-scale attack on China during the Korean War, while General Curtis Le May advocated a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. On each occasion, wiser heads prevailed.

It was a similar story in 1962, when President Kennedy rebuffed some of his advisers' desire to invade Cuba preemptively — a decision we now know would probably have led to nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Ideological hawks have portrayed their luck of being in the right place at the right time as a unique insight into the character of the world. Armed with this version of history — and ignorant of its limitations — they believe that the use of U.S. power is inherently virtuous and destined to succeed.

The implication is clear: If military force always works why bother with grubby deals to buy off potentially threatening dictators, why deal with timid allies — why take a risk that a danger may gather?

Thus, neoconservatives make clear their frustration with the slow work of statecraft and frequently articulate utter disdain for traditional diplomacy — a view that often resonates with U.S. voters.

But the Iraq War offers a harsh reminder that military power is not a one-way bet. Rather, it is a double-edged sword. Sometimes, war, even unilateral war, is necessary — and not only as a last resort.

On other occasions, though, traditional foreign policy tools, such as alliances, deterrence and diplomacy, function just as well, if not better — and at a lower cost.

Any worldview that ideologically discards one set of tools for another, as neoconservatives are wont of doing, simply deprives the United States of power assets integral to the achievement of its national goals.

Unfortunately for the United States, the post-9/11 world may turn out to be an example of the ideological hawks being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Bush Administration's decision to invade Iraq is only the second time in U.S. history that decision makers opted for the most hawkish foreign policy position available to them — only to have it lead into an apparent quagmire.

As we have already seen, ideological hawks have explained away the first instance, Vietnam, as insufficient effort on Washington's part.

As the authors of the twin doctrines of preemptive war and remaking the Middle East, they will find it less easy to dismiss the lessons of Iraq. The edifice that underpins their entire historical narrative and worldview may collapse as a result.

The lessons of Iraq, particularly post war Iraq — that alliances and legitimacy do matter — undermine the ideological hawks' narrative of U.S. diplomatic history, because they show that patient diplomacy and compromise can be a virtue not a vice.

Above all it may uncover one truth: Describing oneself as a hawk or a moderate depends on the merits and demerits of each individual case. Stubbornly advocating one position as an ideology to inform action across all cases, on the basis that it alone holds the key to success, is a recipe for disaster.

If the ideological hawks in general — and the neoconservatives in particular — are to regain their credibility, they will need to develop a more nuanced view of the U.S. role in the world, one that emphasizes the necessity for prudence in foreign policy. If they do not, they may fade away as a political force.

Either way, the continuing war in Iraq will have a major impact on American strategic culture.