Andrew J. Bacevich’s well-written article on US foreign policy as articulated by Sen. Cruz (Ted Cruz Embodies the Degeneration of Foreign-Policy Conservatism) has caught my eye for several reasons.
The most immediate one is that I agree with most of Prof. Bacevich’s premises, while taking exception to his conclusion.
Prof. Bacevich correctly identifies “prudence and even circumspection” as the essence of conservatism, an understanding that was tersely encapsulated in 1641 by Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland: “If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” Yet prudence of action shouldn’t mean relativism of principle.
Prof. Bacevich tacitly disapproves of the “pronounced ideological edge” that conservative thinking on foreign policy acquired after the defeat in Vietnam. As an example he cites Ronald Reagan’s denouncing the Evil Empire, and Reagan’s “willingness to condemn adversaries as unabashedly wicked.” He then describes this as a manifestation of Manichaeism.
At this point Prof. Bacevich and I begin to diverge. For the Soviet Union, which Reagan condemned as unabashedly wicked was just that. Nor is recognition that good and evil exist ipso facto Manichaean.
While one struggles to identify a modern country that’s unequivocally good, compiling a list of those unequivocally wicked is easy, with ‘the Evil Empire’ taking pride of place.
Prof. Bacevich seems to confuse political action with political thought. The former can’t always account for moral considerations; the latter must. This confusion will become more evident later, but meanwhile Prof. Bacevich laudably makes mincemeat of the neocon obsession with “forcing large chunks of the Islamic world into compliance with [George W. Bush’s] Freedom Agenda.”
“The defining features of American conservatism now became hubris and vainglory,” he writes, and the statement would be unassailable had he added the prefix ‘neo-’ to ‘conservative’.
Prof. Bacevich correctly sees the 2003 attack on Iraq, inspired by the neocons, as an unmitigated disaster whose “mournful consequences continue to mount even today”. He doesn’t list the mournful consequences, but prime among them would be a huge dose of militant passion injected into Islam, a creed to which militant passion is essential sustenance.
Mass migration of Muslims to Europe, for which the term ‘colonisation’ appears more and more appropriate, would also appear high on the list, sharing that position with creating a tangible danger of a world war.
Prof. Bacevich is absolutely right when describing that 2003 act of ideological folly as a “perversion in what passes for an ostensibly conservative approach to foreign policy.”
Where he then begins to go wrong is in lumping Ted Cruz together with the neocons whom the Texas senator has always mocked mercilessly. Yes, the neocons were criminally wrong in pushing the US into that foolhardy effort to instil democracy in a region where no conditions for it have ever existed.
But from that it doesn’t follow that Sen. Cruz’s current advocacy of doing “everything necessary” to stamp out Islamic militancy is wrong.
Prof Bacevich sees no difference between ideological neocon madness and Sen. Cruz’s ‘raw pugnacity’. True enough, the good Texan is much given to rhetorical flourishes that might prevent some from taking him seriously, such as “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out!”
The implication is that, if elected, Sen. Cruz would seriously consider unleashing a nuclear holocaust on much of the Middle East, and even his enthusiastic supporters may wince at the suggestion and deplore the possible consequences as much as Prof. Bacevich does.
Yet there’s a seminal difference between the neocons and Cruz. They identify the problem as ‘Islamism’. He clearly sees it as Islam in general, and proposes to act accordingly.
The other difference is that it’s not 2003 any longer. It’s 2016, and the safety valve on the boiler in which Islamic passions bubble has failed. They’ve splashed out, threatening to scorch us all.
In 2003 the valve was still doing its job, just, which made prudence and circumspection the only reasonable basis for action. Now the time for circumspection has regrettably passed.
The problem that didn’t exist then exists now, and I find it hard to think of a solution drastically different from that proposed by Sen. Cruz, though I perhaps would propose it with more verbal restraint.
Nor do I find it easy to find anything wrong with Sen. Cruz’s fierce opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran, which he describes as “allowing homicidal maniacs to acquire weapons of mass murder”. That’s exactly what it is.
“His implied willingness to use guns to stop the bad guys in Tehran is unmistakable,” laments Prof. Bacevich, stopping short of offering any other method of stopping ‘the bad guys’ or indeed of suggesting that stopping them is advisable.
One presumes Prof. Bacevich’s solutions to the problem threatening us all wouldn’t include a military option, which makes one think with trepidation that the past stupidity of the neocons has made any robust military action unfeasible.
If so, one wishes Prof. Bacevich had used his obvious expertise to make a strong moral case against Munich-style defeatism – even if taking issue with Sen. Cruz’s stridency. There’s always the danger that opposition to one extreme turns into the advocacy of another.
P.S. I touch upon some of these issues in my book Democracy as a Neocon Trick, available on Amazon.