Joe Biden, Neocon?

Today’s WSJ editorial is entitled, “The Bush-Biden Doctrine: ‘Realists’ discover the virtues of democracy in Pakistan.” Here’s the opener:

Whatever Pervez Musharraf’s failings in Islamabad, his impact in Washington has been nothing short of miraculous. With his declaration of emergency rule, the Pakistan President has single-handedly revived the Bush Doctrine. The same people who only days ago were deriding President Bush for naively promoting democracy are now denouncing him for not promoting it enough in Pakistan.

“We have to move from a Musharraf to a Pakistan policy,” declared Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden on Thursday. “Pakistan has strong democratic traditions and a large, moderate majority. But that moderate majority must have a voice in the system and an outlet with elections. If not, moderates may find that they have no choice but to make common cause with extremists, just as the Shah’s opponents did in Iran three decades ago.”

Joe Biden, neocon.


I came to the piece via a link from Small Wars Journal and was expecting to be amused by the WSJ trying to prop up the legitimacy of President Bush’s foreign policy by tying him to Joe Biden. (I don’t care who you are, that’s funny right there.) Instead, I’m bemused that they seem not to understand what a neocon is.

Neoconservative foreign policy, if such can be said to exist (the founding neocon, Irving Kristol, says it can’t) is, in its modern incarnation, encapsulated in the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) Statement of Principles issued in June 1997.

  • we need to increase defense spending significantly if we are to carry out our global responsibilities today and modernize our armed forces for the future;
  • we need to strengthen our ties to democratic allies and to challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values;
  • we need to promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad;
  • we need to accept responsibility for America’s unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles.

Neoconservatism, then, combines a Wilsonian idealism with a White Man’s Burden imperialism. Based on the international relations truism that democracies don’t go to war with other democracies, it rejects the Realist notion that values are immaterial in foreign policy and that only interests matter. For neocons, promoting our values is a vital interest.

Viewed in this light, the Bush policy on Pakistan has not been neoconservative at all. The administration has ignored the so-called Bush Doctrine with respect to Pakistan. They’ve reluctantly siddled up to a dictator that candidate Bush knew only as “The new Pakistani general, he’s just been elected — not elected, this guy took over office.” They’ve done so out of pure Realpolitik, needing his cooperation (such as it is) to fight the more important war in Afghanistan.

Bush has continued this policy since Musharraf issued his state of emergency decree. He’s put quiet pressure on — perhaps with significant success — but ultimately made it clear that we’re not about to cut ties with a key ally, regardless of our loathing of his domestic policy. Biden has talked a slightly more Idealist game:

Biden warned that if Musharraf does not restore democracy, “U.S. military aid will be in great jeopardy,” and said “big-ticket weapons systems” would be on the table, with Congress ready to act, if Bush and Musharraf don’t.

Biden said the U.S. must take a broader approach to Pakistan centered on the well-being of its people, rather than just the stability of its leadership, and said he would start by tripling non-military aid to the country, to $1.5 billion annually. “Instead of funding military hardware, it would build schools, clinics, and roads,” Biden said. He would also create a “democracy dividend” of $1 billion, for the first year of democratic rule.

Bush officials have also threatened to rescind aid, although it has been rather clear that this was an empty threat. Biden’s statement is a bit stronger in that regard; then again, he’s just a third tier candidate spouting off on the campaign trail. Were he actually having to make the hard decisions, I suspect that he, like most before him, would find himself tempering his ideals against the consequences of his actions.

Regardless, however, even if Biden were to actually carry out his election rhetoric, it would not qualify him as a “neocon.” Offering economic and diplomatic incentives to influence the domestic policy of others is well within the bipartisan mainstream of American foreign policy going back decades. He’s not threatening to invade Pakistan to turn them into a democracy at the point of a loving military. Nor, I say again, is President Bush.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    You may recall that I made a similar point on OTB Radio this week, James. It’s hard for me to see how one reconciles the notion that a strong-man government is a bad idea for Pakistan but a good idea for the Middle East.

    Further, I think that Sen. Biden’s characterization of Pakistani politics is dangerously reductionist. The modern state of Pakistan has only existed for a little more than fifty years. It’s had civilian rule for a little less than 10 of those. How that translates into “strong democratic traditions” baffles me. Aspirations, maybe. Traditions? Not so much.

    Pakistan has a Westernized elite but it also has a large, vocal Islamist faction of a particularly vehement stamp. Without persistent democratic institutions, civil governance, or a tradition of the protection of minority rights it seems to me that democracy in Pakistan is likely to be of the “one man, one vote, one time” variety.

    Without institutions of the sort I’ve suggested above, the number of radicals in Pakistan is far more important than how many moderates there might be.

  2. Tano says:

    Its getting to be quite the pattern – any foreign policy approach to the right of Dennis Kucinich’s is labeled as essentially a version of neoconism.

    The unmistakable sign of a discredited ideology arguing for a historical role as the essential core of its successor policy.

    Pretty funny, actually.

    and yet another chapter in that ongoing narrative question – how is it that the editorial board of such a grand newspaper as the WSJ can be so consistently ridiculous?

  3. anjin-san says:

    The same people who only days ago were deriding President Bush for naively promoting democracy

    What a crock of…

    No one objects to promoting democracy. It’s the Iraq approach of “you have to become a democracy even if the process kills you” that is a problem.

    Then there is the fact that Bush has worked so hard to kill democracy right here in America… something of a contradiction.

  4. Eric says:

    I think that now -in the closing months of 2007- there are so few champions of democracy left, the mere act of supporting democracy is enough to make you a Neocon.

    Does that make me depressingly cynical or a keen observer? You decide.