… neocons are back because Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il and Vladimir Putin never went away. A star may have shone in the east the day Barack Obama became president. But these three kings, at least, have yet to proffer the usual gifts of gold and incense and myrrh.
Instead, the presents have been of a different kind. North Korea claims to be in the final stages of building a uranium enrichment facilityâ€”its second route to an atomic bomb. Iran, again caught cheating on its Nonproliferation Treaty obligations, has responded by wagging a finger at the U.S. and firing a round of missiles. Syria continues to aid and abet jihadists operating in Iraq. NATO countries have generally refused to send more troops to Afghanistan, and are all the more reluctant to do so now that the administration is itself wavering on the war.
As for Russia, its ambassador to the U.N. last week bellyached that the U.S. “continues to be a rather difficult negotiating partner”â€”and that was after Mr. Obama cancelled the missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. Thus does the politics of concession meet with the logic of contempt.
All this must, at some level, come as a surprise to an administration so deeply in love with itself. “I am well aware of the expectations that accompany my presidency around the world,” Mr. Obama told the U.N.’s General Assembly last week with his usual modesty. He added that those expectations were “rooted in hopeâ€”the hope that real change is possible, and the hope that America will be a leader in bringing about such change.”
Yet what sounds like “hope” in, say, Toronto or Barcelona tends to come across as fecklessness in Warsaw and Jerusalem. In Moscow and Tehran, it reads like credulityâ€”and an opportunity to exploit the U.S. at a moment of economic weakness and political self-infatuation.
For those much-scorned neocons, none of this comes as a surprise. Neoconservatives generally take the view that the internal character of a regime usually predicts the nature of its foreign policy. Governments that are answerable to their own people and accountable to a rule of law tend to respect the rights of their neighbors, honor their treaty commitments, and abide by the international rules of the road. By contrast, regimes that prey on their own citizens are likely to prey on their neighbors as well. Their word is the opposite of their bond.
That’s why neocons have no faith in any deals or “grand bargains” the U.S. might sign with North Korea or Iran over their nuclear programs: Cheating is in the DNA of both regimes, and the record is there to prove it. Nor do neocons put much stock in the notion that there’s a “reset” button with the Kremlin. Russia is the quintessential spoiler state, seeking its advantage in America’s troubles at home and abroad. Ditto for Syria, which has perfected the art of taking credit for solving problems of its own creation.
Where neocons do put their faith is in American power, not just military or economic power but also as an instrument of moral and political suasion. Disarmament? The last dictator to relinquish his nuclear program voluntarily was Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, who did so immediately following Saddam Hussein’s capture. Democratization? Contrary to current conventional wisdom, democracy is often imposed, or at least facilitated, by U.S. pressureâ€”in the Philippines, in the Balkans and, yes, in Iraq. Human rights? Anwar Ibrahim, the beleaguered Malaysian opposition leader, told me last week that “the only country that can stand up” to abusive regimes is the United States. “If they know the administration is taking a soft stance [on human rights], they will go on a rampage.”
None of this is to say that neoconservatism represents some kind of infallible doctrineâ€”or that it’s even a doctrine. Neocons have erred in overestimating the U.S. public’s willingness to engage in long struggles on behalf of other people. They have erred also in overestimating the willingness of other people to fight for themselves, or for their freedom.
But as the pendulum has swung to a U.S. foreign policy based on little more than the personal attractions of the president, it’s little wonder that the world is casting about for an alternative. And a view of the world that understands that American power still furnishes the margin between freedom and tyranny, and between prosperity and chaos, is starting to look better all the time. Even in France.
One thing is clear: No amount of ‘Hope’ & ‘Change’ & ‘Blame George W. Bush’ can make Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, &c., go away.
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