December 17, 2003

What If There Were No

What If There Were No Neo-Cons in Washington on September 12, 2001?

Via Josh Marshall, a fascinating panel discussion entitled the "Future of Neoconservatism." Instead, if often touched on the query per the above subject line. Marshall sparred, rather often, with Richard Perle during the proceedings.

Josh writes:

"My main antagonist on the panel was none other than Richard Perle, who ended up in person being about as gentlemanly and fair-minded as his view of foreign affairs and America's posture on the world stage would lead you to expect."

With all due respect to Josh, I think this is unfair to Perle. True, Perle made some snide references to the views of "Mr. Marshall" and his "friends," but he's a long-time bureaucratic operative with sharp elbows. In other words, it's part of his makeup and style to debate in this fashion

Put differently, it's likely a different style of debate than, say, that found defending doctoral dissertations at Brown. I don't say that to poke fun at Josh Marshall--I mean it seriously. Perle and Marshall likely have very different debating styles with Perle more aggressive and Marshall more conventionally polite and, perhaps, a tad docile compared to Perle.

Regardless, and much more important than their different debating styles, Perle throughout, in my view, addressed substantively all of Josh's critiques quite persuasively.

Perle's View of Neo-Conservatism

More interesting to me, however, than all the to and fro of the debate, was Perle's general description of neo-conservatism.

Per his description, it felt very much like sober-headed foreign policy realism--rather than the oft-described messianic exportation of democracy doctrines (or some grossly deluded neo-Wilsonian style project).

Indeed, Perle described neo-conservatism as a "common sense" pragmatic approach to foreign policy repeatedly during his remarks. To be sure, he did say that "spreading democracy" is a "pretty good thing."

But Perle made it clear he doesn't know of anyone who is advocating that democracy be imposed by force willy-nilly around the globe. He intimated he finds such nostrums utopian and, depending on specific circumstances, likely somewhat silly and unrealistic.

Less convincingly, Perle said the end of the Cold War (where the zero sum gain vis-a-vis the Soviets often had us cozying up to unsavory, authoritarian leaders) had now allowed the U.S. to be much freer "to associate ourselves with democratic aspirations."

I'm not so sure about that. True, the world has become much more complex as compared to the previously neat bipolar delineations where Moscow and Washingon each knew who their guys were, ie. he's a bastard but he's our bastard. So you would think that might have a carry on effect allowing us to more easily assist democratization processes.

And yet. Need forward bases in Uzbekistan from which to mount operations in Afghanistan? Cozy up to (distinctly undemocratic) Karimov.

Need to ratchet up the pressure on the Taliban from points Quetta and Peshawar? Cozy up to Musharraf. (See also Putin, Zemin, etc).

The Neocons and 9/11

But back specifically to the nature, role and influence of the neo-cons in the Bush administration.

On this, Perle asked the key question: Had, when 9/11 came along, there been no murky, nefarious neo-con cabal milling about the halls of the Bush White House--how precisely would policy have looked so different?

Put differently, what what have been done differently if policy hadn't been "hijacked" by the Straussians-on-the-Potomac?

On this, Marshall talked about the whole "internationalization" meme (less cost in dollars and manpower in Iraq if we had been less "unilateral," domineering, swaggering, [insert other adjectives here] on the world stage).

Perle pressed Josh on all this. How many troops would we really have gotten from France and Germany if we had gone further down a so-called "multilateral" U.N. route and Saddam had ultimately remained non-compliant to the satisfaction of, oh, say Dominique de Villepin or Joshka Fischer?

Or how much more, by way of funds/troops/et al., would we have really received if the drums of war had, as intelligent observers like Rachel Bronson of CFR had suggested in the NYT, been delayed until the following autumn?

Marshall struggled a bit with all this. At one point, he retorted that Perle was concentrating too much on France and Germany. What of Turkish (though he agrees with me that they would have been a bad idea) or Indian troop contributions? What of money from non-Old Europa sources?

In my view, however, Perle prevailed in showcasing how, in the real nitty-gritty of all the Iraq politiking around Turtle Bay and varied word capitals, Marshall's calls for "internationalization" wouldn't have made a real material difference in terms of influencing the endgame leading up to the decision to go to war or our actual efforts on the ground over the past months or, indeed, today.

Terror States

Again, back to the query regarding what might have been different had, say, an influential Paul Wolfowitz not been whispering in Dubya and Rummy's ear on September 12, 2001.

A more cogent point than Josh's on this query was made by the Economist's Washington correspondent Adrian Woodridge (another panelist).

He stated that the basic policy precept linking terror to actual states might not have become part and parcel of the Bush Doctrine (ie., the policy doctrine that makes no distinction between terrorists that commit the actual acts and the states that harbor them.)

Fair enough. That's certainly a strong influence that the neo-cons (with big assists from American security hawk nationalists like Rumsfeld and Cheney who, obviously, are not neo-cons) had on the post 9/11 policymaking.

But there is nothing, pace Perle, so deeply philosophical or revolutionary about this. Rather, it's about one's approach to managing risk.

Post 9/11, why not act more robustly contra states that (yes, even if not necessarily directly implicated with al-Qaeda) have (or had) links to terror groups?

Perle asked: should one have rather left Saddam in place and, just like that, hoped for the best?

In other words, there is no systemic philosophical dispensation at play here, Perle stressed, aside from prudence and pragmatism.

So, to put it differently and paraphrase moderator Larry Kaplan of TNR, Perle pretty effectively made the point that there was no neoconservative "theology waiting in the winds post 9/11".

Rather, smart, realist (and necessary) policy adjustments were made in the aftermath of the biggest historical event in post-war American national security history.

Final Thoughts

A caveat. Doug Feith, Richard Perle, Eliot Abrams, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Paul Wolfowitz, Lawrence Libby, John Bolton, Bill Kristol, etc. are not all cut out of identical cloth.

In my view, Perle's presentation made it clear that he veers towards realism as a foreign policy approach a bit more stolidly than, say, Wolfowitz (the latter likely a bit more idealistic in term of democracy exportation and the like).

And a last point. Marshall advocated that we might have slowed down the rush to war in Iraq once we discovered that Saddam didn't have a significant nuclear program (a difference, he suggested, that might have occurred had the neo-cons been less influential).

I strongly disagree. If some in the intelligence community still believed he might have had significant chemical and biological stockpiles, even with weak intelligence on the nuclear capability front, I think the prudent thing to do, balancing the risk and putting the burden of proof on the presumptive terror state, was to maintain the pressure at maximum levels and invade as we did.

This aside, I think Perle was most effective in debunking the myth that a sinister neo-con philosophy has bamboozled Simian Georgie into hapless democracy exportation exercises around the globe. Rather it is, finally, about pragmatic risk management.

And, as the election season intensifies, the most important question will be, even more than the economy in my view, who as between Howard Dean and George Bush is better equipped to navigate the rocky shoals of the post 9/11 risk environment?

Who would prove the better risk manager in the face of international terror in a post 9/11 world?

And (see post immediately below) I get the feeling the majority of the American public will, on election day, decide that that person is George Bush.

UPDATE: I respond to Dan, at some length, here .

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