08/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What the Neocons Don't Get about Freedom

The neocons are rising, zombie-like, from the grave American voters dug for them in the last election. Untroubled by regret, much less shame, they're already whetting their knives for the Obama administration, exploiting challenging events abroad -- whether in Iran or Honduras -- to rewrite their own history, on the one hand, and start to write Barack Obama's, on the other.

At the moment, it's about freedom and the right role for democracy in Obama's foreign policy -- fitting, given that democracy became the ostensible purpose of America's foreign policy after President Bush's second inaugural address in January 2005, when he said that "the calling of our time" was "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

Against such a bracing call, neocons are already attacking Obama for failing to live up to Bush's dreams. Witness the intellectual spasm this week by Jonah Goldberg in USA Today. Goldberg, the author of Liberal Fascism (a sales target-title in search of a nonfiction book, if ever there was one) argued that President Barack Obama has abandoned democracy promotion as "ideology," for the sake of a purportedly undemocratic "pragmatism."

Goldberg attacks Obama for a "cynical" policy in Iran and, in Honduras, for having "no problem with meddling when a left-wing agenda is advanced," and concludes, "It sure seems like Obama has an ideological problem with democracy."

It's understandable that the neocons are confused. Like the Neanderthals wandering a human world in Jean Auel's novels, they're dangerously out of date. What Goldberg doesn't understand is that a new, more modern goal underlies Obama's more sophisticated effort to achieve democracy around the world -- constitutionalism.

A study just released by Freedom House showed that the Obama administration has actually increased funding for democracy by $234 million -- by 9% in an overall democracy and human rights budget of almost $3 billion.

Obama has begun to build a new paradigm for democracy promotion on the smoldering ruins of the neocons' failures. Joshua Muravchik -- who Goldberg cites approvingly -- once wrote a book titled Exporting Democracy. The subtitle? "Fulfilling America's Destiny." Charles Krauthammer wrote an article in The National Interest titled "Universal Dominion: Toward a Unipolar World." In these neocons' visions, democracy was bound up with American hegemony and domination. It was about power.

Obama has a different worldview. Instead of a weapon in the hands of a bully, Obama sees democracy as a rallying cry for a natural leader leading a crowd away from a cliff. It's not democracy that is the goal. It is constitutionalism -- a self-governing culture that enables democracy to continually strengthen, rather than slip into a self-destructive cycle of demagoguery, instability, and violence -- that is freedom's Holy Grail.

My recent book Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies defines constitutionalism as a robust civic culture of republican values, both internal and external. Internally, people regard themselves as citizens, with all the rights and obligations thereto. Externally, they hold leaders on a short leash, cutting down any leaders who threaten authoritarian tendencies.

A key aspect of constitutionalism is that it begins and ends with the people, rather than rhetoric, institutions, or leaders. Thus the genius of Obama's policy of actual democracy promotion. He believes American foreign policy should interact with ordinary people living their day-to-day lives to begin to shift them toward an appreciation of the relative benefits of freedom and citizenship, of the fortunate aspects of keeping authoritarians on a short leash.

The new policy of engagement is already bearing fruit. As Matt Duss recently observed, Muslim extremists like the Saudi sheikh Abd al-Aziz al-Julayyil have written that Obama's engagement is "extremely dangerous" because it is "weakening [Muslims'] enmity toward America and makes them more positively inclined toward her future policies. It is numbing them, reducing their hatred toward infidels, and making them stop fighting."

This was the point of Obama's Nowruz address to the Iranian people -- to communicate directly with them and share America's democracy. This was the goal of his recent speech in Cairo -- to work directly with millions of moderate Muslims to stir the desire for freedom within their culture. And it's the ambition of his Iranian policy; through restraint, nuance, and pressure, he hopes to allow and encourage reformers to agitate for reform without exposing them to the regime's reflexive anti-Americanism.

And this is the point of the administration's democracy funding requests, which increased funding for civil society from $593 million to $608 million and requested substantial increases for the Near East Regional Democracy Fund and democracy programming in Afghanistan and Pakistan: programs that focus on cultivating constitutional values among peoples through educational programs, training, and institutional support.

It's about constitutionalism -- not just democracy -- and the president is on the right track. Leave it to the neocons to ignore the facts of the Obama policy. But then that should be no surprise. It's been a fact-free world for them for a long, long time.

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