Monday, April 18, 2005

Of moral clarity and flip-floppery

Michael Kinsley has some good observations on the shameless neocon flip-floppery:

Somewhere I still have a souvenir of neoconservatism's previous high point. It's a baseball cap from the 1988 Republican convention that says, "Jeane Kirkpatrick for vice president." This was serious. Kirkpatrick, an austere academic with a crooked scowl, was about as unlikely a politician as you can imagine. But give the Republican Party credit: It does sometimes swoon over ideas. When was the last time the Democrats did that? Ronald Reagan had swooned over a 1979 article by Kirkpatrick in Commentary, the neocon house organ, and he made her his U.N. ambassador when he became president. She gave the big speech at the 1984 GOP convention, leading the massed Republicans in a chant of "they always blame America first."

Kirkpatrick's article, "Dictatorship and Double Standards," was a ferocious attack on President Jimmy Carter for trying to "impose liberalization and democratization' on other countries. She mocked "the belief that it is possible to democratize governments anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances." Democracy, she said, depends "on complex social, cultural, and economic conditions." It takes "decades, if not centuries."

Kirkpatrick thought that U.S. power should be used to shore up tottering but friendly dictators, such as Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua and the shah of Iran. Carter sat on his hands, she complained. Now we have an administration that -- wisely or foolishly, sincerely or cynically -- claims to have the aggressive pursuit of democracy everywhere as the focal point of its foreign policy. And the Bush Doctrine is said to have the fingerprints of neoconservatives all over it. This is quite a reversal by America's most influential group of intellectuals, yet it has received surprisingly little comment or explanation.

Plenty of explanations are available. The collapse of the Soviet Union (which the neocons did not predict -- their theme had been that the Soviet Union was getting stronger and stronger while the United States diddled) surely changed the calculus. The seemingly easy spread of democracy over the past couple of decades may have disproved Kirkpatrick's pessimism.

But all these explanations require an admission of error, something the neocons are not very good at.

Kinsley's dead-on. Just take the end of the Cold War. These guys always "crow at the sunrise" (to quote Wesley Clark's bon mot), even though they radically missed the boat. These guys not only believed that Reagan was soft on Communism (Dick Pipes resigned from Reagan's NSC in 1983 in disgust at Reagan's alleged weakness) but also claimed that the Soviet economy and military were outpacing those of the United States--a position they stuck to right up until the whole Soviet house of cards collapsed under its own weight. And when that happened, they claimed that it was their toughness that led to that collapse. Heads they win, tails everyone else loses.

But most amazing is that despite their reversals, the neocons have still somehow managed to be wrong in every instance. When Kirkpatrick wrote the essay that Kinsley quotes above, they were morally wrong: they were right that it was impossible to impose democracy, but from that lesson of the 1960s they drew the conclusion that the right thing to do was to support pro-American dictators. A sterling example of "moral clarity," there. Since the 1990s, they've been wrong again, as Kinsley suggests, this time not so much morally, as practically, for thinking that you can force people to be free.

My own views on the questions of development and dictatorship are quite simple. On the one hand, for practical reasons, you can't force people to be free: you can't impose modernity, or progress, or democracy, or liberty. Those are all wonderful, universally desirable things, but they can only come from the organic core of a society, and to impose them requires social engineering which anyone other than a Jacobin ought to hesitate before proposing. The practical lesson is that invading Iraq was a terrible idea. On the other hand, for moral reasons, you shouldn't actively support retrograde regimes, either militarily or economically. The practical lesson here is that the U.S. should end military, economic, and diplomatic support for countries led by the likes of Anastasio Somoza... or for that matter, like Ariel Sharon or Hosni Mubarak.

No comments: