I’m sure that, like most commentators who regularly opine on current events, I’ve made my share of mistakes during the years. But leftist freelance writer Jordan Michael Smith hasn’t found any of them. In the Washington Post, he offers a “pundit scorecard” ten years after 9/11. Not surprisingly, he applauds leftist pundits and tries to deride conservative ones–including yours truly. He offers me the “Wishful Thinking Award.” (Thanks! Is my check in the mail?) Here is the case he makes:

Not since the bombing of Pearl Harbor destroyed American isolationism has a school of foreign policy thought been so discredited as neoconservatism was by the insurgency in Iraq. Yet in the first months after the 9/11 attacks, neoconservative plans to redesign the Middle East found a sympathetic hearing in the White House and among the commentariat. Probably the most romantic neocon was military analyst Max Boot, who believed that the world was desperate for American domination.

“Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets,” Boot wrote in the Weekly Standard on Oct. 15, 2001. Just as the U.S. war in Afghanistan was beginning, Boot was planning other campaigns.

“Once we have deposed Saddam, we can impose an American-led, international regency in Baghdad, to go along with the one in Kabul. With American seriousness and credibility thus restored, we will enjoy fruitful cooperation from the region’s many opportunists, who will show a newfound eagerness to be helpful in our larger task of rolling up the international terror network that threatens us.”

Really? Is that the best Smith could do? The first sentence–about how neoconservatism has supposedly been discredited–looks like it came out of a 2004 time warp. More recent events–the success of the Iraq surge, the dawn of the Arab Spring–have actually vindicated many neocon arguments. Obama’s willingness to undertake a humanitarian intervention in Libya shows that neocon ideas remain a major force even in a Democratic administration. Apparently, Smith hasn’t gotten the memo that he should stop demonizing neocons and move on to the left’s new bete noire–the Tea Party.

Was I wrong to write that places like Afghanistan and Iraq “cry out for …enlightened foreign administration”? In fact, our troubles in Iraq and Afghanistan point out the prescience of the argument I was making: that we needed to think not just about killing a few terrorists but also about toppling the Taliban and Saddam Hussein and building durable institutions to replace them. In “The Case for American Empire,” the Oct. 15, 2001, Weekly Standard essay that Smith selectively quotes from, I made the case for nation-building under international auspices. Here is what I wrote:

[W]hen we oust the Taliban, what comes next? Will we repeat our mistake of a decade ago and leave? What if no responsible government immediately emerges? What if no responsible government immediately emerges? What if millions of Afghans are left starving? Someone would have to step in and help–and don’t bet on the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees getting the job done. The United States, in cooperation with its allies, would be left with the responsibility to feed the hungry, tend the sick, and impose the rule of law. This is what we did for the defeated peoples of Germany, Italy, and Japan, and it is a service that we should extend to the oppressed people of Afghanistan as well. Unlike 19th-century European colonialists, we would not aim to impose our rule permanently. Instead, as in Western Germany, Italy, and Japan, occupation would be a temporary expedient to allow the people to get back on their feet until a responsible, humane, preferably democratic, government takes over….

“With respect to the nature of the regime in Afghanistan, that is not uppermost in our minds right now,” Secretary of State Colin Powell recently said. If not uppermost, though, it certainly should be on our minds. Long before British and American armies had returned to the continent of Europe–even before America had entered the struggle against Germany and Japan–Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met on a battleship in the North Atlantic to plan the shape of the postwar world. The Atlantic Charter of August 14, 1941, pledged Britain and America to creating a liberal world order based on peace and national self-determination. The leaders of America, and of the West, should be making similar plans today.

I would say those words have been fully vindicated by the last ten years. I only wish policymakers in the Bush administration had listened. Instead, they succumbed to their reflexive suspicion of nation-building and allowed events to spin out of control in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What about my prediction that “[w]ith American seriousness and credibility thus restored, we will enjoy fruitful cooperation from the region’s many opportunists, who will show a newfound eagerness to be helpful in our larger task of rolling up the international terror network that threatens us”? That, too, turned out to be true. Witness how, after Saddam Hussein was toppled, Muammar Qaddafi suddenly decided to give up his weapons of mass destruction, and even the Iranian government paused its development of nuclear weapons. We did get more cooperation even from our foes when our credibility was at its height in 2003. That cooperation waned, however, as we became bogged down in an insurgency in Iraq, with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stubbornly refusing to send enough troops to gain control of the situation. The success of the surge once again restored American credibility–but it is in danger of eroding again, with President Obama prematurely drawing down in Afghanistan and all but pulling out of Iraq.


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