Wednesday, February 18, 2004

# Posted 1:23 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE NEW NEO-CON REVISIONISM: In a column challenging Democrats to overcome their post-Vietnam confusion on foreign policy, David Brooks writes that
Democratic foreign policy in the 1970's was isolationist at worst, modest at best. Democrats eschewed flag-waving and moralistic language about the Soviets. Jimmy Carter talked about root causes like hunger and poverty. For many liberals, as Charles Krauthammer recently said, "cold warrior" was an epithet.
This is revisionism at its worst. Jimmy Carter is the one who restored moralistic language to the American dialogue with the Soviet Union. While Carter may have talked about hunger and poverty, he always talked about them in the context of human rights, a fundamentally American concept. As Carter memorably said, "Because we are free, we cannot be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere."

Moreover, one must recall that it was Nixon and Kissinger who purged moralistic language from the US-Soviet dialogue in the process of pursuing an amoral realpolitik approach to all aspects of US foreign relations. Carter recognized the fundamental contradiction between this realpolitik and America's democratic ideals and used it to his advantage. While Carter's human rights policy may have lost its way on many occasions, there is no question that it restored idealism and morality to the American agenda. It is for exactly this reason that John Lewis Gaddis observes that
If you asked what was one of the distinctive features of Ronald Reagan's presidency as far as foreign policy was concerned, one of the most important aspects of it was that he actually agreed with Jimmy Carter on the promotion of human rights, that he was as serious about this as Carter was. That made human rights a priority on the conservative, Republican agenda, surely reflecting the early neoconservative influences on foreign policy.
Once considered a realist, Gaddis' has been approaching neo-conservatism since 9-11. Months before Bush's February 2003 pledge to promote democracy in Iraq, Gaddis praised the President for his bold vision of a democratic transformation in the Middle East. [NB: Link is to a .pdf file. Download with caution.] While Gaddis might not identify himself as a neo-conservative, his most recent comments resemble those of Kristol, Kagan and Krauthammer more than they do any other foreign policy school of thought. (If Gaddis were Jewish, he'd fit right in with the neo-con crowd. Yet as someone who has known Gaddis for some time, I can assure you that he is one of the most goyish people you will ever meet. On the other hand, he is married to one of the nicest Jewish girls around.)

The purpose of establishing Gaddis' neo-con credentials is to show that Brooks' revisionism doesn't even make sense from a neo-con perspective. However, there are serious flaws with Gaddis' observations as well. What Reagan understood was democracy, not human rights. In theory, democracy was supposed to serve as the ultimate guarantor of human rights. Yet when Reagan prioritized democracy promotion -- most notably in El Salvador and Nicaragua -- he did so at the cost of the local populations' human rights.

Almost inevitably, promoting democracy entails a short-term risk to human rights. A dictatorship in the process of being overthrown often tramples on its subjects. Yet Reagan didn't simply trade off democracy for human rights. Rather, he showed a revolting callousness toward the ramifications of his chosen policies. Most notably, Reagan constantly defended the integrity of the Salvadoran military despite overwhelming and public evidence that it was responsible for tens of thousands of murders. Yet even declassified documents from both the CIA and the State Department show that the relationship between the Salvadoran military and El Salvador's notorious death squads was well-known and well-documented.

Moreover, one cannot even say that Reagan defended the Salvadorans in public out of political necessity. Declassified documents also show that Reagan defended them in private. This should not come as a surprise, however, since Reagan was never a liar. He simply believed the lies that he told. For these reasons, I find Gaddis' description of Reagan to be simply indefensible. More importantly, this oversight in Gaddis' comments points to an important similarity between himself and Brooks: both men want to write Carter out of the history of US foreign relations. Brooks gets rid of Carter by denying his idealism. Gaddis gets rid of Carter by declaring that his idealism was redundant.

Apart from the abstract importance of getting history right, these twin revisionisms point to important differences between liberal hawks and neo-conservatives. As some prominent liberal hawks have suggested, the problem with neo-conservatives isn't with what they believe but with how they believe it. In short, they aren't self-critical enough. This, of course, is a purely ad hominem attack. But it may be called for in light of Brooks' and Gaddis' disturbing effort to cleanse neo-conservatism of its Reagan-era sins.

After all, it is only by washing away such memories that Brooks and Gaddis are able to embrace Bush's foreign policy almost uncritically. As Gaddis writes, the Reagan-era pro-human rights
Trend has continued into this administration, which has moved even more radically and more firmly in this direction. So, ironically, this conservative Republican administration is really the most radical American administration we have seen in years in terms of its promotion of democracy abroad in places that were earlier regarded as inhospitable to it.
I agree with Gaddis that the resemblance between Reagan and Bush is striking, but not always in a good way. Like Reagan, Bush seems to be far better at talking about his ideals than putting them into practice. Hence the troubled occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Thankfully, Bush has done nothing to compromise human rights in the manner of his predecessor. For that reason, I find it far easier to accept Bush than to accept Reagan. Yet when this administration praises the democratic virtues of Vladimir Putin and Pervez Musharraf, I begin to wonder if Bush really understands a damn thing he is talking about. That is why I am a liberal hawk and not a neo-conservative.

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