A New Kind of Neocon?
By Leon Hadar October 9, 2006
Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of the National Interest, a foreign policy magazine affiliated with the Nixon Center in Washington, DC, has recently been trying to revitalize the stale discourse on U.S. global strategy in the capital of the world’s only remaining superpower. Gvosdev, whose magazine has been shaken up by post-Iraq invasion ideological disputes (leading to the departure from its editorial board of neoconservative Charles Krauthammer, as well as ex-neocon Francis Fukuyama), has been holding gatherings that bring together realist and internationalist critics of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy agenda to discuss alternative approaches to the Bush administration’s neoconservative hegemonic strategy.
In late September, the National Interest convened a meeting to consider “What a Post-Bush Foreign Policy Might Look Like.” Gvosdev invited two foreign policy experts, one a Republican and one a Democrat, to predict how an administration of, say, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) or Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) would change U.S. global strategy, and in particular, whether they would reverse current policies. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that a Republican president like McCain might embrace a “Bush lite” approach (that’s the best-case scenario-some say a Republican super-hawk would try to “out-neoconize” Bush), and a Democrat like Senator Clinton would adopt more sensible and internationalist diplomacy, à la Bill Clinton.
To the surprise of some of those attending the National Interest event, it was the speaker representing the Democratic perspective, Will Marshall, president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, who ended up “out-neoconizing” Bush. Republican Stefan Halper, former official in the Reagan and Bush Senior administrations and a fellow at the Centre of International Studies at Cambridge University, presented a devastating critique of the foreign policy of Bush Junior.
That a Republican conservative was urging a more realistic and less interventionist foreign policy and a Democratic liberal was advocating a hegemonic global strategy aimed at strengthening American military presence abroad as well as at promoting “democracy” worldwide should not shock anyone familiar with the history of U.S. politics and foreign policy. Indeed, as Halper has noted in a book he coauthored with Jonathan Clarke, America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order (2004), many of the neoconservatives who joined the Republican Party at the height of the Cold War had been hawkish liberal Democrats critical of their party for “abandoning” the interventionist and militarized policies pursued by Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson and for adopting an “isolationist” agenda. The neoconservatives accused George McGovern and his supporters of “hijacking” the Democratic Party’s foreign policy and of “appeasing” the Soviet bloc.
Yet the neoconservatives were also very critical of the Realpolitik approach pursued by the Nixon-Kissinger team that created the conditions for détente and arms control agreements with the Soviets and the opening toward China. And moreover, even under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush-when such figures as Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and I. Lewis Libby served in top foreign and defense policy jobs-neoconservatives opposed policies that they considered contrary to their staunchly pro-Israel ideas. Such policies included Reagan’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Lebanon or Bush Senior’s pressure on Israel to end its settlement policies and negotiate with the Palestinians.
The foreign policy principles espoused by neoconservatives-unilateralist military intervention aimed at establishing U.S. global hegemony, a messianic Wilsonian agenda of spreading democracy worldwide, and a radical pro-Likud Zionist stance-run very contrary to the cautious pursuit of U.S. interests traditionally reflected by conservative and realist Republican foreign policy. Republican and conservative critics of the neoconservatives felt the need to reassess their “union” with the neoconservatives, which had made sense during the ideological and strategic conflicts with the Communists during the Cold War, but whose impact on U.S. foreign policy, the Republican Party, and the conservative movement proved to be disastrous after 9/11.
Critics like Halper argue that neoconservatives seized the Republican Party’s diplomatic and national security agenda after 9/11 and persuaded Bush and his advisers to adopt their approach in the Middle East as part of an effort to establish U.S. hegemony and American-style democracy in the region, while also trying to advance Israel’s interests there. But if anything, the Iraq misadventure has demonstrated the “limitations of American power,” as Halper put it during his presentation. “Reality has been a harsh teacher,” and is leading the American elites and public-including Republicans-to recognize that although the United States may have the world’s strongest, most technologically advanced military, it cannot be effectively used to “export American values” to the Middle East and elsewhere, Halper said.
But at the same time as realists and conservatives in the Republican Party are hoping to challenge the dominance of the neoconservatives over their party’s foreign policy, many leading Democratic activists and liberal intellectuals seem to be calling on their party to embrace an even more “pure” or radical version of the neoconservative ideology. Indeed, during his presentation at the National Interest event, Marshall insisted that his party does not and would not advance anti-war sentiment or hopes for military disengagement. “Our party needs to show it can take on the job of defeating Islamic extremists if we want to win the next election,” said Marshall, editor of the recent book With All our Might: A Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihad and Defending Liberty. “We need to fight for liberal principles abroad as vigorously as we fight for them at home,” he said. He stressed that Democrats “shouldn’t abandon democracy as a goal.”
Criticizing the Bush administration for declining to expand the military it relies on as a major policy instrument, Marshall proposed that a Democratic administration would grow the American military by 40,000 troops to better meet the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan. Not everyone liked this idea; in response to Marshall’s comments, one participant responded: “If the first item on the Democrats’ plan for foreign policy is making the military bigger, color me Republican.”
Although Marshall’s views may have sounded like an echo of the neoconservative agenda, they should not be considered a minority stance of the political and intellectual Democratic elites. Much attention has been paid to the anti-war bloggers and other Democratic Party rank-and-file activists who helped torpedo Sen. Joe Lieberman‘s (D-CT) Senate nomination as the party candidate. Yet many of Lieberman’s Democratic colleagues in the Senate and the House not only backed the resolution giving Bush a green light to invade Iraq, but also continue to oppose any congressional plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Many of the same Democrats have backed Bush’s inflexible approach toward Iran-in some cases sounding tougher than the Republicans on the issue-as well
as the White House’s firm defense of Israel’s recent military operations in Lebanon and Palestine.
Moreover, as New York University historian Tony Judt pointed out recently, many hawkish liberal intellectuals and policy analysts who have ties to the Democratic leadership and are affiliated with newspapers and magazines such as the New York Times, Washington Post, New Republic, and the New Yorker and with think tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, have acquiesced to Bush’s foreign policy agenda (see “Bush’s Useful Idiots: Tony Judt on the Strange Death of Liberal America,” London Review of Books, September 21, 2006). Not unlike Marshall, they seem to be promoting the idea that the Democrats need to adopt the ambitious neoconservative creed while trying to “improve” it by making it more marketable and workable. They seem to suggest that the neoconservative doctrine was fine-it’s just that the Republicans lacked the talent and the imagination to turn it into a success.
In some respects, the liberal hawks tend to share more of an ideological affinity with the Wilsonian elements in the neoconservative agenda than with some of the more nationalist hawks, like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who seem more pre-occupied with the need to maintain U.S. geostrategic hegemony. “For what distinguishes the worldview of Bush’s liberal supporters from that of his neoconservative allies is that they don’t look on the ‘War on Terror,’ or the war in Iraq, or the war in Lebanon and eventually Iran, as mere serial exercises in the re-establishment of American martial dominance,” Judt argues. “They see them as skirmishes in a new global confrontation: a Good Fight, reassuringly comparable to their grandparents’ war against fascism and their Cold War liberal parents’ stance against international communism . Long nostalgic for the comforting verities of a simpler time, today’s liberal intellectuals have at last discovered a sense of purpose: They are at war with ‘Islamo-fascism.'”
Among some of these liberal hawks, Judt mentions Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, and Peter Beinart, whose views on Iraq, the Middle East, and U.S. foreign policy in general seem to be very similar to those of neoconservatives William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Lawrence Kaplan. While liberal hawks like Tom Friedman have been critical of Bush’s Iraq policy, much of their disapproval has been directed at the management of the war and the occupation of Iraq, not of the underlying justification of the administration’s hegemonic Wilsonian project in the Middle East.
Another contingency of liberal hawks occupies positions of influence in Washington think tanks, including the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, where such scholar-practitioners as former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and Kenneth Pollack have been cheerleaders for the Iraq War and have approved of Bush’s policies on Iran and Israel. In fact, one does not have to be a veteran political observer to predict Indyk, Pollack, and other experts on the Middle East, like former peace negotiator Dennis Ross, would probably play a major role in influencing the policy of a future Democratic administration. In that case, the Democratic Party activists who rallied against Joe Lieberman should not be surprised if Bush’s Democratic successor ends up pursuing policies that might be described as neoconservatism with a smiling Democratic face.
Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and contributor to Right Web (rightweb.irc-online.org), is author most recently of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (2006). He blogs at globalparadigms.blogspot.com.