The National Insecurity State | The Nation


The National Insecurity State

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So what happened to such sober considerations? Have they been wholly rinsed from the neoconservative worldview? Institutions can be imported perhaps; but they cannot be exported. At least that is what many conservative-minded thinkers believe. So how could Wolfowitz, given his long association with right-wing ideologues, have imagined that the United States could unilaterally change Iraqi political culture by a six-week military campaign? How could a conservative of any stripe have lapsed into such facile optimism?

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Stephen Holmes
Stephen Holmes teaches at the New York University School of Law. His most recent book is The Matador's Cape: America's...

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One common answer is that he is not really a conservative but rather a revolutionary. This pleasantry is seemingly confirmed by the fact that other bearers of the neoconservative label, such as Irving Kristol, were Trotskyists in their youth and, it is argued, are simply continuing their aim of exporting revolution under a new flag. But can we really believe that Wolfowitz, whom Mann also calls "the least daring member of the neoconservative movement," is a revolutionary utopian, unwilling to accept the imperfections of human life and expecting to solve the world's problems once and for all by democratizing the Middle East?

Mann provides an important clue for resolving this mystery: Wolfowitz has never renounced Kirkpatrick's argument. On the contrary, he has gone out of his way to reaffirm it. The inconsistency here is only apparent, in truth, since it has long been a maxim among hard-liners to support friendly dictators and oppose unfriendly ones. Carter's mistake, from this perspective, was to oppose a friendly dictator, the Shah of Iran. If he had opposed an unfriendly dictator, such as Saddam, he would not have been chastised, but praised.

This point deserves elaboration. Skeptics about détente learned from the Helsinki process how effectively the United States could weaken the international stature of its principal military rival by invoking human rights. The political utility of demonstrative morality was not lost on the bellicose. Already in 1975, as Mann reminds us, Cheney fought unsuccessfully, against Kissinger, to have Solzhenitsyn invited to the White House. This instrumentalization of human rights is perfectly compatible with Kirkpatrick's attack on Carter. For hard-liners, human rights serve as a stick with which to beat and weaken America's enemies. But the weapon should be sheathed when it comes to America's friends. Human rights are a formidable tool in America's propaganda arsenal; but they are not a blueprint for creating new regimes.

There is at least some evidence that this is the way the Bush Administration treats human rights and democracy in the Middle East today--less as guidelines for nation-building than as moral rebukes meant to humiliate and weaken our enemies. This instrumental approach to human rights and democratic ideals is perfectly compatible with a continued acceptance of the Kirkpatrick doctrine. That the Administration continues to accept it is demonstrated by its forgiving attitude toward Pervez Musharraf, a friendly dictator whom they are reluctant to criticize in the name of liberal ideals.

Such selective invoking of humanitarian ideals, however cynical, is not necessarily incoherent. But it leaves current policy unexplained. What are we doing in Iraq, a year after Saddam's fall, if we are not trying to transform the country into a model democracy that could serve as an inspiration for the entire Middle East? This is the way Ambassador Paul Bremer, echoing Wolfowitz, still talks. So why should we not believe them? After all, America's past indifference to the political oppression of ordinary Arabs has probably done more to stimulate anti-American rage in the region than US support for Israel. So is it not time for a radical change of approach? And is not Iraq the best place to display our newly benign intentions?

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