I think I can

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April 6, 2003 5:35 p.m.

I think I can say with some certainty that Washington is the only city on the planet these days — at least last night, it was — where one can go to a party and hear someone do a Karaoke rap about regime change and the grand plan to democratize the Middle East. And, lest there be any question, no, the performer wasn’t TPM. Actually, it was pretty good, though I was more than a bit inebriated at that point. So who knows? In any case, I still wasn’t convinced, but I was entertained.

Earlier in the evening — a few hours after getting ambushed on Fox News — I got asked this question: setting aside the potential deceptions involved in getting the US into this broader conflict and the possible costs, do you believe in the goal? In other words, do you believe a) in the goal of democratizing the Middle East and b) that rooting out illiberal governments in both their authoritarian and fundamentalist forms will strike a fundamental blow against terrorism itself?

It’s a tough question on a number of levels. With some equivocation, I said I did. But then, I said, I would have to say I am also in favor of developing warp drive engines. And yet I think that’s a case where the investments required are sufficiently steep and the prospects of success so distant that I’m not sure I think we should really get into it too seriously at this point.

I don’t want to suggest that democratizing every country in the Middle East is as daunting a challenge as creating the technology for faster-than-light space travel. What I do mean, however, is that agreeing to a goal is only one step in a debate. Do you have any good plan to achieve it? What are the costs? Does the public get a say in the matter? Do the advocates of the liberal experiment themselves have deeply illiberal tendencies?

A colleague of mine and I have had a running conversation going for the last couple months over what a neo-con is, what’s the defining trait. Some definitions are biographical and others ideological. Few seem entirely satisfying. And one would want a definition that could be accepted by their supporters and opponents alike — to make it a basis for further discussions. As I noted in the article in the Monthly, I think one trait is a tendency to let advocacy get the better part of honesty, to privilege, shall we say, morality over facts. But the deeper trait or definition I’ve come up with is this: Neocons are people who don’t like muddling through — both in the good and bad senses of what that means.

One other point on this running discussion. I mentioned yesterday an article in Policy Review by Stanley Kurtz. Don’t miss another article in the same issue: “Rage, Hubris, and Regime Change,” by Ken Jowitt. This is a critical appraisal of the Bush administration’s foreign policy doctrines, and one I think only another conservative could write. It’s entertaining and insightful.

Tod Lindberg is the editor of Policy Review, and he is also one of the people I interviewed at length for my Monthly article. I don’t agree with Lindberg’s stance. But far from being one of the deceivers, he is someone who I think fully recognizes the difficulty of a years-long effort to reform and democratize the Middle East and entirely frank and the costs and dangers. He just thinks we have no choice. In any case, it’s a credit to him and Policy Review to have published this dissenting piece. This is an important debate to have so long as we can have it openly and on its own terms.

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