We neocons have fallen out of favor, not just on the left, where “neocon” is routinely used as a term of abuse, but also on the right, where libertarian-minded conservatives who favor a smaller (and cheaper) military have seized the initiative. Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky, is just one of many Tea Party conservatives who has defined his foreign policy views in opposition to the neocons. And it’s easy to see why.
Eleven years ago this week, Baghdad fell to U.S. forces. Donald Rumsfeld, who at the time was serving as George W. Bush’s defense secretary, famously dismissed the lawlessness that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship by oh-so-helpfully observing that “stuff happens.” The Bush administration, from the president on down, seemed serenely confident that for all the madness of those first weeks, Iraqis would soon take advantage of their liberation and partner with U.S.-led coalition forces to build a new democracy.
As we all know, that’s not quite how it played out. From 2003 to the end of 2011, when U.S. forces declared a formal end to their operations in Iraq, 4,803 American, British, and other allied troops died in the conflict. These are the deaths that badly damaged the reputations of Bush, Tony Blair, and other leaders who sought regime change in Iraq. The overall human cost of the war in Iraq was much larger still. One oft-cited survey found that as many as half a million Iraqis died during the U.S.-led occupation, a number that includes those who died directly from violence as well as those who died indirectly from maladies caused or exacerbated by the bloody civil war and the displacement it caused.
Though we can’t know what the world would have looked like had the Bush administration not chosen to wage war in Iraq, and though it is at least possible that the region and the world might have looked even worse with Saddam Hussein still in power, I find it hard to imagine that the benefits outweighed the enormous costs. Most Americans would surely agree. At a bare minimum, those of us who favored the war might have hoped for a democratic Iraq in which the rights of ethnic and religious minorities were respected and that was more closely aligned with the United States than Iran. The new Iraq fails on both of these counts.
Given all of this, why am I still a neocon? Why do I still believe that the U.S. should maintain an overwhelming military edge over all potential rivals, and that we as a country ought to be willing to use our military power in defense of our ideals as well as our interests narrowly defined? There are two reasons: The first is that American strength is the linchpin of a peaceful, economically integrating world; and the second is that we know what it looks like when America embraces amoral realpolitik, and it’s not pretty.
Like it or not, America’s failure in Iraq does not change the fact that global stability depends on American global leadership, and American global leadership costs money. The United States is at the heart of a dense web of alliances. We extend formal security guarantees to more than 50 countries. Some see these alliances and guarantees as little more than a burden the U.S. can no longer afford. Yet what they actually do is dampen security competition. They reassure partner countries that they needn’t build up their militaries to defend themselves against their neighbors, which then reassures their neighbors that they needn’t build up their militaries. This virtuous cycle is one of the central reasons Western Europe and Japan recovered so quickly after the devastation of World War II, and why globalization has helped ease poverty around the world. For this virtuous cycle to be maintained, however, U.S. security guarantees must be considered credible. It must be clear that when the U.S. makes a security commitment to another country, that commitment will be met. This in turn means that the U.S. military must have the power and the reach to defend countries far from our borders.