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Writing in 1952 (about the early career of William F. Buckley Jr., as it happens), Dwight Macdonald mentioned in passing “the neoconservative tendency that has arisen among the younger intellectuals.” Others who share my unhealthy obsessions with both politics and language may know of an earlier usage of that now famous label and fighting word; at any rate, it has proved protean and mutable over these 55 years.
By neoconservatives, Macdonald then meant writers like Peter Viereck and August Heckscher, who had reacted against the pieties of the New Deal, but they shared few of what we now consider the defining neocon symptoms. A generation later, when Theodore Draper published a hostile essay on “neoconservative history” in The New York Review of Books in 1986, his target was a number of writers in Commentary magazine, prominently including Jeane Kirkpatrick. Draper’s philippic dealt with anti-Communism and rewritten history, and didn’t mention Iraq, Israel or the Middle East, but then Kirkpatrick was what we might now call a midperiod neocon. Those who assume that neoconservatism is a platform with all its planks shared by those to whom the label is affixed, not to say those who knew Kirkpatrick only by reputation, will find surprises in store in the pages of “Making War to Keep Peace,” her tour d’horizon of American policy since the 1980s.
This book appears posthumously, following Kirkpatrick’s death last December a matter of weeks after her 80th birthday. She was a political scientist by training, whose university career took her from Barnard to Columbia as a doctoral student to Georgetown as a professor, while politically she went from college socialist to anti-Communist Democrat to — well, she was a supporter of Hubert Humphrey in the 1970s and still ostensibly a Democrat when she caught Ronald Reagan’s eye with an article she wrote for Commentary. He took her on as an adviser, then made her ambassador to the United Nations from 1981 to 1985, which is when she became famous, nationally and internationally (and also around the time she became a Republican at last).
In this book she treats successive defining episodes: the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the first gulf war, Somalia, Haiti, the Balkan wars and Kosovo, and then the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11. In the process she discusses the perennial topics of realism against idealism, national interest against humanitarian interventionism. She supported intervention in the Balkans (not least because she thought what was needed could be accomplished by air power alone, a delusion that persists today, although in Afghanistan the United States Air Force hasn’t won the hearts and minds of many villagers by bombing them).
Needless to say, Kirkpatrick harps on the theme of appeasement and “the mirage of a peaceful alternative to war” that is really a defeat: “The classic textbook example is Neville Chamberlain’s ‘peace in our time’ compromise at Munich.” A whole book could be written about the uses and abuses of Munich, and the endless invocation of this curse word, despite the fact that Chamberlain’s policy was supported by the great majority of British people and by almost all the London press, not to say by President Roosevelt, doubtless speaking for most Americans.
We may have wearied of Bush the Younger and Dick Cheney denouncing their critics as appeasers. But Anthony Eden used just the same rhetoric of aggression and “no more Munichs” to justify his Suez caper in 1956, and so did Lyndon Johnson to justify the Vietnam War a decade later.
Over the years Kirkpatrick’s thinking evolved from simple anti-Communism and hostility to détente. In the 1970s she proposed a distinction between totalitarian states, with whom there could be no compromise, and merely authoritarian regimes, with whom the United States could work on the good old “our sonofabitch” principle. Even now she is remembered by the British with less than unalloyed affection from the time when, in 1982, she tried to persuade the Reagan administration that Washington should remain neutral in the Falklands conflict, on the ground that the Argentine dictator Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, though very likely a torturing and murdering S.O.B., was her S.O.B.
In time her version of Machtpolitik changed perceptibly, but it still remained a guiding principle. Washington didn’t have any brutal-but-useful allies in Somalia in 1992, nor, she said, any obvious national interest. “In Kuwait, the goal was to return a government to power; in Somalia, there was no government.” And she was dismissive of the Clinton administration’s “assertive multilateralism and nation-building theories,” put to a harder test by the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
Finally comes Iraq, the hardest test of all — and the remarkable fact that Kirkpatrick was a dissident neocon: she did not support the present Iraq war. At the time, she did make a somewhat specious lawyer’s case in international tribunals that the invasion of Iraq was not going to war but “the continuation of the 1991 gulf war, and thus wholly permissible under the rule of law.” But she still thought the war mistaken.
She never viewed Iraq as either a “historic enemy of the United States” or a “global power,” and she cited with approval the Weinberger doctrine: any armed intervention must be a last resort, it must be undertaken only for vital national interests, it must have the support of Congress and the American people, it must have clearly defined objectives, and force should only be used, if it is used, “wholeheartedly and with a clear intention of winning.” The current Iraq war does indeed manage to flunk those tests in an impressively thorough way.
On the one hand, Kirkpatrick followed the neocon party line that “ Iraq I” was an uncompleted mission, and that it was not enough to have driven Iraqis out of Kuwait. American forces, she believed, should have pressed on and destroyed Saddam Hussein. To which one might reply that Colin Powell’s misgivings at the start of this war — “You break it, you own it” — and even those of Bush the Elder, speaking of the first gulf war — “We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq” — look a good deal more sensible and prescient now that exactly this has come to pass.
On the other, Kirkpatrick consistently opposed the view that the United States should or could spread democracy by force. She accepted the twin goals of ensuring our security and promoting democracy and human rights, but she saw what the enthusiasts in the administration of Bush the Younger overlooked in their zeal — that Iraq possessed very few of the characteristics and conditions that would make the establishment of stable democracy likely, or even possible.
She was obviously quite right when she disdained the callow notion that “democracy alone could imbue chaotic societies and unstable governments with a respect for what we respected: the rule of law, basic human rights and a peaceful world order.” And yet, like most Americans across the entire political spectrum, she didn’t quite grasp the deeper problem. Even if forcibly spreading democracy were feasible, is it actually desirable — in terms of the national interest?
While I finish this review, Hassan M. Fattah of The New York Times has just reported from Dubai under the deadpan headline “U.S. Promotes Free Elections, Only to See Allies Lose.” As Fattah dryly writes, “The paradox of American policy in the Middle East — promoting democracy on the assumption it will bring countries closer to the West — is that almost everywhere there are free elections, the American-backed side tends to lose.” Well, quite, as we say here in England. And that paradox will haunt American foreign policy for years to come.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include “The Controversy of Zion” and, most recently, “Yo, Blair!”
MAKING WAR TO KEEP PEACE
Source: New York Times