Neoconservatism: A good idea that won't go away

I suspect that no presidential candidate in 2016 will say "I am a neoconservative". But a look at the GOP line-up suggests the easiest one-word explanation of their foreign policy planks will be that very word

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Elliott Abrams
On 11 June 2013 07:12

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.

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