While Maureen Dowd warns that the neo-conservatives are coming back, an event surely worse than the siege of American embassies and the murder of American ambassadors, she can rest her head easy on that account. The neo-conservatives died in the siege of Benghazi, much like Mubarak they are still around, but completely irrelevant in the way that most ideas are once they lose their meaning.
In the Middle East, neo-conservatives offered a middle ground between appeasement and belligerence that blended Cold War politics and Third World democracy outreach. The ideas that made so much sense when former liberals were confronting the nightmarish repressive powers of the Soviet Union met their end in the Middle East for reasons that neither they nor their ideological enemies can explain.
Democracy only works when the character of the people is better than the character of their government. It works very badly when the character of the people is actually worse and the existing system serves much the same purpose as bars in a tiger cage do. The neo-conservatives were unprepared to grapple with such troubling notions. They were very methodical in laying out the moral case against Saddam Hussein, but they were unprepared to cope with the notion that Iraq's ruler might have reflected the moral level of a significant portion of Iraqis.
The Baath Party, unlike the Bolsheviks, was not an external ideology imposed on the Iraqis. Like most regional Socialist movements, its ideology was a fig leaf for tyranny and tribal alliances. Saddam was a cheap mass murdering thug with dreams of even bigger empires and atrocities. Removing him made a certain amount of geopolitical sense, but replacing him with purple fingers and democratic elections was never going to lead to a better Iraq.
Many neo-conservatives backed Obama's own democracy experiments in the Arab Spring and his invasion of Libya because they seemed to resemble their own ideas. But Obama had actually reached back for Carter's Green Belt playbook with the goal of defusing Islamic terrorism by giving their supposedly more moderate Islamist cousins what they wanted-- their own countries to play with.
This wasn't neo-conservatism, though it looked a lot like it, enough that Maureen Dowd should have blushed before beginning a tirade about the neo-conservative threat, it was appeasement politics dressed up in the same old democracy colors. The tyrants we were overthrowing were men who had made deals with us, and who were for the most part fairly benign by the standards of the region. That is what made them easy targets for the knife in the bag and the Islamist mob in the square.
By the light of burning embassies, it is somewhat redundant to even mention that this policy failed. Turning Islamists into rulers has upgraded their "extreme" wings from terrorists to militias and the September 11 attacks were an announcement that everyone, except the idiots in Washington DC still wailing about the video, understood. When armed militias and mobs besiege your embassies and plant their flags on your walls, it's a territorial claim, not a protest rally about a dead pedophile.
The Arab Spring was the red line of democracy promotion. It pulled the trigger that Condoleezza Rice had been nervous about pulling and it did it to disastrous effect. And aside from the death toll, what all that noise really means is that neo-conservatism of the democracy intervention flavor is dead. The only people who still believe that local democracy works also believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is misunderstood and that we need to kill the Bill of Rights to appease Muslims. These are not, for the most part, neo-conservatives, they are the sort of appeasers who show up at Maureen Dowd's dinner parties and at White House press conferences.
The death of neo-conservatism, unmourned as it may be, leaves few options between belligerence and appeasement. The neo-conservatives held out hope for a more rational order that fused the classic idealism of FDR, Ike and JFK as a formula for a foreign policy that would allow American to transform its enemies, rather than bombing them to bits.
That was why so many Democrats, especially in the most conservative Senate, got on board the George W. Bush express. Much as the left's revisionist history might try to paint Bush as a wacky cowboy off on a shooting spree, his policy was an extension of what Clinton had done, and before liberal political calculation got in the way, had brought the senior leadership of the Democratic Party on board... not to mention Tony Blair.
What we are witnessing is the death of any such middle ground in the Middle East's graveyard of idealism. The future will, as it turns out, not be one of purple fingers and people cheerfully accepting elections as a means of political representation, rather than a non-violent way of seizing power and then making sure that no one else can win an election again. The same mechanisms that kept Saddam in power made Maliki's war on Sunnis and Kurds equally inevitable.
The Muslim world is not individualistic, nor is it made up of individuals seeking their own version of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is a collectivist place, even more so than the United States is becoming, where tribe and religion matter because they are the only ways that individuals get ahead. We were not dealing with meritocracies, not even the damaged affirmative action kind we run now, but with tribal systems with a smattering of modern politics on top, where local nationalism is also economic survival. The family's social capital counts for much more than empty talk about freedom and old hatreds against neighbors can be pursued by men who wear army or police uniforms, but who identify with old vendettas more than with new governments.
We have already seen the left's answer to neo-conservativism, if we hadn't already seen it earlier in the Carter years. Shameless appeasement tethered to a reflexive hatred of the United States where all violence is incorporated into blowback theory. The Carter Doctrine rewards the worst enemies in the hopes that doing so will eventually make them our friends and blames all setbacks on new anger for some real or imaginary offense by us. The Carter Doctrine is now the Obama Doctrine and it's why our embassies are burning brightly in the night.
But that doesn't leave much of an alternative on the conservative side. Republicans liked neo-conservativism because it was idealistic, and by the standards set by the decaying left, had become conservative. It allowed Republicans to cheer American Exceptionalism as the solution to all global problems, without understanding that its aggressive good cheer was completely misplaced.
Exceptionalism is exceptional. If American Exceptionalism can be plonked down in Iraq or Afghanistan, then it isn't exceptional anymore. And in fact, it can't be. The United States has conquered and reconstructed several countries before, and only the ones with a tradition of democracy that predated the need to conquer them, are worth mentioning today. And none of them are little Americas and have, at best, a conflicted relationship with the United States.
Romney is still echoing vaguely neo-conservative talking points, but it's doubtful that he, or anyone, besides McCain, really wants to invade Syria for the Muslim Brotherhood. Americans didn't want the Libyan War, and aside from some of senate fixtures like McCain, few Republicans really want to do it either.
The second set of September 11 attacks may have finally begun convincing Republicans that Muslims really don't want to be Americans and they aren't going to be turned into Americans any time soon. It has not quite led them to the logical conclusions to be drawn from that, but it still might. The death of the middle ground of neo-conservativism leaves few options but appeasement and belligerence, not democracy belligerence, but plain old fashioned saber rattling.
If Muslims can't be taught to be nice people and won't leave us alone, then there are two alternatives. Give them what they want or give them hell. Obama has tried the former with the expected results. The window on giving them hell is slowly starting to creak open, though I wouldn't expect many prominent Republican politicians to start talking like Patton any time soon.
The Israeli example has demonstrated that Muslims never miss an opportunity to sabotage their own appeasers. It's why the Israeli left has a death grip on unelected government positions, but is about as popular with the voters as cholera on a stick. The American left could learn from its example, but if it could learn from examples, it wouldn't be the left. Instead it banked its political capital on appeasing Muslims and if it gets a second term to do so, it will be that much closer to becoming completely unelectable-- especially when Muslims decide to celebrate another September 11 in an even flashier way and with a larger death toll.
The Israeli left did everything possible to appease Muslim terrorists and the terrorists repaid them by politically destroying them with constant violence. Now Obama is on the receiving end of the same treatment and had he been as familiar with the Muslim world as he claimed to be, then he would have known to expect that. And the same process will likely kill Eurabia in its own cradle.
The ball is in the court of the right. It can choose between fake moderation and assertive action. It can rediscover the military as a force for defending the country, rather than a means of introducing Muslims to the concept of elections, and it will be pursuing the popular course. But to do that it will have to believe in America, rather in the universal goodness of human nature and the other pablum that led us into this mess.
Above all else, it is important to make clear to our own people and to theirs, that we have borders and nations for a reason. That if foreign nations and peoples would like to use force to tell us what movies we can make, then we will use force to tell them what protests they can have, and that in a contest of force, we will win.
It is time for a new way, a way in which Muslims will no longer have to learn about America and Americans will no longer have to learn about Islam, where we will give up on winning each other's hearts and minds, and stick to watching each other's property lines. That is the argument that needs to be advanced in the face of Obama's catastrophic Arab Spring failures and the alternative to it is four more years of terror and appeasement.