Neoconservatism: A Good Idea That Won’t Go Away

Critics like to think that neoconservative ideas lie buried in the sands of Iraq. But neocons are still in the mainstream of US politics

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”. 

Those who remain mystified by this, who like the leftist New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd cannot understand how the neocons “slithered back”, should also consider the alternative world views. That is, what theories is neoconservatism defeating in the fight for influence?

Here a bit of history helps. Neoconservatism emerged in the Democratic Party as a reaction against two evils (as seen by hawkish Democrats). The first was the Nixon-Kissinger version of realpolitik, which was seen as an amoral policy — the kind of thing that led President Ford to refuse to receive Alexander Solzhenitsyn at the White House. The second was “McGovernism” in their own party, with its urgings to “Come Home, America” and avoid foreign entanglements, based on the view that America would only make things worse by extending its history of supporting repressive, right-wing regimes. As Vaisse correctly put it, because neocons wanted a foreign policy that was both muscular in promoting American interests and moralistic in promoting freedom, “They found themselves battling not only the left wing of the Democrats but also Nixon and Kissinger’s realist policy of détente, which included de-emphasising ideological concerns.”

Neocons find themselves in the same battle still, and still in both parties. In the GOP, the enemy is the Scowcroftian or Kissingerian realpolitik as well as the new Ron Paul, Rand Paul libertarian isolationism (though Rand Paul protests that he is more a very careful internationalist than a true isolationist). In the Democratic Party, the enemy is the Obama version of McGovernism: the reluctance to use American power, the apparent view that American influence and intervention will always make things worse, the fear of American nationalism, and the almost contemptuous dismissal of democracy-promotion. 

Then there is the “Jewish question”. It is clear that many neocon founders were Jews, but equally clear that many who were over the years champions of neoconservative ideals, from Henry M. Jackson and Jeane Kirkpatrick, to George W. Bush and Richard Cheney, were not. A look at the newest generation of neocons (of this, more below) — some of them lesser -known today, but give it five or ten years — also shows people like Liz Cheney, Jamie Fly and Christian Brose who, whatever else they may be, are not Jewish. It is also clear that one of the most unattractive things about the opposition to neoconservatism is its inability to stay away from anti-Semitism. Two of the most frequent and acerbic critics are Pat Buchanan and Steven Walt. Among other things Buchanan’s long history of defending Nazi war criminals and denying aspects of the Holocaust led the late William F. Buckley Jr. to write in his magazine National Review: “I find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he did and said during the period under examination amounted to anti-Semitism.” That judgment stands. Walt is a Harvard professor and co-author of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, which says American support for Israel cannot be explained except by pressure from Jews who cleverly manipulate American foreign policy; not coincidentally the same charge made against neocons.

In April, reacting nastily to the good feelings prevalent at the opening of the Bush Library, the journalist Carl Bernstein could not avoid referring to Iraq as an “insane war” caused largely by “Jewish neocons who wanted to remake the world”. Even his host on the left-leaning MSNBC cable network rebuked him (noting that George Tenet, George Bush and Dick Cheney were not Jewish), but the feeling is there: critics of neoconservatism far too often fall into anti-Semitic tropes.

With enemies like these the success of neoconservatism, at least in remaining alive and influential, is not incomprehensible. To take the GOP first, one problem the realpolitik school has is that its main proponents are about 90 years old. Vin Weber noted that leaders of the alternative realist school “seem like some celibate religious sect, unable or disinclined to reproduce”. Conversely, as Justin Vaisse explained, “neoconservatism is regenerating itself and keeping a balanced age pyramid. Its idealistic and patriotic appeal may be better suited to attract young thinkers than the prudent and reasonable calculations of realism.” And he added that this “demographic dynamism is also true in terms of institutions and publications”. On the Democratic side, neocons, as Vaisse says, “offer the most clear-cut alternative to the current administration”. 

When the administration was young this may have seemed simply like Republicans critcising a Democrat. But now in year five of Obama, the neocon critique finds reverberations among Democrats as well. Too many of the administration’s policies — outreach to Iran and to Russia, passivity in Syria, failure to support democratic forces in Iran and more recently Egypt — are making Democrats nervous. A policy of American weakness, a desire to remain out of the fray, and a deeply dubious assessment of American morality may have seemed just the ticket to defeat the GOP in 2008, reacting to George W. Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But will such policies bring victory in 2016, when Obama is gone and those wars are behind the United States? Within the Democratic Party there remain internationalists, many of them associated with the Clinton years, and indeed Hillary Clinton herself may be the next Democratic candidate. She is no neocon, but she does appear to be far closer than Obama to the view that Madeline Albright, her husband’s secretary of state, espoused when she called the United States the “indispensable nation”.

A more trenchant and interesting criticism of neoconservatism than the personal smears and anti-Semitism coming from parts of the enraged Right and Left is that from what John Bolton called the “national security Republicans” in last month’s Standpoint (“America’s isolationists endanger the West”). Bolton claimed that “neocons do not dominate Republican thinking any more than isolationists do, despite the media hype”. Here we simply disagree, and I find Weber’s conclusion (“dominant intellectual force”) more persuasive. Listen to the Republican officials debating during the 2012 campaign, or discussing Syria in 2012 and 2013, and that much seems clear. War-weariness is always a powerful sentiment, as it was after Vietnam. But it passes. And so will that element of Republican reluctance to support overseas actions that is in fact a vote of no confidence in the sitting President. I too would shrink from having Barack Obama as commander-in-chief in any new conflict, given the administration’s record in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, and Syria of reluctance to engage forcefully enough to win.

But Bolton’s complaint is that neocons believe in “democracy promotion” and that this is not far from what Democrats call “humanitarian intervention”. He asks “how much differentiates [neocons] from the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine”, and slaps “expansive, unrealistic theorising, and a penchant for intervention seemingly for its own sake”. His own formula is “advancing and defending American interests” in an “interest-based approach” without the human rights and humanitarian elements. He strongly opposes what he calls “the new isolationism” and warns that those on the Right who take this position find themselves “imitating their leftist doppelgangers”.

Leaving aside the snarkier parts of his description (“intervention seemingly for its own sake”) as unworthy of serious argument, Bolton is attempting to stake out ground between what he sees as the neocon territory and the Paulian isolationists. His magic word is “interests” but it is insufficient. Those in both parties who argue for intervention in Syria (as I have for two years) do not do so primarily because we favour free elections there, but precisely because we thought it in America’s interests to bring down a key part of Iran’s and Hezbollah’s defence perimeter, and because we feared the growing arrival of jihadis in Syria to fight what they viewed as Sunni battles. That conclusion could be reached without the slightest reference to democracy in a future Syria or even to a humanitarian crisis so large that, by now, it threatens stability in Jordan — whose stability is an American “interest”. 

Bolton may argue that generally, the development of democracy is not an American interest. But take a look at Egypt. There are democrats, liberals, secularists, Christians, and moderates in that country; one should recall that Mohammed Morsi was elected with only 51 per cent of the vote and polls show a steady decline in the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood because it has not delivered economic progress and its rule is increasingly repressive. Is it not in America’s interests to speak out in favour of freedom of speech, press and assembly there, and loudly to oppose arrests for “insulting the president”? 

“Responsibility to protect” doctrine is about military intervention, but neoconservatism — from its roots in Henry Jackson’s efforts to liberate Soviet Jewry, to Reagan’s push for transitions to democracy in places like Chile, the Philippines, and South Korea and his creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, to Bush’s espousal of democracy in Lebanon, Palestine and Burma and his support for the Dalai Lama — is caricatured if its emphasis on ideological warfare and on verbal and programmatic support for the expansion of freedom is forgotten. War-weary Republicans (and Democrats too) may seek to avoid new military commitments; that does not mean they believe the expansion of freedom is unrelated to American “interests”.

I suspect that no presidential candidate in 2016 will say “I am a neoconservative” or “we are all neoconservatives now”. The term has suffered from too much opprobrium, and why should any politician wish to spend his time explaining himself lexicographically? But the ideas remain potent, and a look at the GOP line-up — Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan — suggests that as with McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012 the easiest one-word explanation of their foreign policy planks will be “neoconservatism”: American exceptionalism, American power, patriotism, freedom. Those zombies never die, you know.

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