A Neocon on Why Conservatives Still Believe

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Joshua Muravchik talks about his op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post, where he argues that neo-conservatism is far from dead, and the best option to address the root causes of terrorism is by transforming the Middle East.

NEAL CONAN, host:

It's Monday and time for our weekly TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. This week, we focus on a group of political thinkers some may consider an endangered species. But to listen to Joshua Muravchik, neoconservative ideology is alive and well and an essential part of American foreign policy. His op-ed, titled Can the Neocons Get Their Groove Back?, ran in yesterday's Washington Post.

You can read it at our Web site. There's a link at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. And you can weigh in on this issue right now by giving us a call, 800-989-8255, or zap us an e-mail, talk@npr.org. Did voters reject neocons in the midterm elections? Does neocon philosophy provide a useful way to look at the world? Again, 800-989-8255.

Joshua Muravchik is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and he's with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. JOSHUA MURAVCHIK (American Enterprise Institute): Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: And I have to begin by pointing out that conventional analysis is that the neocons who argued for the war in Iraq are out, rejected by conservatives and liberals alike.

Mr. MURAVCHIK: Well, the war - Iraq is a mess, and people who advocated the war, as we did, have to take blame for that. Exactly why it's a mess, whether the policy was executed badly, we should've had many more troops, we shouldn't have dissolved the Iraqi army, or whether it was a mistaken venture in the first place, I think still needs to be sorted out.

CONAN: And so why is it that those who are responsible for what you describe as a mess are those who would have the solution?

Mr. MURAVCHIK: Well, I think there's - that the distinct neocon contribution to the discussion about what our foreign policy should be in the face of 9/11 is something deeper than the war in Iraq, which is that we need to try to change the political culture of the Middle East, that the problem is not just one little group of bombers, but the fact that this - that terrorism is so widely accepted in the Middle East and so many young Middle Easterners are willing to throw away their lives in order to kill Americans.

And something very deep has to change there. The neocon insight is that the way to change that is to try to promote democracy in that region in the hopes not merely of changing some of the governments but of trying to spread a more liberal way of thinking about the world that would exclude terrorism as a reasonable resort for someone who's got a grievance or an argument.

And I think that underlying idea, that we have to try to change the way the Middle East does politics and thinks about politics, is still a valid idea, and - or it still needs to be further pursued. And moreover, I don't think anyone else has put another idea on the table as to what we can do about this, if that's not the right approach.

CONAN: We're talking today on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page with Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Again, his op-ed, Can Neocons Get Their Groove Back, you can see a copy of it at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get a listener involved in the conversation. This is Rodney. Rodney's with us from Noble, Oklahoma.

RODNEY (Caller): Good afternoon, gentlemen.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

RODNEY: My question is - look, I supported the war when it first started because I do believe that you have to spread freedom and hope around the world in these times. But obviously I'm against the war now. My question would be, was the philosophy of the neocons a flawed ideology or was it incompetence? Obviously I think that it's pretty clear that we ran this war in Iraq very incompetently. But is the ideology behind spreading freedom a flawed ideology, or did it not work because of the incompetence?

CONAN: Joshua Muravchik, you obviously think incompetence might have had a large part of it.

Mr. MURAVCHIK: No, I'm really not very far from Rodney myself in wondering about this. Certainly I think we should've executed the war differently than we did. But it may have been that it was a mistake to focus on Iraq in the first place. Iraq wasn't the first thing we focused on, but focusing on Afghanistan first was kind of a no-brainer, and the question was what to do next after that.

And it may well have been a wiser choice for us to have focused on Iran rather than Iraq. And by focused on Iran, I haven't said what I mean, because I'm not sure what I mean. I don't mean that we should've invaded Iran. That's a bigger country than Iraq and...

CONAN: Wait. You're trying to address the source of the terrorism that struck this country on 9/11, and you find it in Shia Iran, not Sunni Saudi Arabia, where 19 of the hijackers came from?

Mr. MURAVCHIK: The fact is that the terrorists who have attacked and killed Americans come from all over the Middle East and from all ideologies. Al-Qaida is a Sunni group, but the group that has the second-most amount of American blood on its hands is Hezbollah. And the movement that has encouraged Middle Eastern radicals to become increasingly violent toward Americans, Westerners, is I think best described as Jihadism, and the original, the original source of Jihadism is in Iran. It was in the Ayatollah Khomeini...

CONAN: Well, we can debate the source is back in Sunni texts as well, in the Muslim Brotherhood and...

Mr. MURAVCHIK: No, no, but I'm not talking about texts. I'm talking about political movements.

CONAN: All right.

RODNEY: Can I broaden this a little bit?

CONAN: If you could quickly, Rodney.

RODNEY: Well, obviously, when I first supported the war, again, my theory was that we have terrorism and a lot of these things because people don't have economic freedom and they don't have basic freedoms. So if we were able to go into Afghanistan, so to speak, because we were justified there, and really show that freedom does work, economically, controlled capitalism and freedom, and maybe that would spread.

Now, I think that one of our major problems, also, is that we were lied to. They didn't use that ideology, but that was the original ideology. I think Tony Blair did a better job than...

CONAN: All right. That's not a short question, Rodney.

RODNEY: Oh, I apologize. My question is, is that really a flawed ideology to start off with?

CONAN: And let's go to Joshua Muravchik. And thanks for the call, Rodney.

Mr. MURAVCHIK: I don't think our strategy ever was - or if it was, it ever should have been - that we would just bring them economic freedom and that would be kind of the silver bullet. I think the point of trying to democratize the region is to see democracy as something that socializes and educates people, and particularly that gets them in the habit of resolving their differences by peaceful means, by talking and voting and negotiating and compromising rather than by shooting the other guy.

CONAN: And let me - we just have about 30 seconds with you left - but I mean this idea that you bring up. There are no alternatives that you see?

Mr. MURAVCHIK: I haven't heard any. That is, I think on the one hand, traditional conservatives have no answer to such an untraditional threat as we face from the terrorists. And on the other hand, liberals say, well, we need to fight poverty, because poverty makes people terrorists. But that's a dubious assumption. And even if it is, we have no magic way to make world poverty go away. People have been working at that long before we were confronted with terrorism, and so that's not an answer, either.

I think that our answer of trying to spread democracy in the region may not be right - it's unproven, it's untested - but to this point, it's the only plausible approach that anyone has put out there.

CONAN: Joshua Muravchik, thanks very much for being with us. We appreciate your time.

Mr. MURAVCHIK: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Joshua Muravchik, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Again, there's a link to his op-ed at our Web page, where you can also download this conversation and all of the recent Opinion Pages as podcasts. Just go to the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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