17 Αυγούστου 2014

Neoconservatism and American Foreign Policy and Why Neoconservatism Still Matters.

I) Why Neoconservatism Still Matters
What neoconservatism means today - The five pillars of neoconservatism (Internationalism, Primacy, Unilateralism, Militarism, Democracy) - Reasons for resilience: why neocons are still influential
II) Neoconservatism and American Foreign Policy
Neoconservatism - The Neoconservative ‘War on Terror’ - Neoconservatism and Islam - The Israel Factor in Neoconservatism - Continuity or Change? - The Perseverance of the Persuasion
Το (I) έχει ως κύριο άξονα την εθνική, ενώ το (II) την παγκόσμια αμερικανική πολιτική.

Why Neoconservatism Still Matters

This paper, originally published by the Lowy Institute in its “Perspectives” series and reprinted with its permission, is based on and expands upon the author’s forthcoming Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement, Cambridge, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, May 2010 (translation by Arthur Goldhammer), especially chapter 7.
POLICY PAPER. Number 20, May 2010 Foreign Policy at BROOKINGS
The world started paying attention to the existence of American neoconservatives in 2002-2003, as they stepped up their campaign in favor of an invasion of Iraq. In the following years, their trajectory was generally seen as a short-lived aberration, a rapid rise and fall ending in the failure that was the Iraq intervention, discrediting once and for all their idealistic militarism. In other words, neo-conservatives are now seen as something of the past.
This conventional view, however, is inaccurate on two counts. First, the neoconservatives never had the kind of overbearing influence on the Bush administration many opponents credit them with, including on the Iraq war. Second, not only had this school of thought been active in American foreign policy debates for three decades before the Iraq episode, but it actually never left the Washington political and intellectual scene—even at the time of its greatest ebb, in 2005-2007. On the contrary, neoconservatism remains, to this day, a distinct and very significant voice of the Washington establishment.
After offering a presentation of what neoconservatism really means, and contrasting it with other schools of thought in American foreign policy, this paper lays out the main reasons behind their continued influence in the Obama era—their institutional, intellectual and political dynamism—and argues that neoconservatives will play a meaningful role in shaping American foreign policy in the future.

What neoconservatism means today

The label “neoconservative” was first used in the early 1970s by friends and enemies of a group of New York intellectuals who were critical of the leftward turn that American liberalism had, in their view, taken in the previous decade. What these intellectuals reacted against was a mix of social movements—like student protests, counterculture, black nationalism, radical feminism and environmentalism—and government overreach through Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” programs. While in no way defenders of the free market or the night-watchman state like the true National Review conservatives, they stressed the limits of social engineering (through transfers of wealth or affirmative action programs) and pointed out the dangers that the boundless egalitarian dreams of the New Left had created for stability, meritocracy and democracy. Intellectuals such as Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, James Q. Wilson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan coalesced around The Public Interest, a magazine created by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell in 1965, and a few years later around Commentary, whose editor was Norman Podhoretz.
These original neoconservative were New York-based intellectuals, primarily interested in domestic issues, and they still regarded themselves as liberals. That is why the disconnect could not seem more complete between them and the latter-day neocons, who are Washington-based political operatives identified with the right, interested exclusively in foreign policy, and who have a solid, if not excessive, confidence in the ability of the American government to enact social change—at least in Iraq or Afghanistan. There exists, nonetheless, a tenuous link between the two groups, which explains why the label has travelled through time. This link is provided by a third, intermediate family of neoconservatives, the Scoop Jackson Democrats of the 1970s and 1980s—named after Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a Democrat from Washington state—and the real ideological ancestors of the contemporary neocons, the ones who literally invented neoconservative foreign policy.
The Scoop Jackson Democrats were also born of a reaction to the New Left, but this time, inside the Democratic Party, when Senator George McGovern won the nomination to be the Democratic candidate against Richard Nixon in 1972. McGovern was seen by traditional Democrats as way too far to the left, both in domestic policy (he supported massive social programs and affirmative action through quotas) and in foreign policy, where he advocated a hasty retreat from Vietnam, deep cuts in the defense budget, and a neo-isolationist grand strategy. Coalescing around Commentary, Scoop Jackson’s Senate office and a group called the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, Democratic operatives and intellectuals such as Richard Perle, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Eugene Rostow, Ben Wattenberg, Joshua Muravchik, Elliott Abrams, and others, tried to steer the Democratic Party back to the center. They wanted to get back to the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy: progressive policies at home, muscular anti-communism abroad, including the defense of human rights and fellow democracies. That is why 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-emphasizing ideological concerns and engaging Moscow, thereby, from the neoconservative perspective, legitimizing the Soviet regime rather than trying to change it.
Since the much tougher line they advocated failed to win the favors of the Democratic Party (Jimmy Carter remained, in their view, way too dovish), the Scoop Jackson Democrats crossed party lines and went to work for the Ronald Reagan administration. They inspired part of Reagan’s foreign policy —including support for the “freedom fighters” to harass the Soviet empire, especially in Afghanistan and Central America, the defense build-up, the hard line on arms control, the “evil empire” rhetoric, and the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy. But ultimately, Reagan distanced himself from this line, especially during his second mandate, not unlike the way George W. Bush did with the neocons after 2005.
For all their differences, the first two families of neo-conservatives—the New York intellectuals and the Scoop Jackson Democrats—had a few things in common. They fought the same enemies, including leftist liberalism, moral relativism and anti-Americanism. They shared journals and institutions (such as Commentary, the Wall Street Journal opinion pages, and the American Enterprise Institute). And a few neoconservatives of the first family, such as Pat Moynihan, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, and Nathan Glazer, became full-fledged neoconservatives of the second family, while some Scoop Jackson Democrats such as Jeane Kirkpatrick got much closer to the original neoconservatives on domestic issues. That is why the label ended up covering the two groups, even though many original neoconservatives, especially Irving Kristol, the most important figure of the movement, did not share the beliefs of the Scoop Jackson Democrats—and The Public Interest, the flagship journal of the original neoconservatives, never dealt with foreign policy.
Then, in the mid-1990s, at the very moment when neoconservatism was being declared dead because the Cold War had been won, a third family of neoconservatives appeared: the latter-day neocons, who coalesced around The Weekly Standard (launched in 1995), the American Enterprise Institute, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC, 1997-2006), and figures such as Bill Kristol, son of Irving Kristol, Robert Kagan, Gary Schmitt, Max Boot and Doug Feith. They are the ideological heirs of the Scoop Jackson Democrats, but with some differences. First, they are now firmly located within the Republican family. The newcomers, the younger neocons, were never Democrats or liberals. It means, among other things, that they have to somehow reconcile their foreign policy stance with the electoral interests of the Republican Party. Second, America’s relative power in the world has increased considerably since the days of Scoop Jackson and Ronald Reagan: the Soviet enemy is gone, and America’s military force and economic strength are greater than ever (this, of course, has been less true recently). Whereas the Scoop Jackson Democrats urged Americans not to retreat, and to defend democracy and human rights, the neocons exhort them to advance and to act boldly—in other words, to use American power to shape a world that is safer for all.
Before getting to the specifics of this foreign policy vision, some basic characteristics of neoconservatism should also be mentioned. Neoconservatism is, and always was, an elite school of thought, not a popular movement. It was never an electoral force, in the sense that nobody ever got elected on a “neoconservative platform” and there are no neoconservative politicians—even though various political figures such as Scoop Jackson and Ronald Reagan in the past, as well as John McCain and Joe Lieberman in recent years, have been close to this school of thought. Neoconservatism has no religious, regional or economic base. It is in no way an organized force with a central authority. It is at most a network of thinkers sharing an intellectual outlook, or even simply a “persuasion” or “tendency,” as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz sometimes described it. Last but not least, one should always keep in mind the versatility and fickleness of labels, and never make a fetish of them. No two neoconservatives think the same on all issues, and many object to being called neoconservatives in the first place. These are famous examples of people who are incorrectly labeled neocons—such as John Bolton—but also persons whose views are not well ascertained, or have changed over time. This is the case for Dick Cheney, who, after being regarded as a realist, has been a fellow traveler of the neoconservatives since the 1990s and was their mainstay in the Bush administration, even though his own views reflect a pessimistic and narrow focus on national security rather than a bold and optimistic creed in the potential of American power abroad.

The five pillars of neoconservatism

This being said, most contemporary neoconservatives, whether they accept the label or not, share a clearly identified set of principles in foreign policy. Even though they might quibble among themselves on their particular application, the combination of these principles distinguishes the neoconservatives from other schools of thought, most notably the isolationists, the realists and the liberals. The five main neocon tenets presented below—internationalism, primacy, unilateralism, militarism and democracy—can be summarized from a wealth of articles, public letters, statements of principles and manifestoes written in the last 15 years.

The first and most basic tenet of neoconservatism is a firm belief in the need for the United States to play an active role in the world. “The overarching goal of American foreign policy—to preserve and extend an international order that is in accord with both our material interests and our principles—endures,” explained Bob Kagan and Bill Kristol in 2000. “Americans must shape this order, for if we refrain from doing so, we can be sure that others will shape it in ways that reflect neither our interests nor our values.” The danger is not that America would do too much: it is that it would do too little. “Strategic overreach is not the problem and retrenchment is not the solution,” as the mission statement of the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) put it in 2009. This assertive internationalism puts neocons in strong opposition to any form of isolationism and reduction of American presence in the world, whether advocated by the right (like the Cato Institute or Pat Buchanan) or by the liberal left (like the Institute for Policy Studies).
This belief also leads them to advocate foreign interventions more willingly than realists, who have stricter standards for committing U.S. troops and are less prone to consider that America’s credibility, interests or ideals are at stake. In this willingness to intervene, the neocons are close to some liberals—the ones who have been labeled “liberal hawks,” and who advocate humanitarian intervention to stop ethnic cleansing and genocides. This convergence was first observed about the Balkans in the 1990s, when neocons and liberals jointly encouraged Bill Clinton to act decisively in Bosnia and Kosovo, against the opinion of most realists such as James Baker and Colin Powell. And it was largely to fight the apathy of the public and the isolationist mood of the Republican Party on the Balkans that the third family of neoconservatives, the neocons, appeared.

The second pillar of neoconservatism—primacy— can be summarized by a few favorite expressions. “The indispensable nation” was first used by Madeleine Albright, herself a liberal hawk. “The benevolent empire” was coined by Robert Kagan who argued that, compared with past great powers, American hegemony was benign. “The unipolar moment” was coined by Charles Krauthammer. And to maintain sole superpower status by “preventing the re-emergence of a new rival” was an objective put forward by Paul Wolfowitz, then number three at the Pentagon, in an initial draft version of the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance (it was drafted by I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and Zalmay Khalilzad, with input from outsiders such as Richard Perle and Albert Wohlstetter). When stitched together, these expressions point to a simple but powerful idea: American primacy in the international system is a stroke of good fortune for the rest of the world, since America does not seek to conquer and oppress, but rather to liberate and democratize, and offers public goods to all. Unipolarity ensures American security but also global peace and should, therefore, be preserved as long as possible. This strategic vision is grounded in a strong belief in American exceptionalism and the inherent morality of the country, which can lead to a Manichean and self-righteous vision, as seen in George W. Bush’s approach after 9/11. It is exactly the objection realists put forward: a strategy of primacy is self-defeating, they say, as it is too costly and triggers hostile reactions from other powers. America cannot do everything for everyone everywhere, and it cannot be right every time. It should therefore be more selective and focus on keeping a sound balance of power in the world.

Unilateralism, the third principle of neoconservatism, asserts that American power, not the United Nations Security Council, provides peace and security for the rest of the world—from protecting Taiwan, South Korea and Israel to restoring peace in the Balkans, fighting al Qaeda or keeping sea lanes open. The United States, therefore, should not be restrained in its capacity to act, neither by multilateral institutions nor by treaties—whether the International Criminal Court, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, treaties on biological weapons or antipersonnel mines—that rogue states will not respect in any case. In the neoconservative vision, the United Nations is not only ineffective, it is also illegitimate because it is profoundly undemocratic. The U.N. General Assembly gives as much power to Libya as to India, and the Security Council is even more flawed: why should a tyranny (China) and a semi-dictatorship (Russia) hold veto power over what the international community does? The models of collective action neoconservatives prefer are a league of democracies of some sort (as John McCain proposed in 2008) or “coalitions of the willing,” as in the Iraq war, where other countries are invited to join a common effort on terms defined by Washington: the mission defines the coalition, not the other way around. And they believe that the best way to obtain cooperation from other countries is to show resolve: lead, and they will follow eventually. It may not work very well (Europeans didn’t end up helping in Iraq, for example), as quickly pointed out by realists, who are less opposed to multilateralism in principle, and liberals, who are committed to multilateralism. Neoconservatives nonetheless share these unilateralist tendencies with other hawks, such as the “assertive nationalists” or sovereigntists in the mold of John Bolton, Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld.

To maintain primacy and the ability to act unilaterally, large military capacities are needed. If liberals can find common ground with neocons on the necessity of some foreign interventions, they were never fully comfortable with the use of American power. Neocons share nothing of their hesitations. Rather than a Kantian world where international law, globalization and non-state actors would make war irrelevant in most cases, they see a Hobbesian world in which military force and state actors still play an overwhelming role—a belief which, this time, takes them closer to the realists. It is the fourth neoconservative principle: the importance of retaining massive military resources and the political will to use them. This means that the nation must agree to sustained high levels of defense spending; no year passes by without neoconservatives calling for a major increase of the Pentagon budget and the number of U.S. troops. This view, of course, puts neoconservatives at odds with fiscal conservatives, including in the Republican camp, who worry about deficits. It also puts them at odds with observers on the left who argue that America should spend less on guns and more on butter. Unsurprisingly, the recent healthcare reform was criticized by neocons for endangering the federal government’s long-term ability to fund America’s military superiority. This love affair with the American military machine has another aspect to it: the tendency to inflate threats to national security, either out of genuine concern or as a way to mobilize public opinion. From the Committee on the Present Danger of the 1970s to the Rumsfeld Commission on the ballistic missile threat in 1998 and the agitation around Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in 2002-2003, neoconservatives have often succumbed to unwarranted alarmism.

Democracy is the fifth principle, but in no way a mere afterthought. Because America’s origins and identity as a nation cannot be separated from democracy, it should not behave like other powers, and can never remain indifferent to the nature of regimes and the fate of freedom and human rights. That conviction is not exclusive to the neoconservatives, it is shared with many on the left, and not only the liberal hawks. The Clinton administration, for example, put the enlargement of the democratic world at the center of its strategy and in 2000 established the Community of Democracies as an international forum to foster cooperation among democracies. But the particularity of neoconservatives is to blend this conviction with the muscular assertion of American power—a mix Pierre Hassner aptly labeled “Wilsonianism in boots.” In their eyes, what is true morally is also valid strategically. While realists argue that autocracies and democracies do not behave differently in international relations, and that the United States can make deals with both types of regimes, neoconservatives see a very different picture: a world in which wars, proliferation and terrorism derive principally from tyrannical regimes. Consequently, they believe, it is utterly unrealistic, in the long term, to accommodate autocracies rather than try to achieve regime change—whether in the USSR, Iraq, Iran or North Korea.
As George W. Bush explained in 2003, “the world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder.” In 2005, he put the point in even more theoretical terms: “The advance of freedom within nations will build the peace among nations.” While academics have produced multiple quantitative studies to test the democratic peace theory in recent decades, the neocons always considered that, as Charles Krauthammer put it, “democracies are inherently more friendly to the United States, less belligerent to their neighbors, and generally more inclined to peace.” Realists, he added, “are right that to protect your interests you often have to go around the world bashing bad guys over the head. But that technique, no matter how satisfying, has its limits. At some point, you have to implant something, something organic and self-developing. And that something is democracy.”
This does not mean that neocons want to impose democracy at the point of a gun, as their critics often charge. “Exporting democracy” was never the primary goal of the Iraq invasion. But dismissing it as an ex-post facto justification is equally inaccurate. In fact, the lack of democracy was considered a key explanation for the instability of the Middle East by the neocons and the Bush administration, so it had to be addressed if America wanted to treat the disease of terrorism, proliferation and rogue states, and not just the symptoms—and it also happened to be the right thing to do in principle. Neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz believed that democracy could flourish there, against the warnings of most conservatives and many realists who argued that culture and religion would prevent it. Like most liberals, and unlike cultural conservatives, a majority of neoconservatives are universalists. They consider that democracy and human rights are for everybody, regardless of their cultural background. They have little time for the clash of civilizations paradigm and see the world in terms of ideology, not identity. Because they blend universalism with nationalism, with a zest of missionary zeal, they resemble the Jacobins of the French Revolution.
It would be wrong to see these five pillars as abstract or ideological prescriptions detached from reality. Neocons see this set of principles as concrete guidelines validated by history, and one would not understand their foreign policy beliefs without immersing oneself in their (debatable) interpretation of some key events of the past. To cite just a few examples: Victory against the U.S.S.R. was won by the uncompromising and muscular stance adopted by Ronald Reagan (advised by many Scoop Jackson Democrats). America was attacked on 9/11 because it had shown weakness each time the terrorists struck, from Lebanon (1983) to New York (1993), Saudi Arabia (1996) and East Africa (1998). The Iraq invasion of 2003 was more costly and more difficult than first hoped, but it did eventually turn the country into a democracy. Moreover, the Iraq intervention led Libya to give up its WMD out of fear it would suffer the same fate. It also ushered in a new era of democratic movements in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon—and if they have not all succeeded yet, they will eventually.

Reasons for resilience: why neocons are still influential

Far from being some curious isolated cult, neoconservatives are therefore an integral part of current American foreign policy debates, with realists and liberals as their main sparring partners. And while some consider them to have been discredited by the outcome of the Iraq war, a fresh look at their substantial presence and intellectual and political dynamism in Washington suggests otherwise. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that they will not play a significant role in the future of American foreign policy.
First of all, schools of thought are made of men and women, as well as institutions that support them and publications that relay their views and shape the public debate. On this count, neoconservatives are well positioned. Skilled thinkers and writers are in large supply. There is the still active older generation, the Scoop Jackson Democrats, including Norman Podhoretz, Elliott Abrams, Joshua Muravchik, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and James Woolsey. There is also the more recent family of neocons, including Kristol and Kagan, David Brooks, Gary Schmitt, Tom Donnelly, David Frum and Danielle Pletka. But more importantly for the future, there are also men and women in their 40s, 30s and even 20s, whose formative experience is not the Cold War, but the 1990s and, more to the point, 9/11 and the Bush administration’s response. They include Max Boot, Dan Senor, Jamie Fly, Rachel Hoff, Abe Greenwald and Daniel Halper. In this sense, neoconservatism is regenerating itself and keeping a balanced age pyramid. After all, its idealistic, moralistic and patriotic appeal may be better suited to attract young thinkers than the prudent and reasonable calculations of realism.
These younger neoconservative thinkers and operatives have generally received their first internships and jobs, and published their first articles, in the old network of friendly think tanks and publications built by their elders: the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, PNAC, Commentary, The Weekly Standard, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, and so on. Financial support for these institutions from various conservative donors and foundations such as the Scaife family, Bradley, Earhart, Castle Rock, and Smith Richardson foundations (which do not necessarily give only to neoconservatives), shows no sign of abating. But demographic dynamism is also true in terms of institutions and publications. The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies was founded by Cliff May and others in 2001, and houses young and old neocons —from Reuel Gerecht to Michael Ledeen. More importantly, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) was created in the Spring of 2009, under the tutelage of Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan and Dan Senor. Animated by young operatives, it is already making its mark on the Afghanistan and human rights debates, notably by sending public letters signed by neocons and non-neocons alike, a technique used by PNAC in the past. In 2008, Lawrence Kaplan re-launched an old magazine that had disappeared, World Affairs, which is not exclusively neoconservative (its editorial board is ideologically diverse), but does feature many neocons and liberal hawks such as Joshua Muravchik and Peter Beinart. Other, older, publications sympathetic to the neoconservatives and the liberal hawks include The New Republic under Martin Peretz, and the editorial pages of the The Washington Post where Charles Krauthammer has a weekly column and Bob Kagan and Bill Kristol each have a monthly one, and where Fred Hiatt and Jackson Diehl, who edit the editorial pages, have created a friendly environment for neoconservative themes.
Demographic and institutional dynamism would not mean much without intellectual firepower. Neoconservatives do not write for themselves, they take part in the larger debate about U.S. foreign policy in mainstream publications and thereby influence public opinion and, more importantly, elite views. While there have been few conceptual innovations since the resurgence of neoconservatism—the five basic principles outlined above were by and large present in Kristol and Kagan’s 1996 Foreign Affairs article—that is largely true as well for other schools of thought like realism. And neoconservative thinkers sometimes produce articles and books which make their mark on the foreign policy debate. In 2008 for example, Robert Kagan’s The Return of History and the End of Dreams, which described the emerging international landscape as a struggle between the forces of democracy and the increasingly assertive and confident forces of autocracy (led by China and Russia), was an influential book in the United States and beyond, six years after his “Power and Weakness” article had redefined the terms of the debate on transatlantic relations. At a more tactical level, the surge of troops in Iraq in 2007 was partly devised by his brother Fred Kagan working at the American Enterprise Institute—along with retired General Jack Keane and the military commanders David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno. Fred Kagan is also an important voice on the current counter-insurgency debates (along with other neoconservatives such as Max Boot and Tom Donnelly) and was, for example, part of the team of civilian experts who advised General McChrystal on his Afghanistan review in July 2009.
Their intellectual dynamism does not mean, of course, that neoconservatives are influential in the current context of the Obama administration. Obama’s foreign policy team is made up of liberals and realists whose positions are far from those of the neocons. However, opposition is not total. Not only are neoconservatives sometimes joining forces with liberal groups on human rights issues (against the realists), or engaging in conversations with senior administration officials, but they lined up behind the administration war effort in Afghanistan—this time against the liberal left and some realists in both parties. Like they did in the second half of the 1990s, when they were fighting creeping isolationism on the Balkans among Republican ranks, the neocons and in particular FPI is leading the charge against conservative “defeatists”—for example The Washington Post columnist George Will—in favor of a Democratic President they oppose on most other issues.

This campaign against George Will leads us to another aspect of their influence—this time in the political arena. Whereas FPI was set up to fight the post-Bush backlash in foreign policy, in particular inside the Republican Party, there seems to be very little reaction against muscular interventionism in the GOP. On the contrary, neoconservatism, rather than realism, seems to have won the battle for the soul of the party. And if not neoconservatism per se (the base of the GOP is less internationalist than the neocons), at least a hawkish version of foreign policy is prevailing among Republicans—while Democrats and Independents seem firmly in the liberal and realist camp. For example, according to a Pew poll in 2009, a majority of Democrats say decreasing the U.S. military presence overseas (62%) and stepping up diplomatic efforts in Muslim countries (57%), a combination which can be described as being close to the prescriptions of liberals and realists, would have a greater impact in reducing the terrorist threat. Republicans disagree: 62% say that increasing the U.S. military presence abroad is the right answer, while only 22% think that stepping up diplomatic efforts will change anything—a combination which reflects the view of hawks and neocons.
Realists do not dominate the top of the Republican Party either. Two of the leading candidates for the 2008 presidential nomination, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, had many neoconservative advisors on their staffs. John McCain, who ultimately won the nomination, relied on Randy Scheunemann to head his foreign-policy team, which included Max Boot, Robert Kagan, Gary Schmitt, and James Woolsey—and his foreign policy program included many neoconservative ideas such as the creation of a League of Democracies or a hard line on Russia (for example, expulsion from the G-8 and increased support for Georgia). In Spring 2009, former vice president Dick Cheney, a close ally of the neocons, questioned whether Colin Powell, his former colleague in the Bush administration and a leading voice of the realist camp, was still a Republican, saying he thought he “had already left the party.”
Of course, this does not automatically guarantee that the neocons will be influential in 2012. Much will depend on who gets the nomination. In this regard, an interesting division has played out regarding Sarah Palin, the vice-presidential nominee of 2008. While Bill Kristol is credited with having “discovered” her, and Randy Scheunemann is currently advising her on foreign policy, she was opposed by other neoconservatives (including David Frum, Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks) who regarded her as insufficiently qualified in foreign and security policy. And more recently, Bill Kristol voiced concern that she was too close to the libertarian —and partly isolationist— wing of the conservative movement (the tea party activists and Rand Paul). Ultimately, it seems likely that even a more realist-oriented GOP candidate in 2012 would try to include all the different families of conservatives in his team, as George W. Bush did in 1999-2000 when he included Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle among the “Vulcans,” his foreign policy advisors.
Neoconservatives also enjoy a temporary situational advantage in the Republican Party. Obama’s foreign policy, through its willingness to engage in dialogue and negotiations with other powers, including autocracies, and its quieter voice on human rights issues, has claimed the terrain of the realists. So if Republicans want to oppose Obama on foreign policy to score political points, they naturally tend to gravitate around neoconservative ideas. Neocons, in other words, offer the most clearcut alternative to the current administration. Good examples include recent articles by Charles Krauthammer and Bob Kagan. Both attack what they consider to be Obama’s underlying assumption, America’s inevitable decline, as well as his remedy, adapting to a “post-American world” by accommodating other great powers (most of them autocracies) at the expense of traditional allies (most of them democracies). It is the epic 1970s fight between Scoop Jackson Democrats and liberals and realists all over again: Krauthammer attacks Obama’s lack of patriotism and his supposedly apologetic approach (“For the New Liberalism, it is not just that power corrupts. It is that America itself is corrupt”), while Kagan compares him to Kissinger, who was also assailed by neoconservatives for managing America’s decline in the post-Vietnam era through détente rather than stand up to the USSR. To which both add liberal naiveté as a fatal flaw.
The final reason for neoconservative resilience—this time in the medium and long term—is cyclical. While cycles in American foreign policy are a subject of academic controversy, there is no doubt that U.S. diplomacy features moments of extraversion and (sometimes muscular) engagement succeeded by moments of introversion or retrenchment. Neoconservatives, always in opposition during the latter (the 1970s, the 1990s, perhaps the 2010s as well), have been most influential during the former, especially the years 1981-1985 and the years 2001- 2005. It is hard to imagine that future winds will not bring the mix of assertiveness, patriotism and self-righteousness that undergirds such moments. Even in the shorter term, there exist predispositions in the American national character that will create frustration with Obama’s current realist and pragmatic stance: the preference for a can-do and proactive approach to fixing problems rather than managing them; the refusal to accept a normal, rather than exceptional, America; the restlessness vis-à-vis dependence on others; and the moral idealism which will grow tired of the seemingly cynical games of great power politics. This frustration will inevitably create a more congenial environment for the neocons.
This, of course, does not mean that neoconservatives have recipes which will be any more effective to guide America in the current world. From the inherent limits of military power to the difficulties of nation-building, and from the increasing influence of rising powers to America’s long-term budgetary constraints, neoconservative ideas will be hard-pressed to prove they can make a difference. They will be all the more challenged in that they will be accused of having accelerated America’s relative decline during the 2000s. But this in no way guarantees that they will not be back.

Justin Vaïsse

Justin Vaïsse is a French historian, who is currently the director of the Policy Planning staff of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is senior fellow and director of research of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. A French expert on American foreign policy, France and Europe, Vaïsse has held several positions in government and academia. From 2003 to 2007, he served as a special adviser on the United States and transatlantic relations at the Centre d’Analyse et de Prévision (the Policy Planning Staff) of the French Foreign Ministry. During that period, he was also an adjunct professor at Sciences-Po in Paris, and is currently an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Vaïsse is the author, coauthor or editor of several books on the United States, especially on American foreign policy, including the award-winning L’empire du milieu. Les EtatsUnis et le monde depuis la fin de la guerre froide (with Pierre Melandri Paris: 2001) and Washington et le monde. Dilemmes d’une superpuissance (with Pierre Hassner Paris: 2003). The translated version of his latest book, Histoire du néoconservatisme aux Etats Unis (Paris: 2008), a history of the neoconservative movement in America, was published in May 2010 by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press under the title Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement. Vaïsse is also a regular oped and article contributor to European and American publications. A graduate of L’Ecole Normale Supérieure and Sciences-Po, he received his Agrégation in history in 1996 and his Ph.D. in 2005.

Neoconservatism and American Foreign Policy

Neoconservatism is something of a chimera in modern politics. For its opponents it is a distinct political movement that emphasizes the blending of military power with Wilsonian idealism (Mearsheimer 2005), yet for its supporters it is more of a ‘persuasion’ that individuals of many types drift into and out of (Kristol 1995: ix). Regardless of which paradigm is more correct, it is now widely accepted that the neoconservative impulse has been visible in modern American foreign policy, particularly within the George W. Bush administration, and that it has left a distinct impact. This article will first explore the neoconservative ideology as it applies to foreign policy, establishing the domestic foundations on which it was built. Secondly, examples of the implementation of neoconservative ideas into reality will then be analysed, most notably through the prosecution of the War on Terror, and the relationship between America and Israel. Finally, the article will assess whether after a change of administration in 2009, any of the neoconservative legacy remains alive in American politics.


Neoconservatism became a distinct ideology, or persuasion, in the aftermath of the cultural unrest and university riots in the late 1960’s America. A group of largely working class Jewish American intellectuals based in New York most notably, Irving Kristol, interpreted the situation as modern liberalism attacking its own foundations and moral integrity in favour of mass social revisionism. In Kristol’s own words;
“Liberals were wrong, liberals are wrong, because they are liberals. What is wrong with liberalism is liberalism – a metaphysics and a mythology that is woefully blind to human and political reality” (Murray 2005: 45).
That reality was that mankind is naturally evil. Socialism had failed, so the solution was the pursuit of a non secular liberal democracy that addressed the crisis of relativism (Murray 2005: 46-47). To paraphrase Allan Bloom, American minds had become so open that they had become closed (Bloom 1987: 337-339). The early neoconservatives sought to reorient domestic American politics by harnessing the ready-made moral foundations that religion provided, without necessarily being religious themselves and mould that together with Platonist ideology via the reading provided by Leo Strauss who is often cited as the ideological father of neoconservatism, although within the persuasion his influence is often downplayed (Murray 2005: 37). The use of religion was simply due to the fact that the Judeo-Christian moral package provided a clear sense of right and wrong that could be harnessed. Finding morality through secularist ideals would lead to moral bankruptcy, crime and underachievement (Kristol 1995: 365). In the true Platonic sense, the neoconservatives had realised what was best for America and they felt it their duty to steer the misguided populace, and later the world via neoconservative application in foreign policy, to their senses.
Having found an identity in the domestic American political sphere, foreign policy postulates followed. Irving Kristol describes three central pillars; a strong idea of patriotism, a round rejection of anything resembling or pointing towards a world government, including round rejection of the United Nations and NATO – which were “on their way to becoming moribund” (Kristol 2003: 367), and finally the view that statesmen should clearly distinguish friends from enemies (Kristol 2003: 2). These pillars are fused with a strong Manichean morality that compels America to use its power for the common good rather than reserve it. This would become viscerally clear in Bush’s War on Terror, but it can be identified as far back as in the early Reagan and late Carter administrations according to Francis Fukuyama (2006: 45). In direct opposition to the timely practice of realpolitik in foreign affairs, the foreign policy of a country must represent its internal moral character. Maintaining alliances with dictators and unfavourable regimes is therefore abhorrent to neoconservatism. Therefore, American power has been and could be used for ‘moral’ purposes. Iraq is the stock example in the contemporary era and highlights clearly through the practice of regime change and democratisation, aided by interventionist military force, how neoconservatism applies to modern foreign policy. Neoconservatism holds the domestic and international sphere to a clear moral and ideological standard and champions the use of militarism to further that standard globally. It does not ignore soft power issues, but rather, “when your only tool is a hammer, all problems look like nails” (Fukuyama 2006: 63). Put more plainly, “the world is adrift, and for our safety it needs to be moored” (Murray 2005: 55). Neoconservatives believed at the turn of the century that they alone possessed the moral and ideological foundations to successfully orient international relations to the benefit of all and that the United States was blessed with the unique opportunity to prosecute such an endeavour:
“Americans should understand that their support for American pre-eminence is as much a strike for international justice as any people is capable of making” (Kagan & Kristol 2000: 24).
In the post Cold War era, neoconservatism identifies closely with The End of History? thesis (Fukuyama 1989). This presupposes that liberal democracy will spread globally in the wake of the West emerging triumphant in the Cold War, rendering all opposing political orientations obsolete. The support for democratisation and the spread of liberal institutions into non Western areas seems fairly conventional when applied alongside Kantian cosmopolitanism and Doyle’s ‘democratic peace thesis’, however it gets its distinctive neoconservative flavour when the use of interventionist military policies to effect democratisation of a certain target nation are used to effect and artificially accelerate that process. Indeed, it is the application of this strategy that has caused mass critique of the Bush foreign policy package in the post September 11th world. In 2006, writing on the War on Terror which he describes as “predominantly shaped by neoconservatives” (2006: 3), Francis Fukuyama abandoned his neoconservative persuasion and condemned the use of morality and ideology in foreign policy precisely because America has no remaining moral credibility in the Middle East as a result of past and present actions (2006: 187). That lack of credibility has demonstrably lowered American international standing and led to suspicion that the democratisation efforts are a veil for imperialism and a means to control access to the oil reserves of the Middle East, representing an essentially unchanged regional policy from that of the Cold War era. As the idea of democratisation has both predated and survived the neoconservative era of the Bush administration, justifiable suspicion remains regarding its legitimacy now that it has been tainted with the fallout from the War on Terror through its faltering applications in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Neoconservative ‘War on Terror’

The events of September 11th provided the opportunity for those with a neoconservative persuasion to gain prominence in the Bush administration as they were able to offer a ready-made logic with which to view the new post 9/11 era and point to a legacy of literature and ignored warnings of a dangerous future. For much of the 1990’s, neoconservative literature was proliferating in opposition to the New World Order of peace, offering the view that its peace was deceptive and America should use The Unipolar Moment (Krauthammer 1990) to create a unipolar era of unrivalled American power projected globally (Kagan 2002: 136-138). This school of thought, although a seemingly marginal position, is validated at least in part by many leading neo-liberal academics. John Ikenberry acknowledged that the global order is an American System based on the proviso that “the United States makes its power safe for the world and in return the world agrees to live within the American system” (Ikenberry 2001: 21). Krauthammer describes the American system more vividly: “unashamedly laying down the rules of world order and being prepared to enforce them” (Krauthammer 1990: 33). Both express no desire for this to change, but Ikenberry does contemplate the potential danger of the overzealous projection of American power recognising that “all this could go sour” (Ikenberry 2001: 31). The souring of this system is the moving away from the multilateral and inclusive posture of the elder Bush (Bush 1) and Clinton administrations towards the unilateral flavoured and confrontational nature of the George W. Bush administration.
To depart momentarily into International Relations semantics, Michael Lind emphasizes the difference between neoliberal institutionalism – within which he situates Ikenberry and former President Bill Clinton, and neoliberal internationalism. Neoliberal internationalism is, in Lind’s description, an evolution of the Roosevelt tradition of self determination and non aggression as the bedrock of international affairs, a similar view to that of Bush I. Human Rights, global market liberalisation, and democratisation; all wedded to neoliberal institutionalism, are loftier goals “which should all be promoted by exhortation rather than coercion” (Lind 2006). It is not a stretch to see a similarity between neoliberal institutionalism and neoconservatism here. Both point towards American global hegemony, albeit in different ways. Lind makes this point in expressing that the only difference between the two is that neoliberals are dishonest about admitting their intentions for American power, whilst neoconservatives are open about it. The divergence is over what kind of empire America is to have; one disguised through using multilateral institutions and soft power to hide the true reality of American global domination, or a global empire backed by the open use of hard power and unilateralism. Regardless, the end goals in both are the same, which again raises concerns over the true legitimacy of such currently active American foreign policy goals as democratisation. Lind’s position is an interesting nuance, and one that suggests that there is much more of a logical flow from Clinton to Bush in their approach to foreign policy, despite the perceived change in structure after 9/11.
Neoconservatives lamented the Clinton years as a period in which America did not capitalise on a once in a lifetime chance to cement its leading position in the world as it was without a peer competitor. Colin Powell, for example, condemned the Clinton foreign policy decision making process as no more than a coffee house chatting session with no dominant voice propelling it (Brzezinski 2007: 87). The fundamental blow that 9/11 struck to the national consciousness was an opportunity with which to push for a new direction for America and awaken the political establishment from its post Cold War slumber. Quickly after 9/11 President Bush became a convert to the neoconservative persuasion, something clearly visible in his West Point speech of 2002, and even more so in the 2002 National Security Strategy. Both publicly outlined the new Bush foreign policy direction and re-introduced neoconservatism to mainstream American foreign policy. At West Point, Bush made the seminal remark:
“We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties, and then systematically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long” (Bush 2002).
This statement introduced the policy of preemptive force as a proactive feature of American foreign policy although in both its subsequent use and its description, it was more correctly a policy of preventive force – which is a degree of magnitude above preemption and holds greater implications to the structure of the international system and via international law is widely interpreted as illegal. Later in the same speech, Bush invokes an extreme moral absolutism:
“Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree. Different circumstances require different methods, but not different moralities. Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place” (Bush 2002).
Binding the idea of a moral purpose to foreign policy is not unusual in American politics, but using it to so prominently to define the emerging War on Terror taken together with Bush’s public disregard for multilateral institutions and his unilateral posture is without doubt inspired if not directly underwritten by a significant dose of neoconservatism.
Wedding the neoconservative persuasion and the Bush administration’s policies further, the 2002 National Security Strategy stated that; “the war… is a global enterprise of uncertain duration” (The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (NSS) 2002: iii) and that “the only path to peace and security is the path of action” (NSS 2002: IV). In the 2006 NSS, President Bush continued the neoconservative rhetoric despite ongoing difficulty and loss of support in Iraq stating that America has chosen “leadership over isolationism” and endeavours to “shape the world, not merely be shaped by it” (NSS 2006: iii). Much was made of a supposed ‘return to realism’ from 2006 onwards, most notably watermarked by the departure of Donald Rumsfeld from the Pentagon. However, despite a generally more nuanced rhetoric from the White House owing to increased domestic opposition, falling approval ratings and the Iraq quagmire, the general thrust of the foreign policy package was retained. Additionally, the 2006 NSS document contained clear and specific threats to ‘rogue states’ such as Iran, rather than repeat the vague and generalistic language of the 2002 document, and importantly maintained the provision to extend the use of preventive military action.

Neoconservatism and Islam

In order to understand the neoconservative focus on the Middle East at the expense of other geo-political theatres, and to explain the receptiveness of George W. Bush to their persuasion, an examination of the controversial works of two academics is necessary; Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. Lewis, who is a neoconservative, was hosted in the Whitehouse by Karl Rove in November 2001 on the subject of his thesis which states that as the current Middle Eastern status quo was created by ‘Imperial partition’ drawn over and through ancient civilisations, there is a legacy of instability in the region (Lewis 2004: 417). This unresolved clash of identities must be addressed as a priority as there are only two possible solutions to the ongoing instability of the region: either Islam or democracy (Lewis 2004: 423). Islam, with its own unique set of legal principles enshrined in Sharia Law is at odds with liberal democracy and, via Lewis’s reading, therefore mutually exclusive and incompatible. Conflict is therefore inevitable. The established contemporary American position towards the Middle East was primarily status quo oriented. Iraq’s advance into Kuwait was repelled, but no regime change was attempted resulting in the Gulf War doing no more than restoring the status quo. Clinton’s whole approach to Iran and Iraq was based on containment and sanctions, not regime change – again perpetuating the status quo. If Lewis’s controversial thesis was correct, these policies were enabling a ticking time bomb to threaten America.
Following on, Huntington, who is not a neoconservative, borrows the words of Hedley Bull who stated that the west’s ‘apogee’ was 1900. Since then it has been declining in stature and influence slowly. Bull predicted that as Europe declined after the major World Wars, America will follow suit in the near future as part of a larger inevitable process of rebalancing internationally (Huntington 1997: 83). Huntington wants to categorically dismiss the validity of the neoliberal End of History argument by re-emphasising the possible decline of the West in line with Bull’s prediction. In Huntington’s eyes a determined opposition by the other civilisation groupings, most notably Islam, in a fight for the survival of their (incompatible) way of life through a clash of civilisations is possible – as is the mirrored possibility of a pre-emptive fight by the ‘West’ to halt their own decline – thereby developing Lewis’s thesis of a future run by democracy, or Islam. It is not a wild leap to view the War on Terror as symptomatic of this as viewed from both sides of the fence. This a clear indicator of why the views expressed in the neoconservative literature thus far analysed regarding the need for American dominance and unrivalled strength were seen as necessary, and seen as all the more urgent after 9/11. From this perspective, American policy towards the Middle East would have to change significantly, and it did.
Iran is the only logical candidate for a leader of such a theoretical ‘Islamic force’ to oppose the ‘West’. A nuclear armed Iran would make that threat more alarming – and in the post 9/11 era with the blurring of the lines between proliferation, state sponsored terrorism, and the rise in religious extremism – an existential threat for America and its designs for the Middle East. Of course this train of thought grossly underestimates the deep divisions in the Islamic world, prominently the Shi’a composition of Iran (as opposed to the vast majority of Muslims belonging to the Sunni denomination) and their predominantly Persian rather than Arab ethnicity. Regardless, Norman Podhoretz insists that America must take military action to end Iran’s nuclear programme. This is necessary as September 11th marked the beginning of World War IV (the Cold War being the third) and Islamofascism is merely the most recent mutation of the totalitarian disease that has plagued the Twentieth Century (Podhoretz 2007: 17). America must destroy Iran to stop it creating an “Islamofascist” world order (Podhoretz 2007: 20). Extreme as it is, this sentiment was directly voiced by Bush in 2005:
“The militants believe that controlling one country will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all moderate governments in the region and establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia”[1]
That Islamic Empire, an Islamic Caliphate, dedicated to bringing Islamic law and teachings to the entire world, is the manifestation of the fears of Podhoretz. It precisely underlines the extremity of the neoconservative world view, the reason for the focus on the Middle East, and the significant departure neoconservative doctrine represents from the traditional liberal and realist dichotomy in foreign policy.
John Ikenberry offers an extensive critique of neoconservatism, noting that far from creating a unipolar era, it experienced only a ‘moment’ in the limelight before failing visibly in 2004. Iraq was a geostrategic failure; the ideology of the War on Terror was unsustainable politically and financially; American military might had been miscalculated; unipolarity is not legitimate when weighed against multipolarity, nor is preemption; and the neoconservative ideology is unstable, crude and ethnocentric (Ikenberry 2004: 8-19). Ikenberry derides the persuasion as fundamentalist stating conclusively, “their history is defective, their policies ineffective” (Ikenberry 2004: 20). This rejection is derived from a reading that places high credence in the two ‘grand bargains’ of the global system; the realist idea of security and stability, and the liberal institutionalism that tempers that realism. This duopoly makes American power safe for the world (in theory), and it is through the upsetting of this delicate balance that the neoconservative persuasion of the Bush Presidency has not only highlighted the illegitimacy of that persuasion through its actions, but perhaps irreparably damaged faith in the entire system (Ikenberry 2001: 19-22). The neoconservatives themselves do not believe they are fundamentalists per se, but rather that they observe a danger that others ignore;
“Events of recent years have given us no reason to change our fundamental view either of the emerging dangers or of the prescriptions for meeting those dangers. If anything, the trend of the past few years has proven more troubling than we anticipated” (Kagan 2000: vii).
The realist critique of the neoconservative persuasion in foreign policy is perhaps the most persuasive one. John Mearsheimer offers a similar critique of the legitimacy of neoconservative doctrine to Ikenberry, but contextualises his dissent.
“The dispute about whether to go to war in Iraq was between two competing theories of international politics: realism and the neoconservatism that underpins the Bush doctrine” (Mearsheimer 2005).
Rather than just state that neoconservatism underpins the Bush doctrine, he goes on to state that both are essentially the same thing, a merger of idealism and power in foreign affairs; “Wilsonianism with teeth” (Mearsheimer 2005). He accuses the Bush doctrine of presuming that the preemptive exercise of American power will produce a domino effect persuading other nations such as Iran to surrender to America’s will, when in fact timely honoured realist thinking has shown that the likely outcome would rather be a militarization of said nations to protect their sovereignty and attempt to balance American power (Mearsheimer 2005). In this instance, the realist critique of neoconservative foreign policy and has so far proven incredibly accurate as Iran actively continues to develop nuclear technology and adopts an increasingly belligerent posture towards America and Israel. Iraq and Afghanistan are now arguably failed states and terrorism and violence in the region has escalated dramatically as an advertisement from the oped page of the New York Times on 26 September 2002 predicted in advance. This was signed by 33 scholars of international relations including Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer. Developing the critique further, the Wilsonian core of the neoconservative ideology, enshrined in democracy promotion as a foreign policy tool, is cited as an ambitious failure; “this was to be social engineering on a massive scale and it was to be done with a mailed fist” (Mearsheimer 2005). The failure was in overlooking the important realist postulate that to citizens of any nation, nationalism and sovereignty are more powerful and carnal than loftier ideas of democracy. Hence, it is entirely inkeeping with realpolitik to view the Iranian quest to develop an independent nuclear deterrent as a rational choice in line with seeking a credible deterrence from American or Israeli militarily enforced regime change. Hence, the entire episode of neoconservatism as applied to the Middle East can be read validly as a self fulfilling prophecy.
Even those within the neoconservative persuasion who accept that the exercise of neoconservative foreign policy has not heralded the intended results plead for continuation, to finish the job, so that the rest of the world can look back in posterity and see that they were right. The legitimacy of that point of view, as expressed most passionately by Podhoretz through his pleas to bomb Iran and enact a regime change strategy there to jump start the democracy domino in the Middle East, remains to be seen – and remains vocally active into the Obama era. It is impossible to predict the future; even realism could not do that in the case of the sudden ending of the Cold War. However, realism survived that failure and perhaps neoconservatism will survive the apparent failure amongst popular consensus. Whilst not wishing to roundly condemn neoconservative postulates, taken at face value as those postulates were applied in the Bush administration, it certainly seems a very hard case to answer for. The Iraq quagmire was forewarned by the 33 scholars, yet it was pursued. The failure of the democratisation domino effect was widely predicted, yet Afghanistan and Iraq linger in a worse state than prior to invasion and the Middle East is experiencing increased anti-Americanism and increased terrorism in countries such as Pakistan. The core neoconservative tenet of distinguishing friends from enemies and the ‘with us or against us’ rhetoric that followed from it in the Bush administration has stretched the alliance with traditional allies in the European Union and, as Ikenberry pointed out, damaged the delicate grand bargain of American power tempered with multilateral legitimacy. Such damage has been actively acknowledged by the Obama administration as from day one it sought to roll back to a more multilateral, inclusive and diplomatic position internationally, more in line with the American position professed by Ikenberry. Obama even won a Nobel Peace Prize for his initial efforts, which was no doubt a political seal of approval for the anticipated end of the Bush era of unilateralism. However in reality, the changes have turned out to be much more subtle.

The Israel Factor in Neoconservatism

The core postulate of the neoconservative Bush foreign policy package, revolutionary democratisation, is intricately tied to Israel’s security. Israeli politicians have long stressed that they live in a ‘tough neighbourhood’ and frequently stake their claim to be the only truly democratic nation in a sea of dictatorships and corrupt regimes. Both the domestic Israel lobby and the Bush administration believed toppling Saddam Hussein would lead to a domino effect of democratisation that would simultaneously fulfil the aims of increasing Israel’s security and the wider aims of the Bush doctrine. In that sense, Mearsheimer and Walt (2007) argue that the lobby was the key variable in making the Iraq war happen when it joined the neoconservative chorus. Where this applies to Iran is ever more important. Mearsheimer and Walt postulate that the lobby was equally as concerned, even as far back as the Clinton years, with Iran. In a pragmatic way the various groups in the lobby understood the neoconservative desire to deal with Iraq first (see Perle 1999), yet read the Bush administration’s intent as one of enforcing regime change in Iraq and then Iran in quick succession. Hence the frustration when this did not occur (Mearsheimer & Walt 2007: 233-234). In actuality, Iran provided significant tactical support in the Afghanistan campaign and offered a significant normalisation dialogue with America in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion, presumably fearing they could be next at a time when American power appeared to be at its zenith. In all cases, the lobby made a “concentrated effort” to spoil the process (Mearsheimer & Walt 2007: 282-302). The authors cite a stream of empirical data to demonstrate their thesis and state:
“Israel and the lobby…are the central forces today behind all the talk in the Bush administration and on Capitol Hill about using military force to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities” (Mearsheimer & Walt 2007: 282).
By this estimation, the next President in 2009, despite their particular orientation in foreign policy, was just as likely to attack Iran to halt its regional ambitions and remove the threat that poses to Israel, as the lobby will continue to shape policy in that particular direction. Having now witnessed the approach of Obama for some 18 months on Iran, this prediction has been largely proven accurate, at least in rhetoric if not in action. Obama’s inauguration year promise to ‘reach out a hand’ to Iran, has been replaced with a retread of the Bush approach[3] and the publicly announced statement that the force option is still ‘on the table’, conciliated by the Iranian steadfast desire to not negotiate with any good faith on making concessions on its nuclear program.
Walter Russell Mead states that the growing power of the lobby is a distortion, and much of the Israel bias in American foreign policy (which he also recognises) is really the result of the significant evangelical rise in American political life and their desire to fervently support Israel based on their own convictions derived from their particular reading of the Bible (Mead 2006: 41). Indeed, with Bush’s evangelical orientation, Mead’s point is well advised [An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion and American Empire]. Moving on, Gorenberg notes that the influence of the lobby has been overstated; being correct in the recognition that they attempt to control American policy as any lobbying will naturally do within its sphere of interest, but never really achieves the magnitude of success Mearsheimer and Walt credit them with due to the diverse network of competing and divergent interests on Capitol Hill (Gorenberg 2008: 32). Gorenberg’s point is valid in the sense that the lobby and successive Israeli governments have still not received clear US support for their steadfast desire to forcibly and urgently end Iran’s nuclear program, which is frequently described as an ‘existential threat’ to Israel’s existence. Finally, the neoconservative publication, Commentary, published a response to Mearsheimer and Walt, rejecting their thesis, stating that it employed anti-Semitic stereotypes and lacked original research, relying instead on secondary sources and crass generalisations (Stephens 2007).
Whilst there is a valid argument to be made that the book does oversimplify and perhaps over-emphasize the role of Israel and the lobby on foreign politics in America, it is a baseless accusation to accuse the authors of anti-Semitism or bad scholarship. The real conflict between the neoconservatives and Mearsheimer and Walt here is most probably based on the fact that both authors are prominent realists. Realists have provided an acute and sustained critique of the whole neoconservative project from the outset, particularly Mearsheimer. The standard defence of those in the Israel lobby, of which many neoconservatives are closely allied (although not all neoconservatives are Jewish), to anyone accusing them of wielding a disproportionate influence in foreign policy and of acting in interests which are not American, is by playing the anti-Semitic card. This has been a contrived defence strategy that has stunted any serious debate. Mearsheimer and Walt’s book has finally allowed the issue to be addressed academically rather than at the margins of society. Additionally, the stature of its authors has allowed for much deeper and wider debate than has been the case previously. The Israel lobby thesis visits, yet dismisses, the importance of other lobby interests in the future of the Middle East, such as the oil lobby and the arms industry, which comes across as premature. Yet despite the apparent flaws, dismissing the thesis out of hand as Commentary predictably wishes, is a missed opportunity when attempting to understand the full scope of how American policy is forged towards the Middle East, especially when observing the strikingly similar rhetoric of both Israel’s senior political figures and the American neoconservatives, most clearly regarding Iran.

Continuity or Change?

With a new President in office as of January 2009, Barak Obama, and his administration’s clear desire to distinguish itself from its predecessor, the fact remains that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have continued – escalated in some senses – and rhetoric on Iran (for example) has progressively hardened despite the early offer of constructive dialogue with Iran. It may be fair to ask whether there is much difference in practical terms between the Bush and Obama pursuit of Middle Eastern policy. Whether or not this can be attributed to a continued active neoconservative influence in the Obama administration is doubtful. However, considering the Obama administration inherited such deep foreign policy baggage and American military entrenchment in this part of the world, a course reversal would be much more extreme than a tacit continuation of the general thrust of the previous approach. Maintaining Robert Gates in the Pentagon is certainly an indication of this intent. Whist Obama is clearly not of the neoconservative persuasion, he certainly seems to be tacitly sympathetic to the broad logic of the Bush approach in the Middle East, or at the very least cognisant that dramatic change would be more disastrous politically than continuation. Maintained support for the ongoing policy of democratisation in the Middle East may prove to be the glue between the two administrations, though in a clear semantic break Obama has steered clear of trumpeting the power of democracy such as Bush frequently did, preferring to use terms such as ‘freedom’ and ‘development’ in his public rhetoric (Bouchet 2010). This is clearly a break in semantics, though not in policy, similar to Obama’s jettisoning of the term ‘War on Terror’, as both the War on Terror and the American democratisation project in the Middle East are evidently continuing apace.
It is an often observed trend in international politics that foreign policy rarely dramatically changes. Rather it slowly evolves. President Truman famously declared that he saw foreign policy as residing above the partisan divide. In American politics and the politics of national security, his words have indeed proven largely accurate. A standard example given by historians is the continuation of bipartisan American involvement the Vietnam War across five administrations between 1959 and 1975. To take the analysis of continuity deeper, many attribute Ronald Reagan (the darling of the neoconservatives) for ramping up American military spending and overturning the decline in strength witnessed in the detente era, which in turn led to the eventual economic strangulation of the Soviet Union as it failed to keep up. In truth, this process was initiated by Jimmy Carter in 1979-1980, infuriated by the revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Reagan simply rode the wave and carried it forward, and belatedly took credit. Similarly, many attribute Richard Nixon for creating the ‘twin pillar’ strategy of fortifying the Middle East by building up Saudi Arabia, and especially Iran via advanced weaponry sales and military training to act as a buffer for the southward spread of the Soviet Union when the British declared they would withdraw their security blanket from the Persian Gulf by 1971. Yet, this process was already in motion in the final years of the Johnson administration, and it was more accurately a strategy devised and promoted by the Shah of Iran as early as 1965, not by the Nixon administration. One final example was in the Eisenhower sanctioned CIA/ British SIS coup in Iran in 1953 which reinstated the Shah as ruler of Iran, overthrowing the democratically elected nationalist leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh. Many have attributed this decision to the change in President, Eisenhower having replaced Truman, and being widely regarded as leading a much more aggressive administration. However, careful examination of the declassified papers revealed that Truman had significant CIA assets and operations active in Iran, suggesting much more of a continuity than a change in policy (Marsh 2005).
Therefore, it is often easy to accredit policy changes to a change in leader, but this is rarely accurate, and defies the momentum that foreign policy has across administrations, and across the partisan divide. All previously given examples highlight not only changes in administration, but changes in governing party from Democrat to Republican, highlighting the comparative ease with which a certain foreign policy course can override standard partisanship. In Obama’s case, he inherited a foreign policy momentum in the Middle East that he has chosen to see through, rather than halt. There have been changes in language and posture, such as the careful jettisoning of the term ‘war on terror’, yet the general thrust of the Bush legacy in the region remains intact, in what is surely a bitter pill to swallow for all those who voted for ‘change’ in November 2008. Nowhere can this be more visible than in the Iran case as it continues to approach full mastery of the nuclear cycle in defiance of steadfast American and Israeli wishes.
The Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recently noted that America under Obama had not changed from the America of Bush in its foreign policy application in the Middle East. Obama has not closed Guantanamo Bay despite promising to do so, has not altered American refusal to countenance a truly independent Iranian ‘civilian’ nuclear program, and he has not changed course in Afghanistan nor in Iraq. Similarly, unconditional support for Israel – the frequent demon in Iranian domestic discourse regarding America, has been broadly retained, though with some qualifications. Such statements are of course true, despite their unpopular source. Cutting through the friendly appearance and conciliatory rhetoric of the Obama administration, the Nobel Peace Prize award, and considering its refusal to use the term ‘War on Terror’ does not detract from the reality that regarding foreign policy towards the Middle East, nothing of substance has indeed changed. The fact that arguably the world’s most notorious ‘elected’ statesman has pointed towards this elephant in the room does not mean that it should be ignored.

The Perseverance of the Persuasion

Neoconservatism did not accurately perceive American military power, the power of democratisation, or the failure of the world’s population to accept its ideological persuasion in the midst of convincing evidence to the contrary, particularly as things turned sour in Iraq. It seems that far from playing the final act in the end of history, the neoconservative persuasion has caused a crisis of legitimacy in the global system. American power is no longer seen as legitimate by many, and the jury is still very much out on whether the wave of euphoria circulating around the election of Obama has actually gained any long term traction in repairing the damage. The United Nations’ normative and legal power base was dealt a serious blow by the Iraq invasion, and Iran has not capitulated in a democratic domino, as was expected, leading to a popular fear that American actions in the Middle East will actually ignite a clash of civilisations.
That being said, perhaps surprisingly, the Obama administration is broadly continuing the Bush, neoconservative inspired, legacy in the Middle East, despite its more multilateral and diplomatic persona in international politics and its desire to be viewed as clearly different from its predecessor. The neoconservative persuasion may not have fared well in the broad ideological sense, but its general approach as evidenced in policy application may have fared better. Neoconservatism’s approach of democratising the Middle East via military intervention, tempering terrorism in the area, and dealing with Iran decisively has already formed the core of Obama’s policy package – all continuations from the Bush administration. Barely anything of significance has changed in a practical sense, and the continued standoff over Iran’s nuclear proliferation has highlighted this for all to see. Barack Obama may have started out intending to pursue a different regional strategy than that of George W. Bush, displayed most clearly in his early dealings with Iran, but predictable belligerence and brinkmanship from Iran over continuation of its nuclear programme has quickly resulted in the new President withdrawing his extended hand to enter into constructive dialogue and a resuming of an approach indistinguishable from that prosecuted by the Bush administration.
Obama is not a neoconservative; but history may, perhaps surprisingly, record his actions in broadly continuing the logic of the War on Terror (albeit by another name as Obama refuses to use the term) as the continuation of the neoconservative plan for the Middle East.

Stephen McGlinchey

Dr Stephen McGlinchey is Lead Editor of E-International Relations and a Director of E-IR’s Editorial Board. He is Senior Lecturer of International Relations at the University of the West of England, Bristol and the author of US Arms Policies Towards the Shah’s Iran (Routledge, 2014).

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