Withdrawal from Iraq and the Arab uprisings, is this the final death blow for neoconservatism?

As political theories go, neoconservatism has proved remarkably versatile and it may be the case that it is able to reivent itself yet again

The 'godfather of neoconservatism', Irving Kristol
Tom Wilson
On 12 November 2011 11:37

Obama’s announcement last month that there would be an almost complete withdrawal of US forces from Iraq by the end of the year seemed to be taken by some as a cue to hail the final defeat of democratic interventionism on the part of the West.

Why democracy spread and the downfall of tyrants should be so offensive to people calling themselves progressives has long been a vexing question.

But for some time now advocates of soft power have been claiming that the so called ‘Arab Spring’ is proof that the Arab world is quite capable of initiating democracy without the interference of Washington or anyone else.

Neoconservatives have of course argued that the uprisings in the Middle East in many respects vindicated much of their philosophy; that not only do all peoples desire democratic freedoms and that the Kissinger approach of propping up friendly dictators is inevitably disastrous but that it was the creation of embryonic democracy in Iraq that ultimately triggered the scramble for freedom in the neighbouring Arab states.

It would be hard to deny the huge gains that have been made in Iraq since the removal of Saddam, something that die hard critics of US policy seem to find impossible to acknowledge. Yet it is equally difficult to talk away the levels of violence unleashed by the insurgency in the early days of the post-Saddam Iraq.

During this difficult period neoconservatives also had to witness old friends jumping ship.

Most notable among them was Francis Fukuyama, who having played a major part in forming the Reagan Doctrine and urging the Bush administration to remove Saddam from power, has now not only distanced himself from this call but in an article for the New York Times he somewhat bizarrely likened neoconservatism to Leninism.

Others who might once have been placed in the neocon camp such as Caroline Glick, who back in 2004 called for a movement of Israeli neoconservatives, has more recently been at pains to stress that she considers herself a Jacksonian rather than a neocon.  

In addition to this, the fear that the uprisings in the Arab world could quickly give way to Islamic revolutions rather than the instillation of liberal democracy also presents a significant challenge to neoconservatives.

American experiments in putting on democratic elections for Palestinians in 2006 were repaid with the election of Hamas and more recently we have seen the voting in of an Islamist party in Tunisia, while in Libya the interim government has said that Sharia will form the basis of its laws.

Whichever way you look at it, it seems that experience has been hard on neoconservative theory.

Neoconservatism, however, has an answer to this problem. When the uprisings in Egypt were still in their infancy many raised concerns that elections there would simply result in the Muslim Brotherhood taking power but as those such as Douglas Murray argued at the time, parties that come to power only to dispatch with all opposition and never hold another election again do not represent democracy in any meaningful sense of the word and so it is questionable what kind of role such groups should be given in the process.

Furthermore, we would do well not to dismiss neoconservatism so soon; we may find it has something to offer in meeting some of the coming challenges that we face.

For one thing it appears increasingly likely that nothing short of robust military intervention will deal with the problem of nuclear proliferation in Iran.

This is a reality that even the American and British governments may now be waking up to as the kind of soft power diplomacy so long warned against by neoconservatives has indeed proved completely ineffective.

However, perhaps the area that neoconservative thinking may in fact have the most to offer us is the domestic one.

The Bush years made neoconservatives renowned for their ideas on foreign policy yet if one reads founding Neoconservative thinkers such as Irving Kristol, the truth is that Kristol seems to have been far more interested in social rather than geopolitical issues.

Equally, Leo Strauss may not have provided in his writings a detailed discourse on Middle Eastern interventionism but Straussian philosophy does have a great deal to say about the fraying social fabric and the seeds of destruction that liberal societies can unwittingly sow for themselves.

It may be that the riots in London rather than those in Cairo should do more to make us take note of what neoconservatism has to say.

Those that declared neoconservatism dead at the point of American withdrawal from Iraq, have for the most part been the usual culprits, some of whom had not only opposed military intervention in 2003 but prior to this had even protested sanctions for harming the Iraqi people.

As political theories go neoconservatism has proved remarkably versatile and it may indeed be the case that it is able to reinvent itself yet again.  

Tom Wilson is a political analyst and a doctoral student at University College London. 

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