Lost in all the recriminations surrounding Reihan Salam's recent blockbuster column about why he still considers himself a neocon is any sense of the distinctive strengths and weaknesses of the neoconservative approach to foreign policy. Yes, the neocons have been rightly attacked for their hawkishness, but there are many kinds of hawks. And not all of them analyze international affairs in the specific way that neocons do. If we want to offer a truly cogent assessment of the neocons, we need to train our sights on the tendencies that are unique to their thinking.
Noah Millman offers a useful summary of some of those tendencies. Here's my own way of describing them: Neoconservatives bring to foreign policy thinking a cluster of concepts inherited from the writings of the political philosopher Leo Strauss. And no, despite what Strauss's unhinged and uncomprehending critics like to believe, his influence can't be reduced to some secret teaching about the importance of invading and occupying Middle Eastern nations and justifying the policy with lies.
What Strauss bequeathed to the neocons was a range of ideas and concepts derived from the classical political philosophy of Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle: Honor and shame, glory and humiliation, justice and natural right, the few and the many, and the importance of focusing on regime types as the main point of analysis. Going back to Irving Kristol's early essays on foreign affairs, neoconservatives have been distinctive in using these classical concepts to understand the behavior of nations and their leaders, and to craft policy proposals for the United States.
At first this made them philosophically inclined foreign policy realists, which pretty accurately describes the character of the articles originally published in The National Interest, the foreign policy journal Kristol founded in 1985. The second generation neocons — such as Kristol's son William — have used those same concepts to justify the much more uniformly hawkish approach to international affairs associated with The Weekly Standard and other latter-day neocon outfits.
The adaptation of these classical concepts for analyzing the behavior of states and other political actors in the modern world is a real contribution to foreign policy thinking. It is the neocons' greatest intellectual strength.
Unfortunately, this contribution would have been far more valuable had Irving Kristol and his (literal and figurative) children applied and deployed the concepts less selectively.
Take the subject of colonialism and its aftermath. Here is a topic that cries out for classical philosophical analysis. The Great Powers arrive in less developed regions of the world, enslave or merely exploit the native populations for generations, and then divide the regions into nations on a completely arbitrary (or at least non-indigenous) basis.
Eventually the native populations demand their freedom, leading the colonial powers to withdraw, sometimes in relative peace, at others after bloody battles. The result, predictably, is a mess, with many nations containing ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious factions that have no business sharing national borders and attempting to share political power.
As the years drag on and the world's superpowers treat the postcolonial world as a chess board on which their conflict will be played out, political violence festers and economies stagnate. This leads in many cases to the rise of tyrannies, which provokes, in turn, the rise of opposition ideologies rooted in grievance. Citizens feel like they've been screwed by the West, which continues to thrive and grow while their own nations fall further behind, and by their own corrupt and oppressive governments. Their honor is aggrieved. They feel shame and rage and begin to dream of lashing out at the injustice.
And the next thing you know the World Trade Center is reduced to rubble.
The history of colonialism is much more complicated than this, of course. But just think of how much insight could be gained by looking at the postwar world through this kind of lens — the lens of classical political philosophy. (In France, Raymond Aron took up that lens many times during the decades immediately following the Second World War, and Pierre Manent is attempting something similar today.)
That kind of analysis would recognize and explain the significance of honor and shame in political life, and the power of humiliation as a motivating factor among formerly subject peoples. It would work to identify the myriad cultural, religious, and economic obstacles to spreading democratic and liberal institutions throughout regions of the world that have never known them. It would highlight how counterproductive it is to try to spread democracy through military occupation, which inflames feelings of dishonor and fuels anti-liberal political passions.
But the neocons have never talked about any of this. Not in the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s, when they were realists. And certainly not during the past 20 years, when they've been clamoring for war anywhere in the world they could conceivably justify it.
The question is why they've been silent on a subject that lends itself so well to analysis using the concepts they're uniquely adept at wielding.
Those familiar with the history of the neocons since the late 1970s know perfectly well what the answer is: Talking about colonialism and its messy aftermath would complicate their ongoing quest for power and influence in Washington and the Republican Party.
And therein lies the greatest, and most distinctive, weakness of the neocons. Not their all-too-common craving for war, or their equally widespread knee-jerk support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.
In a political culture dominated by grotesquely ambitious men and women, the neocons still manage to stand out for their willingness to adapt their thinking to the necessities of personal ambition.
And there's no better way to gain that access than telling them what they want to hear.