Kristol's Purple Persuasion

One thing we didn’t have time for: Irving Kristol’s attitude toward foreign policy. Kristol made two main points. One, it is in the good nature of America to defend democracies wherever and whenever attacked. Two, and in part (but only in part) for that reason, America should defend Israel. This second point Kristol made in the context of the spending debate: America should defend Israel even if that means a bigger-than-otherwise military budget — and Jews should, likewise, favor a bigger military budget than they might otherwise (i.e., if Israel didn’t need so much American support).

I think this monetary spin on the enduring Israel issue is now rather naive or outdated, and everyone seems to agree that the issue when it comes to a neoconservative foreign policy isn’t captured in dollars and cents but in passions and deeds. Which brings me to point one. Kristol’s affirmation of democratic defense was merely a Cold War truism which carried over quite plausibly, and mostly uncontroversially, right up until 9/11. The right’s problem with Clintonian interventions was that they inserted America into internal conflicts. And indeed the left’s problem with Bush’s war in Iraq was in its essentials the same.

This is significant because it indicates something of a gap between Kristol’s foreign policy tilt and the agenda of full-dress neoconservatism as we know it today. Kristol at least implies that other democracies might not be so important as Israel — not that we wouldn’t come to their aid when invaded or assaulted, but that the people of Israel stood in a special relationship to the people of the US, unlike the people of at least some other democracies. It turns out to be consistent with ‘neocon values’, or at least Kristol’s values, to decide, especially in tough or ambiguous cases, that certain democracies facing certain perils ought not to be treated as if they were Israel facing the sort of peril Israel has characteristically faced. Georgia, to be perfectly blunt about it, is not Israel.

Nor, to push the point a step further, is the fate of Georgia inextricably linked to the fate of Israel — at least not in any way deeper than that in which the fate of all democracies is linked, which, as an empirical matter, is far from obvious, however intense or praiseworthy our natural pro-democratic passions may be. The attempt to universalize the Israeli predicament may have done more to harm the neocon cause than a blatantly ethnocentric approach might have done — another unnecessary misfortune we can hang around the neck of anti-Semitism. It’s okay to be forthrightly in the tank for Israel in the same way we’ve kept our cultivated pro-British sentiment pinned to our sleeves. After all, there are Israelis enough in Israel who find opportunity and reason enough to disagree with Bibi Netanyahu or your generic neocon. At any rate, Israel’s unique history points toward a clarity of affinity — at least in my estimation — which the unique history of Georgia, to stick with that example, just doesn’t. The end of the Cold War might have been a squeaky-clean affair here and in Germany, but further east it was a sloppy debacle. To try to impose onto the Georgias of the world a standard of moral clarity analogous to the one Kristol and his heirs would apply to Israel is to fall afoul of a category mistake. The only reason to tolerate this is a state of crisis so extreme as to validate the risks and costs of action. Jihadism might amount to such a crisis, but the behavior of, say, Russia does not.

Of course, there is one point at which the Russia/Georgia question intersects with the Jihad/Israel question — Iran. It’s still an open question as to whether even full Russian support for ‘our team’ could neutralize or even greatly mitigate the Iran problem. But this knotty intersection exists at the intersection of multiple policy frameworks, too. Both heirs and critics of Kristol’s foreign policy dispositions are capable of approaching the problem with a degree of finesse and nuance and a set of red lines and core commitments.