Neoconservative Resurgence in the Age of Obama
By By Daniel Luban August 26, 2009
The election of Barack Obama appeared to signal the decline of the neoconservative foreign policy brand. But six months into the Age of Obama, it’s apparent that neoconservatives and their allies are proving remarkably adept at exerting their influence in an administration that was supposed to be their worst nightmare.
The disastrous aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, neoconservatism’s signature initiative, was widely seen as the key factor contributing to the collapse of the Bush presidency and the political descent of the Republican Party. Obama not only soundly defeated neoconservative favorite John McCain, he swept into office with a set of foreign policy prescriptions more antithetical to neoconservative ideology than any presidential candidate in decades. Elected on a platform of ending the Iraq war and initiating engagement with Iran, Obama soon demonstrated his willingness to take a tougher line with Israel than any president since George H.W. Bush.
But those tempted to consign neoconservatives to irrelevance would do well to remember the last time Republicans found themselves shut out of the White House. It was in 1997—soon after Bill Clinton pummeled Bob Dole to win a second term in office—that William Kristol and Robert Kagan founded the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), the now-infamous group that laid much of the intellectual groundwork for the Bush administration’s foreign policy.
Even from the depths of political exile, right-wing hawks—and the think tanks that foster their work—have proven themselves capable of resurrection and reinvention. Within a few months of Obama’s inauguration, the neoconservatives have shown clear signs of resurgence. From forming new organizations, to flirting with liberal and centrist think tanks, to using their continued foothold in newspaper op-ed pages and cable talk shows to influence —and narrow —the foreign policy debate, right-wing hawks have demonstrated an undeniable resilience in shaping the political agenda.
The leading right-wing think tanks have choreographed a not-so-subtle dance—throwing support behind the president when he takes positions compatible with neoconservative dogma, and excoriating him when he doesn’t. For a supposedly discredited movement, this “carrots-and-sticks” approach has proven surprisingly effective. .
The hawks’ influence has been especially evident in solidifying support for military escalation in Afghanistan, in fighting plans for diplomatic engagement with Iran, and in heading off any urge to revisit Bush-era abuses during the “global war on terror.”
One key aspect of the neoconservatives’ continued political influence is the power of their ideological cousins, the liberal hawks, who have given neoconservative-flavored ideas a seat at the table in every Democratic administration. The Obama administration is no exception, featuring several key figures with strongly hawkish reputations. Dennis Ross, the special advisor on Iran policy who was first based at the State Department before moving to the National Security Council (NSC), attracted the most media attention in this regard. But he is far from alone. Richard Holbrooke, the administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was a cofounder with Ross of the hawkish group United Against Nuclear Iran. And both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earned reputations as archetypal liberal hawks during their time in the Senate.
In addition, an army of former staffers from hawkish liberal think tanks —most prominently the recently-formed Center for a New American Security —have joined Obama’s State Department and Pentagon. On the whole, Obama’s foreign policy appointments earned more praise from the right than from the left, with neoconservative Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) calling them “virtually perfect.”
But building right-wing institutions has been just as important to the hawks as cultivating liberal allies. When they are shut out of power, neoconservatives migrate to the network of like-minded think tanks that sustain the movement in lean years. The most important of these—at least as a propagator of neoconservative foreign policy doctrine—has been the American Enterprise Institute, but there are plenty of others: the Heritage Foundation, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Hudson Institute, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and more.
Change at AEI
Of the think tanks that have incubated right-wing foreign policy doctrine in the last 20 years, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is preeminent. A few months before Obama was elected, AEI welcomed a new president of its own who was anything but a hawkish firebrand: Arthur Brooks, by most accounts a mild-mannered social scientist best known for his work on charitable giving and for writing a book called “Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America—And How We Can Get More of It.”
In short order, AEI’s foreign policy division, under the oversight of Danielle Pletka, carried out a purge of several neoconservative stalwarts—notably Michael Ledeen, Joshua Muravchik, and Reuel Marc Gerecht. Ledeen was notorious not only for his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, but also for allegedly propagating disinformation about Saddam Hussein having bought yellowcake uranium in Niger. (Ledeen is also known for delivering a steady stream of dire warnings about the purported Iranian menace in books like The Iranian Time Bomb.) Muravchik, a strident defender of the Bush’s neocon-inspired “democracy promotion” agenda, had called for bombing Iran in 2006, while Gerecht was a former PNAC staffer known as a prominent advocate of regime change in Tehran. Ledeen and Gerecht soon landed at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a newer think tank with less funding and mainstream visibility than AEI.
On the surface, the purge appeared to distance AEI from hardline neoconservative doctrine, and particularly from those pushing for confrontation with Tehran. But in this case, appearances are deceiving. Pletka herself is anything but a foreign policy moderate, and even with the loss of Ledeen, Muravchik, and Gerecht, AEI remains a bastion of neoconservatism. In fact, on Iran —particularly as seen during the tumultuous aftermath of Iran’s disputed June 12 election—AEI has proved to be a stronghold for hawkish hardliners, notably Pletka herself, plus Michael Rubin, Frederick Kagan, and Ali Alfoheh. Far from being a broad renunciation of neoconservatism, Pletka’s purge now looks like an attempt to restore credibility to neoconservatism by distancing AEI from some of its most extreme elements. On a fundamental level, little at AEI appears to have changed.
PNAC Reinvents Itself
Less than a month after Obama took office, the usual neoconservative suspects unveiled a new organization that some commentators instantly dubbed “PNAC 2.0” (and that one liberal blogger cleverly named “The Project for the Rehabilitation of Neoconservatism.”) This was the more blandly named Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), founded by PNAC principals Kristol and Kagan along with Dan Senor, best known for his stint as the spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in the early days of the Iraq war.
While FPI’s mission statement offered rhetoric reminiscent of PNAC—arguing that “the United States remains the world’s indispensable nation” and warning against “policies that would lead us down the path to isolationism”—in its early months FPI seemed content to maintain a lower profile and more anodyne stance than its predecessor. Aside from sending out a daily news roundup, since its birth the organization’s public activities have been limited to hosting a March 31 conference at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel entitled “Afghanistan: Planning for Success,” and publishing a July open-letter to President Obama promoting human rights in Russia which, a la PNAC, includes signatures from several key neocons as well as several reputable human rights activists. (In late September, FPI will host a two-day event on “Advancing and Defending Democracy.” )
FPI’s March conference on Afghanistan offered unabashed support for Obama, to a degree that surprised many observers. The new president had just announced what many expected to be the first of several escalations of the Afghanistan effort, revealing plans to send 21,000 new troops to the theater.
A bipartisan cast of commentators—including headliner John McCain, Robert Kagan and his brother Frederick, Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), and Center for a New American Security (CNAS) president John Nagl—offered support for Obama’s escalation. However, many also used the moment to try to lock the president into further troop increases, arguing, as Nagl did, that the 21,000 represented “merely a down payment on the vastly expanded force needed to protect all 30 million Afghan people.”
This praise for the Democratic president was consistent with Kristol and Kagan’s past modus operandi. Christian Brose, a former speechwriter in the Bush administration State Department, explained what he saw as the logic behind Kristol and Kagan’s ventures: “PNAC was set up not to tar and feather Democrats for being weak-kneed appeasers of evil, but to encourage Clinton’s more internationalist tendencies, and to give him political cover from the right to do so against his more nationalist, conservative critics. Judging by the conference today, my sense is that FPI has been founded with much the same purpose vis-à-vis Obama.” FPI founder Senor admitted as much, saying that “our objective right now is to give President Obama cover in the eyes of those who would otherwise be skeptical on the right.”
While more strident groups like FDD were quick to denounce Obama’s every move as feckless and cowardly, FPI took a savvier tack. When Obama took interventionist (what Brose called “internationalist”) positions, FPI would sing his praises, thereby building goodwill while further marginalizing anti-interventionists in both parties. As Obama would soon discover, it was only when he resisted the logic of intervention and escalation that the knives came out.
“There used to be a bipartisan consensus in this country on foreign policy, in particular when we have our sons and daughters at war,” CNAS’s Nagl said at the conference. “And I am hopeful that events like this will contribute to that.” The importance of bipartisan support for escalation in Afghanistan could not be overstated in shaping the course of the debate in Washington. (The FPI conference came only two months after Sen. Joseph Lieberman gave a widely-publicized speech at the Brookings Institution, Washington’s premier liberal establishment organ, calling for six distinct “surges” in Afghanistan.) It was for this reason that Nagl’s appearance at the FPI conference was so notable—for if Kristol and Kagan’s PNAC was the leading intellectual force behind the Bush administration’s foreign policy, so far it is CNAS that has played that role for the Obama administration.
Center for a New American Security
CNAS was founded in 2007 by Kurt Campbell (soon to become Obama’s top State Department Asia hand) and Michele Flournoy (soon to become undersecretary of defense for policy, the Pentagon’s third-ranking position, and widely rumored to be a potential successor to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates). When its founders headed an influx of roughly a dozen CNAS fellows into the Obama administration, the organization turned to Nagl, a mediagenic retired Army colonel, Rhodes s cholar, and author of an acclaimed book on counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare.
Choosing Nagl made sense, since CNAS made its name largely because of its expertise in COIN and other forms of irregular operations.
Unlike traditional military think tanks, which tended to focus primarily on conventional warfare against other militaries, CNAS was formed in the midst of the messy wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its debut came in 2007, just as General David Petraeus was preparing to implement the “surge” plan in Iraq (which AEI’s Kagan had vigorously pushed); the perceived success of the surge soon made Petraeus a revered figure among hawks and brought COIN to the forefront of American military strategy.
CNAS’s fellows include a number of prominent figures from the COIN world, such as David Kilcullen, an Australian-born COIN strategist and former Petraeus advisor; Andrew Exum, who runs the influential blog Abu Muqawama; and Thomas Ricks, author of the admiring surge account The Gamble.
It would be inaccurate to portray CNAS as indiscriminately hawkish; its fellows include some notable Iraq war skeptics such as Ricks. But the organization’s general self-presentation, like COIN itself, comes across as more technocratic than political, concerned with tactics rather than strategy. Counterinsurgency doctrine’s emphasis on political solutions and so-called civilian protection over brute firepower has made it attractive to CNAS and other center-liberal groups eager to balance humanitarian concerns with a desire to avoid seeming “soft” on foreign policy. CNAS did not come to prominence with sweeping statements about the justice or wisdom of America’s wars in Iraq in Afghanistan; rather, its output tended to be pragmatic advice on how to more effectively manage these wars.
Exum described his own approach as “focused on counterinsurgency operations and tactics without getting involved too much in either policy or strategy,” a characterization that could describe CNAS itself. Exum conceded that this sort of narrow tactical focus has been criticized as “at best irresponsible and at worst immoral,” and in response recently launched a discussion on his blog of whether the Afghan war is worth fighting at all.
But CNAS’s impressive roster of alums in the Obama administration is a testament to the influence of the organization’s technocratic approach in Democratic foreign policy circles. At the Pentagon alone, Flournoy brought no fewer than seven CNAS colleagues with her:
– James Miller, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy
– Colin Kahl, deputy assistant secretary for the Middle East
– Price Floyd, principal deputy assistant secretary for public affairs
– Shawn Brimley, special advisor on strategy
– Vikram Singh, special advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan
– Eric Pierce, deputy chief for legislative affairs
– Alice Hunt, special assistant
Other CNAS alums include Campbell and Derek Chollet in the State Department and Nate Tibbits in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel.
Within the new bipartisan consensus favoring the escalating application of COIN doctrine to Afghanistan—a consensus stretching from CNAS to FPI, Nagl to Kristol—only a few isolated voices of dissent have emerged.
Perhaps the most prominent is Andrew J. Bacevich, a former Army colonel, Boston University historian, and leading COIN critic. Along with a veritable Who’s Who of Washington’s foreign policy media establishment, in June Bacevich attended CNAS’s conference at D.C.’s Willard Hotel. General Petraeus was the keynote speaker.
Appearing at a panel on Afghanistan, Bacevich reiterated his belief that the current enthusiasm for COIN serves as a smokescreen for maintaining a continued U.S. imperial presence built around the occupation and pacification of far-flung countries.
“At the outset of these proceedings, John Nagl referred to what he called ‘our ongoing global counterinsurgency campaign,’” Bacevich noted. “And Nate [Fick, CNAS’s CEO], in his remarks, told us that the goal of counterinsurgency is to make the population feel secure. It would follow that the aim or the objective of the global counterinsurgency campaign should be to make the global population feel secure.
“ And I would simply suggest that we really don’t need to undertake such a grandiose effort and we cannot afford to undertake such a grandiose effort. As long as we maintain adequate defenses, Al Qaeda operatives hunkered down in their caves pose no more than a modest threat to U.S. national security.”
Bacevich’s gloomy message was strikingly out of synch with the generally upbeat tone of the CNAS conference. The audience responded with nervous laughter and applause. Panelist Andrew Exum, the COIN specialist who had just co-authored a new CNAS report on the war in Afghanistan, called Bacevich’s remarks “a gloriously heretical response—and one that’s completely divorced from the political realities facing this administration.”
Bacevich seemed to agree. “The heretic has no expectations that in this city any of these notions will be taken seriously,” he said with a rueful chuckle.
The Limits of Bipartisanship
Although CNAS in the liberal center and FPI on the right may have been important in building support for Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan, the new president quickly discovered, if he did not know already, that this bipartisan support was likely to be a rare occurrence. On other issues—particularly the defense budget, detainee treatment, and Iran—right-wing think tanks forcefully opposed the president, managing to inflict considerable political damage.
Pushback against the administration’s new defense budget— which scaled back several of the hawks’ favorite programs, including the F-22 jet fighter and missile defense funding, even as it increased overall defense spending— began shortly after Secretary Gates unveiled it on April 6. That same day, AEI fellows Thomas Donnelly and Gary Schmitt published a provocative Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled “Obama and Gates Gut the Military.” Over the coming weeks, AEI hosted two events warning about the dangers of the new budget— one featuring Sen. John Cornyn, the other featuring Donnelly, Frederick Kagan, and Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Obama and Gates did ultimately manage to win the battle over the F-22, although it took a notably caustic speech from Gates at the Economic Club of Chicago in July to seal the plane’s fate.
For its part, AEI’s friendly rival, the Heritage Foundation—whose politics tend to be more generically hawkish than narrowly neoconservative—focused primarily on missile defense, a longtime hawkish hobbyhorse. Heritage went so far as to produce “33 Minutes,” described as “a thrilling, one-hour documentary that tells the story of the very real threat foreign enemies, like Iran and North Korea, pose to every one of us.”  (The title refers to the amount of time a hypothetical enemy missile would take to hit the United States.) In actuality, the film—along with the two Heritage events that accompanied it—served primarily as advertisements for missile defense and warnings against the Obama administration’s cuts in this area.
On torture and other “war on terror” issues, AEI also played a prominent part, most notably by hosting former Vice-President Dick Cheney’s much-publicized May 21 speech defending the Bush administration’s policies. Cheney’s AEI speech, which came on the same day that Obama himself spoke out on detainee issues, marked the apex of the former vice-president’s torrent of criticism against his successors. Cheney claimed that “enhanced interrogation” prevented the deaths of “thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people,” warned that closing Guantanamo Bay prison “would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come,” and alleged that “releasing the interrogation memos was flatly contrary to the national security interest of the United States.”
In the face of this political onslaught by Cheney and congressional Republicans, Democrats in Congress wilted. Fearing a backlash from constituents, they stripped away the funding meant to close Guantanamo, and many announced they would oppose the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners to their districts—moves that put the president’s decision to close Guantanamo in serious jeopardy. While recent reports indicate that Attorney General Eric Holder is still considering appointing a criminal prosecutor to investigate CIA torture of detainees, the Obama administration apparently has ruled out any probe of the top-ranking Bush administration officials who actually formulated detainee policies.
Although AEI and its brethren could not in fairness claim much responsibility for these events, AEI had played a small but crucial role in giving Cheney his most high-profile forum.
But it was on the Iran issue that the Washington hawks worked hardest to undercut Obama. To be sure, their viewpoint had allies within the administration, most notably Dennis Ross. Although they had founded United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), after joining the Obama administration, Ross and Holbrooke left the group—at which point longtime Republican political operative Mark Wallace took over. UANI’s advisory board includes prominent neoconservative-aligned hawks such as Fouad Ajami and R. James Woolsey; as of August 2009, Ross and Holbrook were still listed on the “leadership” page of UANI’s website.
Political fallout due to Ross and Holbrooke’s past involvement with UANI surfaced in the blogosphere in June, after UANI aired an advertisement promoting a hardline view of Iran and suggesting economic sanctions. The ad, which implicitly undercut the Obama administration’s engagement strategy, caused renewed questioning of Ross’s role in the administration. “I’m shocked that Ross wouldn’t have completely dissociated himself from this group considering his government role, and the fact that UANI is advocating a position that not only is dangerous and contrary to current U.S. policy, but mirrors Israel’s interests and the goals of its military and intelligence apparatus,” wrote blogger Richard Silverstein.
Ross’s involvement with the Iran hawks far predated the formation of UANI. He had previously been one of the key figures behind the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), unofficially known for its close links with the Israeli right. After helping to found WINEP in the 1980s, Ross returned in 2001 and served there until joining the Obama administration in 2009. He recently published a book co-written with WINEP’s David Makovsky that attracted notoriety for disputing some of the pillars of the administration’s Middle East policy (such as the idea of “linkage” between the Israeli-Palestinian and Iranian issues).
In 2008, Ross participated in a WINEP task force—also featuring Obama’s future U.N. ambassador Susan Rice and key campaign advisor Anthony Lake—that produced a notably hawkish report about the Iranian nuclear issue. In the words of journalist Robert Dreyfuss, the report “opted for an alarmist view of Iran’s nuclear program” and “raised the spurious fear that Iran plans to arm terrorist groups with nuclear weapons.” Ross also took part in yet another task force—this one under the auspices of the Bipartisan Policy Center, and spearheaded by Michael Rubin and Makovsky’s brother Michael— which produced a report on Iran that journalist Jim Lobe characterized as a “road map to war.”
Clearly, administration figures such as Ross, Holbrooke, and Rice have a history of hawkishness on the Iran issue, but all have insisted they would be team players and work faithfully to execute Obama’s engagement strategy. Neoconservatives outside the administration, however, had no compunctions about undercutting engagement, and it was here that the right-wing think tanks—notably AEI—came in. Even after it purged Ledeen, Muravchik, and Gerecht, AEI employed several of the Washington’s most prominent Iran hawks, including Michael Rubin, Frederick Kagan, and Ali Alfoneh.
Rubin, in particular, had been a leading critic of Obama’s plans for engagement with Tehran, arguing that the Islamic Republic’s leadership has no interest in a deal and that previous U.S. administrations had tried engagement—and failed.
In April 2009, under Frederick Kagan’s supervision, AEI launched the website IranTracker. The project is devoted to disseminating news and information about Iran, typically with an alarmist and hawkish slant. To mark the launch of IranTracker, AEI organized a conference on Iran policy that was headlined by Senator Joseph Lieberman and also featured Rubin, Kagan, and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution. It was one of five Iran-themed events that AEI hosted between the U.S. presidential elections in November 2008 and the Iranian elections in June 2009.
At IranTracker’s April 27 conference, Lieberman argued that Iran’s elections are ultimately unimportant, since “the overwhelming concentration of power in the Iranian political system lies not with the country’s presidents, who change, but with the supreme leader, who rarely does”. This is a widely held view among neoconservatives, some of whom even declared it would be better for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to win reelection, since he would present a more alarming face to the world. (Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum attracted some notoriety for spelling out this view at a Heritage Foundation panel in early June.)
But after Iran’s June 12 election ended in an Ahmadinejad victory widely alleged to have been the result of fraud, and images of the Iranian government’s repression of protesters were broadcast worldwide, neoconservatives at these think tanks led the charge in attacking Obama for his cautious response.
In the two weeks following Iran’s election, Michael Rubin wrote no fewer than six articles arguing that Obama’s engagement strategy had been discredited and accusing the president of “shirk[ing] his duty.” Others, including AEI’s Danielle Pletka and Ali Alfoneh and FDD’s Ledeen and Gerecht, also got in on the act, writing op-eds and blog posts that contributed to the echo chamber of attacks on Obama’s Iran policy.
The leaders of FPI, which had earned praise for “moderation” by lavishing praise on Obama’s Afghanistan escalation, turned on the president with notable quickness. William Kristol co-wrote a Weekly Standard editorial alleging that Obama’s “weakness” had made him “a de facto ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.”
Robert Kagan leveled the same accusation, writing a Washington Post column entitled “Obama, Siding With the Regime” which claimed that Obama’s “strategy toward Iran places him objectively on the side of the [Iranian] government’s efforts.” FPI cofounder Dan Senor appeared on CNN and, with FPI staffer Christian Whiton, wrote a Wall Street Journal piece on “Five Ways Obama Could Promote Freedom in Iran,” including coordination with anti-regime expatriate leaders and increased funding for Radio Farda. The latter measure was quickly incorporated into a bill sponsored by Senators Lieberman, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham.
AEI, FPI, and the other hawkish think tanks served as bases for what appears to have been a concerted media campaign aimed at discrediting Obama’s engagement strategy and forcing him to take a more hawkish line against Tehran. There are indications their strategy may have been successful, as Obama eventually stepped up his criticism of the Islamic Republic to say that he was “outraged” and “appalled” by its actions. However, it is also plausible that the intensification of Obama’s criticism during this time may have had more to do with the intensification of the regime’s repression of demonstrators. Regardless, the fierce media attacks did succeed in putting the administration on the defensive.
As the summer wore on, the administration showed signs of taking a harder line, suggesting that Iran only had until the September 30 meeting of the U.N. General Assembly to respond favorably to the engagement offer. Washington hawks focused in on sanctions targeting Iran’s refined petroleum imports as the next step, despite warnings from Iran analysts that sanctions would merely harm the Iranian people while solidifying support around the regime.
On July 22, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held hearings revolving around the sanctions issue—hearings that were a tangible demonstration of neoconservatives’ continuing ability to influence the Iran debate. Of six speakers, three were neoconservative-aligned hardliners who called for swiftly increasing sanctions (AEI’s Rubin, WINEP’s Patrick Clawson, and FDD’s Orde Kittrie); a fourth (the Hoover Institution’s Abbas Milani) also expressed cautious support for Rep. Howard Berman’s petroleum sanctions bill. Soon after, a flood of anonymously-sourced media reports suggested that the administration itself was considering new sanctions, while other reports suggested a September push for sanctions legislation in Congress backed by a media blitz from “Likud lobby” groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
By all appearances, the backlash against Obama’s Iran policy spearheaded by the hawkish think tanks had been quite effective.
On Iran—as on Afghanistan, torture, and defense spending—groups like AEI and FPI have revealed a talent for continuing to influence political debates, even at a time when they are seen as representing a discredited ideology and party. Without real political power of their own, these groups have nonetheless been able to impact the decisions of those in power—most often by drumming up so much media attention for a hawkish line that Democrats in the executive and legislative branches have been forced to tack to the right to counter it.
The early visibility and viability of neoconservative think tanks over the first months of the Obama administration suggests that weakened or not, marginalized or not, these groups are likely to maintain their influence on Washington foreign policy debates for many years to come.
Daniel Luban writes for Inter Press Service and is a regular contributor to PRA’s Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org/).