Confessions of a Recovering NeoCon
Updated: Apr 4
Earlier this month the Washington Post released the results of a multi-year investigation into the war in Afghanistan which have been termed the Afghanistan Papers. The release begins: “A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”
The Afghanistan Papers include over 2,000 pages of tales of mismanagement and cover-up. Here’s a tidbit:
In an effort to learn from the results of the invasion and policy failures, the Pentagon embarked upon an $11 million project called “Lessons Learned”. Once completed, the Pentagon suppressed the unwelcome findings of the project. It was only after three years of legal battles with the Washington Post that the project was made public.
To date, more than $133 billion has been allocated to build Afghanistan. Much of this spending has not been accounted for and has been described by those deployed to make payments as waste.
Military commanders struggled to determine who they were fighting and why due to competing agendas in Washington. Corrupt Afghanistan warlords used this to their advantage to exploit American vulnerabilities and benefit from cash handouts.
Administration officials under both Bush and Obama consistently misled the public in the waste and prospects of ending the war.
No one has been held responsible.
As egregious as this might be, I suspect most of us have become desensitized to what will soon be two decades of tales of failures, setbacks, shortcomings, and discontent in the War on Terror. While some were critical of the wars proceeding 9/11 from the start, many Americans viewed Afghanistan as the “good war” and Iraq as the “bad war” for at least a season.
The Bad War
I had just begun college when the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 would forever change our world. That same year the Bush administration launched an attack on the Taliban government of Afghanistan in an effort to crush al-Qaeda and kill Osama bin Laden. The young are often idealistic, and I was no exception. As the War on Terror began to expand beyond Afghanistan and into Iraq the prospects of the United States destroying so many foreign threats and implanting allies all over the troubled Middle East was exhilarating.
I was just a kid when then president George Bush Sr. led the war effort against Saddam’s military occupation of Kuwait. I had no informed perspective on what a war with Iraq might look like then. To me, war meant the possibility that some “bad guys” might come strolling through our neighborhood someday, shooting at hapless bystanders and causing no shortage of mayhem. I was grateful for every news story that told of how the war was going well. Partially because I was caught up in the patriotic fervor of everyone around me. And partially because each victory made the prospects of an invasion of my neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma by the Republican Guard feel more remote.
But in college things were different. I had no child-like fears about what Iraq could do to us and I had the utmost confidence in what we could do to them. Doubtless there would be costs and casualties, but it was inconceivable the US military would be turned away by Iraq’s feeble forces. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. The same patriotic fervor swelled in my heart as my country soundly defeated the regime of an evil dictator and liberated the good people of Iraq.
I became thoroughly convinced that the US had every right to invade Iraq. I believed that Saddam posed a serious threat to global and US interests and security and had to be removed from power. I was positively thrilled with the idea of Iraq becoming a flowering democracy and ultimately spreading Western-friendly values throughout the Middle East. Like any good Republican, I bought the Bush administration’s narrative on the war hook, line, and sinker.
Nearly two decades have passed, and Americans have grown increasingly weary or even hostile to these war efforts, viewing them as unnecessary, costly, unjustified, ill-conceived, and, in some cases, evil from the start. Ask an American why Bush got us involved in the wars in the first place and answers vary from idealistic (he wanted to stop the evil villain Saddam and liberate the good people of Iraq), coldly opportunistic (he just wanted to pay less for oil and found the attacks on September 11 a perfect excuse), sympathetic (he really did think Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and believed he was a threat), to the downright absurd (Bush wanted to get the man who tried to kill his daddy).
Laying my cards on the table, I continue to believe the wars—both the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq—were the right thing to do. Afghanistan because it was the most hospitable to the terrorists who had attacked us and vowed to do so again. Iraq for reasons that are more complicated, but not less justifiable. Not to plant a flowering democracy. Not because Saddam was a murderous monster who killed his own citizens by the multitudes (he was, but so were other dictators who posed no similar threat to the US or its allies). But because the continued existence and defiance of Saddam’s regime in a post-9/11 world represented a threat Western democracies could not ignore. Whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or not, the possibility he’d someday acquire them and use them was too great to ignore.
But this post isn’t about justifying the wars. And justification for the war in Iraq would take a far longer post than this (I’ll refer the reader to this interview with the late Christopher Hitchens on Jon Stewart’s show on a brief listing of why the invasion of Iraq was justified). This post isn’t about where I haven’t changed my mind, but where I have. It’s about shedding the ideas I held in my mind and passion buried in my heart way back in college as slowly, almost imperceptibly, I began to doubt some of the tenets of the NeoCon narrative I had adopted so eagerly.
I will use the term NeoCon here to mean one who has the sort of attitude promoted by the Bush administration in the run-up to the wars—the idea that all people yearn for freedom and, as such, if only we could unshackle them of their oppressive leaders they would soon learn to live peaceably and value liberty just like we did.
If the reader will pardon a brief aside, I feel duty-bound to stress that I am in no way commenting on the ideas embodied in Neoconservatism, which I find to be complex, highly defensible, honorable, and—in a lot of cases—in line with my own views. Neoconservatism is a uniquely American brand of conservative thought that has a rich history filled with intellectuals well worth reading and studying. It is a terrible shame that the term has been reduced to a simple pejorative of one who is war hawkish (ironically, the original neoconservatives had very little to say about warfare).
With that said, back to the matter at hand. What has transpired in places like Afghanistan and Iraq over these past 18 years has brought to light how wrongheaded I was to suppose the sort of peace, stability, and liberty I had in mind was achievable, let alone inevitable. Had I been a better student of history I would have understood that people and cultures develop institutions and norms slowly over generations and that it is through this process that liberties can be cultivated and maintained.
Russell Kirk said it best: “Liberty forced on a people unfit for it is a curse, bringing anarchy.” There was a reason places like Germany and Japan developed democracies after their countries were occupied and their former governments dissolved: they had developed the sort of Western cultural norms and institutions that could hold liberty in order so that it wasn’t used for chaos. Just as there was a reason Russia returned to an oligarchy and Palestine devolved into a theocratic nightmare not long after they became “democracies”. Afghanistan and Iraq are using the newfound freedoms they were given in precisely the manner their cultural norms and institutions had done: use liberty to band together to fight off feuding tribes until a strong leader eventually emerges and puts an end to liberty.
What Should Have Been Done?
Could this have ever been otherwise? Is it possible that Afghanistan and Iraq could have developed stable democracies had we managed things better, or at least differently? Perhaps. But my suspicion is that “better” or “differently” would mean paying a price war-weary Americans are simply not willing to pay. And there’s the rub. There seems to be a wide gulf between what options were available to us that might have led to outcomes we could have been proud of, or at least lived with, and what options were politically viable.
It’s one thing to say that something should have been done after 9/11. Most Americans, so far as I can tell, agree that invading Afghanistan to “get bin Laden” was the right thing to do. Many Americans would probably say that taking out Saddam was in our national interests in some way. Very well. Then what?
Should we have just bombed these countries to smithereens? That might have crippled Saddam’s forces and harmed the Taliban, but would it really accomplish much else? Would it have killed Saddam or bin Laden (two men we couldn’t find even after invading their respective countries)? Would it have provided adequate assurance after 9/11 that such attacks couldn’t happen again? Would it have killed multitudes of innocent civilians needlessly? Would it have created a power vacuum so that regional powers such as Iran or other terrorist organizations could have moved in?
What if we had simply invaded and left after the regimes were toppled and the “bad guys” apprehended? It took quite some time after invading to locate Saddam and even longer to find bin Laden. Once we were there, we were there. Pulling up our tent stakes would have surely looked like an act of betrayal to the frail alliances we had worked so hard to build and may have bolstered the enemies that came later. And isn’t leaving these nations to sort all of this out for themselves after losing a war part of what got us in this mess in the first place?
Features and Bugs
I must confess I don't know what all we could have done differently to secure a good outcome. I don't mean that we hadn't made HUGE mistakes, and that many of them could have been avoided. Of course, things could have been less wasteful, dishonest, and embarrassing. But in some sense these missions were probably failed from the start in some way and the mistakes—endless wars, massive wastes, unclear objectives—were features not bugs. Much like hoping we can “fix things” by electing the “right people”, the problems here were embedded in the nature of what we were trying to do and focusing on the specifics would have only produced marginal improvements.
To put it bluntly, I don't know how a democratic nation fights a war that doesn't have the full and sustained support of its people, especially since "its people" seem to have radically competing and often unrealistic views on what the war aims and justifications might be. True, some of that confusion was thanks to our leaders. But what might the outcome have been had President Bush said from day one that these wars were going to last decades and cost hundreds of billions and kill more Americans than those who died on 9/11 because otherwise we couldn’t sustain the efforts needed to convert non-Western civilizations into the kinds of people needed to form a vibrant democracy?
On the flip side, what if Bush had simply said we were going to accomplish our missions and then hand the countries over to some authoritarian strongman who may be as evil as Saddam was to his own people, but at least he was happy to do what we asked so long as we looked the other way whenever he cracked down on uprisings? Would Americans have gotten on board with that idea?
I’m reminded of President Obama's opposition to strongmen like Musharraf in Pakistan during the campaign and his excitement at Morsi's demise in Egypt and Qaddafi’s demise in Libya during the Arab Spring. Though half of the country would be loathe to admit it, I suspect Obama’s general sentiments here express a nearly universal American idea: that we don’t have to be “OK” with “bad guys” around the world. That we can cheer when they’re brought down by their people because “the people” are surely capable of instituting something better than what they left behind.
But what followed? The Pakistan that deposed Musharraf was the same Pakistan that harbored bin Laden. The Egypt that jailed Morsi has teetered on the brink of falling to radical Islamists and the Libya that beat Qaddafi to death has shattered into anarchy that eventually led to the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi.
As a culture, I don’t know that we're as willing to believe in the fallen nature of man as we are willing to suppose that peace and security is possible without having to sacrifice our principles of liberty or Western values on strongmen who just happen to hate all the right people. To the extent that's true, I don't honestly know how a nation like ours sustains military and diplomatic relations successfully in the long term. Perhaps in a war against an enemy that is capable of meeting us head to head, things would be different. But these endless proxy wars and nation-building in places that are only accustom to nation-demolition is proving to be a challenge just beyond our reach.
I must confess I don't know what "ought" to have been done. Nor do I have an easy solution for where we go now, or what we do the next time a similarly vague threat is presented. I don't like the way things were handled and believe it's totally fair to blame so many on so much that's gone wrong. I held unrealistic expectations about the war's aftermath and hope I've matured since then. Because I have to believe that maturity—not just mine but the maturity of the nation as a whole—is precisely what’s necessary to set about the hard business of fighting a war and securing the sort of outcome we can be proud of.