x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Ideas appear to matter much less in Washington these days

It would be a pity to reduce all discussion of how American power might assist in spreading freedom, human rights and pluralism, to an endorsement of neoconservative thought.

When Barack Obama entered office two years ago, many were cheered that his administration spelled the end for the "neoconservatives". The president's supporters predicted that he would return to a more realist, less ideological foreign policy. But American behaviour today in the broader Middle East, if it does seem less ideological, on the vital matter of humanistic values also seems devoid of ideas.

Whether it is in Iraq, where the United States is completing its military withdrawal; or in Afghanistan, where Mr Obama insists he will begin a pullout next summer; or in dealings with approaching successions in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, it is not clear what overriding motive guides American actions. Is it the interests of Afghans and Iraqis, whose lives the US has transformed? Mr Obama's haste to get out, whatever the costs, suggests not. Is it to advance freedom and political pluralism? The president has defended these concepts, but has never made them a cornerstone of his regional strategy, and might sometimes regard them as too redolent of neocon thinking.

As Mr Obama passes the halfway mark of his term in office, he has frequently replicated an ambiguity persisting in American foreign policy in the Middle East, which the September 11, 2001, attacks put into sharp perspective. Should the United States advance values that it has traditionally embraced as its own in the region: human rights and the defence of freedom and democracy - or at least pluralism? Or should it pursue its interests, whatever the downsides for human life?

The neocons, for all their contradictions, alone tried to seriously address that question. Mr Obama, in staking out a different path, has largely failed to do so. To be fair, the president is more similar to George W Bush than his critics would admit. By his second term, Mr Bush had largely abandoned the "freedom agenda" of his first, ironically at the very moment, in his 2005 inaugural address, when he claimed democracy and human rights would dominate his outlook.

The question of values became pressing after 9/11, because the foreign policy establishment was at a loss to explain what had happened. Those on the left and liberal left described the atrocities that day as the consequence of American neo-imperialism in the Middle East. There may have been something there, but it did not explain the sheer scope of the devastation. The hijackings spoke not to a desire to liberate countries from the American yoke, but to a deeper longing, one almost messianic, to annihilate Americans and the principle of American power. The left, in focusing on America's faults, offered few insights into the worldview of the al Qa'eda perpetrators.

American libertarians were even worse. In their absorption with the United States and matters of individual freedom, they were bewildered when interpreting this ferocious assault from across the ocean. Human liberty is at the heart of the libertarian mindset, but it has rarely been expressed in libertarian foreign policy thinking, which remains robustly isolationist and blind to the apocalyptic.

Political realists, similarly, had little to add. By pursuing national interests in foreign relations, realists were ill-equipped to address the philosophy of the attackers. Interests dictated dealing with those in power in the Arab world, while ignoring their domestic deeds. But it was there, domestically, that al Qa'eda had taken shape and recruited, and where its militants had built up their networks and resentments.

These interpretative shortcomings left a wide space open for a different approach, which neocons sought to fill. Like those on the left, neocons affirmed that Washington's siding with Arab dictators had turned their populations against the United States. Like the libertarians, they took up the mantle of human liberty. Like the realists, they argued that it was in America's national interest to ensure that Arab states were more representative, because that would help make their peoples less hostile toward America.

At the heart of their thinking, however, was power, and this created a problem. In proclaiming the overriding right of the United States to deploy power, neocons elicited an approving echo from the Bush administration. But that power came with little nuance or political thoughtfulness to give it much flexibility when the administration was divided in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. Despite having done the splendid service of ridding the region of Saddam Hussein, America soon appeared to distil the worst qualities preoccupying the left, libertarians, and realists after 9/11: it behaved like a neo-imperial power; was indifferent to human rights and liberty in places like Abu Ghraib; and scrambled to avoid the disastrous erosion of its interests.

Today, Mr Obama, like others, finds it convenient to blame the neocons for America's setbacks during the last decade. However, the meaning of 9/11 is as much a source of disputation for American officials today as a decade ago. Blaming the neocons, whose sway was always overstated, is useful for those on the liberal left, as well as libertarians and realists, in covering for their own failings in defending globally what America proclaims as its defining values.

It would be a pity to reduce all discussion of how American power might assist in spreading freedom, human rights and pluralism, to an endorsement of neoconservative thought. For starters, that discussion predated the neoconservatives, and indeed an early neocon hero, Jeane Kirkpatrick, famously advocated American support for friendly authoritarian regimes. The neocons were always drawn more to power than to humanistic ideals. If America is to stall its regression in the Middle East, it will have to engage with ideas more convincingly. Yet the most potent of these - concepts of freedom and representative government - provoke only a shrug in Washington.


Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut