The inconvenient fact that words mean things

Reihan Salam has a very Hot Take in Slate, “Why I Am Still a Neocon,” in which he says he is still a neoconservative because, well, here’s what he wrote:

Given all of this, why am I still a neocon? Why do I still believe that the U.S. should maintain an overwhelming military edge over all potential rivals, and that we as a country ought to be willing to use our military power in defense of our ideals as well as our interests narrowly defined? There are two reasons: The first is that American strength is the linchpin of a peaceful, economically integrating world; and the second is that we know what it looks like when America embraces amoral realpolitik, and it’s not pretty.

So Salam is “still a neocon” because he wants America to have a strong military and to use it sometimes in defense of its ideals and interests. This is a little like me saying “I’m a big fan of opera, if by ‘opera’ you mean ‘the Pittsburgh Steelers,'” or when my wife tells me “of course God exists; God is Love,” except more self-defeating. Neoconservatism is a specific ideology with particular historical context and specific ideas about America’s role in the world. If we’re trying to rescue that term from the Iraq debacle by redefining it to mean “not isolationism,” then I think somebody needs to cry foul. Salam’s Slate colleague, Joshua Keating, offers a pretty reasonable definition of “neoconservative”:

Part of the problem is that the meaning of the word “neoconservative” is a little nebulous. Originally coined to describe a group of liberal and leftist intellectuals who drifted rightward on foreign policy issues during the 1970s, it’s now more often used to describe the views of members of the Bush administration like Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney as well as their ideological allies at places like the American Enterprise Institute and the Weekly Standard. As generally described, a neocon is one who believes the U.S. should maintain an activist foreign policy, using American power and influence, including military force, to promote U.S. interests and the spread of democracy. Neocons also differ from liberal internationalists in that they are generally skeptical of multilateral institutions like the U.N.

It is true that “neoconservative” has become more nebulous. Part of that is because of a tendency to conflate everyone involved in the Bush administration’s perpetual war foreign policy apparatus as “neoconservative,” which results in guys like John Bolton being labeled “neoconservative” instead of a more appropriate label like “imperialist,” or “war monger,” or “psychopath.” Seriously, though, somebody like Bolton, who hasn’t met a war he didn’t want America to start but who doesn’t really seem to care all that much about using American foreign policy to spread freedom and democracy and ponies around the world, really isn’t a neocon. That’s because “necon” is, and I repeat myself, a specific word that describes a specific kind of thinker with specific ideas.

Salam sees himself contributing to the inter-Republican Party fight between isolationists like the Pauls and interventionists, which is a category that includes the neocons but is not limited to them. His argument would be a lot more effective, not to mention a lot less work, if he just made the case for an activist foreign policy and large military budgets, and stopped trying to make “neocon” mean “whatever Reihan Salam thinks it should mean.” The kicker is, Salam essentially concedes this point in a follow up piece he wrote today:

Because I’ve defined foreign policy neoconservatism so broadly, some of my interlocutors object that my definition encompasses all recent U.S. presidential administrations, including the Obama administration. Though I wouldn’t describe the president as a neoconservative, I’d actually agree that the U.S. foreign policy establishment is by and large committed to the idea of U.S. global leadership, and that the differences that tend to attract the most political attention are differences at the margin, e.g., we’re not disagreeing over core security commitments in industrial Eurasia and the Gulf, but rather over how we ought to balance competing considerations in addressing Iran’s nuclear program, or prudential questions regarding the nature of the U.S. role in chaotic regions. My concern, however, is that this commitment to U.S. global leadership is not universally embraced by the public, and it is eroding in some segments of the political class, on the libertarian right and also on some segments of the left.

The thing is, the “commitment to U.S. global leadership” has never been “universally embraced by the public,” because there are always “some segments of the political class, on the libertarian right and also on some segments of the left” who don’t agree with it. Why the current situation is any different from the 1960s escapes me, as does the reason why the current situation, even if it is different, requires rendering words in ways that strip them of any meaning or usefulness. If he’s worried about creeping isolationist tendencies, why doesn’t Salam just confine himself to arguing against them without inviting all the baggage that comes from trying to salvage an ideology that is, hopefully, unsalvageable?

Tom Scocca at Gawker did a pretty good job of taking apart Salam’s attempt at redefining “neocon” into respectability:

Or rather, that’s what actual war is. Salam is not much interested in that. Here the neoconservative spirit reveals itself. What he supports is good war, waged by good people for good reasons, to achieve good ends. That’s great. I suppose I support clean nuclear energy, myself—energy from nuclear power plants that never have accidents and which dispose of their radioactive waste in a safe and sustainable manner.

A neoconservative energy policy, though, would argue that Fukushima and Chernobyl are not relevant to discussing the merits of nuclear power. What do those catastrophes have to do with the question of whether a well-run nuclear plant would be a good idea? War is humanitarianism in action, and the failures of the previous crusade should have no bearing on the next one. All that is necessary for the defeat of evil is for good men to do something. Anything. Good things.

In his original piece Salam closed with two examples of conflicts where the “neocon impulses…might very well have prevented” what he calls “moral calamity”: “South Asia in 1971 and in Bosnia in the early 1990s.” This is a supremely lazy way to argue, since it offers no evidence that “neocon impulses” actually would have made things better either in Bangladesh or Bosnia. But you know, one of the justifications we were offered for sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, and then the Iraq War in the 2000s, was humanitarian; Saddam was a terrible guy, nobody disputed that, and he surely mistreated his people, killed a lot of them, etc. In that case, our idealistic interventions killed somewhere around half a million (by most estimates) Iraqi children because of sanctions, then another half-million Iraqis in the war and the nightmarish occupation that followed. Even our ideals aren’t all that idealistic.


One thought on “The inconvenient fact that words mean things

  1. Bravo! Words have meaning and power, and people really ought to take them seriously.

    And speaking of liberal interventionists, let me remind you that I hate Peter Beinart with the burning heat of a thousand suns. His stupid little book provided cover for lots of otherwise sensible people to jump aboard the Iraq war bandwagon, and I am ashamed of the liberal project for the eagerness with which some have accepted him back into the fold. He offers nothing that we can not get in untainted form from his betters.

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