Neoconservatism Lives!

Allen McDuffee argues that think tanks have not only kept neoconservative ideas respectable but kept them influential in the Obama administration.

According to a May report (pdf) from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC think tank, neoconservatives associated with prominent figures like former Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol and pundit Richard Perle are still broadly active, despite policy failures associated with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

This is a bizarre charge.  All sorts of people and schools of thought associated with failed policies remain active and influential.  Jimmy Carter, for example.  Or Alan Greenspan.  Or Susan Estrich, who managed perhaps the worst presidential campaign in modern American history.

Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, says that the most obvious place the neocons are still influential is in U.S. policy toward Iran, where the Obama administration is “continuing the Bush administration’s basic approach, albeit with a ‘kinder, gentler’ face.”

He gives several paragraphs worth of examples.  Now, I oppose a militarist approach to Iran for a variety of reasons I’ve laid out in many posts over the last few years.   But supporting a “quite hawkish” approach including “the use of force against Iran if diplomacy doesn’t work” isn’t necessarily a neoconservative idea, even if the person espousing it is a neoconservative.

Neoconservative and hawk aren’t synonymous terms.    Properly understood in a foreign policy context, Neoconservativism advocates the use of force, yes, but with an eye to societal transformation rather than simply achieving military goals.   Arguing we should overthrow Iran’s government and then occupy  the country while trying to transform it into a model democracy is Neoconservative; arguing we should bomb the crap out of Iran’s nuclear facilities is possible within the framework of any number of schools of international relations policy.

Citing the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, Project for a New American Century, Commentary, and The Weekly Standard, Vaisse writes “These younger neoconservatives 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 the older generation of neoconservatives.”

One of the more recent and robust institutions, according to the report, is the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), created in the spring of 2009. Operating under the direction of Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan and Dan Senor, FPI is “animated by young operatives” and according to Vaisse “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 that is a hallmark of neocon action.

Financial support for these institutions, which comes from various conservative donors and foundations, such as the Scaife family, Bradley, Earhart, Castle Rock, and Smith Richardson foundations, “shows no sign of abating,” according to Vaisse.

Sustained financial, institutional and publication support has provided the platform necessary for neoconservatives to have influence long after they were broadly thought to have been run out of the White House.

DougJ summarizes his disgust thusly:

It’s a story as old as think tanks themselves: take a simplistic idea, pay a few well-connected sociopaths to pimp the idea, give the sociopaths titles like “D. C. Searle Senior Fellow”, and voila—Kaplan opinion pieces, appearances on CNN, in short you have a ghastly mess.

I’m not sure I see the problem here.  There are all manner of liberal think tanks, policy institutes, foundations, and magazines funded by individuals and  groups who support liberal ideas.   So what?   While I suppose having some sort of institutional imprimatur is helpful — and, certainly, having a steady income is! — one still has to make persuasive arguments.

Perhaps more important than the institutions and financial support is the modus operandi of the neoconservatives, according to Janine Wedel, professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University and author of Shadow Elite. In particular, a small subset of neocons, a “neocon core,” has been working together for more than 30 years “to remake American foreign policy according to their own vision.”

It wouldn’t be much of a movement if its members weren’t sticking together and advancing their vision.  Again:  So what?

The neocons are able to achieve their goals, according to Wedel, “by undermining the rules and standard processes of the government they supposedly serve and supplanting them with their own, all the while making public decisions backed by the power and resources of the state.” Because their undermining of these processes often goes undetected, it is likely many remain in place under the Obama administration.

While the report points out that Obama’s foreign policy team is composed of liberals and realists “whose positions are far from the neocons,” Vaisse also recognizes that “opposition is not total.” On occasion, neoconservatives coordinate with liberal groups on human rights issues, or engage in conversations with senior administration officials, but they “lined up behind the administration” on the war effort in Afghanistan — this time against the liberal left and some realists in both parties, according to the report.

I don’t understand what the charge is here.  Neocons are pushing their own agenda against that of the more predominant liberals?  There’s a shocker!   But, hell, during the Evil Bush Administration — the heyday of neoconservative power and influence — liberals and Realists were pushing back, too.   And, indeed, they ultimately managed to push out the Rumsfelds, Wolfowitzes, and Feiths in favor of people more like themselves.

Vaisse also points out that just as important as the neocons’ persistence and coordination with non-neocons is the fact that American foreign policy is cyclical and that frustration with the Obama administration’s “realist and pragmatic” approach will “inevitably create a more congenial environment for the neocons.”

The nature of power in a democracy is that, eventually, the people will grow tired of the direction the leadership is taking the country and non-scary alternative visions will be given a chance.  But substantial deviation from the middle road tends to be corrected rather quickly.

Indeed, the reason the Obama foreign policy looks so much like the Bush foreign policy is that the latter had been radically transformed by 2006 into something resembling the Realist Consensus that has dominated American foreign policymaking for decades.   The brief interludes where hard core Idealists or Neoconservatives dominated are exceptional.

UPDATE: McDuffee writes to tell me that I “incorrectly took the article as an opinion piece rather than the reporting piece it is. I was reporting on a provocative report produced by Justin Vaisse at Brookings.”

The placement in the hard left Raw Story primed me to think it was an opinion piece and the fact that all the sources were from the same ideological perspective didn’t dissuade me from that view.  Regardless, my arguments are against the points being aggregated in McDuffee’s piece rather than against McDuffee’s personal views, to which I am not privy.

FILED UNDER: US Politics, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. steve says:

    Excellent analysis. The neocons should have their say. They just need to be debated on fair terms. Most importantly, we need to remember their history. With neocons in charge, we invaded Iraq for vague reasons, most of which were wrong. We botched the war for several years. Only when, as you note, the neocon core was removed, did we perform better. Also, to give him his due, Bush reasserted himself in the foreign policy area and marginalized Cheney.

    I do think that realists should also take it upon themselves to point out in debates with neocons that the latter almost always have a next step in mind when they make policy proposals. They dont want to just keep nukes out of Iran’s hands, they want to convert it to a pro-Western democracy. I would also note that you tap dance around the issue of the neocon commitment to Israel. I don’t blame you at all for doing that as I would do the same in your position, I think.

    Steve

  2. James Joyner says:

    I would also note that you tap dance around the issue of the neocon commitment to Israel. I don’t blame you at all for doing that as I would do the same in your position, I think.

    Well, it’s certainly not a pleasant topic to talk about. But I’m not sure that taking the Likudist hard line on Israel is somehow exclusive to the neocons; that’s pretty much been the core of American foreign policy towards the region for decades, with the possible exception of the Carter and Clinton years. That’s domestic politics driving foreign policy, rather than a foreign policy ideology.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    Under the Russel Mead formulation, I believe neocons are Jacksonian-Wilsonianists, the views have a much longer pedigry than 10 or so years ago.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    This statement strikes me as odd:

    “Obama’s foreign policy team is composed of liberals and realists “whose positions are far from the neocons.”

    Does anybody think Obama’s Afghanistan policy is anything at its root base, other than a neocon policy? I’m sure on style points there are realists that believe we have to work with Karzai, no matter how corrupt he might be. And there are human rights advocates who want more attention to building schools, etc. But these strike me as merely variations of a policy that is both Wilsonian in it’s internationalist goals and Jacksonian in it’s primary reliance on the military for means.

  5. Brett says:

    This is a bizarre charge. All sorts of people and schools of thought associated with failed policies remain active and influential. Jimmy Carter, for example. Or Alan Greenspan. Or Susan Estrich, who managed perhaps the worst presidential campaign in modern American history.

    That’s definitely one of the downsides of the fields of politics, international relations, and political science, and the one of the main reasons they’ll never reach anything resembling true science in terms of accuracy. The field is just cluttered with all kinds of ideas, many of which just keep coming back regardless of whether or not their implication leads to major foul-ups.

    Well, it’s certainly not a pleasant topic to talk about. But I’m not sure that taking the Likudist hard line on Israel is somehow exclusive to the neocons; that’s pretty much been the core of American foreign policy towards the region for decades, with the possible exception of the Carter and Clinton years.

    I agree. The main thing that distinguishes the Neoconservatives from the general position is not their more or less blind support for Israel, but how they view other countries in relationship to Israel. The Neo-cons seem to have this weird idea that if they topple the rest of the regimes in the region into Arab democracies, this will somehow not go badly for Israel (even though Israel is extremely unpopular with virtually all of the populaces of the surrounding states).

  6. conned by the neocons says:

    Russel Kirk said it best about neoconservatives.

    “Not seldom has it seemed, as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.” – russel kirk

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Under the Russel Mead formulation, I believe neocons are Jacksonian-Wilsonianists, the views have a much longer pedigry than 10 or so years ago.

    I’m not sure it’s possible to be a Jacksonian-Wilsonian. Jacksonians are pessimistic realists. Wilsonians are optimistic idealists. I think that Dr. Mead would characterize neoconservatives as Wilsonians full stop.

  8. PD Shaw says:

    Dave, you may be right about how Mead would classify them. Having written his book before 9/11, his typology strains against recent events.

    Perhaps two different classifications of liberal internationalist have emerged, seemingly having little to do with each other and nothing but contempt for each other. Or 9/11 stimulated a foreign policy mixture that was (a) internationalist in its outlook, but contemptuous of international institutions and treaties that protected the status quo and (b) a form of Jacksonianism that was willing to embrace COIN.

  9. john personna says:

    Does anybody think Obama’s Afghanistan policy is anything at its root base, other than a neocon policy?

    I see a huge difference between policy inertia and opening new conflicts.

    If you ask me, the Obama administration is just indecisive about how to end a conflict that could bite them either way. That is not at all the same as saying they would have come up with the same sort of foreign adventure.