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Wednesday, July 23, 2003
 
Real Realpolitik

The neocons are often given credit for their big-picture perspective. While progressives worry about trivialities like living wages, provision of health care, and the environment, they are trying to contend with The Survival of Western Civilization Itself. They maintain that the world is a fundamentally dangerous place that America must actively shape to protect itself. They would not have us rely on diplomatic safeguards against the emergence of global strategic threats. We should maintain our security and preeminence through the threat and use of force, squashing any emergent power before it has the chance to do us harm.

Interesting doctrine, eh? Unfortunately, even under its own terms it’s obviously doomed.

Leaving aside the fact that this principle was the basis of a “preemptive” invasion of a country that was not even vaguely threatening to us, it won't work for real threats either. Following our glorious victory in Iraq, we are now getting a lot of serious contemplation from the neocons of preemptive military action against Iran and Syria. And then what? More of the same?

Will we have the money to invade, occupy, and materially change these countries so they will not reemerge to cause us trouble in the future? Will we have the political will to do so? As technology continues to advance and atomic weapons become cheaper and easier to manufacture, will all countries decide against acquiring them, even while under the thumb of an avowedly hegemonic hyperpower? Can we be sure that no new weapon of mass destruction that doesn't require expensive engineering and rare components will be invented at some point in the future? Can we formulate and enact policies over the long term such that no country, group, or individual will decide to work toward our destruction?

The answer to all of these questions is no. There is no magic formula to neutralize all global threats. Economic basketcases North Korea and Pakistan have found that acquisition of nuclear weapons is, dollar for dollar, the most efficient route to international influence, respect, and security. That lesson isn't going to be lost on other countries; so long as the world continues to be a chaotic place, governments are going to opt for proven deterrents over faith in the goodwill of the U.S., their neighbors, or international institutions. Unless we bomb the rest of the world back to the stone age, it's a good bet that fifty years from now dozens of countries will have nuclear weapons. Is this the solution that will be ultimately proposed?

What’s worse, I don’t even think the neocons really mean what they’re saying. If nonproliferation of WMDs is a goal worth going to war over, you don't have the luxury of being selective about it. They don’t act against China, which has pretentions to global-power staus and certainly has the means to cause us a lot worse harm than Iraq could ever have done. The administration hawks pussyfoot around Pakistan, nuclear-armed, seething with Islamic militants, and roughly a heartbeat away from becoming a fierce enemy. They blithely ignore happenings in Russia, which is still smarting from its come-down in the global hierarchy, is badly policed, is still armed to the tips of its teeth, and is teeming with impoverished military officers and scientists possibly willing to sell any of dozens of kinds of WMDs to the highest bidder. Strangely, for dealing with these countries, diplomacy and international consensus are the preferred tools.

The neocons who dragged us to war in Iraq painted themselves into a corner by claiming the invasion wasn’t about oil, the only material difference between Iraq and the countries we didn't attack. Had they been above-board about it, their arguments would have at least held together. It’s tempting to wonder why they weren’t. Possibly their reticence came from a desire to avoid a global outcry over the nakedly imperialist implications of such an admission. Possibly it came from a calculated attempt to maintain political support at home. Maybe they don't really care whether they make sense or not.

Update: David Neiwert has an excellent post with a lot more background information and analysis.