The term “neocon” is tossed around in liberal circles like a curse. Neoconservatism, supposedly, represents all that is wrong with American foreign policy. Yet for all practical purposes, neoconservatism isn’t new or conservative; the concept of using American power to establish democracy and protect freedom is at its core a liberal, internationalist idea. Of course, liberals and neoconservatives diverge when it comes to strategy and execution – but they stand together against more traditional, actually conservative isolationism.
In the modern era, it was President John F. Kennedy, a New England liberal, who first suggested that American power could serve as a force for good. He detested the idea of imperialism (He made that clear.) but was willing to “pay any price, bear any burden” to ensure the success of liberty. In his day, conservatives denounced the message as irresponsible hubris.
But the tables have turned. Today, America has a conservative president enacting Kennedy’s vision in Iraq – with Democrats and liberals leading the charge for disengagement.
On a cynical level, it is the perfect time for Democrats and war opponents to reassert themselves. For the first time, casualty-averse Americans are turning against the war. For the first time, Democratic moderates are joining with the party’s leftist wing to loudly oppose the war. For the first time, calls for a “pullout timetable” are gathering strength in the Republican Senate.
This is not good news for President Bush.
But it could be worse news for Iraqis.
Standard “bring-the-troops-home-now” logic proceeds roughly as follows: Iraq isn’t our country, our invasion wasn’t justified, our soldiers are dying for a war we can’t justify, let’s leave. If the Left had raised similar claims before the war in 2003 – if those claims had been persuasive in 2003 – they would have been relevant. But just as kids aren’t supposed to cry over spilled milk, the Left shouldn’t be refighting a political fight it lost in 2003.
The fact is that the war did start. Saddam is no more. U.S. troops, whether the Left likes it or not, are deeply involved in Iraq. Advocating a pullout just because the war wasn’t justified conveniently sidesteps three bloody years of war and the unavoidable reality that U.S. troops are holding Iraq together.
When America marched to war in 2003, it signed a costly contract with Iraq: We’ll topple your dictator because it’s in our interest, but we’ll set the foundation for a new democratic, liberal, sovereign Iraq. The costs of this arrangement weren’t secret; anyone willing to listen would have heard the military commanders, civilian strategists and Middle East experts warn an invasion of Iraq would entail billions of dollars, thousands of lives and years of effort. Nonetheless, about 90 percent of surveyed adults agreed that toppling Saddam was in America’s best interest. Both houses of Congress approved the war by wide margins. And with captains Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld at the helm, we sailed down the Euphrates to Baghdad.
That events did not transpire as Bush and Co. promised does not mean we can abandon the commitment we made to Iraqis. We still toppled a foreign government and dismantled its military, social programs and security services. Our pledge to rebuild still exists. And, as yet, we haven’t honored it.
Leaving in the foreseeable future would no doubt save American lives. And that I believe is why a rapid pullout is gaining political popularity. But in order to leave early, we have to renege on our commitment to the Iraqi people. We have to leave their nation – which we invaded and destabilized – less secure, less safe and less hospitable than we found it. We have to publicly abandon our commitment to liberal constitutional democracy. We have to adopt a radically unilateral and selfish foreign policy – one that few Democrats, internationalists or multilateralists would otherwise accept.
At this point, battling over the whether the war was justified is futile. Even if Democrats create a broad consensus against Bush’s march to war, cutting and running from Iraq today because of mistakes made in 2003 wouldn’t be the “liberal” thing to do. Kennedy realized in 1960 that America’s power could be leveraged to create a freer, more democratic world order, and liberals today accept that belief each time they suggest intervention to stop genocides and comparable atrocities around the world.
This is not to say Kennedy would have started this war, that Bush started this war in the best manner or that the administration’s deceptive campaign for war is acceptable. This is to say all those concerns are immaterial. By toppling Saddam, America signed up for a long-term commitment. Liberals – who have historically supported a foreign policy that actively tackles humanitarian crises all over the globe – should be the first to understand why leaving now would be catastrophic.