After successive elections unseated the Republican majority and sent John McCain to defeat, neoconservatism seemed like a spent force. Francis Fukuyama wrote wistfully about life “After Neoconservatism” in 2006. Ian Buruma described the McCain campaign as the neocons’ “last stand” and harrumphed that they “will not be missed.”
One would expect neoconservatives to be friendless and circumspect, grumbling about Obama’s inevitable failure as they slump away from Washington. Instead, they are jubilant, palling around with liberals again, enjoying renewed respect. Obama is their hero.
On March 31, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan, and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations Dan Senor launched the Foreign Policy Initiative, the latest neoconservative think tank. Its first conference, dedicated to “Planning for Success” in Afghanistan, had the spirit of a family reunion. Sounds of backslapping and gossip filled the hall at the Mayflower Hotel. The only interruption was a slight hush as Scooter Libby passed through. The man indicted for perjury while protecting Dick Cheney deserved a special kind of respect.
Nearly every attendee, it seemed, was president of another grandly named neoconservative outfit. In one corner was Clifford May, head of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. In another stood John Nagl, who leads the Center for a New American Security. Near him, Randy Scheunemann, the disgraced lobbyist andbear with meformer president of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a program of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Around these figures revolved a constellation of young neocon wordslingers, including blogger David Adesnik, the New Republic’s Jamie Kirchick, and the Standard’s Michael Goldfarb.
In 2004, New York Times columnist and Weekly Standard alum David Brooks laughed at those who were fixated on PNAC as “full-mooners” who believe in a “Yiddish Trilateral Commission.” Brooks said the organization “has a staff of five and issues memos on foreign policy” and that the “people called neoconservatives travel in widely different circles and don’t actually have much contact with one another.” Nothing to see here.
But while organizations like PNAC and FPI may seem like little more than an e-mail list and a fax number, these small groups have been able to shape the foreign-policy debate and influence executive-branch policymakers going back to the Cold War.
Upset with the policy of détente, neocons grabbed onto Truman’s legacy and reformed the Committee on the Present Danger. Long before they served in the Bush administration, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz were veterans of CPD. In 1981, the year it closed, Midge Decter launched the Committee for the Free World. Donald Rumsfeld became its chairman. Seven years later, he joined Wolfowitz and Perle, along with Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, to sign PNAC’s open letter to Bill Clinton demanding that regime change in Iraq become U.S. government policy. Now Kristol and Kagan have formed FPI. Contra Brooks, it sounds like the same people have quite a lot of contact with one another.
The first order of business at FPI was a stern warning against “isolationists.” An article, “Yes, We Can,” by Max Boot, Frederick Kagan, and Kimberly Kagan was distributed to the crowd. In the opening paragraph, the authors worry about “voices on the left and the right [who] counsel that the war is unwinnable and we need to scale down our objectives.” A panel comprised of Nagl, Robert Kagan, and the Washington Post’s deputy editorial page editor, Jackson Diehl, focused on defending the foreign-policy consensus that has been developing since Obama announced his decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan.
Nagl, a major figure among national-security Democrats, longed for the days when “we used to have a bipartisan consensus in this country on foreign policy, especially when we had our sons and daughters at war.”
Kagan warned that “opportunistic” Republicans might attack the administration’s escalation of the Long War. Gushing over the new president’s strategy, he exclaimed, “Obama made a gutsy and courageous decision. … Not only has President Obama made a commitment to Afghanistan, but a commitment to a real counterinsurgency strategythe idea of ‘clear, hold and build.’”
The second discussion of the day called for even greater commitments of troops and resources. Frederick Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, outdid his older brother Robert in lauding the commander in chief: “I fully support the president’s policy as statedand I will work as hard to make this president’s policies a success as I worked to make the last president’s policies a success in Iraq.” His speech was almost a reassurance: different president, but we’re still the ideological pitchmen.
Other highlights: Republican Congressman John McHugh provided a model of bipartisan obedience to the president“I can only say to the president, ‘Sounds good to me, boss.’” Jane Harman, a Democrat, dismissed progressives who criticized her for working with “the new neocon group” as unhelpful bloggers. Another panelist asked Obama to make clear that building a safe, non-corrupt, American-aligned Afghanistan will be a decades-long project.
But the spectacle reached the height of embarrassment when Sen. John McCain took to the stage to be interviewed by Robert Kagan. Asked how his Afghanistan policy would have differed from Obama’s, McCain offered, “Firstand he’s doing ityou’ve got to emphasize how difficult this challenge will be. … Second, I would have announced the overall addition of 10,000 more troops rather than be accused of Lyndon Johnson-style incrementalism.” Note that these aren’t strategic departures, but different ways of marketing the same product.
“Thirdly,” McCain advised that Obama “continue to consult with Congress and with leaders on both sides of the aisle to prevent a resurgence of antiwar activity.” For McCain, the great threat to American interests in Afghanistan is the possibility of dissent at home. He never specified how Congress should prevent antiwar sentiment.
Some progressive journalists standing in the back of the room were astonished. Jim Lobe, a correspondent for Inter Press Service, said that you “have to admire their agility under a new administration.” Robert Dreyfuss, a contributor to the Nation, could not believe the respect being accorded to Obama. “They’ll turn on him. They’re just so toxic,” he predicted.
Perhaps not. As Senor told the New Republic that week, FPI began because Kristol and others had been “discouraged” by conversations they were having with members of the House GOP leadership. Republicans balked at their suggestion of increased military spending as an alternative economic stimulus plan. Senor continued, “Our objective right now is to give President Obama cover in the eyes of those who would otherwise be skeptical on the Right.”
For establishment liberals, that promise sounds like proper contrition for the Bush years. And they are ready to forgive neoconservatives for everything. Many FPI attendees sported nametags that read Brookings Institution or Center for American Progress. Liberal interventionists have come to agree with Frederick Kagan that Obama “will be counting on some significant amount of support from his political opponents” to win in Afghanistan.
Progressive commentator Matthew Yglesias observed, “Neocons are out of power, but they’re not being banished to the fringes of the discussion. Key progressive groups have made them the preferred interlocutors on high-profile issues.” For Yglesias, this feels like a replay of the ’90s, where neoconservatives guarded the Right flank of the Kosovo consensus: “By making themselves useful to Clinton and his supporters, while maintaining an appropriate level of critical distance, the neocons were able to elevate their status within the conservative coalition and emerge as a more influential faction in the W. Bush administration than they’d been in the H.W. Bush or Reagan administration.” Every crisis for neoconservatism is just a new opportunity.
Dreyfuss may be right that neocons are toxic and bound to turn on Obama, but that may not happen until he is a lame duck. In general, they supported Clinton’s foreign policy, especially when he clashed with noninterventionist and realist Republicans. It was only in 2000 that Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan co-authored an introductory essay to a book called Present Dangers, complaining that the 1990s “were a squandered decade.” American leaders, they contended, should have been “preserving and reinforcing America’s benevolent global hegemony” but instead “chose drift and evasion.” For as long as Obama pursues an active foreign policy over the protests of noninterventionists, neoconservatives will be there to defend him.
This romance between neocons and the White House could have been predicted. Promises of a more humble foreign policy readily dissolve after the candidate becomes commander in chief. The office itself seems to bias its occupant toward interventionism, and neoconservatives have a natural affinity with the president regardless of his party affiliation. The executive branch, thickly overgrown with national security positions, continues to be a source of appointments for neoconservatives or their liberal alliesprecisely because they defend a maximalist interpretation of the president’s powers.
As happens every few years, Washington was turned on its head and the neocons ended up back on top. The conservatives who endorsed Obama last year in hopes of seeing change in foreign policy are long forgotten. The hawks who went hoarse trying to defeat him are celebrated by liberals as the responsible faction on the Right. There was no manipulation involved, just a minor rebranding. As easily as one Kagan steps down from the stage, another rises to take his place. So PNAC becomes FPI, and the neocons become the new Obamacons.
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