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Blaming Neo-Liberals for GWOT Failures
US Public Not Making Sacrifices Because Leaders Have Not Asked for Any
Neo-conservative thinking has slowly descended into disrepute in the wake of disastrous developments in the Iraq war, though Alasdair Roberts believes the dominance of neo-liberal philosophy deserves a greater share of the blame.

In his view, those individuals driving the policy decision-making inside the Bush Administration were pursuing a determined course of action, which became necessarily limited due to the expectations of the American people.

Roberts, professor of public administration at Syracuse University and author of the forthcoming book The Collapse of Fortress Bush: The Crisis of Authority in American Government, writes in a cover story for this month's Foreign Policy (sub req.) that a common narrative has grown in recent years, which blames a small cabal of neo-conservative thinkers with essentially hijacking American foreign policy.

Unfortunately, though, this convenient story is fiction, and it’s peddling a dangerously misguided view of history. The American public at large is more deeply implicated in the design and execution of the war on terror than it is comfortable to admit. In the six years of the war, through an invasion of Afghanistan, a wave of anthrax attacks, and an occupation of Iraq, Americans have remained largely unshaken in their commitment to a political philosophy that demands much from its government but asks little of its citizens.

The neo-liberal philosophy of small government, low taxes, free trade policies has dominated American politics since at least the early 1980s, he writes, creating a culture of expectations that rests on a skepticism of big government. The result has been to create a generation of politicians driven to assuage voters' suspicion of massive federal projects, and pursue endeavors unlikely to disrupt the status quo or incur significant costs.

This rejection of sacrifice on a national scale contributed to the bungled war the United States finds itself in today. The war on terror is not simply a neoconservative project. It is as much a neoliberal project, shaped by views about the role of government that enjoy broad public support.

In Roberts' view, the post-9/11 world demanded a massive US government response, which the Bush Administration attempted haphazardly, hamstrung as it apparently was by the expectations of the American people for limited government and low taxes.

While his thesis is interesting, it does little to convince this reader that the American people must shoulder the blame for the shortcomings of the war on terror. Certainly they want low taxes and small government, and the Bush Administration has perhaps unwisely tried its best to adhere to those principles while still conducting two wars abroad and expanding the security apparatus domestically.

The president has control of the bully pulpit, however, and declined to use it to communicate that circumstances required sacrifice on the part of the American people. Instead, his post-9/11 advice was for everyone to go about their daily lives, go shopping, and travel, as if nothing had changed.

As the invasion of Iraq neared, Pentagon adviser Kenneth Adelman said it would be a "cakewalk," the White House's budget chief estimated the total cost could run around $20 billion, and the Pentagon's civilian leadership rejected any suggestion that the US needed to send more than 200,000 troops to the region.

It's the mark of good leadership to accurately communicate the risks and costs associated with a certain path, and to inspire a citizenry to rise to the challenges at hand.

The American people could be criticized for their complacency or naivety for believing the invasion and occupation of a foreign country of 25 million people 6,000 miles away would be so simple, but they can't be blamed for a failure of leadership that refused to publicly acknowledge the real risks of the path down which they were steering the country.


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