When the editors at FP asked me to write 1,500 words on "What the Neocons Got Right" for the launch of their Middle East Channel, I jumped at the opportunity. To be sure, the topic generated a fair number of bipartisan guffaws and lame jokes among my friends: "It will be the shortest article you ever wrote," quipped one. "They got something right?" queried another. "How about 1,500 pages on what they got wrong?" still another partisan asked. Hilarity aside, neoconservatives have been derided by almost everyone for their misadventures in the Middle East -- and there were many -- during the George W. Bush years, but that does not mean their approach to the region was always, everywhere a total failure. The fact is, the neocons are a group of very smart people, as anyone who has ever spent some time actually reading Commentary or the Weekly Standard might know. They happen to hold a worldview that, at the moment, is not terribly popular. Of course, the primary reasons the neocons have encountered so much criticism has everything to do with their approach to the Middle East, which is not distinguished for its grasp of the region's history, politics, and culture. Yet, a fine-grained understanding of the Middle East will not always produce superior policy, a fact all too often lost on the punditocracy.
Let me start out by saying that I do not believe the neocons got Iraq right. It may turn out right or it may not. It's too early to tell. So far, the March 7 elections look pretty good as the counting gets under way, despite 36 deaths. Analysts will likely point to the hard, messy coalition bargaining that is sure to come as evidence that Iraq is moving in the right direction. After all, Iraqis are processing their grievances through democratic institutions, which says a lot about how far the country has come since the dark days of 2006 to 2007. Perhaps it's my skeptical nature, but I am not ready to declare victory. We have seen too many "corners turned" and "watershed moments" in Iraq for me to be confident that anyone inside or outside the U.S. government actually understands Iraq.
The effort by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to bar certain politicians from politics was one prominent warning sign that Iraq might actually be moving toward the "Arab mean" -- Middle Eastern leaders have been reverting to this tactic since Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser invented it in the early 1950s. More profoundly, there seems to be an undeniable logic to Iraqi politics that concentrates power in Baghdad, which does not bode well for democratic development. It remains an open question whether the U.S. military's almost seven-year mission in Iraq has undermined the unwritten codes, norms, and rules of behavior that governed Iraqi politics for the better part of a century before Operation Iraqi Freedom. We'll just have to wait and see.
So what did the neocons get right? Syria, Iran, and democracy.
It probably wasn't wise for George W. Bush's administration to oppose the indirect Syria-Israel negotiations that the Turkish government organized in Istanbul through 2008. If the Israelis and Syrians want to make peace, the United States should help them. Despite this bungle, which actually came well after neocon influence in the administration peaked, the neoconservatives had a healthy understanding of what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime's is all about: violence, repression, and duplicity. For all their faults, the neocons can read recent history pretty well, and they understood that endless shuttle diplomacy of various U.S. secretaries of state (with the exception of James Baker) brought the region no closer to peace and did nothing to alter Damascus's strategic posture.
Indeed, the Syrians have a long history of doing just enough to keep their enemies at bay, while retaining the instruments to do considerable harm. This is not to suggest that Bill Clinton's people had a Pollyannaish view of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, but neither Hafez nor his son, who took power in 2000, ever demonstrated the kind of flexibility that engagement was supposed to produce. Although Clinton's first secretary of state, Warren Christopher, visited Damascus 29 times and his successor, Madeleine Albright, sipped tea with Hafez al-Assad on five occasions, the Syrians continued their support for Hamas and Hezbollah with political support as well as weaponry. The Syrians also never exhibited any flexibility on the peace process. During the 1990s, the elder Assad sent his foreign minister and other officials to one locale or another for talks with Israelis, but his emissaries consistently demanded that the Israelis return to the June 4, 1967, line without ever spelling out the nature of the peace they were offering. And of course, Damascus has never repudiated its strategic relationship with Iran.