Another thoughtful piece by Paul Kelly in this morning’s Australian on the way the Iraq war has led to a crisis in neo-conservative
thinking. He says “The Bush administration is confronted by strategic
failure and fatigue”, and links this to the disillusionment of
prominent neocon intellectuals such as Francis Fukuyama.
Kelly and Fukuyama both have worthwhile things to
say, and it’s hard to argue with Kelly’s conclusion that “The test for
US domestic politics is about extracting the right lessons from the
Iraq war.” However, I think he makes a mistake quite common among
commentators: he overestimates the importance of ideas in practical
When Kelly says that “Iraq symbolises the collapse
of the intellectual framework that defined Bush’s foreign policy”, he
seems to be confusing motive with rationalisation. Because George W
Bush used neocon rhetoric about Iraq, and employed some advisers with
neocon backgrounds, it is tacitly assumed that the neocon narrative of
spreading democracy in the Middle East was the reason for the invasion.
But I find that unconvincing.
When Bush was elected he was seen as an
isolationist, who used “nation-building” as a term of abuse. It’s
understandable that, when he embarked on a foreign policy adventure
that seemed inconsistent with that stance, the neocons should hail him
as a convert. It’s much more likely, though, that the Iraq war was due to the
same sort of mixture of inertia, power politics, electoral calculation
and random events that usually drives politicians.
Our political leaders often talk in terms dictated
by grand intellectual schemes – Marxism, liberalism, Islam, or whatever
– but most of the time these just provide a vocabulary; what they
actually use it to say remains much the same. The words change as the
framework changes, but the underlying motivations stay fairly constant.
Even the most idealistic of leaders spend most of their time on
Perhaps it’s less disturbing to think of Bush as a
bumbling politician than as a grand ideologue bent on remaking the
world. Perhaps not. But whatever new conceptual scheme he settles on,
it will be more important to the commentators than to the people
actually pulling the levers in Washington.