Why I Am Still a Neocon

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April 7 2014 2:48 PM

Why I Am Still a Neocon

Yes, the Iraq war was a disaster. But here’s what libertarians and most liberals don’t understand about American military power—and American morality.

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There's more to neoconservatism than George W. Bush.

Photo by Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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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.

You may have seen one of those charts illustrating how much the U.S. military spends on defense vs. other countries. Slate recently ran just such a chart to show that America’s 2012 defense spending surpasses that of China, Russia, the U.K., Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy, and Brazil combined. The implicit message of these charts is “Wait a minute, you guys—doesn’t this seem like overkill?” There is no question that there is waste in the U.S. defense budget, and that our military could deploy resources more effectively.

But these charts are misleading insofar as they gloss over a pretty important fact, which is that personnel costs are much higher in rich countries than in poor ones. Stack up the U.S. against the same list of countries on health or education spending and you’ll find that we spend an impressive amount in those domains too. The health and education sectors, like the military, are sectors that depend on hiring and retaining trained personnel. Keeping smart, hardworking people in these sectors means paying wages high enough to keep them from taking jobs elsewhere, including in sectors where productivity growth is much higher. That is expensive. Personnel costs absorb half of the U.S. military budget, as opposed to a third of China’s. There are things we can do to contain high and rising personnel costs. Tim Kane, an economist at the Hoover Institution and an Air Force veteran, has written an excellent book on how the military can manage its human resources. And of course we could rely more heavily on drones and other labor-saving technologies. But as long as the military intends to employ talented Americans, it’s going to be expensive. Liberals who want to raid the defense budget to finance social programs and libertarians who want to slash it to finance tax cuts need to wake up. A weaker U.S. military will mean a more dangerous world, and that will jeopardize everything that matters.

Of course, all of these arguments could be true and one could nevertheless believe that the U.S. should avoid doing anything more than narrowly fulfill its security commitments. Why insist on moralistic crusades, as neocons are wont to do? I suppose I have a personal reason for doing so.

It turns out that this week isn’t just the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad. It is also the 43rd anniversary of a telegram in which an American consul general, Archer Blood, took the unusual step of condemning his own government. As Gary Bass recounts in his chilling book The Blood Telegram, Richard Nixon and his chief foreign policy consigliere, Henry Kissinger, enthusiastically backed Pakistan’s military junta in its efforts to not only overturn the results of its country’s first free and fair election, but to massacre hundreds of thousands of Bengalis in an effort to teach what was then a rebellious province a lesson. One of the men who died, as it happens, was my uncle.

Knowing fully well that he was endangering his career, Blood decried the American failure to defend democracy or to denounce Pakistani atrocities. He also knew that had President Nixon decided to lift a finger, he could have forced Pakistan to stay its hand. Yet it seems that humanitarian considerations never entered the picture for Nixon and Kissinger. They were apparently too taken with treating the world as a chessboard to bother reckoning with the monstrous crimes they were aiding and abetting. Though Pakistan was unable to prevent the emergence of an independent Bangladesh, thanks in large part to India’s decision to intervene, the country remains scarred by the bloodletting. Imagine if a different president hadn’t cheered on Pakistan’s military rulers but rather threatened to use U.S. power in defense of Bengali civilians.

The neocon impulse proved badly misguided in Iraq, where it contributed to a moral calamity. But there are other cases, in South Asia in 1971 and in Bosnia in the early 1990s, to name two examples among many, where it might very well have prevented one.

Update, April 10, 2014: This column inspired a lot of criticism: Here’s my response to it.

Reihan Salam is a columnist for Slate.

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