“The Iraq War will always be linked with the term ‘neoconservative,’” George Packer wrote in his book on the war, and he is probably right. The conventional wisdom today, likely to be the approved version in the history books, is that a small group of neoconservatives seized the occasion of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, to steer the nation into a war that would never have been fought had not this group of ideologues managed somehow to gain control of national policy.
This version of events implicitly rejects another and arguably simpler interpretation: that after September 11, 2001, American fears were elevated, America’s tolerance for potential threats lowered, and Saddam Hussein naturally became a potential target, based on a long history of armed aggression, the production and use of chemical weapons, proven efforts to produce nuclear and biological weapons, and a murky relationship with terrorists. The United States had gone to war with him twice before, in 1991 and then again at the end of 1998, and the fate of Saddam Hussein had remained an unresolved question at the end of the Clinton administration. It was not so unusual for the United States to go to war a third time, therefore, and the Bush administration’s decision can be understood without reference to a neoconservative doctrine. After September 11, the Bush administration weighed the risks of leaving Saddam Hussein in power against the risks of fighting a war to remove him and chose the latter, its calculus shaped by the terrorist attacks and by widely shared suppositions about Iraq’s weapons programs that ultimately proved mistaken.
If one chose to believe this simpler version, then the decision to invade Iraq might have been correct or mistaken, but the lessons to be learned from the war would concern matters of judgment, tactics, and execution—don’t go to war based on faulty intelligence; don’t topple a foreign government without a plan to bring order and peace to the country afterwards; don’t be so quick on the trigger; exhaust all possibilities before going to war; be more prudent. But they would not raise broader issues of foreign policy doctrine and grand strategy. After all, prudence is not a foreign policy. It is possible to be prudent or imprudent, capable or clumsy, wise or foolish, hurried or cautious in pursuit of any doctrine. The intervention in Vietnam was the direct product of the Cold War strategy of containment, but many people who think the Vietnam War was a mistake nevertheless do not condemn containment. They believe the war was the misapplication and poor execution of an otherwise sound strategy. One could argue the same was true of Iraq.
One could, but very few critics of the war do. The heated debate in the United States over the past few years has not been so much about bad intelligence, faulty execution, or imprudence in Iraq. In his book The Assassins’ Gate, Packer claims that he is unable to explain why the United States went to war without recourse to the larger doctrine behind it. “The story of the Iraq war,” he writes, “is a story of ideas about the role of the United States in the world.” And the ideas he has in mind are “neoconservative” ideas. His premise, and that of most critics, is that neoconservatism was uniquely responsible for the United States going to war in Iraq and that, had it not been for the influence of neoconservative ideas, the war never would have occurred.
To examine this premise requires first understanding what people mean by “neoconservative,” for the term conjures very different images. For some, it is synonymous with “hawk,” to others, it is an ethnic description, and to still others, it is a term to describe anything evil—I once heard a Cornell professor earnestly define neoconservatism as an ideological commitment to torture and political oppression. But when employed fairly neutrally to describe a foreign policy worldview, as Packer does, neoconservatism usually has a recognizable meaning. It connotes a potent moralism and idealism in world affairs, a belief in America’s exceptional role as a promoter of the principles of liberty and democracy, a belief in the preservation of American primacy and in the exercise of power, including military power, as a tool for defending and advancing moralistic and idealistic causes, as well as a suspicion of international institutions and a tendency toward unilateralism. In the hands of more hostile critics, the neocons are not merely idealistic but absurdly and dangerously hubristic about the unlimited capacity of American power to effect positive change; not merely expansive but imperialistic, seeking not only American pre-eminence but ruthless global dominance; not merely willing to use force, but preferring it to peaceful methods; and not merely tending toward unilateralism but actively spurning alliances in favor of solitary action. Even these deliberately polemical caricatures point to something recognizable, a foreign policy that combines an idealist’s moralism, and even messianism, with a realist’s belief in the importance of power.
The first thing that could be said about this neoconservative worldview is that there is nothing very conservative about it. But a more important question is, how “neo” is it? A central contention of those who insist that neoconservatism explains the Iraq War is that the doctrine is not only new but outside the foreign policy traditions that have guided the United States throughout its history. Where, for instance, did the idea of promoting democracy come from? To find an answer, Packer, along with many others, feels he must follow a winding intellectual path back to Leo Strauss, or to Leon Trotsky, or to the Jewish experience after the Holocaust. The point is that the “neoconservative” foreign policy of the Bush years needs to be understood as an alien presence in the American body. The further implication is that once this alien worldview is exorcised, the United States can return to its traditional ways and avoid future Iraqs.
Is this right? Is it true that moralism, idealism, exceptionalism, militarism, and global ambition—as well as imprudent excesses in the exercise of all of these—are alien to American foreign policy traditions? The question must seem absurd to anyone with even a passing knowledge of American history. But then, perhaps, it is also very American to forget the past so willfully.
To understand where the idea of promoting American principles by force comes from, it is not really necessary to parse the writings of Jewish émigrés. One could begin with less obscure writings, like the Republican Party’s campaign platform of 1900. In that long-forgotten document, the party leaders, setting the stage for what would be William McKinley’s crushing electoral victory over William Jennings Bryan, congratulated themselves and the country for their recently concluded war with Spain. It was, they declared, a war fought for “high purpose,” a “war for liberty and human rights” that had given “ten millions of the human race” a “new birth of freedom” and the American people “a new and noble responsibility . . . to confer the blessings of liberty and civilization upon all the rescued peoples.”
Or one could go back further, for the Republican Party’s moralism was not “neo” even in 1900. In the 1850s, William Henry Seward, the party’s founder, New York’s governor, and, later, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, declared it America’s duty “to renovate the condition of mankind” and lead the way “to the universal restoration of power to the governed.” Seward himself was only expanding on the beliefs of earlier American statesmen, such as Henry Clay, who had spoken of America’s “duty to share with the rest of mankind this most precious gift,” who pushed for war against Britain in 1812 to defend America’s republican “honour,” who was willing to go to war with Europe over the fate of Latin American “republics,” and who sought to place the United States at the “centre of a system which would constitute the rallying point of human freedom against all the despotism of the Old World.”
Before Clay there was Alexander Hamilton, who, like George Washington and others of the founding generation, believed their young republic was destined for greatness and even primacy on the global stage. Hamilton believed America would “erelong, assume an attitude correspondent with its great destinies—majestic, efficient, and operative of great things. A noble career lies before it.” With twenty years of peace, Washington predicted in his farewell address, the United States would acquire the power to “enable us in a just cause, to bid defiance to any power on earth.” Jefferson foresaw a vast “empire of liberty” spreading west, north, and south across the continent. John Quincy Adams considered the United States “destined by God and by nature to be the most populous and powerful people ever combined under one social contract.” To all the founders, the United States was a “Hercules in a cradle,” powerful in a traditional sense and also in a special, moral sense, because its beliefs, which liberated human potential and made possible a transcendent greatness, would capture the imagination and the following of all humanity. These beliefs, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, were neither exclusively Anglo-Saxon nor Burkean accretions of the centuries but, in Hamilton’s words, were “written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature by the hand of the divinity itself.” And these ideals would revolutionize the world. Hamilton, even in the 1790s, looked forward to the day when America would be powerful enough to assist peoples in the “gloomy regions of despotism” to rise up against the “tyrants” that oppressed them. James Madison saw as the “great struggle of the Epoch” the battle between “Liberty and Despotism,” and America’s role in that battle was inescapable.
The twentieth century, of course, rang with the rhetoric of greatness, moralism, and mission. “Is America a weakling to shrink from the world work of the great world-powers?” Theodore Roosevelt asked when he accepted the vice-presidential nomination in 1900. And he roared the answer: “The young giant of the West stands on a continent and clasps the crest of an ocean in either hand. Our nation, glorious in youth and strength, looks in the future with eager eyes and rejoices as a strong man to run a race.” This young, muscular America was “the just man armed,” and when World War I came, Roosevelt and others of his generation regarded it as America’s second great moral crusade. The Civil War had been the first. “As our fathers fought with slavery and crushed it, in order that it not seize and crush them,” Roosevelt declared, “so we are called on to fight new forces.” Henry Cabot Lodge called World War I “the last great struggle of democracy and freedom against autocracy and militarism.” Woodrow Wilson, in his message to Congress in 1917, used language that would make George W. Bush’s speechwriters blush: “The right is more precious than peace,” he proclaimed, “and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts,” for “democracy” and against “selfish and autocratic power.” The day had finally come when America was “privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness.”
The first decades of the twentieth century saw a steady stream of military interventions in the affairs of Latin American and Caribbean peoples, often launched with the professed aim of “teaching them to elect good men” (Woodrow Wilson) or lifting them “up out of the discord and turmoil of continual revolution into a general public sense of justice and determination to maintain order” (Elihu Root). And yes, as critics then and later claimed, there were, as always, other motives at work. But along with protecting American investments, successive American presidents, from Taft to Wilson to Harding to Coolidge, also undertook painstaking if often unsuccessful efforts to establish and support functioning democratic systems. In Nicaragua, the Marines intervened in 1912 and then remained for the better part of two decades, guarding not only American financial interests but also a flawed but functioning electoral process with the hope, as Henry Stimson put it, “that if a generally admitted fair election could once be held, it might serve as a guide and pattern toward which the minds of the Nicaragua people might turn in the future.” Having once “been shown by Americans that such an election was possible,” Nicaraguans “would be encouraged in the future to adopt permanently a system of free elections with their own efforts.” This seemed to Stimson “to be a goal worthy of every possible effort.”
Such aspirations, and others even more purely idealistic, drove American policy in every decade of the twentieth century. Even in the “isolationist” 1930s, there was the concern over Japan’s plundering of Manchuria and depredations in China—all ignored as not worthy of serious comment by hard-headed Britain and the European powers but in the United States producing the moral outrage, the diplomatic protests, and the economic embargoes that ultimately convinced the Japanese to launch their attack on Pearl Harbor. Then there was the great moral crusade against Nazism and fascism—a battle for democratic civilization and the “four freedoms.” And then, of course, there was the Cold War, which began with Harry Truman declaring that the nations of the world must “choose between alternative ways of life” and that it was the duty of the United States to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation” and assist them “to work out their own destinies in their own way.” In the middle there was John F. Kennedy proclaiming America’s determination to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” And, at the end, there was Ronald Reagan citing the words of Thomas Paine and promising to “begin the world anew” by vanquishing an “evil empire” and leading the world into a new era of freedom.
It is hard to believe that Americans today have really forgotten this long history, if for no other reason than their history textbooks for the past three decades at least have been devoted almost entirely to revealing this dominant tradition in American foreign policy as imperialistic, chauvinistic, militaristic, and hypocritical. Can a generation raised on the teachings of William Appleman Williams and Walter LaFeber believe that the alleged sins of neoconservatism—excessive idealism, blinding self-righteousness, utopianism, hubris, militarism, and overweening ambition, and throw in if you want selfishness and greed—are somehow new sins? Has the American academy so badly failed to get its message across? Or is it necessary to whitewash the past in order to win a political argument in the present?
The idea that today’s policies represent a decisive break from the past would certainly come as a surprise to the many critics of American foreign policy across the generations, for there has not been a single criticism leveled at neoconservatism in recent years that was not leveled at American foreign policy hundreds of times over the past two centuries.
The oldest, and in some ways most potent, critique has always been that of genuine conservatism, a powerful counter-tradition that goes back at least as far as the debates over the ratification of the Constitution in 1787. The supporters of the new federal Constitution—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison—insisted that the concentration of energy and power in the federal government was essential if the United States was to become a world power capable both of protecting itself and achieving its destined greatness on the world stage. “Let Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness!” Hamilton exhorted in the Federalist papers. But Patrick Henry, a leader of the anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution, accused Hamilton and his allies, not unfairly, of seeking to “convert this country into a powerful and mighty empire.” This, Henry insisted, was a betrayal of the nation’s true purpose. “When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: liberty, sir, was then the primary object.”
That quotation is a favorite chestnut of Patrick Buchanan and that ancient confrontation has recurred in almost every generation since the founding. At the core of this conservative critique has always been the fear that “empire,” however one might define it—in Henry’s day, it meant simply a wide expanse of land under a single, strong central government—is antithetical to, and ultimately destructive of, American democratic and republican virtues. A big, expansive foreign policy requires a big, powerful central government to advance it, and such a government imperils American liberties. It also imperils its democratic soul. As John Quincy Adams memorably put it in 1821, America might become “the dictatress of the world,” but she would “be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”
In one way or another, all the major critiques of expansive, ambitious, idealistic American foreign policy have been shaped by this concern about overweening ambition and the temptations of power. It may not even be right to call this inclination “conservative” but rather, as Bernard Bailyn long ago suggested, a manifestation of American “republicanism”—a deep and abiding suspicion of centralized power and its corrupting effects on the people who wield it. Such fears have been expressed by conservatives, liberals, socialists, realists, and idealists alike over the past two centuries.
Today, most of those old battles are forgotten. No one recalls that John Randolph of Roanoke and John Taylor of Caroline—more Jeffersonian than Jefferson himself—railed against the War of 1812 as having no justification in terms of American interests. It was merely, and appallingly, a “war for honour,” a “metaphysical war” that, by requiring a strong federal government to wage it, would end in “the destruction of the last experiment in . . . free government.” Few remember that when President James Monroe set forth his famous doctrine in 1823, he was not staking out a restrictive isolationist worldview but, on the contrary, a progressive, expansive view of America’s role in the world. His critics, led by Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, attacked him for gravely departing from what they, too, insisted were American foreign policy traditions. The Mexican-American War is the one war Buchanan likes—he lovingly calls it “Jimmy Polk’s War.” But most conservatives at the time did not, for although a struggle primarily to open new territory for slavery, it was fought under the idealistic and expansive, if hypocritical, banner of liberty and “Manifest Destiny.” Its opponents included anti-slavery northerners and conservative Whigs like Daniel Webster, who had long exhorted his expansionist countrymen to cease and desist: “You have your Sparta. Embellish it!” In the early 1890s, the increasingly progressive Republican Party stood for “the future greatness and destiny of the United States,” favored an intrusive government at home (by the standards of the day), and shared James G. Blaine’s ambition for an active and intrusive role “in global affairs and in the improvement of the world.” The guardians of the conservative tradition were the Democratic Party of Grover Cleveland, and it was Cleveland’s forgotten secretary of state, Walter Q. Gresham, who uttered another classic statement of the conservative critique when he warned Americans against their “impulse to rush into difficulties that do not concern” them. “To restrain the indulgence of such a propensity is not only the part of wisdom, but a duty we owe to the world as an example of the strength, the moderation, and the beneficence of popular government.” Americans did not listen, however, and rushed into war with Spain for Cuba’s freedom, and into the Philippines pursuing their “high purpose” of raising the natives up to self-sustaining civilization.
The battles continued and intensified in the “Wilsonian” twentieth century. Conservatives fought Wilson’s interventionist foreign policies partly because they saw in them the extension of his progressive domestic policies, which they regarded as bordering on despotic. The more radical progressives like Randolph Bourne believed the war to make the world safe for democracy would undermine democracy in the United States, and given the undemocratic excesses of the Wilson years—which dwarf anything that has occurred since September 11—Bourne was not entirely mistaken.
In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s it was Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dean Acheson pitted against the followers of Robert A. Taft. The “Mr. Republican” of his day has long been in bad odor for opposing the war against fascism. But his objections to America’s global involvement, including against Nazi Germany, were not those of a bumpkin or redneck, which he certainly was not, but of a highly sophisticated conservative critic of American ambition and hubris. “We should be prepared to defend our own shores,” Taft warned, “but we should not undertake to defend the ideals of democracy in foreign countries.” Otherwise the United States would become a “meddlesome Mattie, interfering in trouble throughout the world,” with “our fingers in every pie.” It would “occupy all the strategic points in the world and try to maintain a force so preponderant that none shall dare attack.” Like Patrick Henry, John Taylor, and John Quincy Adams before him, he worried about the effect of so much power on the health of his republic. “How long can nations restrain themselves from using such force with just a little of the aggressiveness of Germany and Japan?” he asked. “Potential power over other nations, however benevolent its purpose, leads inevitably to imperialism.”
But Americans in the days of FDR, Truman, Acheson, and after them Eisenhower and Kennedy, sought precisely what Taft feared, a “preponderance of power” and “situations of strength” at strategic points all across the globe. They pursued an ideologically laden containment strategy that theoretically could lead America to war anywhere on the planet, and which did lead it straight into Vietnam.
Old-fashioned conservatives were not alone in raising these concerns. Beginning around the time of World War II, the “realist” school leveled similar criticisms of American foreign policy. Again, it is not much recalled today, but the original realists cut their teeth fighting against FDR, Truman, and Dean Acheson. As Truman enunciated his famous doctrine and Acheson set about implementing the strategy of containment, the great realists of the day howled in disgust. Walter Lippmann denounced containment as a “strategic monstrosity” because it seemed to promise endless confrontation everywhere. He warned it would either bankrupt the nation or lead into an unnecessary and catastrophic war, and some would argue it did both. The realists were joined by the left which, though from a different angle, came to similar conclusions about the dangerous and destructive tendencies of American foreign policy. The left attributed these tendencies to the dominance of capitalists. The realists attributed them to the foolishness of the American people and what George F. Kennan called their “moralistic-legalistic” sensibility. And the conservatives blamed it on progressive liberal utopianism. But otherwise their collective criticisms had much in common.
None of those who criticized American foreign policy believed that what they were fighting against was an aberrant, esoteric, or alien strain. For William Appleman Williams and the left-revisionists, American imperialism was not some deviation from tradition foisted on an unsuspecting nation by clever ideologues; it was ingrained in the American capitalist soul. Whether in Southeast Asia in the 1960s or the Philippines in 1898, it was empire not by accident nor empire as conspiracy but “empire as a way of life.” For the realists, America suffered from a long utopian tradition, which they traced back to Thomas Paine and, a bit unfairly, to Thomas Jefferson, a tradition that ran through Wilson and to the postwar American faith in the United Nations. More worrying still was America’s “messianic” impulse, what Hans Morgenthau called America’s “nationalistic universalism,” which claimed “for one nation and one state the right to impose its own valuations and standards of action upon all other nations.” He and other realists warned in the late 1940s and 1950s—and Henry Kissinger repeated the warning in the 1960s and 1970s—that Americans must give up their “dream of remaking the world in their own image” and rein in their “limitless aspirations for power,” lest in a nuclear age they bring the whole world to ruin. Critics of neoconservatism these days look back longingly to the 1940s and 1950s as the imagined heyday of some “democratic realism,” but true realists do not share in the nostalgia.
Indeed, there was scarcely a moment in the Cold War when true realists were not appalled by the direction the United States was taking. What could a realist make of Kennedy’s promise to “pay any price, bear any burden,” or Jimmy Carter’s human rights policies, or Ronald Reagan’s self-righteous moralizing about the “evil empire”? The Cold War, contrary to today’s reconstructed mythology, was not waged coolly and methodically by calibrating realists or sweetly and idealistically by institution-builders, but aggressively and stubbornly by passionate, fearful, and intensely ideological men absolutely convinced that American power and principles alone were the world’s salvation—a self-righteous conviction that drove both realist and left-leaning critics to distraction. Only the conservatives suspended their criticism in what was for them first, last, and only a war against Communism.
These criticisms did not end with the Cold War. On the contrary, American behavior after the Cold War seemed to fulfill some of the worst fears of conservatives, realists, and left-revisionists. There were George H. W. Bush’s interventions in Panama and the Persian Gulf, undertaken in pursuit of a “New World Order.” There were Bill Clinton’s “humanitarian” interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, as well as the eastward expansion of NATO, all in pursuit of “democratic enlargement.” During the years of the first Bush administration, the realist scholar Robert W. Tucker warned against triumphalism and “The Imperial Temptation.” During the Clinton years, Ronald Steel, Lippmann’s biographer, warned against the “Temptations of a Superpower.” Buchanan accused both the Bush and Clinton administrations of “reenacting every folly” that had ever brought great powers to ruin, “from arrogance to hubris, to assertions of global hegemony, to imperial overstretch, to trumpeting new ‘crusades.’” In the 1990s, Samuel P. Huntington complained bitterly about American “arrogance,” “hubris,” and “unilateralism,” and warned that “at least two-thirds of the world’s people” saw the United States as “intrusive, interventionist, exploitative, unilateralist, hegemonic, hypocritical” and the “single greatest external threat to their societies.” He chastised Clinton administration officials who “boast[ed] of American power and American virtue” and who “lecture[d] other countries on the universal validity of American principles, practices, and institutions,” who professed America’s superior wisdom and foresight. He was appalled at Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when she told the world, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”
These days critics of neoconservatism repeat these same complaints, often culling from these old critics to make their case. They have rediscovered Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr. They pore over the writings of Williams and Charles Beard and summon their wisdom against the present neoconservative foreign policies. They read Noam Chomsky and nod in agreement when he writes that “the United States has become the most aggressive power in the world, the greatest threat to peace, to national self-determination, and to international cooperation.”
But Chomsky wrote that in 1968. And, of course, Beard, Williams, Niebuhr, and Morgenthau did not wage their dissenting battles against neoconservatism but against the policies of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson.
What does it tell us that decades-old critiques of American foreign policy seem so strikingly apt and useful in critiquing today’s “neoconservative” foreign policies? What it tells us, quite simply, is that what many consider the neoconservative aberration may not be such a great aberration after all. The tendencies associated these days with neoconservatism are more deeply rooted in American traditions than the critics care to admit, which means they will not so easily be uprooted, even by the coming epochal presidential election.
In fact, the problem for those who have sought to end this history of American expansiveness, both in decades past and today, is that this tendency toward expansion, this belief in the possibility of global transformation, this “messianic” impulse, far from being aberrant, is a dominant strain in the American character. It is certainly not the only tradition. There are counter-traditions, conservative, “republican,” pacifist, socialist, and realist. But in every g