Neoconservatism and Government Competence

There was a time, way back in the mid-1980s, that I considered myself a libertarian on domestic policy and a Commentary-style neoconservative on foreign policy. The latter meant that I supported U.S. efforts to “export liberal democracy.”

At some point, however, a contradiction became apparent: if I didn’t trust the government to competently run, say, public schools, what made me think that the the government, subject to the same public-choicey and other constraints, would be competent at handling the much more complex task of remaking other societies in America’s image?

That was the end of my neoconservatism. The utter incompetence that the U.S. has displayed in both Iraq and Afghanistan–apparent, I think, regardless of whether one believes that the U.S. was justified in overthrowing Saddam and the Taliban–has hardly made me rethink things.

UPDATE: This post was prompted in part by two excellent essays in the most recent Claremont Review of Books, one by Mark Helprin, the other by Angelo Codevilla. Together, they paint a devastating portrait of U.S. foreign policy since 9/11, although I don’t agree with everything that either author has to say.

One can glean the following points from their essays: (1) Even if “regime change” is warranted, hanging around to engage in nation-building typically is not; (2) U.S. foreign policy interests in the Muslim world consist primarily in the relatively limited goal of having friendly (or at least non-hostile) regimes there, not in decreeing that it’s liberal democracy or bust, especially when the local populations are far more preoccupied with inter-ethnic conflicts of no interest to the U.S.; and (3) to the extent the U.S. has to engage in draconian tasks like invasion and occupation, it must do so with full force, full commitment (including a commitment to take on regimes like Iran if they support attacks on our soldiers), and, most important, with huge resources because the incompetence of government will inevitably mean that accomplishing U.S. goals will be vastly more expensive than planners will anticipate.