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The Neoconservative Way of Thinking In Defense of the Bush Doctrine by Robert G. Kaufman

Winter 2008 - Vol. 50, No. 1

In Defense of the Bush Doctrine by Robert G. Kaufman (Lexington: The UniversityPress of Kentucky, 2007). 251 pp.

TED. V. MCALLISTER is Edward L. Gaylord Chairand Associate Professor of Public Policy at thePepperdine University School of Public Policy andauthor of Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, EricVoegelin, and the Search for a Post Liberal Order.

Some books are of the moment, slammingtheir bows straight on into contemporarypolitical storms. Robert Kaufman'sIn Defense of the Bush Doctrine is one suchbook. Some book reviews are of the momenttoo, written during the maelstrom in hopes ofdiscerning which way the wind is blowing.This is not such a review. By the time thisreview enters the conversation the book willbe many months old and circumstances willhave changed. But Kaufman's argumentraises many broader and deeper matters thandoes the present conflict in Iraq or even the"global war on terror." This is a book thatpresumes rather than proves, and what itpresumes goes to the center of the intellectualdivide separating conservatives andneoconservatives. Kaufman, a self-proclaimedneoconservative, understands the world andits machinations in light of a very simpletheoretical perspective and an even simplermoral casuistry. In his book one finds anumber of historical "lessons" but nothingapproaching historical understanding. Allserious arguments in this book are deductive,despite the many historical references.

Kaufman's theoretical framework he calls"Moral Democratic Realism." Such a viewbalances the pessimism of a "Judeo-Christian"conception of humans as suffering from"irredeemable human imperfection" with awild optimism about human freedom and thepower of the American hegemon to bringabout a much greater measure of globaldemocracy, freedom, and capitalism.Kaufman's view of human natureleads him to emphasize thenecessity of power relations andof the ready use of force tocheck evil. Because evil is alwayswith us, good people mustbe ever vigilant against thenewest manifestations of eviland they must be willing to useforce in this ongoing Manicheanstruggle.

The "realism" in MoralDemocratic Realism stresses thecentrality of power in internationalrelations. Diplomacy, internationalagreements, world opinion, can never substitutefor the use or threat of power. However,unlike other realists, Kaufman maintains,Moral Democratic Realism also recognizesthe importance of regime types, ofideologies, in determining how states will actin international relations. Reagan, for instance,recognized that communist ideologywas "evil" or pathological and that the leadersof the Soviet Union were motivated notonly by some generic self-interest but guidedby their ideological perversions. Thus, aproper realism, as exercised paradigmaticallyby Ronald Reagan, requires understandingthe ways ideas or ideologies shape the variousactors in international relations.

So also are Reagan's stark moral judgments—"evil empire"—paradigmatic ofKaufman's theoretical framework. Whilenot oblivious to America's moral failures,Reagan nonetheless believed deeply in thebasic moral goodness of the American experiment.Because universal moral norms areencoded in the national DNA, and becauseboth Reagan and Kaufman seem to think ofthe United States as part of a providentialplan, America has a moral (divine?) obligationto spread democracy, capitalism, andfreedom to benighted lands. Kaufman assertsblithely that this moral mission has been at thecenter of American self-understandingand governmentpolicy since George Washington'sadministration. Only prudentialjudgments about thepower of the American nationto effect these changes shapedparticular actions, but none ofAmerica's "great statesmen"ever doubted the moral imperatives—the Manifest Destiny—that providence hadplaced on this nation.

The Bush Doctrine is but aprudential expression of Moral DemocraticRealism to meet the particular needs of a newthreat after 9/11. The Bush Doctrine, therefore,is not a departure from the longstandingpolicy of the American regime, theauthor informs us. The only innovation ofany real significance is the doctrine of preemption,"which is necessary in light of theconvergence of radicalism, tyranny, andWMD." (Kaufman also claims, however,that the doctrine of preemption was alwaystheoretically a part of American grand strategy.)Democratization, which the Bush administrationhas placed at the forefront of itsrhetorical defense of the current preemptivewars, has always been an important part ofthe American mission to the world.

These are familiar neoconservative arguments,presented in this slim book withadmirable economy and with some importantqualifiers that acknowledge problemsand challenges. Still, this is a neoconservativebook in tone as much as in content. Confidence,if not certainty, pervades the bookalong with a style of argument and use ofevidence that many take to be characteristicof neoconservatives.

This is a clannish book. Kaufman not onlydevelops rather rigid taxonomies so thatevery person can fit into a neat box (acharacteristic disciplinary malady of the I.R.field), but he loves the structure and comfortof such an orderly intellectual universe.Kaufman likes belonging to a camp, fightingwith his band of brothers, and he likes toknow the relative position of others in theintellectual universe—their distance from hiscenter. To those who are with him he conferstitles of distinction—"eminent," "noted,""greatest military historian." Those who arenot generally receive no such honors.

Consistent with the tidiness of this universe,Kaufman employs frequent reifications("Neoconservatism is vastly more right thanwrong…"; "The Bush Doctrine has diagnosed…")that allow him to translate verycomplex and often messy categories into asingle thing that acts or thinks or wills. Thistendency to translate complex matters intoaxioms also informs Kaufman's moral reasoning.Drawing cursorily from Aquinas anddefining prudence as the choosing of rightends and right means, he develops a rudimentarycasuistry that, in conjunction with atendentious historical argument, provides atidy theory for action.

The defining characteristic of Kaufman'sneoconservatism, in my view, is his nonhistoricaluse of history. The author invokesReinhold Niebuhr to support his claim aboutthe necessity of using power to fight evil ininternational relations and to stress thefallenness that precludes any possibility of ahumanity without war and strife. Indeed,Kaufman considers himself a Niebuhrian.But Kaufman uses Niebuhr selectively andignores the theologian's observations aboutirony in history, the complex and unpredictableresults of using power for good and noblepurposes, the unavoidable way that powercorrupts good causes. While Niebuhr's warningsabout power spring from the sameemphasis about human fallenness that is socentral to Kaufman's defense of the BushDoctrine, Niebuhr's basic philosophy of historyis profoundly at odds with Kaufman'sneed for a theoretical template to justifyaction in foreign policy.

Hence, Kaufman tells the history of theAmerican republic in such a way as to stripaway irony, to separate out what he considersthe main thread from all surrounding andconflicting evidence, and to declare the natureof the regime. His target in this sectionof his account is the isolationist camp led byPatrick Buchanan—many members of whichare equally guilty of a pre-processed historyof the republic. The problem is not with thecorrective that Kaufman offers, but with theway he uses historical evidence. In his analysisof American policy during the Cold Warand the current war in Iraq, Kaufman surveys(rather well in such a brief book) thehistory of the past several decades. By necessity,it must be a selective bit of story-telling:this is true of historical analysis as such. Whatis not true of historical analysis, however, isa catalogue of "lessons of history" that apolitician might apply blithely to new circumstanceswithout concern for either thenecessary complexity and singularity of allhistorical events or the Niebuhrian irony thatattends all human choices.

One example will suffice. Kaufman predictablyuses the examples of the democratizationand liberalization of Germany andJapan after World War II to demonstrate thatthe democratization agenda of the Bushadministration is not only possible but prudent.Ignoring the question of whether theUnited States should seek to impose liberaldemocracy on other nations, we are still leftwith the question of whether this historicalexample offers an appropriate analogy tocurrent circumstances. Kaufman offers thesesuccessful democratizations projects to suggestthat those who insist that democracycannot be imposed and that it must groworganically are wrong in at least these circumstances.(Kaufman does not seem to beaware of the voluminous literature on morerecent, and less successful, efforts at democratization.)But a historical assessment ofthese events, if they are to be used as analogies,requires a serious assessment of theirapplicability to current circumstances.Kaufman can list the similarities, but I findthe difference between, say, Japan in 1945and Iraq in 2007, to be profound and of sucha nature as to make analogies suspect. Consider,for example, the context of total defeatand devastation in Japan, the role of anemperor in "commanding" the transition todemocracy, Japan's homogeneity comparedto the deep pluralism of Iraq, and the ongoingstruggle with a stateless and undefeatedenemy in Iraq, etc.

Many historical analogies, at least as usedby neoconservatives, emphasize the powerfuland efficacious nature of a prescientleader. Because of the leadership of a Churchillor a Truman or a Reagan, each workingagainst great odds and proceeding with unpopularviews, the forces of light defeatedtemporarily the forces of darkness. In somecases—credit to Robert Kaufman for onlyhinting at this—these historical examplesillustrate that success is a matter of two thingsworking in tandem: a clear and unambiguoustheory that informs leaders how to actand great willpower (leadership) to accomplishwhat fickle public opinion does notoften support. This being the case, however,failure in any particular case may always beblamed on a failure of nerve, rather than afaulty theory: the theory becomes unfalsifiable.

Kaufman's epilogue addresses this issue, atleast indirectly. In 2007 one detects evidencethat President Bush is himself about to giveup on the Bush Doctrine and that manyerstwhile supporters are backing away. "Ihave not yet lost hope" Kaufman writesplaintively, "that the president will remainfaithful to the Bush Doctrine." This book,then, seems best understood as an appeal tothe faithful and to recent apostates. Theauthor has compiled, better than anywhereelse that I have seen, a systematic explanationof the Bush Doctrine and its moral andhistorical foundations. But even if such is thecase, and even if Kaufman succeeds in bringingthe wandering sheep back into the fold,isn't the larger question whether the Bushadministration and the neoconservative supportersof the war can make an appeal thatpersuades the broader public opinion ratherthan insider partisan opinion?

Many there are who reject the neoconservativetheoretical framework and its simplistichistorical foundations but who otherwisesupport the war: I am one such person.We are not isolationists but neither are weideologues. We do not use abstract theoriesto determine our responses. We believe thatthe nature of the current threat is so insidiousthat we risk, ultimately, the loss of our cultureif we do not win the war. Irony and complexity—so important to many of us whofind ourselves uncomfortable supporters ofan imperialistic war—are poor weapons in awar on terror. And yet conservatives oughtto understand the nature of a democracy atwar and the need for a clear and unambiguouscause. We have not seen much evidencethat neoconservative ideology (or theneoconservative manner) is effective at creatingthe public support necessary for aprotracted war. But between irony andideology lies a shared cause that will rallysupport in a war to save our culture from theuniversalizing oblivion of a most unironicenemy.