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Thursday, December 27, 2007

# Posted 1:53 PM by Patrick Porter  

'STAY ON OFFENCE' IS NOT A STRATEGY: Happy holidays everyone! Sorry its been so long between posts, but this is the closest I've ever been to being busy.

Over Christmas, I had a read through 'World War IV', culture warrior Norman Podhoretz's latest call to arms. And just in time for Christmas, its an awful turkey of a thing.

But before dissecting it, its worth making some observations about the broad political philosophy ‘neo-conservatism.’ Thanks to the horrific loss of life and anarchy in Iraq especially in late 2006, the word ‘neocon’, like the word ‘liberal’ in US domestic politics, has degenerated into an empty and lazy word for anything in foreign policy that is undesirable.

So in some quarters both right and left, to believe in containing Iranian nuclear ambitions through sanctions and a global alliance, or to enjoy the film ‘300′, or even to favour continued in-principle support for Israel’s existence, is to be hyper-aggressive, irresponsible and naive.

In fact, neoconservatism is a school of thought with defenders who vary wildly in their intellectual calibre. One of its more powerful spokesmen is Kenneth Anderson, whose overall appraisal of the failures and insights of neocons is one I share:

In the case of Iraq, neoconservatives preferred war. Their search for a quick and painless democratic transformation, which they did not find, was a naive one. But their other belief was not so naive: this is the belief that over the long run, the realist strategy of accommodation and containment of execrable regimes – the pursuit of stability at all moral costs practised by the West for thirty years – would only serve to feed the beast.


In other words, neoconservatism is a form of tough democratic idealism, and it has its strengths and weaknesses. Its strength is to go beyond amoral and short-sighted policies of backing friendly dictatorships no matter how reprehensible, to see the linkages between long-term security and political liberalisation, and to seek some alignment between liberal values and foreign policy beyond the paralysing ineffectuality of liberal internationalism.

It has also contributed to serious foreign policy failure. Needless to say, so has so-called realism. President Jimmy Carter and Brent Scowcroft, quick to point to Iraq as a vindication of their world view, may be reminded that it was ‘realist’ counsel that led Carter to encourage Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980, a catastrophic attack that became the longest conventional war of the past century, beggared two countries, killed millions, involved chemical warfare and ‘human wave’ slaughters. Its unfortunate that so much foreign policy debate and analysis of the crises in the Arab-Islamic world is carried on as though ‘neocons’ are the only ones with any explaining to do.

But if neoconservatism has an ideational value, its failures also need to be recognised and explained. One of those failures is the underlying and misplaced confidence that if the ideology and policy is correct, execution and detail don't matter that much. This can be done with the aid of Podhoretz’s book. If Kenneth Anderson’s writings are the vintage Pinot Noir of the neocon vinyard, Podhoretz’s manifesto is the rancid two-dollar Spumante.

‘World War IV’ is written primarily to endorse the ’Bush Doctrine’ (the need to spread democratic freedom to ensure US security) and from a hugely partisan standpoint to defend Bush against any and all charges. Most importantly, his argument is strong on belligerent rhetoric and the need for resolution and a historic sense of mission. We must awaken and realise the threat, Podhoretz argues, and mobilise together against the foe.

But it is strategically illiterate. The will to prevail in a vital struggle is not a strategy. Churchill’s soaring speeches used to end with a call to solidarity and common purpose, but this call would be preceded with an outline and strategic vision of the conflict. By contrast, the relationship between ends, ways and means, the search for achievable goals, the direction of resources towards a goal, the development of more astute strategy from inevitable and avoidable mistakes, none of this is considered in any depth by Podhoretz. Instead, we get a morality tale containing only a plea for greater willpower and a resentment of people who disagree. Capacity or competence is barely considered.

Disturbingly, Presidential candidate Rudi Guliani has appointed Podhoretz as an advisor and has identified himself with this book. Rudi’s continual claim about foreign policy is that he will ’stay on offence’ against Islamic terrorists. What does this mean? I would assume that any responsible US President would continue to pursue, arrest, capture and kill AQ agents, and there is little there that even the far left wing of the Democratic Party would dispute. Beyond that, is he saying he would like to stay in Iraq for thirty years, expand the war in Afghanistan to Pakistan, bomb Iran, or dismantle civil liberties or legal obstructions at home? The point is, we don’t really know, and maybe neither does he. Podhoretz takes rather longer to say roughly the same thing, and without much idea of any policy content. It would just read as a silly manifesto, were it not being taken seriously in some influential quarters.

An aggressive rhetorical posture is not a strategy. It is a sound-bite. And his book has a few other dragons.

Podhoretz is a conservative cultural critic ever mindful of the 1960’s, and he also launches attacks on a host of enemies in the US, from extremist campus professors to hippies revisiting the glory days of Vietnam war protests, from the Clinton Administration who apparently with AQ deserve all of the blame for 9/11, to conservative isolationists. But its not sufficient to criticise their positions. If Podhoretz wishes to mobilise all of America for a global struggle against militant jihadism, he needs to make a substantive case for how this might be done. Instead, much of the book is a lament that the 1950’s are over and won’t be coming back.

Beneath the surface of much of this debate, between those who argue that America has isolated itself and those who argue that the world has abandoned America, there is a more interesting story. France and Germany have politically evolved into pretty close Atlantic partners. The Bush administration has managed over a few years to craft a diverse coalition of partners with an interest in containing or at least counterbalancing Tehran with its regimes existential hatred of Israel. America rates very highly in polls of Indian opinion, and even the countries most vocally critical of American unilateralism continue to track down, round up and pursue wanted terrorists. Sunni insurgents of 2003-5 have turned on their predatory guests AQI, who are now reeling from the Anbar awakening. The long project of containing AQ is unspectacularly working, without a need to silence dissent or unify America behind Podhoretz’s world war.

But this complexity is often lost in the polarising rhetoric of the ‘neocon’ debate, a debate that has suffered a bit at the hands of Podhoretz’s strange screed.

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(11) opinions -- Add your opinion

Comments:
Why do you say that the Democrats would "stay on offense" against AQ? during the latter stages of the Cold War, Democratic strategy was most certainly not to "stay on offense" against Communism.

The plain fact is, the Democratic strategy in the latter stages of the Cold War was dead wrong. Unless you can prove that the party has changed, I'm sticking with Norm Podhoretz. You may say contemptuously, "That's history," but it's the only guide I have.
 
Hi Sean,

In the latter stages of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan's military buildup and confrontational policies were actually anticipated by Democratic President Jimmy Carter's shift on policies around 1980.

And while I agree that there are interesting parallels with the Cold War, there is an important difference here: 'staying on offence' against AQ primarily means hunting them down and constraining their ability to operate, while AQ busily finds ways to discredit and isolate itself. Given that preventing another 9/11 and decaptating AQ are pretty much electorally mandatory tasks in US domestic politics, are you seriously suggesting that a President Clinton or Obama would abandon that task?

Finally, I would suggest that the most emphatic challenge to the entire strategy of battling AQ is coming from the isolationist right, namely Ron Paul, who has roughly argued that AQ only do things out of displeasure with US foreign policy, and that the US should withdraw its bases and forces out of the whole world to stay away from trouble.
 
As a matter of fact we will be in Iraq for the next thirty years - I would have said forty, or better, actually. Giuliani or no. Set your watch.
 
Dr. Porter, how is it that you could put up such a lengthy post about Mr. Podhoretz without mentioning that he is a fellow graduate of Oxford? A true feather in our cap!

With regard to the Carter-Reagan transition, it may be worth pointing out that it took carter almost three whole years in the White House to move away from his initial belief that Americans suffered from an "inordinate" fear of Communism.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan shocked many people who were once inclined to think of the Eastern Bloc as acceptably unpleasant. Carter did initiate an upturn in military spending, but I think it would be premature to extrapolate from it that there would have been a significant build-up had Carter been re-elected.

On the other hand, advocates of Reagan's offensive strategy should bear in mind that his greatest strategic insight was the need to abandon confrontation once Gorbachev rose to power. Conservatives hammered Reagan again and again for going soft on the Soviets, but he was not deterred. For a fascinating account, by a conservative, of how conservatives turned against Reagan during his second term, see the opening chapters of Dinesh D'Souza's book "Ronald Reagan".
 
It seems that you have missed out certain critical costs in both neo-conservative and realist foreign policy. The human cost, death of innocent civilians, displacement of innocent civilians as result of the US foreign policy. where does the US foreign policy account this human cost, it seems from your note that we are left with only two options and you are trying to make case for a lesser evil( neo conservative). Why not US Foreign policy follows the path of engaging positively? Invest in social infrastructure instead of bombing cities and support with out interfering the democratic forces of change across the world.
And this investment/ support should be neutral and operate on need basis and not in creating Saddam Husains and Osamas. How can the policy makers be so naïve and ignorant about history. Or should we assume that their minds are as narrow and are no less better than the fundamentalist
 
It seems that you have missed out certain critical costs in both neo-conservative and realist foreign policy. The human cost, death of innocent civilians, displacement of innocent civilians as result of the US foreign policy. where does the US foreign policy account this human cost, it seems from your note that we are left with only two options and you are trying to make case for a lesser evil( neo conservative). Why not US Foreign policy follows the path of engaging positively? Invest in social infrastructure instead of bombing cities and support with out interfering the democratic forces of change across the world.
And this investment/ support should be neutral and operate on need basis and not in creating Saddam Husains and Osamas. How can the policy makers be so naïve and ignorant about history. Or should we assume that their minds are as narrow and are no less better than the fundamentalist
 
"The will to prevail in a vital struggle is not a strategy... the relationship between ends, ways and means, the search for achievable goals, the direction of resources towards a goal, the development of more astute strategy from inevitable and avoidable mistakes, none of this is considered in any depth... we get a morality tale containing only a plea for greater willpower and a resentment of people who disagree. Capacity or competence is barely considered..."

Just taking those passages above, one might assume that the Bush administration is being described.

Sadly, the Bush administration has not been much more articulate in explaining to the American people why we are in Iraq, what we are trying to achieve, and why they should support those goals. We are in the information age, our President has the benefit of the bully pulpit, and everybody is looking for information, yet our administration has been pitfully inept when it comes to simply explaining the 5 W's of what is going on. In this information void, the anti-war nuts, Democrat Party, and others move in.

Ask Joseph Schmoe on the street why we are in Iraq and he will either give you an incorrect answer or simply state that he doesn't know. It is not because he doesn't care or doesn't read the news. It's because the administration has done such a poor job of explaining it.
 
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