Across the Bay

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Favorite Sport: Neocon Hunting

Emile el-Hokayem, a researcher on ME security issues at the Stimson Center (and, I'm proud to say, a reader of this weblog!), has written an excellent, and highly gratifying piece for the Daily Star on the uses and abuses of the term "Neocon" (or as the title has it: "the myriad cons about the neocons").

All I can say is this article makes fools of several pundits in the US like our dear friend Juan Cole and the MESA guild. Cole has made an art of the abuse of the term Neocon, reserving his worst seizures and conspiracy theories and ivectives to this (imagined) group. He fits perfectly this description outlined by Emile:

"[V]ilification of the neocons is a sport. Branding someone a neoconservative has become a favorite insult in the Arab lexicon and a convenient way of discrediting an opinion. The strophes are familiar: Neocons have it all wrong; they know nothing about the world's realities, and they are driven by contempt and hatred for the rest of the world, especially Muslims.

This simplification of neocon thinking reflects a limited understanding of the school of thought, as well as a desire to dismiss its relevance. Neoconservatism has been amalgamated with Zionism, caricaturized and stripped of all nuance by numerous pundits.

The only problem is that this is supposed to be a description of the Arab world! Which once again brings up the problem raised on this blog (and by IraqPundit and Iraq the Model) that people like Juan Cole actually mirror the worst Arabist propaganda and pathologies (and its weakness before the seductions of conspiracy theories) with a complete lack of any critical sense.

Emile attempts to briefly define the "neocon philosophy":

"But the blending of the two concepts of an "end of history" and a "clash of civilizations" illustrates poor comprehension of the neoconservative philosophy. Far from being racist, the philosophy is universalistic. It contends that all humans share the same aspirations: individual freedom and affluence. It magnifies the traits common to human beings and reduces the importance of cultural features distinguishing societies one from another. This is actually the most contentious element of neocon thought: it assumes that individualist pursuits supersede identity. In traditional societies, this is anathema. For neoconservatives, the U.S., as the world's most advanced state, has a mission to spread universal values. This explains why they so often promote interventionist policies and are sometimes labeled democratic imperialists."

Or, as Martin Kramer once put it, properly differentiating the politicized merging of Neocons with Orientalists: neocon philosophy is about sameness, while Orientalism was about difference. For some, like our other friend (for real this time!) Josh Landis, this is seen as not necessarily always an asset, but also a potential danger in the neocon worldview (if we allow ourselves to use such terminology. After all, as Emile points out, disagreements exist among neocons!). It's not the issue of using power to help the rise of democracies (so here I disagree with Emile's reservations on this point). It's the danger of a universalism that can morph into an absolutism of sorts. After all, I'm not sure there's another way to describe Fukuyama's thesis except as deterministic. (For more on "the end of history", and Fukuyama's reaction to his thesis post 9/11, see this piece in the WaPo last month.) I'm not sure I'm sold on the "danger" part. Yes, cultures are different, but there are rights that are universal. For instance, I cannot in the name of multiculturalism accept the kind of behavior that was outlined in Whitaker's piece in the Guardian (see below). Once again, education emerges as the most important issue when dealing with the ME.

One of the greatest ironies of this is that if we return to Kramer's useful distinction for a minute, the MESAns would be on the side of the Orientalists (holy aberration Batman!). Emile also touches on Huntington's book (and the other shoe drops! Still missing is Bernard Lewis!), and remarks that Huntington "recommends ... to some extent disengagement from the world to avoid offending and alienating other "civilizations" with imported values." This sounds a bit like something Rashid Khalidi would try to say! So in one instant, the MESAns are on the side of Orientalists and Huntington! Egad! (More specifically on the issue of education in the ME and MESAns, Keith "Watenthehell" Watenpaugh once wrote: "More problematic for the future of higher education in Iraq ... is that ... the CPA was intent on peopling its bureaucracy with politically loyal agents, rather than those most objectively qualified to assist Iraq." What Keith left out was this damning account of the attitude of people in the ME studies field towards helping Iraqi students and schools: "Ahmed al-Rahim, a teacher of Arabic language and literature at Harvard University, said he tried to organize members from several different academic departments at Harvard to help the Iraqis rebuild their educational system. However, al-Rahim found resistance, especially from individuals in the Middle Eastern studies department, because of their hatred for the Bush administration.")

Emile also sets the record straight on Wolfowitz, something that I've tried to do a few times on this blog, trying to dispel some of the venomous myths woven around this man. Nevertheless, Emile has his reservations about the neocon ideology:

"However, what is most controversial is the neocons' policy recommendations that flow from this basic assumption, as well as their dismissal of other sources of anger directed against the U.S., including the Arab-Israeli conflict. For them, America has the power to shape or determine the face of the world. This belief explains why neocons were so convinced that democracy could flourish quickly in Iraq. They also believe in the morality of force, and see military action as a viable means of inducing reform. To neocons, morality of intention supplants other considerations linked to the use of force."

Michael Scott Doran in a piece in the WSJ today ("The Iraq Effect?" December 7, 2004; Page A14) deals with the issue of US popularity in the ME. Doran states bluntly: "Any serious evaluation of the war on terror must gauge the balance of power between the U.S. and its enemies, not the level of American popularity with the Arab public." He goes on to show some of the direct effects of US force in Saudi Arabia for instance. Also, Josh Landis admits in his post today that US force and pressure have led Bashar Asad to the negotiation table: "That is exactly why Washington placed sanctions on Damascus in the first place, so Asad would respond. Now he is responding." I therefore agree with Lee Smith's latest piece in Slate (see below under "Kiss me, I'm a ME Liberal!") that a more complex approach is needed that uses much more than force, but one that does use force also in order to create other options and leverages. You simply cannot eliminate that option in certain instances or else you'd eliminate a pitch, to use a baseball analogy. You've got to be able to establish the "high heat up and in" in some cases. I think Landis' remark rather supports that!

Therefore I think that Emile is taken a bit by the very argument he set out to dispel. He had just described the philosophical origins of the democratization argument, but then attributes that exclusively to a blind belief in US might and its ability to change the world! There may be that impulse among neocons, but my question has always been, why not use your power to both secure your interests and provide better options for others? The apprehension that this proves a discomforting US unipolarism, instead of a more agreeable multipolarism, is once again addressed by Doran, who writes: "What it [the US] cannot tolerate is a global balance of power that favors al Qaeda, kindred groups, and rogue regimes..." This point brings back to mind Niall Ferguson's essay in Foreign Policy that I referred to in my "Frog Prince vs. Wolfowitz" post. Ferguson says that a very possible replacement of unipolarism is not multipolarism, but rather apolarism. Doran seems to say that multipolarism could also be a conduit for apolarism (chaos where groups like Al-Qaeda can really thrive), which is an interesting twist on Ferguson's view.

Finally, as Wolfowitz put it (again see my "Frog Prince" post), it's not that US force induces democracy or reform. US force, in particularly egregious cases (like the perfect example of Saddam's Iraq), can create the proper context, or remove certain hurdles, to allow for a society to evolve towards democracy. It's precisely this point that led even someone like Juan Cole to support the war (before he denied it!). Here, the Huntington model of specific cultures and identities can be brought in to debate whether a place like Germany or Japan after their defeat in WWII can be compared to a place like Iraq which has never known democracy (I'm not familiar with Japan's history, but I don't think there's much in its history before then either). Again, I think an introduction of a system and proper education are a first step to planting a seed, a habit, that hopefully can draw on certain positives in the culture (tribal culture, despite its negatives, can actually be a good element in a pluralist society, at least for a while and to a certain extent), and survive and even flourish, especially if the society is integrated into the world community with proper interaction with it and its ideas (not to mention the impact of the information and communication techonology).

Emile's piece also shows what I've pointed out a couple of time how the neoliberals (let alone the New Left) sound more like old time Realists than anything else! This is something that Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman have pursued in their writings. On Realists, see Michael Young's recent piece in Reason (see below, under "The Revenge of the Realists!").

Overall, Emile has done the readers in the ME a great service with this article. Now if only the pundits and "ME experts" here in the US would take heed, rather than sound like the worst propagandists of the Arab world.

Update: Blogger Chrenkoff discusses the role of culture, and the role of Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder in Iraq.