Berkowitz on the Neocons

A couple of readers took me to task for praising Peter Berkowitz’s “The Neocons and Iraq,” which appear in The Wall Street Journal earlier this month. I’d particularly like to thank reader Kyle Dukart.

The truly controversial part of Berkowitz’s essay is his defense of the neoconservative project as applied to Iraq. This is after he favorably cites Jeane Kirkpatrick.

Although she favored a more activist foreign policy than did traditional conservative realists, Kirkpatrick emphasized that democracy is an achievement. “Decades, if not centuries,” she sternly cautioned, “are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits.”

What my interlocutors don’t understand is that Berkowitz isn’t praising the neoconservatives for “rushing to war” in Iraq. He is empathizing, and emphasizing that critics of the neoconservatives don’t have a monopoly on virtue. It’s important to understand that Berkowitz is presenting his argument first and foremost to conservatives and to neoconservatives inclined to embrace an unapologetic, maximalist position. It is thus entirely natural that he would appeal to their sensibilities in arguing that they look to the best aspects of their tradition. And so the conclusion,

Our errors in Iraq provide a painful reminder that prudence is, as Edmund Burke proclaimed and the best of the neoconservative tradition emphatically insists, “the God of this lower world.” The problem for those of us who analyzed the challenge of Saddam’s Iraq from the perspective of neoconservative principles was not that we were too neoconservative, but that we were not neoconservative enough.

This should be taken as a chastening note, from a friend and fellow-traveler.

There’s considerable agreement about the first part of Berkowitz’s essay:

In crafting policy, it is contrary to the spirit of neoconservatism to select from the variety of goals that commands the nation’s attention some single one, and pursue it heedless of costs. Neoconservatism has its origins in a critique of policy making — in both domestic and foreign affairs — that fails to take consequences into account.

Two seminal documents, both of which stirred up storms in their day, typify the neoconservative sensibility. In 1965, 38-year-old Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor for policy in the Johnson administration, produced a report on a highly sensitive aspect of poverty in America. In “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” Moynihan argued that the black family in inner-city ghettos was crumbling, and that “so long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself.”

Traditional conservatives saw such matters as beyond government’s purview. Progressives of the day concentrated on government provision of monetary benefits. In contrast, Moynihan insisted on the need to craft a new kind of social policy. This policy, recognizing the centrality of upbringing, education, and culture to the formation of healthy and able citizens, aimed to rebuild the family structure for poor blacks.

But in fact this is not entirely unproblematic, and I say this as someone who thinks along the same lines: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this “new kind of social policy,” and I continue to hope that there is something to it. But I’m reminded of something Daniel Larison wrote about a short, clumsy essay of mine.

How, pray, does a “strong” government “strengthen” citizens, much less communities? By getting the citizens to eat their Wheaties? Perhaps it is a counterintuitive approach: the more invasive and intrusive the state becomes, the stronger the citizens have to become simply to keep their heads above water? I doubt this is the image Mr. Salam wants to conjure up. It reminds me of the Dutch film Character, where Katadreuffe’s nasty, brutish father justifies his oppression of the young man as an exercise in adversity that will toughen him up (briefly entertaining the option of squeezing the life out of him all together).

In truth, I was thinking about two things: (a) If government is going to retreat in some areas, it will inevitably lead to uneven impacts. Stability of expectations is important, and it makes sense that there be some kind of compensation for the loss or erosion of certain benefits. But can the new balance of taxes and benefits do a better job of encouraging self-reliance, by, for example, encouraging poor people to participate in the on-the-books, mainstream economy? And (b) like many of the early neocons, I tend to think that not all government benefits are corrosive of character. I have lots of problems with Social Security, but it is premised on the notion that one works for a lifetime and is thus entitled to peace of mind in old age. So yes, I’d overhaul the program and try to put it on a firmer, less anti-natalist footing; at the same time, I don’t think Social Security destroys our capacity for citizenship.