Erik pronounces Reihan’s latest column a disappointment. I’m not sure why. Oh, the column is very wrong-headed, but it isn’t disappointing, because disappointment suggests that you’d be expecting something different. I don’t know how he’s managed to elude this characterization, but for as long as I have read him Reihan has been a particularly uninspired and uninspiring neoconservative. I don’t say that as though it’s somehow disqualifying, or anything, but it’s what he is, and I haven’t seen any evidence that he particularly makes any bones about it.
I suppose it’s because of his notable heterodoxy that people don’t think to put him into the neocon camp. But if you think about it, Reihan’s ideological idiosyncrasy is precisely what empowers him to endorse a rather vanilla Bill Kristol-style line; at a time of a movement’s public relations nadir– or as close to a nadir as unapologetic militarism and hegemonic impulses can come, in a fundamentally militaristic and hegemonic country– in such conditions, only a truly ideologically promiscuous and heterdox person can so nakedly embrace it. That’s part of the problem with heterodoxy, beyond its tendency to become a racket. People think orthodox things, often enough, because their rightness is so obvious that most everyone agrees on them. This is one of the reasons why I instinctively cringe when I hear someone pronounce themselves politically uncategorizable. Reihan, meanwhile, is a person who likes to wander around in point Q and point H-12 in order to go from point A to point B. It’s perhaps of the best things about his writing, aside from its deceny, clarity and never-wavering commitment to the notion that all good writing is at heart an act of friendship. The problem is that while you are enjoying the flowers over at point Zeta-9, you run the risk of imagining that it’s as important as point A, when point A is first principles stuff along the lines of “people don’t want you to invade them and don’t want you to bomb them and you shouldn’t do it.” Reihan, I think, sees the best in everyone, which is heartening to a cynic like me, but I fear he especially sees the best in the least popular, which makes tarnished-for-good-reason doctrines like neoconservatism seductive.
Anyway, I think that Reihan’s views on foreign policy demonstrate the limitations of both brilliance and good intentions. Reihan is unquestionably a brilliant person and hugely talented writer, and he has enormously good intentions when he meditates on foreign policy, and he is desperately wrong when it comes to foreign policy. Foreign policy is where Reihan’s tendency to view conservative ideas with rose-colored glasses as thick as Coke bottles hurts the deepest, because it is in foreign policy where mainstream conservatism has damaged the country the most considerably. Despite his swipes at “crabbed realism”, and my own disgust with realist callousness, one would have to say that realism has served this country and the world far better in the last decade than neoconservatism. But those again are the wages of ideological wishful thinking; the constant search for beautiful losers leads one to imagine the beauty and fail to see the loser sitting right in front of you.
For the issue at hand, I have little to add beyond what Larison has ably described, except to add two things that apply to many people considering this issue: first, that it is folly, sheer folly, to consider yourself to have the best intentions for a people while willfully ignoring what they intend for themselves. This cuts both ways. It should both undermine the continued desire to bomb Iranians to kingdom come, because reformer, “fascist” and other, Iranians seem united in not wanting to be bombed; it also must undermine our feelings of friendship with those Iranians we most prefer, because democratists or not, liberal reformers or not, enemies-of-our-enemies or not, those revolting in Iran have powerful disagreements with most any American pundits about what Iran should and should not pursue. I have struggled and am struggling with so many mixed thoughts and emotions about this Green revolt, but I have become convinced that I have to distrust any feeling that isn’t qualified or provisional.
The second thing to say is that for any foreign people, as long as America’s friendship is provisional on towing a particular line on any particular issue, it is not to be trusted. I saw a man on CNN the other night (his name escapes me) who pronounced that there was no difference between those revolting and the government that they are revolting against, because both want nuclear weapons. Which, you know, is a handy and perfect example of how most of America’s intelligence and foreign policy communities see the world around us. Setting aside an argument about whether that is a moral way to consider the people and countries around us, it’s precisely the answer to those who continue to ask why the world distrusts us. Of course, they distrust us, when our feelings towards them– which carry with them very real threats of action, no matter which country you are, really– are dependent solely on our use for them. An Iranian movement that was loved and supported by the United States precisely because it towed the correct line on a particular issue, like nuclear armament, is an Iranian movement that knows trusting the United States is folly. As long as someone or some country views you as a means to an end, your importance to them is entirely a function of your continued use, and thus fickle and unreliable.
Not that I’m suggesting friendship is ever free from expectations, or provisos. We all expect certain things from people or countries in exchange for friendship. But then, my ideal national friendship, or the lack thereof, becomes a much less loaded and dangerous thing, because it carries with it far less of the threat than that of your average neocon. When you take so much of military intervention off the table, the boundaries of what kinds of disapproval are open to you widen considerably. When you assume that lacking the authority to invade some other country is the norm, rather than dependent on preferred behavior, you are suddenly living in a world of various levels of friendship, antipathy, apathy and whatever else, rather than the current binary of those countries to demonstrate aggression towards, and those to be left alone.
Update: I use the word “precisely” far too often, which is a particularly poor word to overuse, as things are rarely precise. Bah!
Update II: Reihan has responded here at the American Scene.