09 April 2008

No Such Thing as a Neocon?

Here's an article by someone sometimes accused of being a neocon himself questioning whether there's really something called "neoconservatism" that represents a radical departure from traditional American policies. As a historian, Dr. Kagan can gather plenty of evidence to support his argument, but I wonder whether he isn't simply fighting a straw man.

His complaint is that critics of the War on Terror have posited a conspiracy theory around the alleged influences of former Trotskyites and followers of the infamous Leo Strauss to explain policies that aren't really innovative in the context of U.S. history. He contends that we don't need to talk about Strauss or any ex-Trotskyites (or Zionists, heaven forbid) to explain American aggressiveness after 11 Sept 2001. The "neocons," he suggests, are only scapegoats to be blamed for ventures that haven't succeeded but had broad support at first.

Kagan fits the current trouble into a historic pattern:

The search for an extraneous explanation is an old tradition. The Spanish-American War was probably the most popular war in American history, uniting left and right, southerners with northerners, Theodore Roosevelt with William Jennings Bryan. But when the aftermath of the war left a sour taste in the mouths of many, a new account of the war emerged, according to which a very small number of people had managed to manipulate the levers of power and the
emotions of millions in order to pursue their imperialistic conspiracy. This account became the accepted version of events, so much so that to read many history textbooks today, you would imagine that the war was foisted upon an unsuspecting nation by a handful of cagey “imperialists”—Roosevelt, William Randolph Hearst, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Alfred Thayer Mahan—rather than having been launched enthusiastically by a bipartisan majority in Congress that all but trampled McKinley in its rush to war. When Americans came to regret their equally enthusiastic rush into World War I, many chose to blame the nefarious
manipulations of bankers and munitions makers. Opponents of American entry into World War II, from Charles Beard to Robert A. Taft, insisted that Franklin Roosevelt “tricked” or “lied” the nation into war. Today it is the Iraq War, once approved by an overwhelming bipartisan vote in the Senate and by large majorities of Americans, that is now inexplicable except by reference to a neoconservative conspiracy.

I agree with the argument that nothing's really new about the Bush Doctrine, except maybe the justifications it offers, but shifts in attitude from aggression to realism, or however you call the opposite positions, don't just work like the tides. Opinions are pushed by people, and it's reasonable to ask why certain people advocate specific interventions in specific parts of the world. Interventionism may be a consistent American impulse, but since the United States has never waged indiscriminate war against tyranny, we can ask why we've fought only in specific places, and who has encouraged those wars. We can criticize the present effort as against actual American interests, but I concede Kagan's point that it isn't anti-American -- which is unfortunate for America.

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