Ignorance Pervades the 'Neocon' Debate

 

 

Recently, an American researcher in Beirut wrote a commentary in which he disapprovingly referred to me as a “neoconservative.” Though the subject struck me as dated, when the author sent me a version for review before publication, I explained that I was no such thing. More maliciously, he accused me, without any evidence, of coordinating a piece I had written on American policy toward Syria with those of three former Bush administration officials. This time my denial was angrier. 

Slapdash indictments are common these days in journalism about the Middle East – where the aim of writers is frequently to gain access to one side in an often polarized political situation, or to catch the eye of potential political sponsors. Far from stimulating exchange, such polemics inhibit an understanding of intellectual trends in the region. 

A major source of disagreement is the Iraq war. I happened to welcome the war because it overthrew a brutal regime responsible, directly or indirectly, for the death of some 1 million people. In 2005 I also approved of American and international efforts to end Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. Among “progressives” who identify with Arab issues, these positions earned me and other Arabs sharing my views a “neocon” label.

I am not a neocon, though I have found myself on their side on occasion. To be viewed as a neocon, even a hawk, is by definition to be categorized as someone having an American perspective on regional affairs. Yet my motives (being half-Lebanese) and those of other Arabs for welcoming Saddam Hussein’s downfall and the end of Syria’s long Lebanese interregnum derived almost entirely from an Arab standpoint. Our approach to the debate in the United States on the Middle East has been that of outsiders; we’re interested in how it affects us, but we cannot, reasonably, be portrayed as representatives of a particular faction. 

Let’s define “neocon.” Neoconservative thought has changed greatly in three decades, so it’s best outlined through its main features during the Bush years. The most forceful compendium of neocon thinking was the National Security Strategy of 2002, though the document was a mishmash that included liberal internationalist notions as well. What was new, however, was its focus on US military superiority and its justification of Washington’s right to engage in pre-emptive strikes against emerging threats and to advance its interests unilaterally. Drawing from the heightened imperative of security, neocons, though they were hardly the only ones, were inclined to go along with the tenuous legal system for holding terrorist suspects at Guantanamo prison and other military facilities, extraordinary rendition, even torture. 

There is a strong domestic American component to the neocon agenda. The neocons saw 9/11 as allowing for the relative curtailment of civil liberties and freedom of markets through the USA Patriot Act, and they have repeatedly encouraged (without success) the introduction of national identity cards, using intrusive biometric data. Though neocons, sensibly, argued in favor of advancing liberalism abroad, almost none of those present in the Bush administration actively opposed the undermining of liberal values when the White House and the administration’s judiciary bureaucracy tortuously validated the mistreatment of foreign detainees.

If you call someone a neocon, particularly an Arab, you should be pretty sure that he or she meets those criteria. However, it’s likely that almost no Arab who supported the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Baathists in Iraq, or the Syrian army from Lebanon does. Most either opposed abusive American behavior or were indifferent. But all knew that every time the US neglected human rights, liberals who had initially supported the premises of American intervention were discredited.

By transforming the discussion of the desirability of confronting Middle Eastern autocracies into a parochial American bellyache about neocons versus anti-neocons, the polemicists have emptied it of everything interesting, for example disregarding how, during its second term, the Bush administration moved away from neocon tenets of the first term. 

Take Lebanon’s emancipation movement against Syria, following the murder of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. The US played a key role in forcing the Syrians out by working multilaterally, through the United Nations. Even administration neocons endorsed this strategy, showing the discrepancy between theory and practice. The reality is that the legalistic, internationalist US response to the Lebanese crisis was a far cry from what neocons had earlier advocated. Nevertheless, those in Lebanon publicly lauding this conduct, by virtue of being with America, were still branded hawks, ideologues, and, yes, neocons.  

Credit the neocons with one thing. After 9/11 they filled the gap of comprehension in the US when it came to the attacks. Left-liberals, old-line realists, and libertarians had little credible to say about why the crimes were committed. The neocons alone saw them as the consequence of a systemic problem deriving from a lack of Arab democracy. They were right. But the riposte was haphazard, contradictory, and ultimately counterproductive, so that America soon found itself isolated. That’s why Bush adopted more consensual policies during his second term. 

Grasping these subtleties is compulsory to avoid tossing the word neocon around with abandon. As for my American accuser, I found instructive that when a mutual friend criticized his statement that I had coordinated with the former officials, all he could reply in an e-mail was: “You’re right on the coordination – I have no idea.” Fabrication seems to be par for the course whenever the neocon bogeyman is brought up. 

 

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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