My item on Friday, suggesting that Egypt’s experience shows that peaceful protests are a surer road to regime change than terrorism or guerrilla warfare, provoked an amusing reaction from the far-left corners of cyberspace. Leftist bloggers and Twitterers are agog that a “neocon warmonger” like me might actually support peaceful regime change. They are accusing me of hypocrisy for also favoring the liberation of Iraq by armed might.
Which only goes to show the dangers of thinking in clichés and slogans. If you actually believe “neocon=warmonger” then, yes, I can see why it might overload your mental circuitry to see a “neocon” applaud Egyptian protesters. But what this shows is not any hypocrisy on my part but rather the inadequacy of this cartoonish description of “neocons.”
In point of fact, my primary interest is in promoting the spread of liberal democracy, which I believe to be in America’s long-term interests. That’s why I have consistently favored popular rallies against autocrats, whether in Tehran or Cairo. Indeed, I believe it should be a major part of American foreign policy to encourage just such demonstrations, especially against hostile regimes such as those in Iran and Syria. But I also believe in fostering peaceful change even among allies such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Ronald Reagan, that arch “neocon warmonger” (or was he a “cowboy warmonger”? — I forget), was responsible for setting up the National Endowment for Democracy to pursue just such a policy.
That does not, of course, mean that we can possibly limit our foreign policy to encouraging peaceful protests. While, as I noted, “people power” is a more potent tool of regime change than insurgent violence, it has distinct limitations. No amount of popular protests would have dislodged Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1990 — just as no popular pressure could possibly have dislodged Adolf Hitler from his conquests in Europe. Sometimes armed intervention is necessary — a point that should be controversial only among the most extreme pacifists such as Gandhi, who actually believed that “nonviolent resistance” could defeat the Nazis. (Orwell had a devastating takedown of this position, writing that “Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist.”)
Assuming that we can agree on the occasional necessity of using force, the question becomes when and under what conditions. Like many liberal and conservative internationalists, I believe that sometimes we should intervene to stop the worst human-rights abuses — as we did in Bosnia and Kosovo. But in most cases, I believe that we should put our troops on the line only when there are pressing national-security interests at stake — as there were in the Balkans and also as I believe there were (and are) in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We did not intervene in either Iraq or Afghanistan for the primary purpose of building democracy; we did it because of what were seen as direct threats to our security: namely, the Taliban’s close links with the perpetrators of 9/11 and Saddam Hussein’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. As it turned out, those WMD programs were a lot less advanced than the CIA and other Western intelligence services had believed; Saddam Hussein had carried off a bluff that came back to bite him.
If we had known then what we learned subsequently about Iraqi WMD, I doubt that the Bush administration would have ever invaded — nor would I have favored invading. But you can’t play back history to revise it ex post facto. Given that we did invade Iraq and Afghanistan, the question then became what kind of regimes we wanted to leave behind. Some (e.g., Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld) didn’t seem to particularly care; he was primarily concerned about getting out ASAP — which didn’t, for some reason, endear him to many on the left who shared this shortsighted view.
“Neocons” like me, on the other hand, argued that there was scant chance of imposing a friendly dictator on a chaotic place like post-Saddam Iraq or post-Taliban Afghanistan. Our best bet for long-term stability, I believed (and still believe), was to create a democratic government that would rule with the assent of the people.
But Iraq and Afghanistan are unusual cases. No one ever suggested that we should be sending the American armed forces to knock off every dictatorial regime on the planet — that position is purely a product of leftist paranoia; it does not exist in the real world. Instead, I believe that the U.S. should encourage peaceful regime change where possible. When George W. Bush espoused a similar line, he was accused by many on the left of wishful thinking, a lack of realism, even of American imperialism. Now the left seems to be in favor of democracy promotion, too, at least in Tunisia and Egypt. Welcome to the “neocon warmongers” club.