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Charles Kopp - Contributor

Charles Kopp is a graduate of the New School for Social Research. He is a composer and musician, and an ardent lover of poetry. He has been a teacher and a systems analyst. In Lafayette, California, he now designs websites and works on creative projects. He can be contacted at [go to Kopp index]

Between Con and NeoCon
Into the Breach ...
[Charles Kopp] 7/9/04

Those who consider matters philosophically tend at times to interpret all agreements or arguments as reflecting on deeper principles and values. Often this is accurate, but sometimes not.

There seems to be quite a breach these days between a more traditional conservative view of American foreign policy, and the policy currently being carried out by the Bush Administration, often characterized as “neo-conservative.” The breach is there, to be sure -- but it's important to view the gulf in a different light for a few moments at least.

The more traditional conservatism, whose foreign policy derives from a first principle of limited government, wants us to be strong enough to win any conflicts that we must enter, but only to enter conflicts where our immediate security and national interest are vitally concerned. It views “nation building” with profound skepticism at best. And it views the book title “An End To Evil” as an indication of something between delusion and heresy. On these sort of grounds, some traditional conservatives oppose the war in Iraq. Others feel our national interests (needing stable oil supplies, thwarting governments that abet terrorism) justify the war in Iraq, though they view the NeoCon position more generally with concern.

In contrast, the NeoCon position can be viewed as more interventionist, more aggressive, and as being idealistic -- inappropriately so, in the view of those who disagree with it. It seeks a democracy, in some meaningful sense of the word, in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Traditional conservatives wonder whether it would cost us less, and serve our national interest just as well, if those nations had any form of stable reliable government willing to conduct business sensibly with the west. There is a widespread perception among these conservatives that the cultural history of these nations may not be ready for any sort of personal liberty, and that even if such a thing is possible it may not be worth what it is costing us.

There are worthwhile elements in both these views, but more importantly, they do not necessarily represent stark differences in fundamental principles. They can more accurately be described as differences in perceptions of the current situation, and differences in calculations, turning on two basic questions: What is the extent of our danger here? And what is realistically possible for us to do about the danger?

Interestingly, the conservative criticism of NeoCons is mirrored on the political left. No element of the Bush policy seems to infuriate Senator Kerry or Governor Dean so much as that it is “ideological.” That a foreign policy should take into account freedom or totalitarianism (or good and evil) seems absolutely perverse, from the point of view of Democrats who long for more “pragmatic” policies. On a closer reading though, Democrats are eager for their own sort of “ideological” interventions, on behalf of Aristide, Arafat, and Annan.

So what is the current situation? What are the dangers? What are the possibilities?

To conservatives who oppose the war (and, again, to some liberals who oppose it) the threat posed by Iraq was not sufficient to justify our effort there. Even the combination of Iraq and terrorists is not sufficient. After all, Hussein did not have the engineering and manufacturing capacity that Germany had before World War II. Neither Iraq nor Al Queda, nor the two combined, in this view, could seriously endanger the United States. September 11th, while a great and tragic loss, is small compared to wars between great powers. And the greatness of the United States -- militarily, economically, culturally -- could sustain far worse attacks and still be America, free and strong.

Yet this view overlooks the significant harm that can be done to us in this new kind of warfare. September 11th by itself caused downturns in travel that rippled through industries such as lodging and tourism. Some companies have yet to recover. A very few successful attacks, on targets such as containerized shipping, airplanes, water supplies- could cause economic disruptions that would have even larger ripples. In a few cases, even a major attack on a foreign facility might have severe repercussions. Think of a small nuclear explosion in Dhahran.

An enemy need not be a great world power, with a modern military and a bustling manufacturing sector, to do tremendous harm. Travel and shipping as we know them could virtually cease for some time, while ports and shippers built a very expensive new infrastructure. Adaptations would take time and money, causing major displacements. Our world is more tightly interwoven than on the morning of Pearl Harbor, and economies everywhere more mutually reliant.

Traditional conservatives tend to compare the harm and displacement terrorists could cause with national mobilizations such as World War Two, and they’re right in saying terrorists could probably not equal the Axis powers. But terrorists could do enough (and it’s a judgment call, like balls and strikes) to merit current Bush administration policy.

Another part of evaluating the current situation is this consideration: what will likely happen, if we do nothing? This is somewhat the same coin we flip to consider Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill. It boils down to this -- if we are going to have to fight a stronger enemy later, it is better to fight that enemy now. Persons of intelligence and good sense can differ in their assessment of the threat.

Some conservatives (and some liberals) seem to think we are not in such a situation presently. We can bide our time without enlarging our future danger significantly. It’s a vital question, and being wrong about it can cost millions of people their very lives. Only later does it become so crystal clear, whose estimate of the danger was accurate.

Those who believe our enemies in Iraq would not grow stronger and would not force us to fight them later, somewhere, at even greater costs than we are now enduring in money and lives, may have a reasonable point of view. But they should acknowledge that they could be wrong. Indeed, for many of us, President Clinton has already proven what biding one’s time can cost, as if history needed another example.

And it is not really a philosophical difference that divides conservatives in this situation, at least not wholly. To a very significant extent, it is a difference in perception, again. What is the situation? What are the dangers? What are the possibilities?

Let’s look at the possibilities. It may be difficult for some form of democracy with individual rights to flourish, or even survive, in these countries. The spirit of town hall meetings that so rooted our own traditions may not be imitated there in our lifetimes. And this is an audacious undertaking.

Still, to a very meaningful extent, there is no disagreement about what is good -- just different calculations of what is possible. On the side of President Bush’s policy, even if the new nations of Afghanistan and Iraq are far from our ideal -- if for example they more resemble “democracy” as it is known through Latin America -- still, that would be a very remarkable achievement, and definitely a cultural and political impetus to reform throughout the middle east.

Many of us believe the prize is sufficient, even allowing that it will be very difficult. This does not mean we’ll proceed to build new nations in a lot of other places, indeed, exactly because it is not at heart a principle, so much as a calculation, a strategy. Other situations will involve different calculations.

Even if you do not allow that this prize is sufficient for the risk, or a prize to be sought in the first place, consider this. What other possible outcomes are there? If we do not try at least to help these nations create stable and somewhat democratic governments, what alternatives are likely? Isn’t it very possible that Taliban outcomes would force us to act again in the future, perhaps at far greater cost? Isn’t the cost of the invasion worth the added incremental cost (to be very cold about it) of trying to create and leave the most positive situation possible there? What do we lose by trying? And what would we risk, by not trying?

In the end, the truly profound philosophical differences do not lie within the conservative movement -- they are with people who do not believe that America is worth preserving. There are many who believe we deserved to be attacked, and many who have no idea how remarkable our traditions of personal freedom and limited government are. There are many who believe America has only been “successful” to the extent that it has stolen real estate, raw materials, and labor from the oppressed all around the world.

In the end, conservatives share much that is deep and enduring. And together, we have a lot of important work to do.CRO

copyright 2004 Charles Kopp



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