Democracy promoter: George W. Bush endorsed neoconservative ideas at the dedication of his presidential library in April 2013
Zombies, the dictionary tells us, are "animated corpses revived by mystical means, such as magic or witchcraft". This is how their many enemies have often regarded neoconservative foreign policy ideas and those who propagate them. Foreign Policy magazine once happily concluded that neoconservative ideas "lie buried in the sands of Iraq", but back they came, dominating the 2012 Republican Party presidential campaign and dominating the party still. Can this be explained — except by black magic?
There are better theories. Let us first define terms: what is neoconservatism? A writer for the Huffington Post defined it as "unilateralism, pre-emptive war, and democracy promotion". This is reductive and nasty, but the success of neoconservatism appears to provoke such comments. The American expat writer Stefan Halper said neoconservatism was to be understood as "delivering democracy out of the back of a Humvee". On the Daily Beast the journalist David Margolick offered a slightly better definition, stressing "the Manichean world view, the missionary zeal, the near-jingoistic view of America, the can-do spirit, and impatience with nuance". Justin Vaisse, the French historian who wrote the book Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement and is now director of policy planning at the French foreign ministry, suggested five pillars of neoconservatism in his 2010 Brookings Institution paper called "Why Neoconservatism Still Matters": internationalism, primacy (of the United States in world politics), unilateralism, militarism, democracy — and elsewhere in the same article refers to its mix of "assertiveness, patriotism, and self-righteousness".
Now we are getting closer. Omit the negative value judgments in some of these definitions and one is left with patriotism, American exceptionalism, a belief in the goodness of America and in the benefits of American power and of its use, and a conviction that democracy is the best system of government and should be spread whenever that is practical. It should not be shocking that such views win wide popularity in the United States, though perhaps that last idea — spreading democracy — is the most controversial.
The continuing relevance, indeed power, of these ideas is clear, and it is equally clear that they are not held only by a small coterie of intellectuals in Washington. As that article on the Daily Beast noted, those neocon "impulses" are "as old as the country itself, dating back to John Winthrop and running through Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and John F. Kennedy." President George W. Bush endorsed democracy promotion yet again at the dedication of his presidential library in April when he said, "My deepest conviction, the guiding principle of the administration, is that the United States of America must strive to expand the reach of freedom." During the 2012 campaign, neoconservatives and neoconservative ideas were prominent in the Romney campaign and throughout the primary season. Indeed this prominence led a disgusted Zbigniew Brzezinski to say, "The Republican would-be candidates are simply regurgitating ideas originally disseminated by the neocons." He was to a large extent correct, in itself a rare enough occurrence to warrant our notice. Jacob Heilbrunn, who in 2008 wrote the book They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, now in 2013 writes about a "neocon resurgence" and their "mounting dominance" in the Republican Party. "By and large," he says, neocons "set the template for the discussion of foreign policy in the GOP. Their ascendance suggests that it is most improbable that a debate, let alone a civil war, will erupt within the GOP over foreign affairs. On the contrary, the neocons appear to be more firmly in control than ever," which Heilbrunn, it must be added, laments. Vin Weber, the former Republican congressman who remains an active and influential voice in the party, has said that neoconservatism "remains the dominant intellectual force on foreign policy thinking in the Republican Party".
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