Big-Think Central

In adopting neoconservatism as its grand strategy, the Bush administration took a breathtaking gamble. It broke from the conventional foreign-policy wisdom of both parties, cleaving to an aggressive but idealistic new vision of America's role in the world. The strategy would either succeed spectacularly, touching off the promised domino effect of freedom in the Middle East, or fail spectacularly, forcing a chastened, bloodied withdrawal from Iraq and a significantly weakened American hand against other foes.

Have the neoconservatives, with their uncompromising talk and use of force, succeeded in bringing the most humane of American values to a hostile region? Or have we crashed into the hard limits of American power just as we attempted to display its invincibility? Recent grass-roots activity in Lebanon points in one direction; the ongoing Iraqi insurgency in the other.

I brought these questions to four grand strategists, two liberal and two conservative, at the foreign-policy establishment's vital center, the Council on Foreign Relations. The council is a uniquely influential think tank that has long had the ear of policy-makers in Washington. Founded in 1921 as a select conclave of wealthy businessmen and once and future statesmen, the council has staked out the respectable mainstream of elite opinion in foreign affairs for the better part of a century. The wood-paneled parlors and libraries of its tony Upper East Side townhouse carry a whiff of another time.

Indeed, the stately moderation the council embodies may be a vanishing relic. Collegiality prevails within council precincts, but its fellows increasingly express widely divergent views of the world. These days, the conservatives sound optimistic and visionary, though often feverishly out of touch; the liberals sound cantankerous and faultfinding, though often soberly realistic. It's a strange role reversal for stranger times.

Listening to the conservative thinkers, the world seems a relatively simple place. It responds to force and it aches for freedom. The challenge to these thinkers is to assimilate, rather than simply reject, the lessons of the Iraq War. Specifically, the war has shown us that, whatever their virtues, hawkish policies have terrible human and geopolitical costs; powerful armies are neither militarily nor politically invincible, and freedom is harder in practice than in theory to “export.” Neoconservatism will survive as a grand strategy to the extent that it is responsive to the world as it actually is.

For liberals, the dilemma is even more acute. They are aware of the costs of war and unwilling to declare victory amid continuing bloodshed. They view the prospects for liberalization in the Middle East with caution, as a long slog rather than a suddenly actualized revolutionary moment. But pessimism is not a grand strategy, any more than optimism is a war policy. Liberals point out that the Bush administration has yet to define the policy that will bring about what most everyone truly wants: a peaceful Middle East where governments respond to the will of their people. But if that's the case, the task before the administration's opposition couldn't be clearer.

* * *

Leslie H. Gelb is a straight talker in his mid-60s, with thinning white hair, an old-time New York accent, and an affection for Persian cats. We meet in his Upper East Side home, where he works. Gelb served in two Democratic administrations -- under Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter -- before his decades-long stint at The New York Times, followed by his tenure as the council's president from 1993 until 2003. In 1979, he wrote in his Times column that the right wing was replacing the center in foreign policy, and he predicted that without a robust response, its “cut-throat” politics and “frightening logic” would soon become mainstream.

Foreign policy had only recently become a partisan field. At mid-century, Gelb recalls, the foreign-policy establishment was a small club of like-minded moderates headquartered at the council. Vietnam changed all that. Suddenly there were Democratic and Republican foreign-policy experts and, within those camps, hawks and doves. “The place became very divided politically and ideologically,” recalls Gelb, himself the coordinator of the project that produced the Pentagon Papers under Johnson.

During his own presidency, Gelb made a point of expanding the council's political spectrum. “There was no other way to exist and be relevant and influential,” he says. “If you couldn't tap into each stream in the country that had power, you weren't going to count. So I brought in a whole bunch of neoconservatives.”

In his own views, Gelb is a hard-to-categorize pragmatist. He was a critic of what he saw as hard-line hysteria about Soviet strength in the 1980s, and during the Clinton era he became a cautious supporter of humanitarian intervention, favoring selective use of U.S. military force in Bosnia and Kosovo. In 1991, Gelb advocated replacing Saddam Hussein with a Sunni strongman, and he opposed supporting the Shia uprising in the south. These days, he's best known for an argument he has advanced with Peter Galbraith: that Iraq is not one state but three whose peaceful future resides in some sort of de facto partition.

Despite his Democratic roots, Gelb was an unstinting critic of the Clinton foreign policy, which he found feckless and passive. In fact, he was happy to see the Bush team replace the Clinton team in 2000. “I knew [Vice President Dick] Cheney pretty damn well,” Gelb recalls. “He was on my board [of directors at the council]. I always regarded him as a pragmatic conservative, and one of the best minds around.”

The Republican administration's turn toward neoconservatism after September 11 came as an unpleasant surprise. Gelb describes it as “one of the most radical breaks in foreign policy in our history.” Paul Wolfowitz and other radicals had long embraced the idea that American power should be used to transform other societies. But a hardheaded realist like Cheney? Gelb remarks, “It looks like he became a true believer. It still surprises me to this day. … Donald Rumsfeld was basically the same way. And now he's developed this almost kooky quality.”

Gelb is particularly baffled by the idealistic turn in Republican politics. “The same individuals, almost all of them, had spent the previous 20 or 30 years criticizing liberals for advancing just those kind of views,” marvels Gelb. “They considered it rank, Woodrow Wilson, knee-jerk liberal, dangerously self-defeating, overreaching foreign policy.”

Today he questions the administration's confidence that freedom is on the march in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, calling the political turbulence there merely “firecrackers” that won't lead toward “anything I would call democracy.” Gelb doesn't think the people of the Middle East have taken particular heart from the Iraqi election. The Lebanese, he remarks, are responding to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, while Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is responding cynically to U.S. pressure. “If he had 2 seconds' doubt about the outcome of those elections, he'd never hold them,” Gelb remarks. And while democracy in the Middle East is a perfectly laudable goal, in Gelb's view it lies at the end of a long, arduous, and unglamorous journey. The United States can't hope to produce it by dint of rhetorical gestures, or even through symbolically potent elections and demonstrations. Instead, it will have to place steady pressure on the leadership of Arab countries for reform, while offering support to those grass-roots groups that want it and can receive it without injury to their cause.

“Elections and people on the street do not democracy make,” Gelb protests. “Democracy really is a series of institutions and attitudes; it's free press, protection of minority rights, division of power. It's the confidence that if you lose in elections, you're not going to lose your basic interests and values or your life. It's the rule of law. And those things take a long, long time to develop. Anything can happen when people take to the streets, or you have elections. And those countries are all riding on very thin ice.” These observations, Gelb complains, are common sense to anyone who has worked in the democracy field. “And yet everyone's gotten swept away by the events of the last couple months in the Middle East, as if there is now a suspension of the laws of history and political culture.”

Do the difficulties in Iraq today result from errors of vision or of execution? “Both,” Gelb replies. “And stupidity and bad decision making. Unforgivable lack of discipline at the highest reaches of our government.” Gelb believes the Bush administration's political aversion to nation building hollowed out the Wilsonian piece of its agenda in Iraq.

He speaks from some firsthand knowledge. Before the Iraq War, he went to then–National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and offered to assemble a consortium of think tanks to work on postwar planning. This was the sort of resource the Council on Foreign Relations had always provided, and Gelb said he'd include think tanks from across the political spectrum to offer “facts, questions, priorities, and alternatives” rather than a single set of recommendations.

Rice called a meeting at her office to entertain the proposal. Gelb attended by speakerphone. He recalls: “The head of the American Enterprise Institute, Chris DeMuth, said, ‘What is all this about planning and thinking about postwar Iraq? That's nation building, and you all said you were against nation building in the campaign and in office, and I know President Bush is against it, so does he know you're doing this? Does Karl Rove know you're doing this?'” The project was dropped. (DeMuth did not respond to the Prospect's query about the meeting.)

Despite his long-running effort to broaden the council's political outlook, Gelb felt that his organization had been locked out by the new administration just when it may have had the most to offer. “I was looking forward to being helpful,” he says. “Being helpful doesn't mean you agree. To me, being helpful often means you disagree.”

* * *

Max Boot, former op-ed editor for The Wall Street Journal, is not what I expected from his stern name and pugnacious prose. He is in his mid-30s, flush-faced and soft-spoken, with a formal, courteous manner. He is wearing a light purple shirt and a darker purple tie when I come to see him in his dimly lit, plush office at the council, where he is now a fellow.

I'm here to discuss neoconservatism after Iraq with the only neoconservative I can think of to openly embrace the term. Boot defines neoconservatism as “using American power to maintain international security, spread democracy, and preempt threats if need be.” He waxes nostalgic for Ronald Reagan's Cold War policy, commending George W. Bush for echoing Reagan's “evil empire” speech in his “axis of evil” address. He also gives the president high marks for rejecting George Bush Senior's realpolitik in favor of an aggressive rhetoric of democracy promotion.

Boot believes the American invasion and Iraqi elections have “really blown the lid off the region.” He has no illusion that elections alone produce the full panoply of democratic rights and freedoms, but he has little patience for Gelb's brand of skepticism. “We can talk about the importance of the rule of law and all the rest of it,” he says, “but just having a real vote where people can really express their preferences at the ballot box is extremely galvanizing, I think, and can make possible all the other things.”

Like many neoconservatives, Boot also believes it is a mistake to underestimate the power of political rhetoric. In expressing support for democratic movements in the Middle East, says Boot, Bush sends their foot soldiers a message that “they won't be left in the lurch.” He recommends augmenting such public statements with direct support to democracy activists, of the sort Western governments provided activists in Ukraine: training, equipment, and funds. To the objection that much of the opposition in countries like Egypt is Islamist, Boot replies, “I don't think we need to insist that who gets our money has to be 100-percent secularist.” Boot cites Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, conjecturing that moderate Islamist groups may well provide the most hopeful avenue for change.

It's clear from statements like these that Boot's neoconservative idealism has been tempered somewhat by new caveats -- wisdom gleaned, perhaps, in the crucible of the Iraq War. “We're not going to start invading the countries of the Middle East one by one, following Iraq, to try to extend democracy,” he says. “We have to use different strategies in different places.” He has even written that he doesn't think another military engagement is viable while the United States is tied down in Iraq.

Nonetheless, in Boot's view, it's still too early to declare victory or defeat in Iraq. He puts the odds at “slightly in our favor” for ultimate success. But success is a moving target. Boot says we should bring Iraq “to the level of where Turkey was 20 or 30 years ago.” Twenty years ago, Turkey was a brittle autocracy. Thirty years ago, it was fractious, violent, and beset with domestic terrorism. Boot clarifies that success in Iraq would be “not having it look like Lebanon in the 1980s, but also not having it look like Iraq under the Baathist regime.”

To Boot, this downscaling of aspirations tells us less about the flaws in the neoconservative vision than about the Bush team's missteps in executing it. “I think we contributed to some of our own problems with mistakes that were made, especially in the early days of the occupation,” he says. This has become conventional wisdom, but it's startling to hear Boot echo it: Precisely during the early days of the occupation, in April 2003, he was calling Iraq the most successful U.S. military intervention since 1945, and scorned those who bemoaned the looting or predicted a protracted guerilla insurgency.

For all that, Boot sees little reason to question the strategic logic that brought about the war and dictated the terms of its aftermath. “I don't think that the difficulties we're encountering in Iraq undermine the fundamental idea that the United States should be trying to spread freedom around the world,” says Boot. “In fact, I think there is pretty broad consensus within the foreign-policy community, on the right and the left, that we ought to be doing this. ... If that broad view is what people refer to as neoconservatism, then I think that it's fair to say that we're all neoconservatives now.”

* * *

Not only is James M. Lindsay, the council's vice president, no neoconservative; he doesn't seem to think most anyone else is, either. “This is an administration dominated not by neoconservatives, as the conventional wisdom has it,” he explains, “but by what my colleague Ivo [H.] Daalder and I have called ‘assertive nationalists,' who are much more focused on tackling what they conceive to be threats to American security than in notions of building up the democratic capacities of other governments.”

Lindsay is a spirited conversationalist with sharp blue eyes and a strawberry blond beard. He was director of global issues and multilateral affairs on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, but photographs of Ronald Reagan adorn his office mantle. Together with Daalder, of the Brookings Institution, Lindsay wrote America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy, a critical assessment of the Bush doctrine.

Lindsay sounds a cautious note about current trends in the Middle East. In Iraq, despite the elections, the sectarian divisions are unresolved, and Sunni nonparticipation remains a serious problem. Like Gelb, Lindsay doubts that the Egyptian regime will admit real reform. And he thinks the events in Lebanon -- fueled, in his view, more by the Ukrainian example than the Iraqi one -- have yet to coalesce. “For anyone who's paid attention to what's happened in the Arab world over the past 30 or 40 years, you often hear proclamations that these regimes are cracking and something new is going to come in, and then a couple of years pass and all of a sudden you realize the same people are in charge,” says Lindsay. “That doesn't mean this isn't a pivotal moment and it might not change, but let's not do what we tend to do here in this country and have a good first inning and think that the game is won.”

The trouble, in Lindsay's view, is that the president has sold a rhetorical position as a policy. “The president articulated what is actually a long-standing American desire for the world to become more democratic. What he hasn't articulated is anything remotely approaching a coherent strategy for doing that.” Indeed, Lindsay is most skeptical of the neoconservative notion of an “almost Immaculate Conception of democratic governments -- that once you remove bad people or convince people that they can remove bad people, all of a sudden democracy will flourish.” That proposition, he says, is particularly unlikely in the Middle East. In the former communist world, people who despised their regimes often looked to the United States for inspiration. But in the Middle East, people who despise their regimes often see the United States as, at best, a fair-weather friend and, at worst, a supporter of their oppressors.

Has the war in Iraq undermined the United States' ability to leverage its force with other foes? Sure, in Lindsay's view. But he cautions that even without Iraq, we would be facing some fairly intractable problems. “You look at some of these situations -- Iran and North Korea are at the top of the list -- and all the choices are lousy,” he points out. “It's not the case that there's one golden strategy that guarantees you success and a bunch of others that are harebrained. There's a reason why Republicans got a lot of mileage from criticizing the Clinton policy in North Korea as appeasement. They kept saying, ‘How do we make sure these guys aren't going to cheat?' Well, guess what: They did cheat. OK, but now we're pursuing the Bush policy, where there's no intrusive monitoring. And so they're not cheating. They're just building nuclear weapons.”

The first-term Bush administration, in Lindsay's view, was good at assessing what American power could accomplish -- removing the Taliban and the Baath Party from power, for example. But the White House was less good at recognizing what American military might couldn't do -- not least, “create a stable, let alone democratic, successor government” in a place like Iraq. And that's where the stakes are highest. “If in the end the decision to invade Iraq and remove Hussein simply leads to a prolonged period of instability, or, God forbid, a civil war in Iraq,” Lindsay says, “then it can hardly be said that the United States has improved its strategic position by virtue of the decision to go war.”

* * *

Such eventualities hardly seemed to concern Walter Russell Mead, the council's Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow in American Foreign Policy, when I met with him after the American presidential election last fall. In fact, he continually steered a discussion of Iraq's lessons back to American domestic politics. Asked how much the war in Iraq has cost the United States on the world stage, Mead noted how little it cost Bush in domestic votes. Asked how events in the last three years were likely to drive the decisions of the next four, Mead replied that the gop steadily gained electoral ground between 2000 and 2004. Asked if Iraq had been a chastening experience, he mused that though it was at times a thorn in Karl Rove's side, in the end John Kerry failed to leverage it effectively. It was as though the war itself had no reality independent of domestic politics.

Mead's view had mellowed by the time I spoke with him again in March. Like Lindsay, he cautioned against overselling the events in Lebanon. Nonetheless, he said, “My analysis is that a lot of the good things that the Bush administration hoped would come out of the invasion of Iraq are maturing -- more slowly than the administration hoped and at a somewhat greater cost than they expected, but in fact the sound strategic calculations behind the invasion are turning out to be correct, by and large.”

Mead occupies an office down the hall from Boot's when he is not abroad, dispatched by the State Department to explain the logic behind American foreign policy to skeptical audiences in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Kuwait, and other countries. His speech is blustery, filled with straw men set up to be knocked down. His writing -- including his most recent Special Providence and Power, Terror, Peace, and War -- is more nuanced. Americans, he writes in Special Providence, are not just realists or idealists in foreign policy; they are Hamiltonians, Jeffersonians, Jacksonians, and Wilsonians. And a particular blend of Jacksonian and Wilsonian elements, Mead explains, drives the neoconservative movement, with its emphasis on both unilateral force and global duty.

Mead, like Boot, sees a great deal of promise in the drive toward electoral freedom in the Middle East, speculating that institutions may be more likely to follow elections than to precede them. “You look at world history and you realize that there are a lot of routes people have followed to get to the degrees of democracy they have,” he points out. “I don't see any sign that the administration is trying to impose a cookie-cutter approach.” Rather, he says, the Bush administration is stuck between a rock and a hard place: When its policy is consistent, the administration is accused of ideological rigidity and naïveté; when it's variable, opponents charge it with hypocrisy. “They don't offer a middle way of actually wanting to do something but being willing to look at flexible means of getting there based on circumstance,” Mead says.

It's a valid point, and one that should give liberals pause. Discussions of grand strategy tend to emphasize coherence, and coherence does not always correlate to efficacy. And yet there is something to be said for separating the assessment of strategic priorities from the assessment of political ones, and with Mead, this isn't always an easy task. Today, Mead stresses that two years after the invasion of Iraq is much too soon to assess its success. But back in 1999, with Clinton at the helm, Mead didn't take such a long view of war. Two weeks into NATO's bombardment of Serbia, he compared the Kosovo intervention to the Bay of Pigs and the fall of Saigon, declaring, “It is hard to imagine a more public, more humiliating foreign-policy failure.” Even more strikingly, in a 1995 Los Angeles Times column, Mead sized up Clinton's options in Bosnia. “America's power in the world is declining, but neither the politicians nor the foreign-policy establishment can face this,” he wrote. “The result is we are committed to grandiose policies we cannot support.”

For the Bush White House, by contrast, Mead supports a foreign policy more far-reaching and resource-consuming than anything the Clinton administration dreamed of. Musing on how Iraq has affected the war on terrorism, he approvingly remarks: “Remember that Osama bin Laden's basic calculation … was that if you hit the Americans, they'll retreat. So you hit the Americans. They're in Afghanistan. They're in Baghdad. And you still have the Bush administration there, looking at Iran, looking at Syria -- you know, it's still looking. So if you attack the United States again, what will happen? Well, maybe they'll be in Damascus, maybe they'll be in Tehran. … You might be angrier than ever at the United States. But you might also think that terrorist attacks on the United States are not the best way to get these people out of your hair.”

Laura Secor, a New York-based writer, writes frequently on foreign policy.