The most clear counterpoint to neoconservative foreign policy has always been realism, not liberalism. Neoconservatives differ most starkly from realists, in that realists believe the only justification for acting in the wider world is to promote our national interests. Human rights don't matter. Democracy doesn't matter. On the other hand, neoconservatives believe that American power can be used to makeover the world entirely: after we crushed Saddam Hussein, all the other dictators in the world would quake in fear, and a Pax Americana would reign.
Liberals have always had more in common with neoconservatives than realists. We believe that democracy and freedom matter. We believe in humanitarian intervention. And we agree with neoconservatives that people everywhere, including the people in Iraq, should be free, and that we should take steps to promote their freedom. But we have very different notions about how to achieve those goals.
Consider this passage from Kristol's piece:
On Iran, Obama did say he’d be taking “a new approach,” that “engagement is the place to start” with “a new emphasis on being willing to talk.” But he also reminded Stephanopoulos that the Iranian regime is exporting terrorism through Hamas and Hezbollah and is “pursuing a nuclear weapon that could potentially trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.” He said his willingness to talk would be combined with “clarity about what our bottom lines are” — one of them presumably being, as he’s said before, no Iranian nuclear weapons. And he demonstrated a sense of urgency — “we anticipate that we’re going to have to move swiftly in that area.”
So: After talks with Iran (if they happen) fail to curb Iran’s nuclear program, but (perhaps) impress other nations with our good faith, we’ll presumably get greater international support for sanctions. That will also (unfortunately) fail to deter Iran. “Engagement is the place to start,” Obama said, but it’s not likely to be the place Obama ends. He’ll end up where Bush is — with the choice of using force or acquiescing to the idea of a nuclear Iran.
When you set aside his assumptions about what the future holds, you see that Kristol actually is detailing the difference between the approach Obama will take with Iran and what Bush would prefer. Liberals and neoconservatives both don't want to see Iran acquire a nuclear weapon. But we have different notions about how we might achieve that goal. Kristol attempts to minimize those differences by assuming, without argument, that Obama's approach will leave him in no better position than Bush.
And maybe it won't. Maybe we, with the help of the rest of the world, have nothing to offer Iran, and nobody can stop them from getting nukes. Or maybe not. But what distinguishes us from Kristol and Bush is our willingness to use diplomacy, to engage the rest of the world and to appreciate our own limitations. Believing in the United States's strength is not the same as thinking that our military might is the best way to solve this problem.
As liberals, we should embrace our concern for the rest of the world. We don't need to disengage. We need to engage more, and we need to engage more effectively. That might not give us a Pax Americana. But it will sow the seeds of a more just and more stable world in this new global age.