Against Neoconservatism

by Mark English

Questions of geopolitics are all too easy to talk about, but very difficult to talk about sensibly. In this respect they are not unlike a lot of other “big questions” that take us beyond the limits of the relatively small and circumscribed worlds in which our distant ancestors struggled for survival and within which our brains and linguistic capacities evolved.

Part of the problem with geopolitical debate is that it is closely intertwined with macroeconomic and ideological issues. You have to deal not only with the empirical complexities of social, political and economic reality on a broad canvas, but also with values. Consequently, there is no firm, objectively ascertainable position to serve as a starting point. You can hardly think or say anything without taking sides on various important and contentious issues or committing to a particular narrative. Because of this – and despite the complexities – I don’t see geopolitics as an area that we can safely leave to the experts.

My personal starting-point is an intuitive reaction against what I see as an insidious and extremely dangerous approach to foreign policy and which is popularly associated with the term ‘neoconservatism’. I am particularly concerned with legislators, policy-makers, intellectuals and journalists who see national military forces not just as protectors of national security but as tools to promote and advance a particular global agenda. Neoconservatism is an essentially imperialistic ideology. This in itself is not enough to condemn it. There have been empires in the past which have kept the peace and advanced the cause of human civilization. But the empire that the neocons envisage – certainly if that is seen as an enhanced version of Pax Americana – is just not going to happen.

In fact, the hawkish actions of establishment forces within the U.S. government are weakening the network of alliances that the U.S. has fostered since World War 2 and strengthening countervailing alliances. Witness the (very flawed) sanctions bill that was recently signed into law. Despite last-minute changes made to accommodate some of the European Union’s concerns, it seems clear that America is charting a course that not only puts it at odds with its old Cold War adversaries and Iran, but also potentially with its most powerful allies.

The term ‘neoconservative’ – like any ideological label – involves oversimplification and can be misleading. I am using it as convenient shorthand for a particular tendency of thought which I see as being fraught with danger. I myself used to be quite sympathetic to the neocons, but I saw the damage and destruction that their policies caused and now fear that we are heading for more of the same.

In the US, the neoconservative movement has a well-documented history. Its roots lie in the writings of a number of thinkers associated with the anti-Stalinist left in the post-World War 2 period, who gained an increasing influence within both the Democratic and Republican Parties and also within the bureaucracy of government, the intelligentsia and the media.

To a large extent, today’s neoconservatives inherit the role of the Cold Warriors of the immediate post-World War 2 period. But, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Communism is no longer the issue, so the demonization of designated enemies takes various, and sometimes obviously opportunistic, forms. On more than one occasion in the relatively recent past, humanitarian concerns have – arguably – been used as cover for military interventions that have had other (geo-strategic and/or economic) purposes. (1)

The tendencies with which I am concerned – however they are labelled – have evolved into a global movement (or set of related movements) that is supported by powerful media organizations (public and private, national and international) and a variety of well-funded advocacy and activist groups. Arguably, they are more dangerous today than ever before because of a combination of political dysfunction in the U.S. and Europe and rapidly shifting global power balances. The perception that the days of American and West European economic and political dominance are numbered plays into this, because it may prompt certain parties to want to strike in a military way while they still have the upper hand.

NGOs and activist groups are playing an increasingly important role here, as their focus goes well beyond purely humanitarian concerns and impinges on many foreign policy questions. Once upon a time there were countless independent and significant not-for-profit organizations and charities which were locally-based and largely apolitical. Many of these organizations have disappeared, and the surviving ones tend to be not only linked to national and international networks but also very political. A global network of NGOs has to a large extent replaced the old-fashioned charities and local mutual-aid groups that were once such an important feature of the social fabric in Western countries.

Within this general context, new groupings such as a loose confederation of radical progressive activist groups (e.g. Antifa) on the one hand and neoconservatism on the other have to some extent served to fill the ideological vacuum which had developed in the wake of the collapse of the old (basically Marxist) intellectual left and, with it, the anti-Communist right.

As I see it, recent forms of neoconservatism – not entirely unlike earlier manifestations – are based on a potent mix of idealism, paranoia and self-interest. The idealism relates to a deep belief in certain American and European values and rights that are seen as universal. The paranoia is seen in the demonization of nations and cultures (like Russia, China and Iran and political leaders and movements within many Western countries) which are perceived not only to reject these universal values and rights, but also to be actively engaged in undermining the societies that uphold them.

I see the idealism as genuine, but as having become rather more prescriptive and doctrinaire in recent years. The media has played a major role here, with publicly-funded broadcasters exercising great power and influence in some countries. Of late we seem to be seeing a more politicized – and homogenized – mainstream media. One sign of this is that the American media has, at least in the last two decades or so, provided a platform for neocons but not, on the whole, for foreign policy realists. (2)

Generally, the mainstream news sources with which I am familiar take a subtly moralizing line on geopolitics, emphasizing the suffering of new immigrants or asylum-seekers, for example, and characterizing those (both in Europe and America) who speak out against the free movement of people across national boundaries as being motivated by xenophobia. Some are. Some aren’t. But there is little doubt that the flood of impoverished non-Europeans into Europe and other instances of uncontrolled mass migration are causing many social problems, while doing nothing to improve the situation in the migrants’ home countries.

Self-interest is certainly one of the main driving factors amongst the leaders of the movement with which I am concerned. It works on a number of levels and is variously material and psychological. The income of many who advocate for a more aggressive military stance is directly or indirectly dependent on a continuation of the government funding status quo, especially (but not only, by any means) military and national security budgets. But, more than this, many of these people’s sense of importance (or self-importance) depends on their self-perception as being closely associated with powerful governments and powerful armies.

Perhaps the most pathetic of the neocons are British journalists, academics and politicians (or retired politicians), who have never quite accepted the fact that the days of Empire are long gone. Even some of those who accept that Britain’s imperial days are over still cling to the fantasy of a “special relationship” with their more powerful American cousins.

British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, on a recent visit to Sydney, boasted about plans to dispatch two new British aircraft carriers to the South China Sea. (3) Johnson may or may not be a neocon, but as Foreign Secretary he has made some (I think) stupidly aggressive statements concerning both China and Russia.

Lest all this sounds a bit too cynical, I admit that in some cases genuine social and political ideals were and are in play amongst leading neoconservative figures. But I am inclined to think that this was more likely to be the case in the days of the Cold War. Jeane Kirkpatrick (a foreign policy adviser to the Reagan administration and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations) was a woman of substance, intelligence and moral standing, even if some of her actions and views were wrongheaded. Significantly, she was critical of George W. Bush’s approach to foreign policy which she saw as naïve and overly aggressive. I also had respect for Irving Kristol and a few others. Most of today’s leading neocons, by contrast – at least the ones I have come across – seem to be devoid not only of intellectual flair but also of moral depth (or even a moral sense).

In many cases it’s hard to separate idealism from self-interest. In the case of a number of campaigning journalists and intellectuals with whom I am familiar (and their loyal readers and viewers) the real motivating factors are, I think, both personal and ideological. They see the institutions that reflect and support their personal value systems as being threatened from within their home countries (by the “deplorables” and their like) and also indirectly, by shifts in the geopolitical balance of power. As countries like China increase their economic and military clout, they will become more respected in cultural terms – and increasingly effective in projecting and promoting their value systems. Such qualities as loyalty and patriotism and competitiveness, for example, may be put above the sorts of concerns that usually come under the heading of “social justice.” The perception that the Western progressive agenda (which has been spectacularly successful in shaping social, cultural, legal and educational structures and institutions in North America and Western Europe in recent decades) is under threat seems like a fair reading of the current situation. But starting a world war to defend it is a thoroughly bad idea.

Making reasonable concessions to the independence and perceived security interests of countries like China, Russia and Iran, all of which have suffered from disastrous foreign interventions and invasions in the past, is obviously the right thing to do in the circumstances. But Western powers will not willingly give up the control of the framework of international relations that they currently exercise. As I see it, neoconservative writers and intellectuals are – knowingly or unknowingly – providing justificatory narratives for war-mongering politicians and ultimately serving nefarious purposes by promoting a distorted view of the world based half-truths and discredited myths.

The mainstream media’s fixation on Russia – the old Cold War arch-enemy – is both puzzling and concerning. Likewise, there seems to be very little questioning of the official line that Saudi Arabia is an ally whereas Iran is an implacable foe and fomenter of terrorism. How is it that such stories can go (relatively) unchallenged when Saudi Arabia’s track record on the terror front is so bad and so well-known? (4)

There are certainly a lot of bad things happening in countries like Russia, China and Iran, but not all social evils warrant foreign military intervention. North Korea’s aggressive nuclear stance certainly seems to pose serious threats to its neighbors and beyond and in this case some kind of intervention (not necessarily military) may be appropriate. But, given North Korea’s strategic importance and its historical and current economic ties with Russia and China, there are clear dangers of a wider conflict developing. Nothing should be done that risks causing a major war or a destabilization of the region.

Of course we remain individuals, and emotions and values inevitably play a role in all our decision-making, including in the area of foreign policy. Judgments about the desirability of humanitarian interventions, for example, will draw heavily on personal morality. But I don’t think we should automatically apply modes of morality that are applicable to individuals in their personal lives to nation states in their interactions with other nation states. On the whole, geopolitical analysis and decision-making – if it is to be effective – requires a relatively non-emotive approach. In these areas it is often necessary to push emotion aside and think in more or less utilitarian terms and, ever alert to the inevitability of unintended consequences, to keep the focus not so much on doing good but rather on trying not to cause unnecessary harm.

NOTES

  1. Humanitarian concerns were part of the sales pitch for the ousting of both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.
  2. I’m not sure of Seymour Hersh’s ideological position, but it was interesting that his piece rejecting the standard view that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons in the attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun was not published on an American site but on a German one.
  3. To do him justice, Johnson did also make some conciliatory remarks about working with China.
  4. An exiled member of a wealthy Saudi Arabian family planned the 9/11 attacks, for example, Saudi money was involved, and most of the hijackers were Saudi nationals.

47 Comments »

  1. Mark,
    I agree with much here; you’re right about Saudi Arabia; I agree with you about North Korea.

    However, from an American perspective: On Russia, the problem is complicated; Russia’s hack attacks on the American electoral process (the US intelligence community is united on the evidence that this occurred) is certainly an act of cyber-sabotage, and we have no model on how to deal with such events as yet. The reason Congress bundled Russian, Korean, and Iranian sanctions is likely because they wanted to put Trump in a position where he couldn’t protect his Russian friends and thus give more ammunition to his enemies.*

    But in general, my real sense is that much of your argument here is now out of date. Trump’s election demonstrates that American Exceptionalism – a component of neoconservatism, but also of other trends of thought about which you complain – is a more serious issue than any of the lines of thought dependent on it. Trump is not a neoconservative, but he is an Exceptionalist. And his ‘foreign policy’ (or rather the hi-jinks and blustering that pass for it) reveals that narcissistic opportunists can be just as dangerous to foreign relations as any ideologue.

    “On the whole, geopolitical analysis and decision-making – if it is to be effective – requires a relatively non-emotive approach. In these areas it is often necessary to push emotion aside and think in more or less utilitarian terms and, ever alert to the inevitability of unintended consequences, to keep the focus not so much on doing good but rather on trying not to cause unnecessary harm.”

    Given Trump’s evident lack of thoughtfulness or even of basic impulse control, this is intended ironically?

    And one of the problems here is that, ideally, such an article as yours would come to the readership of a President or other political leader, or someone having influence with such, who would be understood as thoughtfully reasoning on matters of national interest. But Trump isn’t any of this, and actually has little concern for the national interest, and has little understanding of the nature of Beltway politics or international politics.

    This is one of the problems that more established political commentary outlets – liberal or conservative – have been confronting these past 6 moths: How can we have reasoned discussion over policy concerns when we have a president who thinks irrationally and who doesn’t care about policy?

    Finally, I’ll note that if Trump petulantly or under the influence of Pentagon hawks, insists on a strike on North Korea, I reserve the privilege of saying ‘I told you so’ back during the election – although that wouldn’t be much comfort for the surviving families of the victims of the engagement that would likely follow).

    Politics, in order to accommodate differing views reasonably, needs to follow a dialectics which thus establishes a narrative that can make sense as history. But there is no ontological necessity for this to occur. Sometimes you just do get a bull in a china shop. People tend to forget that there are real people in that china shop, and bulls have horns that gorge.

    * (The reasoning behind the Korean sanctions is obvious; as for Iran, many Congress people – including Democrats, were upset with Obama’s agreement with Tehran, partially in deference to Israel, but possible still nursing a grudge over 1980.)

    Like

  2. Mark, I’m sure none of my criticisms will surprise you, as I voiced many of them in private communication. But your work in this vein continues to frustrate me with its drive-by qualities, including: the voicing of “concerns” without saying what they actually are; the refusal to make real, concrete commitments, in favor of vague, always qualified characterizations; and the failure to actually spell out the implications of your own position, giving the impression that all the dastardly deeds lie in the other guy’s ledger, not your own.

    The fact is that the “realism” you support means flat-out sitting on ones hands while states do terrible things to large numbers of people, including mass starvation (North Korea), genocide (Kosovo/Rwanda/Sudan), and the like. This may be the right thing to do as military intervention may have even worse results, but your refusal to take any kind of responsibility for the human costs of your preferred approach strike me as rather dishonest. If you think we should have left the Serbs to commit genocide against the Muslim population in the former Yugoslavia, then say so. If you think we should send women and children fleeing Aleppo back to Syria, say so. But instead, what you do is contrast the neoconservative bogeyman with the “realist” good guy, without ever giving any indication of what doing so will actually entail.

    The truth is, we’ve heard all of this from you before, on several occasions. We know that you don’t like neoconservatism. We know that you like foreign policy realism. But we don’t know anything beyond that, despite several outings with you, now, into the realm of geopolitics. As always, the piece is very well written. But I’d prefer a poorly written piece if it took some risks; said something brave; made an honest stand; even admitted an unresolvable dilemma, in the vein of “no good choices..” As this stands, however, it’s just an elaborate way of saying “Neoconservatism, boo!” and by the third or fourth time, that just isn’t all that interesting to this reader..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Mark, […] your work in this vein continues to frustrate me with its drive-by qualities, including: the voicing of “concerns” without saying what they actually are; the refusal to make real, concrete commitments, in favor of vague, always qualified characterizations…”

    This is an attempt to articulate my own *uncertain* (and slowly evolving) views on what are clearly some extremely important questions. I am not pontificating. I am raising issues in an honest and open and (I think) responsible way. I am aware that in so doing I run the risk of annoying people who disagree with me politically. But I think that only good can come out of promoting honest discussion of these sorts of things.

    You talk about my “failure to actually spell out the implications of your own position, giving the impression that all the dastardly deeds lie in the other guy’s ledger, not your own.”

    As I said, my own views are uncertain. In politics it seems to me that we should avoid as far as possible being doctrinaire. For me it’s always a matter of pushing a bit further in this direction or pulling back in another. It’s never settled, it’s never cut and dried.

    “The fact is that the “realism” you support means flat-out sitting on ones hands while states do terrible things to large numbers of people, including mass starvation (North Korea), genocide (Kosovo/Rwanda/Sudan), and the like. This may be the right thing to do as military intervention may have even worse results, but your refusal to take any kind of responsibility for the human costs of your preferred approach strike me as rather dishonest. If you think we should have left the Serbs to commit genocide against the Muslim population in the former Yugoslavia, then say so. If you think we should send women and children fleeing Aleppo back to Syria, say so.”

    These remarks puzzle me. I made it clear that I see a place for humanitarian interventions. Such decisions (because of the risks of unintended consequences, etc.) are often agonizingly difficult.

    “But instead, what you do is contrast the neoconservative bogeyman with the “realist” good guy, without ever giving any indication of what doing so will actually entail. As always, the piece is very well written. But I’d prefer a poorly written piece if it took some risks; said something brave; made an honest stand; even admitted an unresolvable dilemma, in the vein of “no good choices…” ”

    I honestly don’t know what you are talking about with respect to “taking a stand” or wanting a “brave” piece. This is my current view – as far as I can articulate it. I am fully aware that in many cases we face moral dilemmas, situations where whatever we do or refrain from doing, bad things will happen. I was getting at something like this in the final two paragraphs.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mark,
    with exceptions noted in my previous comment, I have to agree with Dan’s comment here.

    What are the concrete details of the foreign policy you are arguing for? We’ve heard your complaints concerning ‘neoconservatism’ before (again and again), but what is the policy you suggest going forward?

    I don’t know the British scene all that well; but from an American perspective nothing has improved since the election (when you advocated for Trump, now obviously to anyone who cares for these matters, mentally unstable, with no understanding of how to negotiate between differing domestic interests or how to communicate with foreign leaders).

    You wanted a bull in the china shop – you got him. Why are you not celebratory? Is it because it didn’t get you the ‘political realism’ you hoped for?

    Of course not – he’s a madman! There’s a reason why we have and need professional politicians; whatever their ideology, they know that forwarding their political concerns requires dialogue and, compromise.

    Your fears of a possible war with Russia under Clinton were baseless; she knew how to engage in dialectic with opposing views. Now you have a crazy person in the White House who only knows his own lust for wealth and fame.

    You thought he could be controlled. He has offered a middle finger to all your hopes.

    Hegel was right; you are wrong. Political realism requires the dialectics you reject, Otherwise there is nothing more than bulls in china shops, their horns gouging everyone in their path.

    What goes around, comes around; you are foist on your own petard, my friend. Come up with a real policy alternative, or be consigned to the niche of ‘complaining about everything because, “it just ain’t right!”‘

    Politics is not about being right. It is the struggle over differing interests. Accept that or leave the field.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. ejwinner

    I was preparing to answer your first comment, but I must come in here and object to your second.

    “What are the concrete details of the foreign policy you are arguing for? We’ve heard your complaints concerning ‘neoconservatism’ before (again and again), but what is the policy you suggest going forward?”

    The “again and again” is uncalled for. I’ve only written a few times about neoconservatism and each time I was taking a different angle, and responding to current events. If you are not interested, nobody’s forcing you to read it.

    “I don’t know the British scene all that well; but from an American perspective nothing has improved since the election (when you advocated for Trump, now obviously to anyone who cares for these matters, mentally unstable, with no understanding of how to negotiate between differing domestic interests or how to communicate with foreign leaders).”

    Listen. I didn’t advocate for Trump. I always said that his domestic agenda was a disaster. I was talking foreign policy and attacking Clinton’s record.

    “You wanted a bull in the china shop – you got him.”

    You’re ranting.

    “Why are you not celebratory? Is it because it didn’t get you the ‘political realism’ you hoped for?”

    Yes I’m disappointed that conciliatory policies vis-a-vis Russia, etc. were not implemented.

    “Of course not – he’s a madman!… Your fears of a possible war with Russia under Clinton were baseless; she knew how to engage in dialectic with opposing views.”

    Like she negotiated with Gaddafi?

    “Now you have a crazy person in the White House who only knows his own lust for wealth and fame… You thought he could be controlled. He has offered a middle finger to all your hopes… Hegel was right; you are wrong… Political realism requires the dialectics you reject, Otherwise there is nothing more than bulls in china shops, their horns gouging everyone in their path.”

    Hegel and the dialectic! My God…

    “What goes around, comes around; you are foist on your own petard, my friend. Come up with a real policy alternative, or be consigned to the niche of ‘complaining about everything because, “it just ain’t right!”‘ … Politics is not about being right. It is the struggle over differing interests. Accept that or leave the field.”

    I think it’s hoist, not foist. And I think maybe it’s you who’s hoist on his own petard. This is a rant and frankly I’m not all that interested in trying to make sense of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Okay, Mark, I’ll be very specific, by quoting the essay:

    1. ” I am using it as convenient shorthand for a particular tendency of thought which I see as being fraught with danger. I myself used to be quite sympathetic to the neocons, but I saw the damage and destruction that their policies caused and now fear that we are heading for more of the same.”

    What is this damage and destruction that their policies have caused? You never tell us. There is a footnote in which you simply mention Saddam and Gadaffi, but never explain why things would have been better for everyone if they’d been left in power. Of course, such a case *can* be made, but you don’t make it. And making it would require admitting that you think that dictators should be left to brutalize their populations — in the case of Saddam, including gassing thousands upon thousands of Kurds. That speaks to the bravery and commitment part of the critique. Admitting that your own preferences will also leave thousands upon thousands of innocents dead, not just the preferences of the neoconservatives.

    2. “NGOs and activist groups are playing an increasingly important role here, as their focus goes well beyond purely humanitarian concerns and impinges on many foreign policy questions. Once upon a time there were countless independent and significant not-for-profit organizations and charities which were locally-based and largely apolitical.A global network of NGOs has to a large extent replaced the old-fashioned charities and local mutual-aid groups that were once such an important feature of the social fabric in Western countries.”

    This sounds like the standard right wing lamentation of the creation of the welfare state. Wasn’t it so much better when individuals and churches took care of the poor? What’s left out, of course, is that the reason for the creation of the welfare state — and of NGO’s devoted to addressing global poverty and disease — is that the problem grew to a point that it far outreached the capacity of individuals and churches to deal with. Again, if you are suggesting that regardless, it would be better to let people die of starvation, disease, and war, rather than have these NGOs meddle, then say so.

    3. “The tendencies with which I am concerned – however they are labelled – have evolved into a global movement (or set of related movements) that is supported by powerful media organizations (public and private, national and international) and a variety of well-funded advocacy and activist groups.”

    Who would some of those be?

    4. “As I see it, recent forms of neoconservatism – not entirely unlike earlier manifestations – are based on a potent mix of idealism, paranoia and self-interest.”

    Really, just those? So wanting to prevent another genocide is “idealism”? Trying to help refugees fleeing a brutal civil war is “idealism”? I’m curious how you define ‘idealism’ as opposed to normal moral concern.

    5. “The idealism relates to a deep belief in certain American and European values and rights that are seen as universal.”

    Not wanting Serbs to ethnically cleanse the former Yugoslavia by way of mass murder and concentration camps reflects values that are *not* universal? Not wanting Kim Jong Un to nuke us or anyone else reflects “European values?” I’m curious. Are *any* values universal or at least inter-subjective or cross-cultural? What *is* worth fighting over? Just one’s own self defense? Would you apply that to your own personal conduct — i.e. would you just watch someone be brutalized or hurt or collapse out of illness or exhaustion, if you were not directly threatened? Why should states be amoral in the manner you suggest? (I’m not implying that there are no good answers to these questions, but you never even address them.)

    6. ” Generally, the mainstream news sources with which I am familiar take a subtly moralizing line on geopolitics, emphasizing the suffering of new immigrants or asylum-seekers, for example, and characterizing those (both in Europe and America) who speak out against the free movement of people across national boundaries as being motivated by xenophobia. Some are. Some aren’t. But there is little doubt that the flood of impoverished non-Europeans into Europe and other instances of uncontrolled mass migration are causing many social problems, while doing nothing to improve the situation in the migrants’ home countries.”

    What sort of line should they take when confronted with genocide? Mass starvation? Brutal civil wars in which dictators inflict incomprehensible violence upon civilians? As for “speaking out against the free movement of people across national boundaries,” this is precisely the sort of generic, avoidance-motivated characterization I am talking about. The occasion in which this subject is arising, now, is the brutal Syrian civil war, which has resulted in a human catastrophe. The people trying to “freely move across national boundaries” are refugees, including women, children, and the elderly. And yes, saying they should be sent back to Syria or simply refused entry and left to drown in the sea or whatever, is *at best* callous and brutal and amoral and at worst, outright, flat-out xenophobic. Countries did similar things to my people, during and after the Holocaust, and I could not in good conscience recommend they be done to others. My father, when he was 15 years old, had to knife British soldiers, so that the Haganah could smuggle in Jewish refugees from Auschwitz and Buchenwald, because a British imposed quota kept them out.

    7. “The mainstream media’s fixation on Russia – the old Cold War arch-enemy – is both puzzling and concerning. ”

    Why? In what sense? Classic drive-by sentence.

    8. “There are certainly a lot of bad things happening in countries like Russia, China and Iran, but not all social evils warrant foreign military intervention.”

    Which ones do and which ones don’t? Another classic drive-by sentence that gives the impression of a substantive critique, but avoids all and any substantive commitments and never explains itself.

    Anyway, I’m sure this is enough to convey the reasons for my frustrations with some of your political pieces. And to explain what I meant by making commitments, being brave in one’s criticisms, and the like.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you, Dan, for your detailed (and impassioned) critique. It’s the middle of the night (about 1:30) here and I have a busy day tomorrow. I’ll respond as soon as I can.

    Like

  8. Mark,
    I was certainly trying to be provocative in my second comment. Some of what I said in it goes back to your article before the election, and comments I made there (thus the Hegel reference, with tongue in cheek). Yet what I say about dialectic in politics has its own purpose here. Dialectic is not only the kind of political reasoning that Dwayne Holmes argued for in his recent article; part of its function is to generate and modify (through dialogue and compromise) collective narratives. And these narratives can be rhetorically very persuasive.However, this narrative construction can be abruptly altered, even collapsing under the stress of events and ‘wild card’ plays, such as the appearance of ‘bulls in the china shop’ only interested in upsetting things without any hope of moving them forward. Which is why I suggest that Trump’s election has mooted much of what you write here. Neoliberalism will continue to be a problem, as there are left and right variants of it, but neoconservativism is now a thing of the past. And in its passing what we find is other right-wing stances just as dangerous to the global politic. Steve Bannon is not a neoconservative; but two years before the election he professed a hope for a war with China. And was it McMasters who a couple of months ago announced in a speech that foreign relations were not a matter of cooperation but of fierce competition for supremacy? That’s an old nationalist credo – espoused, and I say this factually, not rhetorically – by the likes of Mussolini.

    When I say you thought Trump controllable, this was short-hand for this: I got a sense from your pre-election article that one reason you were willing to trash Clinton was because, you seemed to hope, with her defeat, the Republicans would surround Trump with traditional (non-neo) conservatives as policy wonk advisors. This did not prove to be the case. Trump brought in his family and friends and a host of amateurs who have turned the White House into a battle-field; while each agency of the executive branch has been left to the whim of their leading secretaries (as long as they fawn over Trump in public). And anybody who recognized that the private Trump was exactly the same as the Trump presenting himself in public knew this would happen before the election.

    You effectively did advocate for Trump, by targeting Clinton in a two party election; and Clinton for all her faults was a professional politician.

    “Like she negotiated with Gaddafi?” – I don’t even know what you’re talking about here. This is one of those comments that Dan calls “drive by.” They seem to mean something but are really only sniping.

    The comment also suggests – as does your comment on the media and Russia, and as did comments you made before the election – that you get some of your information and interpretation from right wing media. That’s fine if you’re willing to balance it with at least information from media with other points of view. However, buying into unsubstantiated claims because they fit one’s worldview, leaves one in a very vulnerable position. That’s a caution for both left and right.

    “Yes I’m disappointed that conciliatory policies vis-a-vis Russia, etc. were not implemented.” I would have to say Russia had some hand in that. That Russia engaged in cyber sabotage of the US election is fact. That there must be some adversarial political response to this is unavoidable. That the Trump campaign may have colluded with the Russians on this is currently under investigation. All of this clearly ought to be of concern to the American people. The media understandably pay attention to this. It is also understandable that our European allies are unhappy that Congress acted without consulting them. However the problem is that the burden for such consultation actually rests with the Executive, and the US Executive is in no position now to consult with anybody at this point. Except lawyers preparing its defense.

    ” I’ve only written a few times about neoconservatism and each time I was taking a different angle, and responding to current events.”
    I wrote “again and again” because while you feel your views evolving here, that’s not coming across in your articles. There’s a lot of ground in this article you covered before, and in much the same terms. And you don’t seem to be responding to *current* events, or you would realize how rapidly the constellation of forces and influences have been changing over the past year.

    I read these articles because you sometimes say things with which I very much agree, and sometimes say things with which I strenuously disagree, and this helps me sharpen my own focus.

    I wrote provocatively in my second comment because I was trying to incite you to reveal more of what you consider “political realism” in the present context. Because frankly, your views are beginning to sound not very politically realistic in even the pessimistic sense that ‘politicians do what they must to further their own interests,’ let alone the ‘poli-sci’ sense of viewing matters objectively so that some outcomes can be predicted, or some strategies suggested as more successful than others. There seems to be an undertone to these articles, although I’m not sure what it is, but it is starting to cast doubts as to the ‘realism’ of your views here.

    Like

  9. I am largely sympathetic to Mark’s case but sadly I must agree with Dan-K that it was poorly argued. EJ, I know you get hot under the collar about Trump but I think he is a special case that adds nothing to the discussion of neoconservatism. That is a resentment that just muddies the water.

    On reading the comments I am forced to conclude that Americans are seemingly just plain blind to the wrong they do. Not that I am surprised. Group allegiances have the peculiar effect of blinding one to the adverse consequences of one’s behaviour.

    Like

  10. Anyway Mark, I congratulate you on contributing another fine provocation to Dan-K’s excellent series of provocations. I say this because I think we should read Mark’s essay as a provocation and not as a closely argued essay. You speak from your heart, just as Dan-K does in his provocations and that makes it enjoyable and worthwhile.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. labnut,
    I don’t deny feelings concerning Trump. However, he is not a “special case,” he’s the President of the United States; and as such his behavior changes the dynamic of geo-politics in ways subtle and obvious.He represents the hopes and anxieties of a third of the American people. His appearance resonates with similarly regressive political movements elsewhere on the globe, threatening the possibility of international cooperation. Congress will have to deal with him in some way in order to get legislation done. Allies are deciding whether to trust him and in what way – because if they can’t trust him, can they trust American commitments that are in his power to damage or abandon? Only America’s adversaries seem to like him, because being an opportunist and an authoritarian, he is actually quite malleable by others like him. That may be only a side remark, but this isn’t: The melange of personal and business opportunism, nationalism, and militarism that seems to be coalescing around him is what now constitutes the Foreign Policy of the United States, as supplemented by any interests Congress can further in dealing with him. Not seeing this belies any claim to political realism. He is our political reality.

    Excerpt for the Chinese, globalism is largely on hold. Neoconservatism may have a comeback, but for now it’s passé. The issues that Dan confronts Mark with all now need to be dealt with on a case by case basis; sweeping generalities concerning them risks lack of clarity as to our own motivations and hoped for outcomes.

    Like

  12. labnut: On reading the comments I am forced to conclude that Americans are seemingly just plain blind to the wrong they do.

    I don’t think that is actually true.

    The problem is that many of the people who are most critical of this wrong are ideological purists. They refuse to vote for either of the main parties. And the effect of this is to push both parties in the direction of doing more wrong, because that’s what the parties have to do to win votes.

    Like

  13. EJ,
    Only America’s adversaries seem to like him

    Perhaps because they see in him some hope that America might retreat from a depraved Manichean world view of friends and adversaries. This world view has imprisoned America in perpetual conflict that guarantees adversaries.

    Try asking yourself why China protects North Korea and then consider that American armed forces closely encircle China and guarantee the freedom of a renegade province. There are no Chinese forces in the Gulf of Mexico, off San Francisco or New York. Nor do the Russians or Chinese maintain hostile bases or posture in Iceland.

    America paints Russia and China as the adversary and then reinforces this message with an aggressive and deeply threatening posture. This is neoconservatism of the worst and most stupid kind. It guarantees their continuing hostility. It poisons all possibility of cooperation in other areas of the world that really do need intervention.

    Like

  14. EJ,
    globalism is largely on hold

    Globalism is not an automatic good and this is being slowly realised. In my own province our leather and textile industries have been devastated, creating large unemployment. Just try persuading these people that globalism is good.

    Like

  15. “The term ‘neoconservative’ – like any ideological label – involves oversimplification and can be misleading. I am using it as convenient shorthand for a particular tendency of thought which I see as being fraught with danger. I myself used to be quite sympathetic to the neocons, but I saw the damage and destruction that their policies caused and now fear that we are heading for more of the same.”

    The picture of a plane dropping bombs did not bode well for this article but this passage seals it. Within international relations theory the term “neoconservative” has a specific meaning, you can’t just define it to be whatever you want it to be.

    Most rants about neoconservatives are eerily similar to antisemitic rants: the neocons are so stupid that they can’t understand how obviously they are wrong and at the same time the devious neocons manage to stay in power despite everything! If you are unhappy with American foreign policy come up with something constructive rather than creating a fictional figure to project all the bad onto.

    Like

  16. labnut,
    I didn’t say that globalism was a good or bad thing, only that it was on hold – except for the Chinese who are still aggressively pursuing it.*

    “they see in him some hope that America might retreat from a depraved Manichean world view ” – anyone who hopes for this from Trump has not been paying attention the past six months!

    I think that Washington may be mistaken about China, but Russia cyber-attacked us, and I don’t think it was because they feel themselves victimized by the US. Putin is just as opportunistic and authoritarian as Trump, and much smarter. Your depiction of the international scene here is simplistic. I understand your hostility to certain American policies – and I oppose many of those policies in politics here. One of the problems seems to be your lumping all Americans into “America.” Some of us are aware that certain American policies hurt others – as well as hurting people in America itself. We do have a domestic politics here, remember. It is an uphill battle for those of us who consider ourselves liberal or progressive, but we do what we can; and our cause is not made easier by having a raving right-wing loony in the White House bad mouthing foreign allies, immigrants, and the free press.

    Finally, you’re simply misusing the word “neoconservative” here – and that was also a problem I had with Mark’s article, in that he now seems to be expanding use of the term to include NGOs and liberal activism, and this just won’t do.

    Neo-Conservatism is best understood as elucidated in the policy position papers of the Project for a New American Century (please Google). It can rightfully be extended to cover supplementary policies which support its basic ideal of a global community dominated by a single superpower, the US, which would be willing to have multiple military engagements to maintain that dominance, while continuing soft-power hegemony over the Western Hemisphere. These policies became the foundation of the W. Bush Administration foreign policy – and I opposed them tooth and nail in four elections.

    Obama continued some of these policies, but his commitment was primarily to protect American interests as he understood them, rather than furthering any such agenda. And I opposed him when he did.

    Was Hillary Clinton a Neoconservative as I have outlined it here. Frankly, I thought she leaned that way, and was prepared not to vote in 2016; except that I began to recognize something far more dangerous in Trump’s demagoguery. So I had no choice.

    And that’s a problem for both you and Mark. There are numerous other political positions that can cause just as many problems for the international community besides neoconservatism, as I have tried to point out in other comments here. By locking onto one term – the definition of which has now become muddled – a host of other issues are getting ignored. The complexity of the American system is getting ignored, the compound legacy of American relationships with other countries developed after WWII is getting over-simplified, and the nuances of the kind of conversation Mark seems to wish to engage are getting lost.

    * ‘Globalism’ is itself many faceted. Some forms may in fact be worth arguing for. I seem to recall a globalist religion, with its headquarters in Rome….

    Like

  17. In general, I like the sentiments and position articulated by Mark in the essay, though I admit it could have been fleshed out… the practical effects of adopting his position described in more detail. I don’t think that was necessary, but I can understand that people following Mark’s previous articles might want more substantial analysis at this point. And it would be interesting!

    What does adopting realism mean?

    I agree with Dan, that the attack on NGOs smacked of (what I would call) libertarian arguments against state based economic programs. However I thought this comment “Would you apply that to your own personal conduct — i.e. would you just watch someone be brutalized or hurt or collapse out of illness or exhaustion, if you were not directly threatened? Why should states be amoral in the manner you suggest…” was somewhat unfair because Mark explicitly explained that the moral concerns of nations were not the same as personal moral concerns.

    EJ’s comments were more interesting. Particularly in light of the recently published transcripts of Trump’s convos with the heads of Mexico and Australia, I feel entirely vindicated in the position I took in my last essay. Master persuader… pffffft. What a dud on that score. But here EJ writes him off entirely as an unhinged lunatic. OK.

    I want to defend Mark against EJ, regarding Trump, to a certain extent. Early on, there was a possibility that Trump… according to his rhetoric and who he was associating with… would not adopt neo-con policies. EJ admits that Bannon is not neo-con. Then that is a point in Mark’s favor. The question of if Bannon’s ideology was better/worse than neocon policies is open to debate, especially as it is not clear if Trump was going to follow Bannon all the way down his rabbit hole.

    While I am not totally on board with McMaster, he stands well above and beyond Flynn. That *was* an improvement and shows that Trump, as he holds no personal ideology, is capable of manipulation (perhaps argumentation) toward better policy positions.

    I mean don’t get me wrong, personally the guy is execrable, but he has a flexibility/malleability that staunch, slightly less execrable (yet still odious) persons like Clinton could offer. You think Clinton would have been better on Syria or N Korea? How and why? That demands more explanation than Mark’s general commitment to realism. I mean she supported his decisions in Syria and has said nothing contradictory (that I am aware of) on N Korea. I think defence of Clinton at this point belies a certain naivete about Clinton, and the connection between neocon & neolib policies, or a blind deference to Clinton due to overt hatred of Trump.

    It is unfortunate… and this is being discussed in libertarian venues… that Trump has rejected campaign rhetoric to embrace largely neocon policies. Could it have gone another way? I think so. But it doesn’t really matter. If one believed in a limited, binary choice of Clinton v Trump in 2016, then Trump offered the *potential* for more options that neocon/lib policies.

    I personally don’t believe we’d be any better off on foreign policy under Clinton than we are now, even if the tone and political acumen would have been higher/more agreeable to me. She was a hawk forever, and would be under increased pressure (as first female president) to prove how tough she is.

    If it needs to be said, this is in contrast to specific domestic concerns (like the open SCOTUS seat) which argued voting Dem in borderline states, regardless that such an odious candidate as Clinton was nominee.

    Like

  18. However I thought this comment “Would you apply that to your own personal conduct — i.e. would you just watch someone be brutalized or hurt or collapse out of illness or exhaustion, if you were not directly threatened? Why should states be amoral in the manner you suggest…” was somewhat unfair because Mark explicitly explained that the moral concerns of nations were not the same as personal moral concerns.
    = = =
    What’s unfair about it? It’s all very well to say that they are not the same, but what’s the argument? The general point of my criticism was regarding the “drive by” quality of these sorts of pieces, and this is a perfect example of it. Making an assertion, the logic of which is not obvious, and then saying nothing else.

    Like

  19. E.J. Winner:
    Hasn’t interfering in foreign elections and government by all available means been American S.O.P. for generations. Iran, Nicaragua, Cuba, Vietnam, Chile etc.

    But it’s mean when Russia does it because my candidate got damaged. Oh.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. ombhurbhuva ,
    You’re making a similar mistake to labnut’s blending all Americans into the single agent “America.” I’m quite aware of the often unjust behavior my government has shown towards other nations, beginning with its policy on American Indians and then made international with its invasions of Mexico. As for the one’s that have occurred in my lifetime, I have actively protested them, criticized them, marched against them. I make no excuses for them.

    However, it is certainly my country’s right to take measures against overt acts of aggression against it. If that is not allowed, then your comment has no ethical basis.

    And this would be the case had the Russians targeted Trump or the Libertarian Gary Johnson, not just “my candidate.”

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Dan

    I’ll try to deal with your numbered points, a couple at a time. I also have some general points I would like to make, but I’m not sure if I can deal with them adequately here.

    “1. ” I am using it as convenient shorthand for a particular tendency of thought which I see as being fraught with danger. I myself used to be quite sympathetic to the neocons, but I saw the damage and destruction that their policies caused and now fear that we are heading for more of the same.”

    What is this damage and destruction that their policies have caused? You never tell us. There is a footnote in which you simply mention Saddam and Gadaffi, but never explain why things would have been better for everyone if they’d been left in power. Of course, such a case *can* be made, but you don’t make it. And making it would require admitting that you think that dictators should be left to brutalize their populations — in the case of Saddam, including gassing thousands upon thousands of Kurds. That speaks to the bravery and commitment part of the critique.”

    Well, given the utter chaos and misery which followed the overthrow of those two leaders, I think that the probability that things would have been worse had they not been overthrown as they were by Western military forces is very low. So yes, it would have been better if those military actions had not occurred. Even many neocons admit this. I didn’t think I needed to spell it out.

    “Admitting that your own preferences will also leave thousands upon thousands of innocents dead, not just the preferences of the neoconservatives.”

    I admit it. I talked previously about agonizingly difficult choices.

    “2. “NGOs and activist groups are playing an increasingly important role here, as their focus goes well beyond purely humanitarian concerns and impinges on many foreign policy questions. Once upon a time there were countless independent and significant not-for-profit organizations and charities which were locally-based and largely apolitical. A global network of NGOs has to a large extent replaced the old-fashioned charities and local mutual-aid groups that were once such an important feature of the social fabric in Western countries.”

    This sounds like the standard right wing lamentation of the creation of the welfare state.”

    There is an old conservative ideal about a society being enriched by autonomous institutions which form spontaneously over time. There is some merit in this notion, and to some extent Western societies exemplified the ideal in question.

    “Wasn’t it so much better when individuals and churches took care of the poor?”

    You are being sarcastic, but in some ways it was. I am not stupid, however. I recognize that times have changed.

    “What’s left out, of course, is that the reason for the creation of the welfare state — and of NGO’s devoted to addressing global poverty and disease — is that the problem grew to a point that it far outreached the capacity of individuals and churches to deal with. Again, if you are suggesting that regardless, it would be better to let people die of starvation, disease, and war, rather than have these NGOs meddle, then say so.”

    I recognize the need for the social safety net, etc.. I also recognize the social fragmentation which is tearing many Western societies apart. And I certainly have no problem with the sorts of activities – how could *anyone*? – that the Red Cross and similar groups have traditionally engaged in.

    Like

  22. EJ,
    You’re making a similar mistake to labnut’s blending all Americans into the single agent “America.”

    That is exactly the sort of drive-by comment that Dan-K criticises. (lovely term, by the way, Dan-K)

    The nation has many constituents(as we all so obviously know) but, when it comes to foreign affairs(and as seen by foreigners), it acts as “the single agent “America.”“. And when we are hurt by the crude conduct of American policy it is not of the slightest comfort to point out that some Americans opposed that policy.

    Like

  23. EJ,
    I seem to recall a globalist religion, with its headquarters in Rome….

    Your memory is fading… It happens to all of us. More seriously though, moral, ethical and compassionate behaviour have no boundaries and do not recognise race.

    On the other hand economic boundaries are necessary to regulate or mitigate the adverse consequences of globalism, of which there are many. This should be as obvious as the need to regulate business/industries to limit the harm they do to environment, consumers and workers.

    The need exists in both cases for the same reason – economic activity is amoral.

    Like

  24. I love encountering new terms that are apt and pithy. Dan-K’s term ‘drive by comment‘ is one such term. To that I would like to add the ‘shotgun comment‘. A shotgun comment is the simultaneous release of a barrage of drive by comments. It confabulates, obfuscates, clouds and otherwise muddies(phew!) the waters of the discussion. The intent is to generate so many new threads in the discussion that they cannot possibly be all answered, leaving the holder of the semantic shotgun seemingly victorious. I have noticed that some people have a liking for shotgun comments. They have some rhetorical value because the poor opponent is simply overwhelmed by the sheer scale of irrelevancy.

    Alas poor Occam, we knew thee well.

    Like

  25. labnut,

    ““You’re making a similar mistake to labnut’s blending all Americans into the single agent “America.” ”
    That is exactly the sort of drive-by comment that Dan-K criticises. – no, its not, because I articulated what I meant by this.
    ” it is not of the slightest comfort to point out that some Americans opposed that policy.” – then you don’t understand the slightest thing about politics, not locally nor internationally. And you clearly do not know the history of the Catholic church.

    Don’t mention Occam; you don’t understand him any better than a certain astrophysicist we both know of. (When Robin Herbert corrects me on Occam, I respect that, because I know he has read the text.)

    “moral, ethical and compassionate behaviour have no boundaries” – have you not been paying attention to what Mark has been saying here? The most important problem that he has raised, and that he and Dan have argued, is exactly this – to what extent can the ethics of one culture be imposed on another or made operative in addressing perceived wrongs in another culture? The answer is not clear. (I have suggested that it must be addressed on a case by case basis.)

    I wish I could offer you return to the Medieval gestalt when all such matters were perfectly clear. But I cannot. This world may have taken a wrong turn that proved execrable, but it’s the only world we got – that’s why discussion of how best to see it *realistically* are so important.

    ” economic activity is amoral” – that is complete and utter nonsense – and. let me point out, nonsense that the real neo-conservatives of PNAC depended on to sell their blather at the highest levels of government.

    And I point out that you haven’t provided cogent response to any point I’ve made, in any of my comments. You simply want to use the moment to complain that the world is not what you wish it to be. (And frankly, I’m beginning to think the same of Mark, which is why I question his claim to ‘realism’.)

    I’m sorry the world isn’t the way you want it to be; it’s not Christian, it’s not fair, it’s not kind, it involves sometimes extremely complicated disagreements. it involves accepting people as they are and situations that really exist. And despite my evident disagreements with Mark, I think he at least recognizes this, although he would wish it otherwise.

    Like

  26. Neil,

    labnut: On reading the comments I am forced to conclude that Americans are seemingly just plain blind to the wrong they do.
    I don’t think that is actually true.

    If we plotted the spectrum of beliefs/opinions along some axis I suspect they would follow something like a Normal, or perhaps Weibull distribution(with a suitable shape parameter). The variance would reflect the homogeneity of opinions and in liberal societies we see lower homogeneity. We would see variation, extremes and outliers on the scale but that would not change the fact that the beliefs exhibit a characteristic value or mean. Just as is the case with any set of objects, when talking about the group we use the mean(or perhaps median) value to characterise it, though often qualified with its variance(if we have measured it).

    And so I can’t agree that my statement is not true. Groupthink does exist and it is primarily an expression of group allegiances. Groupthink tends to blind one to the interests/needs of other groups, hence the conflict.

    A lovely example of this is the Western reaction to Russia’s re-incorporation of Crimea. A little knowledge of history and understanding of Russian needs and point of view would have made the act seem both inevitable and natural, not something to be abhorred. The same thing is true of China and Taiwan. American groupthink is making enemies of two powerful states and that cannot be a good thing.

    There are two problems here. First, group allegiances tend to blind one to the needs and point of view of other groups because one’s own group sits centre-stage in one’s mind. Secondly, when one is powerful one feels less need to consult or consider the needs of other groups and this is a peculiarly American problem. Add to this the huge dominance of American news media which drowns out other points of view and we get the result we see today, an arrogant, meddlesome, interfering and clumsy giant that leaves destruction in its wake.

    This behaviour is justified in the minds of Americans by coating it with the thin patina of morality. But it is a morality fractured by hypocrisy when trying to reconcile reality with professed values. America’s dealings with Saudi Arabia and China are two examples of this.

    Not all American foreign policy is a failure. The stabilisation of Europe and Japan after WWII is America’s greatest triumph. The containment of Marxism until it imploded is another triumph which resulted from the first. I consider the continued protection of Israel as another great triumph. This is a special kind of triumph because it is uniquely motivated by moral concerns and for all my criticism, I greatly admire America for doing this.

    Like

  27. Continuing to answer Dan’s criticisms…

    “3. “The tendencies with which I am concerned – however they are labelled – have evolved into a global movement (or set of related movements) that is supported by powerful media organizations (public and private, national and international) and a variety of well-funded advocacy and activist groups.”

    Who would some of those be?”

    Admittedly, I’m talking in very general terms. I’m trying to give a general sense of the landscape as I see it. Note that I am not talking about one ideology or movement, but in terms of “a set of related movements.” You want examples. Take media. There are only a few big international “wire services”. I stopped reading Reuters and Bloomberg (except for finance news) when polemical elements began to overwhelm the news content. I stopped watching/listening to the BBC years ago because of obvious political bias. Maybe it’s improved since I stopped watching. Likewise, I used to read the Guardian when the articles were not written in a campaigning style. We know the various billionaires who own the various newspapers and networks and so on, and there has been a large degree of coordination between the main players. I’ve got no love for Rupert Murdoch but at least the Wall Street Journal occasionally publishes pieces questioning the conventional wisdom. I don’t watch Fox – I don’t watch TV at all – and certainly not CNN. Do I need to list the political NGOs? There are thousands of them. And much is known about their funding and connections between them. Open Society Foundations and related groups are obvious examples. I mentioned Antifa in the essay. But the point is this: many, maybe most, of these groups are *political*. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself, but I was making a contrast with charities as traditionally conceived. People – *everybody* – respected the Red Cross because it was perceived to be above politics. My point is that when a “charity” becomes political it changes its nature. It becomes something else, something people *take sides* on. It becomes contentious.

    “4. “As I see it, recent forms of neoconservatism – not entirely unlike earlier manifestations – are based on a potent mix of idealism, paranoia and self-interest.”

    Really, just those? So wanting to prevent another genocide is “idealism”? Trying to help refugees fleeing a brutal civil war is “idealism”? I’m curious how you define ‘idealism’ as opposed to normal moral concern.”

    I am using the term more or less in this sense (from Merriam-Webster): “the attitude of a person who believes that it is possible to live according to very high standards of behavior and honesty.” If someone is motivated by idealism they hold themselves to such standards.

    You seem to think the word has a negative connotation, but in this usage (which is the most common one in the variety of English I speak), it does not have a negative connotation. Certainly it does not *necessarily* have a negative connotation; and the connotation is often positive.

    Like

  28. Parallax

    “[Quoting me.] “The term ‘neoconservative’ – like any ideological label – involves oversimplification and can be misleading. I am using it as convenient shorthand for a particular tendency of thought which I see as being fraught with danger. I myself used to be quite sympathetic to the neocons, but I saw the damage and destruction that their policies caused and now fear that we are heading for more of the same.”

    The picture of a plane dropping bombs did not bode well for this article but this passage seals it.”

    The editors select the pictures, but I thought it was appropriate enough because my main concern is US military adventurism.

    “Within international relations theory the term “neoconservative” has a specific meaning, you can’t just define it to be whatever you want it to be.”

    I made it clear that I was not just talking about neoconservatism as strictly defined, but rather was using the label as a convenient shorthand to cover actual neoconservatism and a bunch of similar tendencies.

    “Most rants about neoconservatives are eerily similar to antisemitic rants: the neocons are so stupid that they can’t understand how obviously they are wrong and at the same time the devious neocons manage to stay in power despite everything!”

    So I’m anti-Semitic now am I? Or, at least, my piece is *like* anti-Semitic rants in certain ways. That’s okay then…

    “If you are unhappy with American foreign policy come up with something constructive rather than creating a fictional figure to project all the bad onto.”

    I am expressing concern about what I see as war-mongering from various quarters. Do you not see it also?

    Don’t take the title too seriously, by the way. I said what I have to say in the body of the piece pretty carefully, and I stand by it. No doubt it’s not perfectly expressed, but a sympathetic reader will get my message.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. dbholmes (and labnut and Dan)…

    Dwayne wrote: “I like the sentiments and position articulated by Mark in the essay, though I admit it could have been fleshed out… the practical effects of adopting his position described in more detail. I don’t think that was necessary, but I can understand that people following Mark’s previous articles might want more substantial analysis at this point. And it would be interesting!”

    Maybe I could do better. But there is a general point that I have trying to make which is not being picked up. I reject a rationalistic approach to politics. I said my “position” is uncertain. Everyone seems to be ignoring the introductory paragraphs where I talk about the way our brains are not set up for dealing with things like geopolitics. I am hearing all these calls for clarity and argument, but maybe clarity in areas such as this is not really achievable and rationalistic arguments are inappropriate.

    People are saying that I am saying what I said before, but I am trying to move away from labels. Nowhere in this piece did I endorse ‘realism’ or any —ism. I am more sympathetic to foreign policy realists than to neocons, sure. But I have not been talking in those terms here. In fact, I emphasized that I liked and respected some neoconservatives. These affinities don’t just disappear.

    So, as labnut said, this is written from the heart. I am just not trying to do the kind of discourse which Dan et al. would want me to do. And behind our different approaches may lie something quite deep (differences in how we see the nature and scope of rationality perhaps).

    Liked by 1 person

  30. I reject a rationalistic approach to politics. I said my “position” is uncertain.
    = = =
    That’s all very nice, but it’s entirely unclear what it even means to say so. Anti-rationalism in ethics indicates some sort of sentimentalism or emotivism. Surely that’s not a useful paradigm for geopolitical decision making. Anti-rationalism in epistemology indicates some sort of naturalism or philosophy of common sense, but again, that’s clearly not appropriate in geopolitical decision making.

    Anti-rationalism in politics, a la Oakeshott’s “Rationalism in Politics,” indicates a generally Burkean approach to political philosophy, in which custom, tradition, and habits of thought are given pride of place over theoretical ratiocination. And while this is perfectly comprehensible within the domain of political philosophy — my own liberalism tends to be more Burkean than Lockean in its logic — I don’t see the useful application to it in geopolitical decision making. You have to decide whether or not to do something, while Saddam gasses hundreds of thousands of Kurds. You have to decide whether to let refugees fleeing Assad’s relentless attacks on Aleppo into your country. You have to decide whether to intervene as the Serbs attempt to exterminate the Muslim population of the former Yugoslavia. Relevant factors will include utilitarian considerations; deontological ones; purely prudential ones; etc. I don’t see what it even means to be “anti-rationalist” with regard to this sort of decision-making.

    Like

  31. “So what is the difference between idealism and normal moral concern?”

    Degree, I suppose. You say idealism if you are talking about higher-than-normal standards.

    But it’s almost 1:30 am again. I should have been in bed an hour ago.

    Like

  32. EJ,

    no, its not
    – blunt contradiction

    you don’t understand the slightest thing about politics, not locally nor internationally
    – Insulting

    And you clearly do not know the history of the Catholic church
    – Insulting

    Don’t mention Occam; you don’t understand him
    – Denigration

    have you not been paying attention to what Mark has been saying here?
    – Snide put down

    I wish I could offer you return to the Medieval gestalt
    – No you don’t, you are indulging in another snide put down.

    that is complete and utter nonsense
    – Bluntly insulting

    And I point out that you haven’t provided cogent response to any point I’ve made
    – Denial

    You simply want to use the moment to complain that the world is not what you wish it to be.
    – Insulting attribution

    I’m sorry the world isn’t the way you want it to be;
    – No you are not. This is just another snide put down.

    Gosh, EJ, this is so uncharacteristic.
    I tried hard to detect the EJ that I knew, with his careful, cogent and civil commentary that enriched the discussion. I think he has gone fishing. I hope he returns soon.

    Like

  33. Mark,
    Your recent exchange with Dan helps clarify your article. They do show the evolution you claim in a way I did not find in the article itself, and perhaps the article could have benefited from the direct expression you made in these comments.

    The two main problems here were: 1) you left a legacy from last year, when you insisted in a couple articles and notable comments, that your basic political stance was that of a “political realist” (which is why I sometimes used the term in quotes in response. It seems you are now developing away from this, and I think this a good thing, because it is a hard-line approach that misses important variables, some of which you are now considering. 2) You did not make it as clear as you could that you were using “neoconservatism” as a doorway to larger issues and trends, which helped to generate confusion in the comments.

    Despite my previous “rant” in reply, I still agree with much of what you say in the article, and look forward to the further evolution of your thought here, even should i disagree with it, or see it from a different perspective.

    Liked by 2 people

  34. labnut,
    I apologize for blowing up that way. But I replied previously with a comment I thought cogent and reasonable. And then I found three comments, which I took to be expressing related thoughts, that effectively dismissed that comment as spurious rhetoric. I thought the points I raised needed serious consideration involving recognition of the complexity of history and of the contemporary political scene, and I found myself threatened with Occam’s razor. And no, you did not respond to the actual points I tried to make in that comment.

    The footnote remark on the globalism of the Church of Rome was posted tongue in cheek – but it was by no means derisive. The history of the Church illuminates a lot of the problems – and the potentials – with extending moral and cultural interests beyond national or even continental borders. We could all learn a lot from that history.

    Like

  35. EJ,
    I apologize for blowing up that way.

    It’s all good. We are talking about contentious matters that arouse strong emotions. We can be generous and allow for that.

    Like

  36. Dan

    “[Quoting me] “I reject a rationalistic approach to politics. I said my “position” is uncertain.” That’s all very nice, but it’s entirely unclear what it even means to say so.”

    Look at the context of my statement. I am pushing back against people’s expectations of a certain mode of discourse, i.e. define a position precisely and defend it with extended and clear and explicit arguments. As I see it, this would only lead to the absurd labelling and self-labelling and re-labelling game that is so familiar to many of us. I am committed to a straightforward logical approach in areas where evidence and straightforward logic can be applied.

    “Anti-rationalism in ethics indicates some sort of sentimentalism or emotivism. Surely that’s not a useful paradigm for geopolitical decision making.”

    We could talk about emotivism in ethics. But this would take us away from the topic.

    Let me just say, however, that ethical *emotions* can’t be excluded from geopolitical decision-making. Often they are an important motivating factor. But my view (stated in the essay) is that broadly utilitarian considerations should be applied (along with prudential and other practical considerations of course). Good intentions etc. count for nothing if things spiral out of control (as they so often do).

    Ethical (or political) decision-making is one thing; ethics or political philosophy as academic (sub?)disciplines is another. Do we use logic (or reason) in ethical and political decision-making? Of course. Do we sometimes draw on basic ‘ethical theory’ (thinking in terms of duty and/or ‘utility’)? Yes, such thinking can be helpful… to a point. But the way reasoning is applied and language is used in areas like academic ethics and political philosophy is often inappropriate. You yourself have argued that this sort of activity can all too readily degenerate into meaningless hair-splitting and intellectual posturing.

    “Anti-rationalism in politics, a la Oakeshott’s “Rationalism in Politics,” indicates a generally Burkean approach to political philosophy, in which custom, tradition, and habits of thought are given pride of place over theoretical ratiocination. And while this is perfectly comprehensible within the domain of political philosophy — my own liberalism tends to be more Burkean than Lockean in its logic — I don’t see the useful application to it in geopolitical decision making.”

    My anti-rationalism is mainly in respect of certain forms of academic thinking.

    “You have to decide whether or not to do something, while Saddam gasses hundreds of thousands of Kurds. You have to decide whether to let refugees fleeing Assad’s relentless attacks on Aleppo into your country. You have to decide whether to intervene as the Serbs attempt to exterminate the Muslim population of the former Yugoslavia. Relevant factors will include utilitarian considerations; deontological ones; purely prudential ones; etc.”

    I agree.

    Like

  37. Dan

    “Well, if your general approach to geopolitics is utilitarian, then you are a rationalist. Utilitarianism is a rationalistic moral philosophy.”

    This is just the sort of thinking (neat labels and so on) I have been trying to get away from.

    This seems to be the passage you are alluding to: “[E]thical emotions can’t be excluded from geopolitical decision-making. Often they are an important motivating factor. But my view (stated in the essay) is that broadly utilitarian considerations should be applied (along with prudential and other practical considerations of course). Good intentions etc. count for nothing if things spiral out of control (as they so often do).”

    By referring to “utilitarian considerations” I am not talking about full-blown utilitarianism and I am certainly not endorsing any particular form of utilitarianism. I am just talking about minimizing harm.

    I realize that ‘rationalism’ is understood in different ways in different contexts, but the general thrust of what I am saying is clear enough, I think.

    Here is the original comment:

    “[T]here is a general point that I have trying to make which is not being picked up. I reject a rationalistic approach to politics. I said my “position” is uncertain. Everyone seems to be ignoring the introductory paragraphs where I talk about the way our brains are not set up for dealing with things like geopolitics. I am hearing all these calls for clarity and argument, but maybe clarity in areas such as this is not really achievable and rationalistic arguments are inappropriate.

    People are saying that I am saying what I said before, but I am trying to move away from labels. Nowhere in this piece did I endorse ‘realism’ or any —ism.”

    And that includes utilitarianism.

    Like

  38. More responses to Dan’s numbered list of criticisms…

    “5. “The idealism relates to a deep belief in certain American and European values and rights that are seen as universal.” Not wanting Serbs to ethnically cleanse the former Yugoslavia by way of mass murder and concentration camps reflects values that are *not* universal? Not wanting Kim Jong Un to nuke us or anyone else reflects “European values?” I’m curious. Are *any* values universal or at least inter-subjective or cross-cultural? What *is* worth fighting over? Just one’s own self defense? Would you apply that to your own personal conduct — i.e. would you just watch someone be brutalized or hurt or collapse out of illness or exhaustion, if you were not directly threatened?”

    This is really over the top, Dan. Nowhere did I deny (even by implication) that cross-cultural values exist. Clearly they do.

    “Why should states be amoral in the manner you suggest? (I’m not implying that there are no good answers to these questions, but you never even address them.)”

    I did not suggest that states should be amoral. I suggested that we should not “automatically apply modes of morality that are applicable to individuals in their personal lives to nation states in their interactions with other nation states.” This is stating the obvious, isn’t it?

    Broader questions about to what extent you can apply moral judgments and so on to corporate entities in general and states in particular interest me, but I’m not sure how far you can get with these sorts of discussions. The logician Max Black and the Red Tory social philosopher George Grant expressed subtly different views on the matter in an old Canadian TV panel discussion which I linked to in a piece I did here some time ago. (At the time I was unable to stimulate any discussion on their discussion, but I may have another shot. I could perhaps do a transcript of the most relevant exchanges.)

    “6. ”Generally, the mainstream news sources with which I am familiar take a subtly moralizing line on geopolitics, emphasizing the suffering of new immigrants or asylum-seekers, for example, and characterizing those (both in Europe and America) who speak out against the free movement of people across national boundaries as being motivated by xenophobia. Some are. Some aren’t. But there is little doubt that the flood of impoverished non-Europeans into Europe and other instances of uncontrolled mass migration are causing many social problems, while doing nothing to improve the situation in the migrants’ home countries.” What sort of line should they take when confronted with genocide? Mass starvation? Brutal civil wars in which dictators inflict incomprehensible violence upon civilians?”

    The media you mean? I wasn’t talking about the reporting of events such as these, but rather the relentless focus on the standard narrative regarding immigrants and the sidelining of alternative points of view.

    “As for “speaking out against the free movement of people across national boundaries,” this is precisely the sort of generic, avoidance-motivated characterization I am talking about.”

    What I wrote is perfectly clear, I think. I don’t know what you mean by “this … sort of … characterization.” I was saying some people who speak out against free movement are xenophobes and some are not. Are you saying they are all xenophobes? Looks like it.

    “The occasion in which this subject is arising, now, is the brutal Syrian civil war, which has resulted in a human catastrophe.”

    With respect, the problem is far wider than Syria. Most migrants are not Syrians.

    “The people trying to “freely move across national boundaries” are refugees, including women, children, and the elderly.”

    All of them?? Many, possibly most, of these people are not refugees. I don’t know how much you know about the people-smuggling business.

    “And yes, saying they should be sent back to Syria or simply refused entry and left to drown in the sea or whatever, is *at best* callous and brutal and amoral and at worst, outright, flat-out xenophobic.”

    As I said, it’s not just about Syria. Most of the people trying to get into Europe are from other places. Often they are fleeing poverty rather than persecution. Do I blame them? Of course not. But the root causes have to be identified. We should be concerned not only with the minority who make the journey but also with those stuck in horrifically bad situations at home who do not have the means or the opportunity to make the journey. Sometimes war or persecution is involved. Sometimes the problem is poverty, exacerbated by government corruption. Maybe climatic changes are involved. You’ve got to look at the root causes if you want to solve any of these problems. (This is another issue, but the pull of Europe and America and Australia also has the unfortunate effect of enticing the best and brightest from poorer countries who often come as students and then become permanent residents to the benefit of their adopted country and to the detriment of their home country. I believe in individual freedom, but it depresses me to see some of these trends.)

    I am not in any way denying that the migrant/refugee crisis is a humanitarian disaster. And my main concern here – US military adventurism – was in a number of cases a direct (and in some other cases an indirect) cause of the chaos and poverty which led to the problems.

    “Countries did similar things to my people, during and after the Holocaust, and I could not in good conscience recommend they be done to others. My father, when he was 15 years old, had to knife British soldiers, so that the Haganah could smuggle in Jewish refugees from Auschwitz and Buchenwald, because a British imposed quota kept them out.”

    Your family background gives you a certain perspective on this issue, and I respect that. No doubt there are valid parallels to make, and I concede that certain basic principles could be seen to apply universally.

    Liked by 1 person

  39. Everybody is having trouble with illegal immigration including the Israelis who built a wall along their southern border at a cost of 420 million dollars. It’s 153 miles long. Mr. Trump scale that up. They also have imaginative schemes for discouraging those that got in already including distraint of wages ( 20%) only available on leaving. This is to prevent them sending money home which would allow family to make their way to join them.

    The wall has been very effective. Since it was built only 50 have got through. They were mostly coming from the Sudan and Eritrea. They also want to get rid of those they have. They risked being shot on to get in.

    http://mida.org.il/2017/02/21/israels-border-fence-worked/

    Like

  40. Mark,

    I enjoyed your piece and your comments very much. I think you’ve made a lot of useful and important observations.

    Like