Obviously, supporting the spread of democracy hardly requires you to support the Iraq war. But it works the other way around as well. Support for the Iraq war doesn't automatically make you a neoconservative. Douglas J. Feith, a former undersecretary of defense after 9/11, argues in his new memoir, "War and Decision," that democratization didn't rank very high among the Bush administration's early priorities. Moreover, the administration's mistakes in Iraq - perhaps including the war itself - have less relationship to ideology than many think. "It is possible," as Kagan notes, "to be prudent or imprudent, capable or clumsy, wise or foolish, hurried or cautious in pursuit of any doctrine." (Just ask newly hired Hamas spokesman Jimmy Carter.)
America's forcible promotion of democracy has been both successful (Germany, Japan) and unsuccessful (Vietnam). Where Iraq will fall in the win-loss columns is unknowable right now. But the idea that the "Iraq project" is some bizarre and otherworldly enterprise will seem laughable to historians a century from now, even if it is viewed as a disaster.
I largely agree with Kagan on all of these points. But I have a problem, too. Kagan embraces and celebrates the definition of neoconservatism as a doctrine of democracy promotion abroad, moralism in foreign policy and unilateralism toward these ends when necessary. But the original neoconservatism of the late '60s and early '70s wasn't about any of these things.
It was about domestic affairs, primarily the dangers of overreach. Less an ideology than a branch of skepticism about the ability of government to achieve anything like utopian goals, neoconservatism was the school for former liberals who'd been "mugged by reality," in Irving Kristol's words.
Kagan and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol (son of Irving) actually rejected the label "neoconservative" when describing their ideal foreign policy in a now-famous 1994 Foreign Affairs essay, "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy." Yet, since then, their neo-Reaganism has simply been called "neoconservatism."
Hence the irony: The best cure for today's neoconservatism is a big dose of the neoconservatism of old.