With the failures of its first grand international project in Iraq having largely discredited Neoconservatism as a school of foreign policy, some Republicans might be tempted to lurch to a strict non-interventionist foreign policy. They should resist such a temptation. Neo-isolationism would only shift the Republican Party from one ideological fringe to another, while compromising the nation’s major global interests.
Neoconservatism failed strictly on account of its inherent flaws. It was little more than cleverly-packaged messianic idealism. It sought to remake the world through the application of military power and “regime change.”
The end of the Cold War created an opening for neoconservative messianism based on a bold hypothesis that a new “Unipolar moment” during which the United States could use its unrivaled military power to democratize the world had arrived. The 9/11 terrorist attacks gave the neoconservatives a chance to put their untested vision into practice. The failures in Iraq brought about the fall of neoconservatism.
In September 2000, The Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a neoconservative think tank, asserted that it was a fundamental mission of the American military to “expand zones of democratic peace.” That represented a radical departure from the traditional U.S. doctrine of military pre-emption that required the existence of a credible and imminent threat to critical American interests.
The smashing U.S. victory in Afghanistan emboldened the neoconservatives’ faith in a Unipolar world. “The result is the dominance of a single power unlike anything ever seen,” Charles Krauthammer, a leading neoconservative thinker, wrote in the Winter 2002/03 edition of The National Interest. He then hailed the advent of “an unprecedented assertion of American freedom of action and a definitive statement of a new American unilateralism.”
That classic display of hubris toppled reason, undermined restraint, and put idealism ahead of the national interest. As a result, fantasy replaced sound judgment and the road to disaster in Iraq was paved. Just weeks before the war, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a signatory of the PNAC’s 2000 paper, described General Eric Shinseki’s estimate that the war effort would require “several hundred thousand” troops as “wildly off the mark.” Wolfowitz claimed that ethnic strife “has not been the history of Iraq’s past.” He dismissed the need for budgets openly asserting “we have no idea what is needed unless and until we get there on the ground.”
In reality, the Sunni-Shia rivalry had played a prominent role in Iraq’s history. Iran’s pursuit of regional dominance and the abuses Iraq’s Shia had suffered under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led Ba’athist regime magnified the risks of such strife. The Pentagon had previously foreseen the consequences of such a war in its 1999 Desert Crossing war games led by General Anthony Zinni. That exercise assumed 400,000 troops would be needed and warned of a “period of widespread bloodshed in which various factions seek to eliminate their enemies.”
Neo-isolationism would not fix the problems unleashed by the neoconservative experiment. It would only imperil the United States’ ability to safeguard its critical interests abroad. If the U.S. were to disengage from the Middle East, that decision would have grave implications for Israel and moderate Arab states. It would leave a “black hole” of a failed state within Iraq’s borders in the heart of one of the world’s most vital oil-producing regions. Such a situation could further exacerbate sectarian strife within Iraq’s borders, possibly draw in outside states, accelerate Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony, leave a fertile environment in which Salafist extremists could strengthen their operations, and heighten the prospect of economy-damaging oil shocks. A highly unstable Middle East or one that is increasingly dominated by Iran would dramatically raise the geopolitical risks confronting the United States.Isolationism caused great damage to U.S. interests in the run-up to World War II. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote:
Isolationism set the terms of foreign policy debate. Franklin D. Roosevelt had no illusions about the threats to peace posed by Nazi Germany and imperial Japan... [H]e could not, for all his popularity control an isolationist Congress when it came to foreign policy. Congress...passed rigid neutrality legislation that, by denying the president authority to discriminate between aggressor and victim, nullified any American role in restraining aggression. In sum, it put American foreign policy in a straitjacket during the critical years before World War II.
With the U.S. standing aside in its sullen isolationist stance, Nazi Germany, Italy and imperial Japan launched accelerating campaigns of aggression. Had the U.S. thrown its weight behind Czechoslovakia, France, and Britain, its power could well have served as a deterrent to the Nazis' designs. Instead, Germany, Italy, and Japan waged an increasing campaign of conquest. Ultimately, even as it had isolated itself from the world, the U.S. ultimately found itself in the midst of history's worst war.
Following the conclusion of World War II, isolationism was but a bad memory. The U.S. engaged the world at large. It established the NATO alliance and constructed many of the international institutions through which sovereign states interact today.
Had Isolationism defined U.S. policy following World War II, there would have been no Marshall Plan or Asian reconstruction. Western Europe and Asia would be very different places today. Had Western Europe and Asia failed to recover from the ravages of World War II, the Soviet Union would have had a stronger opportunity to spread its totalitarianism. A new generation of extremist leaders in Europe and Asia could have risen to power over the grievances stemming from such an outcome. Instead, the stable and prosperous states that arose in Western Europe and East Asia provided economic, trade, political, and military benefits that far exceeded the costs of their reconstruction. Those benefits continue to flow to the U.S. even today.
To offer a viable foreign policy, Republicans must return to the pragmatic Realism that guided Presidents Truman through Reagan. Pragmatic Realism helped bring a successful conclusion to the Cold War whereas neoconservative “Regime Change” would almost certainly have led to a catastrophic nuclear exchange.
A pragmatic Realist foreign policy would feature the “Containment” of hostile powers, robust diplomacy for addressing threats and realizing shared opportunities, renewed collaboration with NATO allies and engagement of the world’s leading states, and a return to the traditional doctrine of military pre-emption. “Regime Change,” unilateralism, and unchecked idealism would be discarded.
Radical disengagement—a "knee-jerk" reaction to the neoconservative disaster in Iraq—would be naive and highly counterproductive. It would be nothing less than an abdication of foreign policy. Such an approach could work only if the U.S. were wholly self-sufficient and had solely local interests to safeguard. The reality is that the U.S. is interdependent and has major global interests. It simply cannot abandon them. Only pragmatic Realism offers Republicans the chance both to overcome the great damage inflicted by the “Neoconservative Moment” and avoid the perils associated with Neo-isolationism.