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The First Neocon War?

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Jefferson Morley:

The War of 1812 matters because it was America’s first war of choice. The United States did not have to declare war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812, to survive as a nation and indeed President James Madison did not want to. The newly founded United States was growing westward but the “war hawks” in Congress pressed for a conflict with America’s former colonial masters in the hopes of gaining even more territory to the north. The term “hawk” was coined in the run-up to the War of 1812 and the hawks of U.S. foreign policy have been with us ever since.

The War of 1812 was America’s first neocon war. With an audacity that would become familiar, the war hawks appealed to a combination of personal pride — the British navy was forcibly conscripting Americans — and the prospect of material gain — the absorption of British Canada — wrapped up in love of country. No one said the conquest of Canada would be a “cakewalk,” but the hawks were confident the Americans would be greeted as liberators.

Like future neoconservative wars, the War of 1812 did not go so well. Neither the citizenry nor the army was quite as ready as the hawks imagined. The Americans did destroy Indian tribes that had allied with the British but they underestimated the Canadians. U.S. forces attacking Canada were repeatedly repulsed in 1812-1814, giving the Canadians a quiet superiority complex that they have not entirely lost to this day.

Longtime readers will recall that I reject the “war of choice, war of necessity” dichotomy, and the usage here is a good reason why. Surely the decision to go to war in 1812 was a “choice” in the sense that the United States could have acted differently, and that the US did not plausibly face an existential threat if it chose not to go to war. But then, the same could be said of almost every war that the United States has engaged in, and indeed most wars that any country engages in. Whatever we can say about the wisdom of launching a war against Great Britain in 1812, the US had what in the 19th century was regarded as legitimate casus belli; the Royal Navy was impressing American sailors (and not in a good way), and denying American ships freedom of the seas. Morley elides this by referring to impressment as a point of “personal pride,” which is an odd way of terming the seizure of US nationals exercising free commerce on the high seas. Just wars are obviously not always wise wars, and Madison et al should have realized that the tools of defense statecraft that the British were using to fight Napoleon were not sufficiently exhausted that they wouldn’t also be able to fight the United States. Moreover, the idea that the war was launched to acquire Canada (or even that Canada should have been regarded as a significant prize at the time) is contested by many historians.

My second problem with the passage is the suggestion that neoconservatism is a kind of transhistorical American phenomenon. I’m as suspicious of conservative efforts to normalize US aggression (Robert Kagan’s Dangerous Nation leaps to mind) as I am of leftish efforts to suggest that hawkishness is somehow endemic to the US character. To be sure, the United States has engaged in a thoroughly expansionist policy for most of its history, but this hardly differentiates the United States from Russia or the colonial powers of Europe. Moreover, until the early part of the 20th century the United States was distinctly a military midget, spending far less on defense and employing far fewer soldiers that similarly positioned European countries. It can certainly be argued that the United States spent less on defense than its counterparts in the 19th century because it enjoyed favorable geopolitical conditions, but then the same conditions effectively hold today; what has changed is the US understanding of its global responsibilities, and of the role that military force plays in executing those responsibilities. The utility of drawing connections between 1812 war hawks and modern neoconservatives is exceedingly limited, both because of the transnational nature of “hawkery” and because the vast swaths of US history in which neocons did not hold sway need to be explained in some fashion.

To be sure, Morley’s account seems to be tongue-in-cheek, making any serious effort at debunking rather beside the point. Moreover, I’ve certainly used the term “neocon” in a transnational sense before (“every country has its neocons”). Nevertheless, we should take care in deploying terms outside of their proper historical context. If you only take into account 1812 and 2003, then Henry Clay may look a bit like Dick Cheney, but this is a deeply misleading approach to the history of US foreign policy.

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