Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

Parsing Terms: Liberal Interventionism vs. Neo-Conservatism

Post I was halfway through writing last night… seems a bit cool for what’s going on now, but thought I’d get it up before turning to today’s deeply alarming events.


Jeffrey Golberg jumps into the Froomkin firing fray, taking up Sullivan’s broad stroke attacks on the WaPo, and Fred Hiatt (the WaPo’s editor) in particular, for its knee-jerk neo-conservatism. He’s arguing largely that the old categories of the debate over Iraq and Israel have been deeply problematized by the current crisis. He prefaces his post by defining his terms:

The incipient Iranian revolution has upset certain political categories at home, two to be exact: Scowcroftian realism and liberal interventionism (a/k/a neoconservatism). Both, IMHO, are inadequate to the current crisis. The bloodcurdling scenes of oppression on the streets of Teheran betray the limits of cold-hearted realism as an American doctrine: It is not who we are, to stand idly by. Realists believe that power, and power only, has salience in international relations, but American conceptions of right and wrong clearly do as well, and always have.

He’s perfectly correct that the simple dichotomy between realism and liberal-interventionism, that defined the debate in security circles around the Iraq war, is severely problematized by Iran, but hs is wrong to equate neo-conservatism with liberal interventionism. Neo-conservatism is a sect allied and sharing much with liberal interventionism, but that does not include broad sections of the liberal interventionist movement (embodied by people like Michael Ignatieff and Christopher Hitchens who genuinely believed in the prospect of democracy in the Middle East).

To me, neo-conservatism is a grotesque hybrid of liberal-interventionism and realism, sharing an idealist’s chutzpah with the former, and bizarrely, a pessimist’s cynicism of the latter.

How they make this work takes me to another widely recognized character trait of neo-conservatism: the viewing of all politics through the lens of Israeli foreign policy interests (as understood by the hawkish Netenyahu right). What this means is that the idealism that grounds their chutzpah is the limited one of an unthreatened Israel.

The cynicism stems from a refusal to recognize the validity of claims by non-Israeli or American actors in the region to justice or security. This cynicism is legitimated under the cover of pessimistically assuming irredeemable backwardness and universal bad faith towards both Israel and the West on the part of Arabs and Muslims.

The events in Iran have problematized of the neo-conservative assumption of bad faith among Muslims towards the West. Hence the divergent responses of either (a) a cynical support for Ahmedinejad (which was common early on, as Sullivan points out), or (b) an idealistic support for intervention on the part of the protesters.

The case for either, in my cynical reading of the neo-conservative mind, lives and dies only by which will best place Israel in the region coming out of the crisis. Why might /that/ concern be so overridingly central, one might ask? One isn’t supposed to ask… hence the disingenuous couching of this calculus in sentiment. But as Greenwald argues here, there is nothing credible about “the ‘Bomb Iran’ contingent’s newfound concern for the Iranian people.”


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