Isolationists like to pretend the neoconservative movement has failed. They suffer from historical amnesia and root for the war-weary public’s rejection of all foreign policy. The reality is that the neoconservative movement and its policies have been massively successful and become mainstream. This is not to argue that there have been no policy failures, it is to argue that these are overshadowed by its vast successes. Isolationists like to typify the movement as an imperial plot bent on global domination but two out of three neoconservatives’ greatest successes were domestic policy issues.
First, and most relevant to urban dwellers, was the NYC implemented policy of zero tolerance based on the Broken Windows theory. The theory, in simple terms, is that if a neighborhood is left to crime that crime will get worse. By having fast and visible (but proportional) responses to even minor crime, greater and violent crime can be avoided and quality of life increased.
From whence NYC was once a crap hole of economic decay and its subway system a graffitied fear fest, it has become the center of finance and an economic engine. From a city with a midtown that once abounded with strip clubs and peep shows, a Central Park that was considered a day time danger zone, numerous other parks that were open air drug markets, and neighborhoods across every borough in which landlords would rather burn down buildings to collect insurance than to invest in capital improvements, NYC has become so safe and celebrated, its biggest problem is affordability.
The second biggest domestic success of the neoconservatives was the welfare reform of the Clinton-Gingrich co-dominion. This transformation of welfare into workfare by limiting the total years of federal public assistance available, giving block grants to states, and allowing the states to create their own programs to encourage work was so successful even the left-center New Republic praised it. More important than any accolades is the fact that it shrunk the welfare rolls and the poverty rate.
(Undoubtedly, we would be a better nation if the federal government paid down the debt rather than engage in federal programs that foster coercive federalism and exist despite being absent from its constitutionally enumerated powers. However, history has proven that this is not going to happen. The maxim that “the best is the enemy of the good” applies, for just as clearly as it is to many that the federal government has no business in anti-poverty programs it is also clear that it is not getting out of this business anytime soon. This is not to acquiesce to the constitutional violations of the nanny state; it is to understand that only a long-term effort to restore limited government, while giving people a hand up instead of institutionalizing handouts, has any chance of success.)
Finally, the third amazing success of the neoconservative movement, and the principle foreign policy victory, was the embrace of American strength vis-a-vis the Soviet Empire. When many Americans were willing to split the world in two in a negotiated “peace” with the evil empire, the neoconservative movement and modern conservativism’s greatest political champion, Ronald Reagan, said no. No amount of revisionism can undo the plain historical fact that a policy of peace and dialogue through strength, assertive posturing, a strong military, and moral and financial support to anti-communist elements on both sides of the Iron Curtain brought down the Soviet Union.
Both President George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservativism” and misunderstanding of the War against Islamism has sullied some of the public on neoconservative thought and policy. But even in the unpopular Iraq and Afghan fronts the isolationists put the cart before the horse. The isolationists posit that the stated goal of bringing liberal democracy was cover for the true goal of indefinite occupation(s); they then further posit that our retreat from both Iraq and Afghanistan shows the concept of military occupation and liberal democracy promotion false. Here again history is the neoconservative’s friend. The fact that American troops in Japan, Germany, South Korea and many other countries around the world did not coincide with the creation of American pro-consuls and many times did coincide with the planting of the liberal democratic idea is undeniable.
Isolationists have been proven by history to be wrong on their foreign policy critique of the neoconservative movement and ignorant of its domestic policy achievements. On foreign policy the isolationists have one answer – no. No to asking our allies to take a greater say in their defense (as the neoconservative movement in Japan rightfully desires), no to dealing with Chinese bellicosity, no to addressing dangerous ayatollahs who seek the A-bomb and have stated hundreds of times their desire to harm the US, and no to supporting those who argued that Putin was a danger long before his Crimean adventure. Isolationists falsely accuse neoconservatives of having no domestic policy when they themselves offer no policy but the rejection of foreign policy.
The neoconservative movement began as a migration of latter day conservatives, who along with their intellectual successors, have contributed greatly to the common sense cause of shrinking government, fighting crime effectively, and promoting our values abroad. The movement was founded mainly by Jews, Catholics, and big city residents – groups that today’s conservative movement need to reach in order to build a big tent coalition. If we are ever to save our nation from the coming fiscal fall and deal effectively with foreign challenges, we must promote our values both at home and abroad.