Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

After the Neo-Cons

Steven E. Meyer


November 24, 2006

The outcome of the elections on November 7 will almost certainly have a major impact on U.S. foreign and security policies. Above all, the elections signal a repudiation of the neo-conservative movement that, in turn, leaves a vacuum in American foreign policy that should be filled by a less militant and more open, intelligent, and realistic approach to the Middle East—and probably to most other parts of the world.

However, reorienting our foreign policy will not be easy because of the enormous damage done by the Neo-cons over the past five years.

Despite the sobriquet of neo-conservative, the Neo-cons emerged out of the American left, not the right. A majority of the movement's early leaders were disillusioned Marxists who were nourished by Wilsonian idealism. Several prominent and influential contemporary Neo-cons have openly advocated converting America's post-Cold War hegemony into a U.S.-controlled empire that would aggressively bring democracy, stability, and development to those parts of the world that, in their view, need it most.

Although most of the Neo-cons rode to power with President Bush in 2000, they were not able to decisively reshape U.S. foreign policy until after 9/11, building on the fear generated by that tragedy. The Neo-cons have argued ever since the mid-1980s that Iraq is the key to the Middle East and that destroying the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein and installing "democratic" government would have widespread beneficial consequences for both the region and the United States.

But the neo-con experiment has ended in violent tragedy just as Woodrow Wilson's idealistic efforts did after World War I. As with Wilson's efforts to reform Europe, the contemporary Neo-cons never understood the historical realities, including the power arrangements, of the Middle East. They comprehended neither the importance of ethnic and tribal identities nor the fact that it is virtually impossible to decapitate a regime—even one as vile as Saddam Hussein's—without provoking violent and deadly consequences. And they have learned that Iraq was not the linchpin of the Middle East—until they made it so, to the detriment of American interests.

Consequently, most of the Neo-cons have been forced from office, their movement is in disrepute, and their policies are in tatters. But most serious for the U.S., the neo-con legacy has led to defeat and a substantial loss of American credibility around the world. We are the major loser in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, while Iran and Syria have gained the most. At the same time, our policies in Iraq have actually abetted terrorism. It will likely take a generation or more to restore the American influence and credibility that have been lost even if sound policies are adopted quickly.

The American public has soured on the Iraq war and the new Congress will have little stomach for imperial games. Only the White House continues to cling to the neo-con mantra, arguing in the face of reality for continuity in policy until victory is won. This is now nothing more than hollow rhetoric. We have no choice but to fundamentally reorient our foreign and security policies in the greater Middle East. Sheer force of arms has not worked and we will have to abandon our self-righteous good-versus-evil approach for a more realistic engagement with the power brokers in the region. Given the current circumstances in Iraq, the administration really has little intelligent choice but to try to strike a deal with Iran and Syria—to include Saudi Arabia and Turkey—in the expectation that they too now find the situation spiraling out of control. If that deal is to be constructive for the long run, new wisdom is urgently needed.

—Steven E. Meyer, National Defense University
   (The views expressed here are the author's alone)


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