Reimagining Neo-conservatism

Like many commentators, this columnist has been both right and wrong in the past, but there is one thing of which he remains very proud.

In the early stages of discussion around the invasion of Iraq, this columnist argued that the Arab world was ready for democracy. Democratic reforms sometimes sweep whole regions, such as Latin America in the 1980s. In the face of ridicule from both leftists and other neo-conservatives, this columnist made the case that the Arab world was approaching such a tipping point. It was ten years before the world caught up with this prediction, but it did so in style.

Neo-conservatism – the doctrine that it is in the interests of the US actively to spread democracy and freedom – no longer depends on the invasion of Iraq to serve as a model. That is only one way of confronting tyranny. Targeted actions to tip the balance in a civil war, as in Libya, are another approach. A third is covert action by the CIA and special forces, which brought down the Taliban in Afghanistan. But these actions only bring governments down. They do not build new ones.

USAID, the arm of the State Department that provides foreign aid to has a budget of around $16 billion a year and spends money in more than 100 countries. That’s around half the countries in the world. Couldn’t that money be better targeted on a smaller number of countries that really need help or where spending money would be particularly effective? Of course, the money is somewhat targeted. Afghanistan is just one country, but gets more than 10% of the money. Has that been effective? Forestalling disaster in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a legitimate national security concern for the US, but an equally valid plan is to build in the Arab world Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill”.

Afghanistan gets 300 times as much aid as Morocco, one of the better run Arab countries, rated ‘partly free’ by Freedom House, along with Iraq, Kuwait and Lebanon. Until the Arab Spring, all other Arab countries were ‘not free,’ and none has yet established free institutions since then. Why not simply bribe an Arab country to build a viable culture of freedom?

The steps necessary for this are largely unconnected with voting. That follows the civic society rather than creating it. A country needs a clear definition of property rights and an independent judiciary to enforce them. It needs a substantial network of voluntary organizations. It needs progress towards universal literacy, and needs to understand that ‘universal’ includes girls.

How could, say, Morocco, get there? It would need a network of chambers of commerce and professional societies. It would need better elementary schools and literacy classes for pregnant women. It would need women’s reading circles. It would need annual public speaking contests for all age groups with separate prizes for men/boys and women/girls. That would establish a network of civic leaders for the future.

Morocco is a constitutional monarchy, so the King could concede all this and slowly transfer his remaining powers to elected leaders but still stay on as King. Bashar Assad in Syria could not hand over power while staying in office. To implement such a plan USAID should offer matching funds to American voluntary societies creating twinning relationships with groups in Morocco. This would be far more effective than government to government aid.

Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at

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