Monday, May 23, 2016

Neo-pro, Neo-con

Daniel Larison recommended this article that attacks a claim made by a pundit for a respectable media outlet "that neoconservatives have been part of a broad foreign policy consensus dating back to the ’50s."

You know, I'm not entirely sure what neoconservatives are.  The pundit, Eliot Cohen, makes some risible statements, for example that "the two-generation-old American foreign policy consensus ... held that American interests were ineluctably intertwined with American values, and that when possible, each should reinforce the other, as when the promotion of liberty and human rights helped to weaken the Soviet Union."  Oh, yes, we all know how "American values" promoted liberty and human rights around the world, and continue to do so.  But Paul Pillar, Cohen's critic, has his own blind spots.
Dwight Eisenhower's presidency was one of foreign policy restraint. Ike didn't dive into Southeast Asia when the French were losing, he didn't attempt rollback in Eastern Europe, and he came down hard on the British, French, and Israelis during their Suez escapade. Richard Nixon's foreign policy was characterized by realism, balance of power, and extraction from a major war rather than starting one. Ronald Reagan, despite the image of standing up to the Evil Empire, didn't try to wage Cold War forever like some in his administration did. He saw the value of negotiation with adversaries, and when faced with high costs from overseas military deployments (think Lebanon in 1983-84), his response was retrenchment rather than doubling down. George H.W. Bush had one of the most successful foreign policies of all, thanks to not trying to accomplish too much with overseas military expeditions, and to his administration being broad-thinking and forward-looking victors of the Cold War.
I suppose most of these statements could be explicated in ways that would make them less absurd than they are at first glance, but that's because Pillar is overlooking, deliberately or through ignorance, facts that would complicate them, and perhaps undermine his argument.

Take his account of Eisenhower, who continued Truman's policy of massive support for the French war in Indochina, analogous to Obama's support for the current Saudi blitzkrieg in Yemen. True, when the French gave up Eisenhower didn't "dive in," if that's supposed to mean a direct invasion by US forces.  Instead Eisenhower undermined the political settlement that followed, by bringing in and supporting a viciously repressive client, which soon led to resistance by the Vietnamese and ultimately (less than a decade later) a direct US invasion by Eisenhower's successor.  Eisenhower also used covert action to overthrow govenments that he considered insufficiently cooperative with US "interests."  Guatemala and Iran were what he considered successful interventions, both involving the installation of singularly brutal dictatorships that the US supported for decades; Indonesia was such a failure that his administration did their best to ensure it would be forgotten, with considerable success.  It's currently fashionable to whitewash Ike, but his main success was minimizing US losses, while maximizing casualties in the countries he chose as targets.

As for Nixon, his "extraction from a major war" didn't happen.  He extended and escalated the war in Vietnam while starting a new one in Cambodia, again with minimal US losses and maximal losses among Cambodians.  I suppose Pillar has in mind Nixon's "Vietnamization" program, which was supposed to turn the work of waging the US to South Vietnamese forces, but the US remained involved in Vietnam throughout Nixon's tenure, and only got out under his appointed successor Gerald Ford.

Reagan, like Eisenhower, preferred "covert" (meaning, not publicized in the US but well-known elsewhere in the world) and proxy activity, but his first impulse was different.  (Why were US troops in Lebanon to begin with, for example?)  Bush the Elder invaded Panama and Iraq, again with minimal US casualties but maximal Panamanian and Iraqi losses.  His disinclination "to accomplish too much with overseas military expeditions" presumably refers to Bush's initial promise to support the Iraqi uprising against Saddam Hussein immediately after the Gulf War, and his subsequent inaction when that uprising was put down with harshness typical of US clients defending their turf. (It would not have required a military expedition to support the uprising, by the way; but letting Iraqi rebels use "captured Iraqi equipment" against Saddam wasn't acceptable to Bush.)  Bush's supposed aversion to overseas military expeditions is also belied by the unseemly haste with which he reacted with military force to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the first place.

So Pillar's critique seems to overlook important contrary evidence and considerations about the post-WWII US foreign policy consensus.  Whoever the neoconservatives are, US policy has mostly involved state terror, violence, direct military intervention when possible and covert intervention by repressive American proxies when discretion required it.  Whatever the neocons wrought, it seems to have differed from the consensus mainly in degree, not in kind.