THE BLOG
07/18/2014 01:07 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2014

Have the Neocons Learned Their Lesson?

Just over ten years ago, the United States was beginning what would be two lengthy military campaigns in the Middle East. On one hand, in Afghanistan, intelligence suggested that the Taliban had been supporting Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network, effectively abetting them in their attack on the World Trade Center. On the other hand, in Iraq, less-reliable intelligence suggested the presence of WMDs, and it was decided that while securing these weapons, the U.S. should depose the violent dictator who had ruled the country for decades, Saddam Hussein.

In both cases, eventually, neocons suggested that these campaigns were, more broadly, necessary evils in order to preserve democratic ideals and promote American interests abroad. There was an outpour of this type of justification as the death tolls and monetary costs continued to grow, and while popular support gradually waned, Americans begrudgingly accepted these justifications as truths.

Today, America watches as Iraq implodes, with the militant faction ISIS inching ever closer towards Baghdad as the government scrambles to establish a more inclusive parliament that represents the interests of the complex array of sects and ethnicities that make up the constituency.

And in Afghanistan, what appeared to be a promising democratic election threatened to erupt into chaos when the results were dismissed as illegitimate, and both leading candidates declared themselves the rightful winner. It appears that Secretary of State John Kerry has, for the time being, successfully ameliorated the tension, but a stable, legitimate government still seems a ways off.

These are just two examples of a broader failure in foreign policy: the popular neoconservative notion that America must project its hegemony on the rest of the world in an effort to promote American interests, even if those values must be projected by military force. Once the dominant thought process in American foreign policy, this paradigm has time and again proven not only to fail but, in its failure, to actually hurt American interests abroad. The Bush Doctrine of 2002, which justified the use of military force to protect America against terrorist threats at home and abroad, is retrospectively one of the most damaging doctrines to define a presidential administration in the last several decades. The overestimation of America's ability to militarily intervene in other states, and the dangerous optimism about the effortlessness of transition from authoritarian regime to democracy, have done substantially more harm than good for the American people -- especially in the past decade.

When looking at the initial goals of the invasion of Afghanistan, which were to fight the terrorist threat that had been overlooked to the point of producing the 9/11 attacks, the United States ultimately failed. Not only does al-Qaeda still exist, but offshoot terrorist cells have spread as far as Asia and throughout Africa. Admittedly, this is not necessarily the fault of the United States -- by nature, terrorism is pervasive and transcends traditional state boundaries -- but when looking at the specific goals of the Afghanistan invasion, it is easy to see they were not met.

In Iraq, by deposing Hussein, the U.S. simply created a vacuum of power that was only partially (and poorly, at that) filled by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He has cracked down on Sunnis in Iraq, done a mediocre job fostering better relationships with the Kurds in the north, and, all the while, has been unable to successfully combat the growing threat of a Taliban insurgency. Now, another al-Qaeda affiliate, ISIS, has come across the Syrian border and threatens to destabilize Iraq even further. Unlike other terrorist organizations, ISIS has money and appears well-organized enough to inflict serious damage upon the Iraqi people. In sum, Iraq has become nothing but a breeding ground for terrorist activity, much the same as the Afghanistan the U.S. invaded in 2001 and sought to correct.

This is not to say that military action is a thing of the past, nor is it to say that the U.S. should not intervene militarily when necessary. Unfortunately, yet another failure of the neocon line of thought is that following the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the American public will not support more military action. This has stymied President Obama's ability to intervene in dire situations, preventing him from providing airstrikes or other forms of support in the Syrian war, and providing some form of military support in Ukraine this past year when Russia seized Crimea. There has been the gradual evolution of an "all or nothing" mentality, which will not serve the U.S. moving forward.

Perhaps the only good example of American military support in the past decade is the involvement in the NATO campaign in Libya. Without putting any American troops on the ground, the U.S. provided the framework for a campaign that resulted in an end to the civil war and the death of the former dictator, Muammar al-Gaddafi. And yet, even still, Libya remains mired in conflict without a clear, stable government, three years after Gaddafi's death.

The tragedy in Ukraine yesterday will serve as a test for the U.S. There will certainly be increased pressure on President Obama to provide some form of military support to quell the rising tide of violence that has been tolerated for too long at this point. Ukraine is likely unable to win the fight against the pro-Russian separatists on their own; however, too much military support from the U.S. will further harm the badly frayed relationship with Russia. Pragmatism, not neoconservatism, must prevail in this case.

Looking towards the future, U.S. foreign policy should not shy away from military force when it is necessary. There will undoubtedly come times when force is needed -- if for no other reason than to reinforce our credibility to act diplomatically, with the threat of military force as a backup. However, neocons hopefully have learned from the mistakes of the past decade. Broad, military intervention is not the appropriate way to project influence or power in an international arena increasingly dictated by a globalized economy, the exponential and rapid evolution of technology, and a general connectedness that did not exist 20 or even 10 years ago. As political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote in his 2006 essay "After Neoconservatism":

What is needed now are new ideas, neither neoconservative nor realist, for how America is to relate to the rest of the world -- ideas that retain the neoconservative belief in the universality of human rights, but without its illusions about the efficacy of American power and hegemony to bring these ends about.

Without these new ideas, the U.S. is doomed to repeat its mistakes of the early 2000s for decades to come.