Why Be a Neocon? Because You Like Being Very Wrong About Everything

Slate columnist Reihan Salam has an important message: He still believes in neoconservatism. He concedes, more or less, that the past 13 years of United States foreign policy have been a hideous spectacle of strategic, tactical, and moral failure, all perpetrated in the name of neoconservative ideas. "Given all of this," he asks, "why am I still a neocon?"

The answer—albeit Salam's unintentional answer—is that he's a neocon because he is a sloppy thinker who is deeply confused about history and how the world works. This is a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of America's role in global affairs. Neoconservatism is a fantasy, and fantasies are hard to abandon:

Why do I still believe that the U.S. should maintain an overwhelming military edge over all potential rivals, and that we as a country ought to be willing to use our military power in defense of our ideals as well as our interests narrowly defined? There are two reasons: The first is that American strength is the linchpin of a peaceful, economically integrating world; and the second is that we know what it looks like when America embraces amoral realpolitik, and it's not pretty.

Goodness, ideals! Our ideals, lately, have led to our national spy corps running an open-ended international program of mass surveillance and paramilitary war, featuring kidnapping, torture, and robot-assisted assassination. In Afghanistan, one of the countries where we have most actively worked on pinning together a peaceful world, aid workers and journalists are being shot by the locals for simply being associated with the West. Meanwhile Russia, despite the undeniable appeal of a world led by the United States, has begun de-integrating territory from the Euro-American sphere of influence.

Presumably Vladimir Putin is reacting to President Obama's relative lack of strength, now that neoconservative ideas are in eclipse. Yet the American military, despite reports of its imminent demobilization, is immense and well funded. Salam addresses this:

You may have seen one of those charts illustrating how much the U.S. military spends on defense vs. other countries. Slate recently ran just such a chart to show that America's 2012 defense spending surpasses that of China, Russia, the U.K., Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy, and Brazil combined. The implicit message of these charts is "Wait a minute, you guys—doesn't this seem like overkill?" There is no question that there is waste in the U.S. defense budget, and that our military could deploy resources more effectively.

But these charts are misleading insofar as they gloss over a pretty important fact, which is that personnel costs are much higher in rich countries than in poor ones. Stack up the U.S. against the same list of countries on health or education spending and you'll find that we spend an impressive amount in those domains too.

Salam didn't go to the trouble of really stacking the United States up against those countries. Our own Reuben Fischer-Baum was kind enough to do it for him:

Why Be a Neocon? Because You Like Being Very Wrong About Everything

So on health care—where the amount we spend is recognized across party lines as a national crisis and a scandal—our government is spending only 75 percent as much as those other countries' governments. On education, we're spending 58 percent as much. Our military spending is the anomaly. But who needs facts when you have ideals?

Salam goes on to argue for the importance of "moralistic crusades," citing a personal example: His own uncle, he writes, was among the hundreds of thousands (or millions) of Bengalis slaughtered in 1971, as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger refused to stop Pakistan's violent suppression of the population in the territory of East Pakistan that would become Bangladesh.

In other words, Salam presents Nixon and Kissinger as embodying the opposite of a vigorous right-wing military interventionism. People in Cambodia and Laos (to say nothing of Chile) might find this a surprising historical interpretation. It's certainly a peculiar case study for Salam's purposes—the trouble in 1971 was not so much that Nixon was not bold enough to use arms against Pakistan as that he was unwilling to do anything whatsoever, including using diplomatic or financial pressure, to rein in the brutality of his allies in the Pakistani junta.

Trying to define Nixon and Kissinger out of the interventionist camp, Salam describes them as "too taken with treating the world as a chessboard." But their amoral gamesmanship in Pakistan was itself the result of the great moralistic military struggle against Soviet Communism. The Bengalis were never the point. War is a chain of events and decisions, ever more removed from the original plan or purpose (thus our campaign to punish the perpetrators of 9/11 sent us to Afghanistan, because the Taliban was sheltering bin Laden, and the Afghanistan war effort required us to cooperate with the Pakistanis, who eventually ended up sheltering bin Laden themselves).

Or rather, that's what actual war is. Salam is not much interested in that. Here the neoconservative spirit reveals itself. What he supports is good war, waged by good people for good reasons, to achieve good ends. That's great. I suppose I support clean nuclear energy, myself—energy from nuclear power plants that never have accidents and which dispose of their radioactive waste in a safe and sustainable manner.

A neoconservative energy policy, though, would argue that Fukushima and Chernobyl are not relevant to discussing the merits of nuclear power. What do those catastrophes have to do with the question of whether a well-run nuclear plant would be a good idea? War is humanitarianism in action, and the failures of the previous crusade should have no bearing on the next one. All that is necessary for the defeat of evil is for good men to do something. Anything. Good things.

Salam's public service, here, is in the incoherence and ridiculousness of his argument: These people have no idea what they're talking about. Never listen to them again.

[Image by Jim Cooke; graph by Reuben Fischer-Baum]