Maybe 2008 will be the year when we will finally be rid of that vacuous belief that "the neocons" are in control of the Bush administration's foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. Habits are hard to break, particularly lazy ones, but if anyone bothered to look more closely, they would see that the United States has not really engaged in what we might call a neoconservative approach to the region since at least 2004, when the situation in Iraq took a sudden turn for the worse.
What are, or were, the highlights of a neocon approach to the Middle East and the world before 2003, when American forces invaded Iraq? Looking back at that most prominent post-9/11 neocon statement of purpose, the administration's National Security Strategy released in September 2002 (an assemblage of contradiction in which neocon ideas were recorded alongside classical liberal internationalist ones), they were roughly the following: a desire to maintain American paramountcy at the expense of the more traditional concept of a balance of power; greater reliance on the use of force and unilateralism in America's defense, through preemptive measures if necessary; and a more activist bent in spreading democracy, freedom, and free markets throughout the world.
But the truth is that soon after the takeover of Iraq, the administration gradually began acting in the Middle East pretty much like its predecessors. It was compelled to rely on the multilateral institutions it had spurned in the run-up to the Iraq war, implicitly accepting that U.S. military might was not enough to resolve all problems. As for its commitment to an agenda of democracy and freedom, while officially this was at the heart of American concerns after Bush's second inaugural address, in reality by then it was already in decline as a policy guide.
For example, in May 2003, the U.S. was compelled to seek an international resolution to govern its military presence in Iraq. While the Security Council, in Resolution 1483, recognized Coalition forces as a ruling authority, it labeled them an "occupying authority", with both the legal obligations under that status, and the stigma. The resolution was a compromise: the U.N. pragmatically acknowledged that it had to work with the U.S. in Iraq, and used this to try shaping political outcomes in its favor; the Bush administration realized that it needed international cover, even if in September 2004, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan again reminded Washington that its invasion had been "illegal."
Only days after the Security Council authorized the creation of a United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq on August 14, 2003, a bomb attack targeted U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, killing the organization's representative there, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and almost 20 other people. The U.S. was then still trying to rule over Iraq on its own, with Paul Bremer as high commissioner. Yet it was immediately clear to the Bush administration that the attack had harmed American efforts to normalize the situation on the ground in Iraq. The subsequent dramatic drawdown of U.N. personnel denied the U.S. a valuable partner in distributing much-needed aid to an impoverished Iraqi population, as well as an often useful mediator with Iraqi leaders who refused to meet with American officials.
By 2004, the U.S. was resorting to the U.N. in other Middle Eastern crises as well. For example, the Security Council was the preferred route for U.S. efforts in 2004 to push for a Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon. Far from going it alone, the Bush administration, in collaboration with France, its bitterest foe over Iraq, sponsored a Security Council resolution to that end. The U.S. didn't try to impose the resolution by force, even though American troops were on the Syrian border and had every reason to attack Syria because of the way it was infiltrating fighters and Al-Qaeda suicide bombers into Iraq. In fact, under even a loose interpretation of the National Security Strategy, the administration would have been justified in preemptively striking against the regime in Damascus for what it was doing to its eastern neighbor. But the U.S. held back.
Whenever Lebanon circa 2005 is mentioned, images of a "popular revolution" come to mind. The mass demonstrations against Syria after the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, were a powerful democratic moment for the country, and for the Arab world as a whole. The term "Cedar Revolution" was even coined by an American official looking for a serviceable tagline to compare what was happening in Beirut to democratic uprisings elsewhere in the world.
But the reality is that the Bush administration only latched onto the democracy imagery after the anti-Syrian rallies had started, then used these to bolster the argument that, together with the parliamentary elections in Iraq earlier that year, a democratic wave was sweeping Arab societies. Between the moment in September 2004 when the U.S. backed the U.N. resolution demanding a Syrian pullout from Lebanon and the moment of Hariri's assassination in February 2005, Washington had no clue how to implement the resolution. Lebanon was not an American priority, Iraq was. The administration didn't even realize that Lebanese democracy was something it could seize upon until the Lebanese took advantage of the American democratization mood (and military presence in Iraq) to buttress their own demands for a Syrian withdrawal.
In other words, for all the talk of a neocon cabal advancing Middle Eastern democracy, the administration was mostly unaware of the democratic potential in Lebanon until the Lebanese took to the streets. Only then did the U.S. provide the vital push, with others, to force the Syrians out. The moral of the tale: that you didn't necessarily have to believe the American democracy message to profit from it, was one that Arab liberals elsewhere ignored. Most amusing, American indecision in the period before Hariri's murder resulted from Washington's adhering to the consensual internationalism it had dismissed before the Iraq war.
One can go on. Since 2006, the Bush administration has all but abandoned the democracy agenda to rally the despotic Arab regimes against Iran. Containment is the new catchword and, no surprise, it is pretty much what the Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton administrations spent two decades applying to post-revolution Iran. The U.S. has also returned to an old "realist" template in selling sophisticated new weaponry to the Arab Gulf monarchies to partly balance Tehran's power. Neocon aversion to Saudi Arabia, a focal point of post-9/11 disputation (even if it was never as significant as some imagined), has evaporated.
Similarly, the Bush administration now finds itself back in the oldest gig in town: the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. That a settlement is necessary goes without saying, but how unexpected that the most bureaucratically cautious operator in the Bush administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, should have tied her fate to resolving what many regard today as an irresolvable conflict. In so doing, Rice has applied a lesson taught by her realist predecessors: that the key to normalcy in the Middle East is peace between Israelis and Palestinians. That may be true or not, but it was always rubbish to the neocons.
So maybe it's time to stop referring to the neocon policies of the Bush administration. The neocons are gone, many for so long that no one seems to remember their leaving. What we now have in Washington is a mishmash of old political realism and improvisation, topped with increasingly empty oratory on freedom and democracy. That should please quite a few of Bush's domestic critics. He's returned to the futile routine in the Middle East that they always urged him to.
Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.