November 10th, 2009

Bret Stephens and the neo-neocons

It is often said that there is nothing new under the sun. Commenter “Steve G” proves it by helpfully pointing out a WSJ article by Bret Stephens in which the author coins the phrase (that is, he believes he coins the phrase): “neo-neocon.”

Stephens isn’t referring to me, of course. In fact, unless he’s a devoted reader of the Right side of the blogosphere, there’s no particular reason for him to know that I even exist (although Google would have gotten him there). He uses the term instead as a pejorative to refer to people who demand a level of righteousness from Hamid Karzai that they don’t require from other third world leaders:

In the matter of Hamid Karzai (this would be the feckless, warlord-backed, corruption-tainted and dubiously re-elected president of Afghanistan), it’s wonderful to observe how he has single-handedly created a new designation in the American ideological lexicon: the neo-neocon.

Who are the neo-neocons? They’re a bipartisan, single-issue group that has recently discovered the virtues—nay, the necessity—of clean, orderly, democratic governance.

Stephens goes on to excoriate the group he calls “neo-neocons”—on the Left, those who championed Arafat as Palestinian spokesperson; and on the Right, practitioners of morally neutral realpolitic. He himself leans more in the latter direction regarding Karzai; his problem with neo-neocons on the Right is that those who were in favor of the similarly compromised Musharraf but are critical of Karzai are inconsistent hypocritics.

Stephens goes on to say:

It is not Mr. Karzai’s fault that NATO insisted for years that the Afghan National Army be no larger than a constabulary force, leaving it in no position to join the battle against a resurgent Taliban. It is not his fault that foreign aid organizations consistently botched the delivery. Much less is it his fault that the former government of Pakistan essentially ceded its frontier provinces to the Taliban, which promptly turned them into havens of militancy.

None of this means that Mr. Karzai is a saint or even much of a statesman. But neither is he a despot, a fanatic, a sybarite, or an uncouth bigot—qualities that typify the leadership of countries for which the U.S. has also expended blood and treasure in defense of lesser causes. Our failures in Afghanistan so far have mainly been our own, and they are ours to fix.

That sounds quite reasonable to me. In Afghanistan, we are faced with the usual problems of nations that have little tradition of democracy and civil liberties, which also lack the educational levels that must go along with democracy if it is going to be anything other than an empty promise. I’ve written before about these choices, and the difficulty inherent in them (see this and this), and my conclusions actually somewhat resemble those of Stephens.

Karzai is no angel; it does appear that the elections in Afghanistan were seriously compromised. But remember that if Karzai is no angel, Afghanistan is a far cry from heaven. The real question is whether there are better alternatives available to the country at this point, and the answer appears to be “no.”

6 Responses to “Bret Stephens and the neo-neocons”

  1. DirtyJobsGUy Says:

    I was working on a Project in Pakistan a few years ago and the contrast between the reality of Musharref and the furor in the western media was dramatic.

    Musharref was a pretty straight guy and his government was pretty honest by Pak standards. They were attacking the finanical and economic mess the country was in. His opponents were using the not so clean courts and other trappings of government to harrass him. (much like the Dems did to Sarah Palin, I was in alaska and saw it first hand). The Pakistani opposition knew how to play the western media like a violin. Now the really corrupt Bhutto clan is back in business.

    Clan based societies have the toughest time submitting to the compromises of democracy. It will be rough and ready on the way.

  2. Bill West Says:

    Neo, I set him straight:

    Dear Mr. Stephens,

    In today’s article you write:

    “Who are the neo-neocons? They’re a bipartisan, single-issue group that has recently discovered the virtues—nay, the necessity—of clean, orderly, democratic governance.”

    You will be pleased to know that this has long been the identity of the clearest-thinking blogger on the center-right side of the political spectrum. I suggest that you bookmark her site at

    I’ve made her journal of politics, culture and the arts my home page.


    Bill West
    Los Angeles

  3. neo-neocon Says:

    Bill West: thanks for sticking up for me!

  4. Bill West Says:


    My email got a reply from Bret Stephens:

    “Wasn’t aware. I’ll have a look.


    Bret Stephens”

    You might have a new fan.


  5. neo-neocon Says:

    Bill West: Thanks! And I wrote to him and got a note, too.

    Gotta protect the proud neo-neocon name.

  6. csimon Says:

    I read Bret Stephens regularly, and he’s quite intelligent & worldly, literally and figuratively. Though relatively young, he has built quite a resume. Before he snagged the WSJ, he lived in Israel for quite a long time and was Editor-In-Chief of the Jerusalem Post, a widely-circulated, if not the largest newspater in Israel.

    He’s pretty darn smart. I am surprised at his narrow description of those he would name as neo-cons. He DOES need to get out in neo-neocon “country” and elsewhere to learn that most neocons can’t be so narrowly defined, but rather are a broad, considerably intelligent and well-read group who believe in true democratic governments because it is the best and fairest system in today’s world, and focuses on freedom for people and necessary, though, limited government intervention.

    In other words, he could have defined neocons more briefly:

    Neocons –> not-Obama and like thinking lemmings!

About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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