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Neoconservatism’s Theory Gap

A college professor teaching a course on theories of international relations would not find it hard to prepare for his or her students an anthology of articles or book chapters written by authors representing the major schools of thought in the field. That would hold true for realism or idealism (in their traditional of “neo” versions), liberalism (including “neo” and “post”), or Marxism, or the various alternative approaches such a post-structuralism and post-modernism, as well as efforts to apply feminism or green theory.

So it’s not surprising that our enterprising IR professor, recognizing the extent to which a school of thought known as neoconservatism has shaped American foreign policy in recent decades—even transforming it in a dramatic way through the Iraq War and the Freedom Agenda—would also search for a major work written by a leading neoconservative thinker that could provide the students with a serious and coherent overview of the neoconservative theory of international relations in its most updated version.

Here I have the realist John Mearsheimer, the neo-realist Fareed Zakaria, the idealist Samantha Power, the liberal John Ikenbeary, the Marxist Noam Chomsky, and such works as The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, The End of History, or The Clash of Civilizations. So where is our Great Neoconservative Foreign Policy Thinker and his or her magnum opus?

A historian of American intellectual thought would probably conclude that once there were actually serious neoconservative thinkers like Daniel Bell, Nathan Glaser, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Irving Kristol who published original and ground-breaking works on social and economic policy, some of which have become classics in the field.


But when it comes to the field of international relations, neoconservatism has failed to produce any great thinkers, and will instead be remembered for its many pundits and operators, or policy entrepreneurs, who did affect the debate and the crafting of American foreign policy but who have never been able to ground the policies they advanced in any consistent and systemic theoretical framework that could stand the test of time.

One could make the argument that these neoconservative policy entrepreneurs were just a bunch of guys who, during the Cold War, seemed to agree that Washington wasn’t tough enough towards the Soviet Union or friendly enough towards Israel, and since the Cold War ended have been arguing that America needs to establish global dominance (Pax Americana) and control the Middle East, culminating with their push for ousting Saddam Hussein, for occupying Iraq, and for remaking the Middle East. Their policy recommendations came first, and only then did they tried to articulate the reasons why American policymakers should embrace them.

Some of these foreign policy entrepreneurs, like Robert Kagan or Charles Krauthammer, may have been more articulate than others, but much of what they and other neoconservatives have had to say and write about foreign policy has been quite predictable, calling for the exertion of U.S. military power abroad in search of monsters to destroy. And their work was never aimed not at discovering a great new idea in international relations, but rather at providing intellectual ammunition to political allies fighting the “war of ideas” in Washington’s think tanks and green rooms, while maligning political enemies, more often than not as “isolationists”.

From that perspective, Bret Stephens’ America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder [1] fits the bill as another lightweight neoconservative foreign policy tome with quite a lot of intellectual pretension, if not arrogance, that could have been condensed into a short magazine article or even into an op-ed piece (saving at least this reader some time).

Devoid of any new ideas, America in Retreat [1] recycles old clichés in a confused and misleading way as part of an effort to revive and advance the neoconservative agenda at a time when it seemed (at least for a while) to be in decline, while at the same time bashing and trying to marginalize current and potential enemies of the cause. In this case, those enemies are the supposedly emerging “isolationist” wing in the Republican Party and the conservative movement, and its presumptive leader and potential presidential candidate, Sen. Rand Paul.

Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize-winning deputy page editor of the Wall Street Journal has been promoting these and similar themes in his Global View column in the newspaper, and he tends to employ the same kind of literary devices in the book as in his column, starting with the Great Spin.

According to Stephens, America is retreating from the world. It is abandoning Iraq; withdrawing from Afghanistan; refusing to topple Syria’s Assad; tolerating Russia’s aggression in Ukraine; allowing China to bully its neighbors. These and other examples of weakness and appeasement amount to a rejection of America’s traditional role as the world’s policeman.

Until recently, the view that “we should not be the world’s policeman,” which Stephens equates with “isolationism”, was held mainly by the political left and “found a home in the fringes of the right, particularly among small-government libertarians and latter-day Father Coughlin such as Pat Buchanan.”

But now “isolationism” is gathering support among members of “the mainstream of the conservative movement,” with the upshot being that foreign policy in the United States “is now cutting across traditional divides.” It is no longer “a story of (mostly) Republican hawks versus (mostly) Democratic doves.” According to Stephens, it is now an argument between neoisolationists and internationalists, with “an increasing number of Tea Party and libertarian-leaning Republicans like Senator Rand Paul” joining Democrats and liberals in espousing this neoisolationist creed.

The idealist and moralistic President Barack Obama and his Retreat Doctrine, which “begins as form of prophylactic defense against supposedly inevitable failure, then proceeds to an acquiescence to a world hostile to American interests, values, and long-term security” are supposedly responsible for the “isolationist” drift in Washington and around the country. Since Obama came to office, the global political and economic order have apparently crumbled, creating the conditions for instability and chaos everywhere.

The result is that without the United States playing the role of the world’s policeman, we should expect the Coming Global Disorder, as revisionist powers (Russia, China, Iran) exploit the strategic vacuum being created in “de-Americanized world.” Former U.S. allies that cannot count anymore on American protection (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Japan) are tempted to take matters in their own hand, to “freelance” when they fear that their security is at stake. And “free radicals,” ranging from jihadists with WMDs to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, “take advantage of the open architecture of the modern world to attack the foundations of the free world.”

The problem with this Great Spin is that it is ahistorical and has nothing to do with reality. Accounting for 42.6 percent of global military spending (as compared to 5.2 percent for China, 3.0 percent from Britain, and 2.2 percent for India) while continuing to maintain its military presence in every corner of the world, Washington, operating with clear bipartisan support, including by Paul, remains committed to activist global interventionist policies.

What Stephens dubs “retreat” and “neoisolationism” are nothing more than a return to normalcy, to the sources of traditional American foreign policy as practiced by Republican and Democratic Presidents since World War II. It was President George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisors who abandoned those principles and decided to launch a costly unilateralist military adventure and war of choice—coupled with a ideological crusade to impose American values worldwide—that ran contrary to U.S. interests and traditions.

In fact, American presidents have never tried to impose a Pax Americana or to embrace the role of the world’s policeman, except perhaps in the Western Hemisphere, but have rather sought to work with its allies in order to protect their common interests, as it did during the Cold War when it shared global power with the Soviet Union, but never considered, for example, deploying military troops to assist freedom fighters.

From that perspective, President Obama, with initial strong support from the American public as well as the backing of many realists on the political right, has decided to abandon the reckless and un-American foreign policy pursued by his predecessor (especially during W.’s first term in office) and to adopt a similar strategy of adjustment and retrenchment that was pursued by Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford—and orchestrated by Henry Kissinger—against the backdrop of the expected U.S. military withdrawal from Vietnam.

Like in the case of Nixon, President Obama’s policies included reassessing U.S. global interests, reducing defense spending, shifting more security responsibilities to allies, and reaching diplomatic deals with adversaries, all while continuing to project and sometime use American military power abroad.

In a way, the cry of betrayal sounded by Japan and other allies in Asia in the face of American withdrawal from Vietnam and the diplomatic opening to China recalls a similar irritation on the part of Saudi Arabia and Israel as President Obama was taking steps to readjust U.S. policy in the Middle East to changing strategic realities, steps such as launching diplomatic negotiations with Iran. What Stephens describes as neoisolationism is the pursuit of nuanced Realpolitik policies.

But in Stephens’ foreign policy universe there is no place for nuance, only crude binarism. His two villains, the alleged critics of his imaginary Pax Americana President Obama and Senator Paul, are compared to two historical figures and former presidential candidates, Democratic Vice President Henry Wallace and Republican Senator Robert Taft of Ohio.

In Stephens’ narrative, when it comes to foreign policy, there is a straight ideological line leading from Wallace (an early critic of U.S. Cold War policies) to Obama, and from Taft (who opposed U.S. entry into World War II) to Paul—with all the four being opponents of Pax Americana and exhibiting those “isolationist”—old and neo—tendencies. But these faulty historical analogies are based on the assumption that al-Qaeda, Saddam’s Iraq, and Iran pose the same level of threat that Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union did, and disregards the differences between the idealist Wallace and the more realist Taft (who by the way were also strong supporters of Zionism and Israel).

More annoying is the way that Stephens deals with his Iraq problem: his failure to resolve the dissonance between his suggestion that his ideological mates, including President Bush, are deep inside actually hardcore realists and the reality of the ambitious Wilsonian Freedom Agenda that Bush and the neoconservatives promoted after 9/11.

In order to resolve this cognitive dissonance, Stephens, in an exercise of mislabeling and historical revisionism, contends that, well, you see, there were actually two Bush Doctrines. There was the Realpolitik Bush-Cheney doctrine that was seeking to “uphold, defend and improve world order, not transform and improve human society” and only wanted to prevent Saddam Hussein from having access to WMDs. And then there was Bush Doctrine II that “promised to work toward the elimination of dictatorships the world over” and that Bush embraced only after it was discovered that there were no WMDs in Iraq.

But anyone who followed the debate in Washington before and after the Iraq War recognizes that the Freedom Agenda and the Wilsonian fantasy of turning Iraq and the Arab World into thriving liberal democracies while disregarding the political and cultural realities of Mesopotamia and the rest of the region, was an integral part of the drive to intervene in Iraq. It had very little to do with Realpolitik, and if anything, ended up harming U.S. (and Israeli) strategic interests by strengthening the power of Iran and its regional satellites.

Stephens doesn’t even try to confront the strategic catastrophe that the neoconservative agenda has created in the Middle East, and instead suggests that it is Obama that has been trying to advance a Bush Doctrine II in the Middle East by embracing the Arab Spring and abandoning Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. This is a legitimate criticism, but not a very credible one coming from Stephens, who now calls for using military power to depose Syria’s Assad and provide support to his opponents.

But then, America in Retreat, like other neoconservative foreign policy literature, isn’t supposed to make sense since it’s not based on any clear elucidation of how the world works and how to deal with it other than arguing for the need to show “resolve” and militarily threaten anyone who doesn’t share America’s values and interests (as defined by Stephens and Co).

In fact, by the time the book came out, many of its assumptions had already been overrun by events like the emergence of ISIS that actually played into the hands of the pro-interventionists in Washington, or the plunge in oil prices that weakened revisionist powers like Iran and Russia. Actually, much of what the book argues has not been overrun by reality; it never corresponded to it in the first place.

Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.

38 Comments (Open | Close)

38 Comments To "Neoconservatism’s Theory Gap"

#1 Comment By The Anti-Gropius On December 18, 2014 @ 2:08 am

Well, you’re obviously right. Like their principles, their theoretical attainments are even smaller than their balls. All it would take for Krauthammer to whip off an apologia for the fuhrerprinzip (for example) is the right stooge in the White House.

Of course lots of people are onto them these days. We know who and what they are.

#2 Comment By Leonard Crane On December 18, 2014 @ 2:22 am

“Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize-winning deputy page editor …

Oh, right, another Pulitzer laureate, like those other magnificent “speaking-truth-to-power” historians Walter Duranty and Janet Cooke.

“Actually, much of what the book argues has not been overrun by reality; it never corresponded to it in the first place.

That sounds as neat a definition of neocon “thought” as I can imagine.

#3 Comment By Kurt Gayle On December 18, 2014 @ 7:32 am

“The Marxist Noam Chomsky”

Noam Chomsky views himself as an anarcho-syndicalist rather than as a Marxist.

#4 Comment By Barry On December 18, 2014 @ 10:17 am

“Some of these foreign policy entrepreneurs, like Robert Kagan or Charles Krauthammer, may have been more articulate than others, …”

I note (with approval) that you have to say ‘articulate’, rather than ‘intelligent’, ‘thoughtful’, ‘insightful’, ‘wise’ or ‘true’.

And frankly, they have the sort of articulateness which only lasts given one-way channels of communication.

#5 Comment By Brooklyn Blue Dog On December 18, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

Getting through an entire 288-page book by Stephens is quite an accomplishment. I can’t even bear to read his predictable and tedious columns in the Wall Street Journal. Not that I would have read it anyway, based on Stephens’ columns, but thank you for the important work of saving many people the trouble of reading Stephens’ book.

#6 Comment By David Brown On December 18, 2014 @ 2:07 pm

Stephens is a sad slack jawed joke. He writes the same column every week is the WSJ. Apparently his handlers at AIPAC et al do not have money to write anything original. His sullen puss says it all which is not much.

#7 Comment By Michael K On December 18, 2014 @ 4:26 pm

I listened to Bret Stephens give an interview on a podcast at Richocet.com hosted by the people behind the PowerLine blog. If there is the equivalent of throwing a brick trough the TV screen for a MP3 player that was what I was feeling listening to Stephens. He described the invasion of Iraq as a policeman arresting a criminal. I do not know what world Stephens inhabits where arresting a common street thug costs over a trillion dollars, death of thousands of US soldiers and the scarring of tens of thousands more. He also wanted a de facto extension of the security guarantee of Article 5 for NATO members to the Ukraine leading to the possibility of war with Russia. He claims if we do not stand up to Putin now he will go after a NATO ally, for example, the Baltic States. Putin is not that stupid. To paraphrase Bismarck, Ukraine is not worth the bones of a single US Soldier. He also complained the US has only 50 K soldiers in Europe or Germany compared to the 250 K during the height of the Cold War. Does Bret Stephens fail to realize there are no longer seven Soviet armies with thousands of tanks ready to launch a blitzkrieg towards the Rhine? Stephens then complained about the US only spends 3.5% of GDP on defense compared to close to 10% during the height of the Cold War. The US spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined. We are not facing a Soviet Union that attempted to spend 25% of its GDP on defense. He talked like everything that happened post-Sept 2001 that has seriously damaged the Neo-Con framework has not happened or does not deserve further thought. He did not address how Iraq from Baghdad to the south is now a client state of Iran. He did no address how once the US pulls out of Afghanistan that country will return to the situation on Sept 10, 2001 with the Taliban controlling the southern past and the various other ethnic groups controlling the northern part with Kabul in the middle. If Stephens was in charge of foreign policy the US might find itself at war with Russia, North Korea and China.

#8 Comment By Dan Phillips On December 18, 2014 @ 5:41 pm

If non-interventionism is to be distinguished from realism, and I believe it should be, then is there a non-interventionist magnum opus? Why was non-interventionism not mentioned as a distinctive school of foreign policy thought?

Actual realism and non-interventionism have a lot in common. The problem is that these days realism is often uses as essentially a synonym for moderation. Hence, you’ll hear Hagel described as a “realist” or Huntsman described as a “realist.”

This tendency to equate non-interventionism with realism and/or moderation is unfortunate, IMO, because it leads to a lot of confusion even if the reason for doing so sometimes seems to be to make non-interventionism more palatable.

#9 Comment By Dan Phillips On December 18, 2014 @ 5:47 pm

BTW, I don’t agree with it, of course, but I would consider Robert Kagan’s Dangerous Nation to be the closest thing to a neoconservative foreign policy magnum opus that I know of.

#10 Comment By jmm On December 18, 2014 @ 6:25 pm

The only true neo-con intellectual I’ve ever heard of is Leo Strauss, but how he relates to these clowns, I do not know.

#11 Comment By Clint On December 18, 2014 @ 6:31 pm

Apparently his handlers at AIPAC et al do not have money to write anything original.

Interestingly,the vast majority of AIPAC members are Democrats, which would tend to define them as the liberal interventionists of the Democrat Party.

#12 Comment By Dakota Bob On December 18, 2014 @ 7:52 pm

Didn’t at least some of this neo-conservatism come from Strauss and his students, including Paul Wolfowitz? From what I have read Strauss was a disillusioned European intellectual whose ideas were greatly affected by the Nazis success through the thirties and until the tide of the war changed. It was pretty much what Liberals around him thought – remaking the world. Other empires have been of the same ideas, along with ignorance or disregard for the people affected. I know it is cliché, but are we really living 1984 and forever war?

#13 Comment By Northern Observer On December 18, 2014 @ 8:16 pm

Bret’s face says it all doesn’t it. Smug ignorance.

#14 Comment By Kingdaddy On December 18, 2014 @ 9:16 pm

Great analysis, starting with the observation of the intellectual bankruptcy of the neoconservative foreign policy faction. When George Kennan died, I wrote a blog post mourning not only his death, but the death of doctrine in US foreign policy. At some point, we abandoned the need for any framework for pursuing national security. Doctrines, whether you despised them (massive retaliation and rollback don’t rank high on my list) or loved them (I still hate Nixon, but I can give a nod to the wisdom of detente and containment through balancking), at least defined what were our security concerns, and what weren’t. They defined success and failure, at the grand strategy level. They helped the public in a democracy understand what they were supporting or not, through their votes. And they gave a vision that the same public, as well as other nations, could use as a rallying point.

In the Bush Jr. years, we got no doctrine, and therefore no real public consensus, no allies, and no definition of victory. The shifting justifications for the Iraq invasion (WMDs! Democracy! A haven for terrorists!) is evidence enough of that doctrinal void. And not one neoconservative “thinker” could ever make that strategic porridge more solid than the mush it was.

#15 Comment By tbraton On December 18, 2014 @ 10:42 pm

Dr. Hadar, you have clearly overlooked the distinct possibility that Stephens, following the inspiration of the spiritual father of neoconservatism Leo Strauss, is speaking in secret code accessible only to the small group of enlightened foreign policy elitists and over the heads of us mere mortals. I suspect that Stephens, following the teaching of the master, is one of those “serious writers” who write “esoterically,” that is, with multiple or layered meanings, often disguised within irony or paradox, obscure references, even deliberate self-contradiction. Just a thought, but what do I know, not being a member of the inner circle. I don’t have the requisite decoder ring.

#16 Comment By Dan Phillips On December 19, 2014 @ 12:35 am

Kingdaddy, I’m not sure I concede that neoconservatism doesn’t have a doctrine. It’s doctrine was summed up pretty well in Bush’s Second Inaugural Address, for example. The problem is its doctrine is objectionable. What it struggled for – “WMDs! Democracy! A haven for terrorists!” – was a public justification for the masses.

#17 Comment By tbraton On December 19, 2014 @ 7:40 am

” was a public justification for the masses.”

It may have been intended for the “masses,” Dan Phillips, but that net seems to have caught quite a large number of prominent, big-name public intellectuals in its haul. Even Brent Scowcroft, who initially criticized the absurdity of the Iraq War, backed off and muted his criticism out of loyalty to GWB’s father, GHWB. I am not sure that his continued, outspoken opposition to the war would have made a difference, but imagine putting loyalty to a family above loyalty to your country.

BTW some of the people who were caught up in that net were the leading Democratic contenders for the Democratic nomination for President, mostly Democratic senators. Had one of them had a smidgen of foresight, we might have been spared Barack Obama (and maybe gotten something worse, but that is highly unlikely). He was able to ride his opposition to the Iraq War (the only war he has ever apparently opposed, according to Larison) as an obscure state senator in Illinois to victory over Hillary Clinton in 2008.

#18 Comment By tbraton On December 19, 2014 @ 9:32 am

“I don’t have the requisite decoder ring.”

I made that comment in jest, but I may have accidentally stumbled over the solution to the mystery of Stephens’ book. Here is what I found on Wikipedia under “decoder ring”:

Ovaltine and other companies that marketed early decoders to children often included “secret messages” on their radio shows aimed at children. These could be decoded for a preview of the next episode of the show.

Film References[edit]
Immortalized in the movie A Christmas Story[4] the Little Orphan Annie radio show transmitted a secret message that deciphered to: “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” This, however, is incorrect. Although the announcer instructed the listeners to set their decoder rings to “B-2”, thus indicating that the letter “B” (the first letter in the supposedly decoded message) was represented by the number “2”, the first code number in the message was not “2”.”

So, it appears clear to me that Dr. Hadar similarly lacks the requisite decoder ring and has missed the secret message from Stephens that is either a sneak preview of his next column (as several commenters here have pointed out that is unlikely since one column is indistinguishable from another) or (most likely) a reminder to drink your Ovaltine. Mystery solved.

From the same Wikipedia site: “The most well-known example started in 1934 with the Ovaltine company’s sponsored radio program Little Orphan Annie.[2]” I notice that Leo Strauss first came to the U.S. in 1937. That eerie timing may also explain the source of Leo Strauss’ belief in the “distinction between exoteric (or public) and esoteric (or secret) teaching”

#19 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 19, 2014 @ 10:33 am

One can only hope that the neocon malady, like many illnesses that pass, appears most debilitating to its host in making it miserable, right before the patient conquers it and recovers.

#20 Comment By Dan Phillips On December 19, 2014 @ 3:12 pm

tbraton, I don’t disagree with what you’re saying but I’m not sure what it has to do with whether or not neoconservative foreign policy has a doctrine. Is not An End to Evil a statement of doctrine? Or the above mentioned Dangerous Nation? The problem is that the doctrine is flawed and one size fits all.

#21 Comment By Bill Jones On December 19, 2014 @ 5:43 pm

” Kurt Gayle says:
December 18, 2014 at 7:32 am

“The Marxist Noam Chomsky”

Noam Chomsky views himself as an anarcho-syndicalist rather than as a Marxist.”

Well, strictly speaking, all you say is how he says he views himself, he may well be a Marxist wishing to present himself as something different, much like the crypto-fascts who present themselves as liberals.

#22 Comment By Ken_L On December 19, 2014 @ 10:08 pm

‘It had very little to do with Realpolitik, and if anything, ended up harming U.S. (and Israeli) strategic interests by strengthening the power of Iran and its regional satellites.’

A point that should be made more often and more forcefully. It explains why Netanyahu is so antagonistic to the US – first Bush and then Obama declined to be real men and go on to Tehran by way of Damascus.

#23 Comment By Ed On December 20, 2014 @ 4:36 pm

Is there really a coherent neoconservative view of foreign policy? The first generation neo-cons tended to be realistic about domestic policy and saw limits in what government could achieve. Neocon foreign policy was always struggling against chastened realist views and the sense of the limits to power in favor of a more moralistic and crusading perspective. Just what neoconservatism means now is hard to say, but it would have been a good thing if the previous generation had clarified their thinking and resolved the contradictions.

#24 Comment By Dan Phillips On December 20, 2014 @ 7:26 pm

Ed, where I see neoconservatives sometimes disagreeing with each other is between the true believing democracy fetishist who think we should always support democratist movements out of principle and those who ask if the likely outcome of the democracy movement will be good for Israel and the US. We saw this with the revolution in Egypt for example. Some supported the protesters out of principle. Others were afraid the results of democratic elections would be worse for Israel and the US than Mubarak.

But the reason I know there is a neoconservative doctrine is because I can spot it a mile away when I here it, vs. the bellicose nationalism of a hawk like John Bolton, for example, who isn’t technically a neocon. The doctrine is that the US has an ideological obligation to lead on the world stage and advance not just US interests but also US values which they see as inseparable. They believe this US leadership is both morally right and necessary. Without it, the world would quickly plunge into chaos and a malignant alternative would quickly seek to fill the vacuum left by our withdrawal.

Unless I’m misunderstanding what is meant by “doctrine” as it is being used here, I’m surprised we are having this discussion. It strikes me that a main problem with neoconservatism is that it is all doctrine untethered to reality.

#25 Comment By Fast Jimmy On December 20, 2014 @ 8:24 pm

Neoconservatism appears to have left conservatism decades behind and moved into a purely fictional era befitting social media and our ‘sound bite with a photo’ approach to arguing for complex policies.

When the first George Bush refused to push Saddam Hussein out of power, he acknowledged the Pandora’s box of possible negative consequences that may result.

Neoconservatives of today, having had their opportunity and earned us trillions of dollars in costs, thousands of lives, and a bevy of strategic disadvantages for their lousy policies are completely unrepentant and unaccountable.

No matter how bad the outcome of one of their idiotic interventions, we will be told that keeping the peace isn’t easy and that our sufferings are the wages of world supremacy.

It would be funny if it weren’t so deadly serious.

#26 Comment By Dan Phillips On December 21, 2014 @ 5:02 pm

Fast Jimmy, some of us conservatives know that neoconservatism is anything but conservative, but a lot of people who self-identify as conservative continue to believe that it is. This is unfortunate but true, and why we must repeatedly make the case for an authentically conservative foreign policy.

#27 Comment By Bianca On December 21, 2014 @ 9:01 pm

Neoconservatives is a METHODOLOGY not a theory o anything in particular. The first neocon was definitely Leon Trotsky. His methodology was permanent revolution, ideology, manipulation of public behavior, and globalism.

Strauss was deeply disturbed but envious by Hitler’s power to transform a nation into anything he wanted. But he saw the world Trotsky did — as the increasingly connected, and thus, the real power is not in the might of one state, but the ability to spread ideology world-wide. Trotsky’s split from Stalin was centered around the internationalizing the ideology — communism. He derogatory described Stalin’s provincial ideas as “communism in one state”. He had no understanding of what it takes to prepare a poor, revolution thorn nation for an existential battle with Hitler, nor did he care. His vision was grand — start revolutions all around the world, put in place ideologically obedient elites, and then keep on radicalizing different segments of population, declaring not only the religion but also the traditional family as “holding the society back”. It is not surprising — Trotsky’s upbringing in the pre-WWI Vienna, the hot bed of cosmopolitanism in the wealthy middle class, infused by mercantilism, as well as the hopelessly backward looking aristocracy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Mercantilism always rode on the wings of liberalism and cosmopolitanism, but underneath, it was a much more pragmatic mind-set of merchants that could not ply their trade in close knit societies, with a high sense of national interests. Nationalism, as it is easy to conclude, was their mortal enemy.

Whether Trotsky understood it or not, he was shaped by his upbringing, and the ideas of a society not ordered by kings or church, or capitalist parliaments with their bureaucratic structures — appealed to him, albeit in the new, communist ideology.
Revolution is the key underlying method in neocon world. It makes no sense to classify them by known political charts. Samantha Power is neocon to her bones. “Idealism” is the same idealism of Trotsky — she is the “genocide chick”, dedicated to the human rights everywhere. Or better put, she is here to redefine for us what genocide is or isn’t, as each case is “sui generis”, and no rules apply — except as she chooses to see the world. You can bet all you posses on the fact, that her angle on anything is — does it promote the intervention and establishing the control over one unhappy part of the globe, or not. Neocons like communists do not believe in universality of GOOD and EVIL. It is all flexible and subject to redefinition. Chinese President expressed it well — there cannot be such a thing as universal human rights, as we cannot even agree on definitions of good and evil. Zbignew Brzezinski is a neocon. His books are all about how to control the world. He stood on the rock in Afghanistan, in the bad old days of Soviet Union — and cheered on Al-Qaeda as US was about to arm them. “We have something in common” he said, “… we believe in God.” Neocons are today just as approving of the head-chopping, children-splicing Salafist crazies. But all of our media suddenly dropped the reference to “salafi” fundamentalism at the core of all the various-named groups, tied by the umbilical cord to our Saudi allies. Neocons have no problems with it. Just like they have no problems with Nazis in Ukraine — for as long as they turn a new page, and are not anti-Semitic. As for others — like Russians, they can kill with impunity — that is just business of global permanent revolution.

In conclusion — it is Neocons that are ISOLATIONISTS, their brand of global interventionism masks it. In their zeal to conquer the world with “democratic” revolutions, they are spraying “sanctions” around the globe like there is no tomorrow. Furious that their revolution is not spreading far and fast enough, they are in the business of “punishing” the obstructionist states. Their hate for Russia — that purged Trotskyism, is unbounded and unhinged. This is about to bring us a major danger — as the meaning, ambitions and the hatreds of neocons this country just does not understand. Europeans understand it better, but in spite of that, ended up being roped into neocon games rather hopelessly.

One way to start curbing their dangerous ambitions is for states to exercise the freedom of commerce, and not agree to any sanctions that promote isolationism in the name of some greater revolutionary good. Yet, the world is not seeing it the way neocons would like — as the world just has the temerity to demand that the security is not divisible. You, neocons, with your pens always on the ready to redraw some boundaries, and tell other countries what they should do and how to do it — will be frustrated, and the world will pay for your arrogance and blunders of thinking that defies reality. We shall know them by what they do, by the methodology, not by the theater of their patriotic pomp. There is nothing to write about — as there is no political doctrine. There is methodology that craves dominance, and cannot imagine win-win solutions, either among people or among nations.

#28 Comment By EliteComInc. On December 22, 2014 @ 10:54 am

Politically incorrect comment: the problem with the use of force as being advocated by interventionist or not is that they never use enough of it in a manner that would achieve the ends they desire.


1. it may be unethical or immoral

2. have no comprehension of the purpose of force

3. simply lack the will to own the consequences.

In no intervention requiring some deep, social, political or economic change the US has never used overwhelming force to bring the desired goal about.

And at the risk of getting my comments and myself disbanded. The last time such an effort of force was made, it was to preserve a system not preserve it. We chose to not to maintain/sustain the victory.

#29 Comment By Carl Harper On December 22, 2014 @ 12:43 pm

Reason there is no clear neoconservative opus is that neocons are just aggressive liberals. So there is little to add theoretically. The fundamentals are all there, from a progressive theory of history to the absurd belief the universal appeal of liberal political institutions.

#30 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 23, 2014 @ 10:06 am

“Reason there is no clear neoconservative opus is that neocons are just aggressive liberals.
I am not sure such institutions are totally hopeless, they haven’t utterly made the US useless.

Sadly, I think this is accurate. And yet given the goals they wish to achieve they are not nearly aggressive enough.

#31 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 23, 2014 @ 10:15 am

“One way to start curbing their dangerous ambitions is for states to exercise the freedom of commerce, and not agree to any sanctions that promote isolationism in the name of some greater revolutionary good. Yet, the world is not seeing it the way neocons would like — as the world just has the temerity to demand that the security is not divisible.”

I hate to put a stick in this theoretical treatise. But World powers have been reshaping geopolitical structures long before democracies or liberal thought was conceived.

And here I must part company with most of you. I am not sure that there is anything intrinsically evil or wrong with reshaping the world. I do have my views on whether if it is necessary, viable, beneficial or ethical and combination thereof.

And I do believe that global leadership has its burdens. One of which is to act responsibly in full knowledge that reshaping is not a work of mere ego.

#32 Comment By tbraton On December 23, 2014 @ 9:28 pm

“tbraton, I don’t disagree with what you’re saying but I’m not sure what it has to do with whether or not neoconservative foreign policy has a doctrine.”

Forgive the somewhat rambling response that follows, but I believe Dr. Hadar’s take on Stephens’ book is that there is so little intellectual structure to neoconservatism that it is misleading to grace it with the sobriquet “doctrine.” I don’t know if Dr. Hadar would agree with my metaphor, but I regard neoconservatism like a jellyfish which is a shapeless blob without skeletal structure once you take it out of the water which allows it to float and do a lot of damage to other creatures.

I think Dr. Hadar does a very fine job of eviscerating Stephens’ book. Here, for example, are two paragraphs which appear to me to sum up Dr. Hadar’s case:

“In order to resolve this cognitive dissonance, Stephens, in an exercise of mislabeling and historical revisionism, contends that, well, you see, there were actually two Bush Doctrines. There was the Realpolitik Bush-Cheney doctrine that was seeking to “uphold, defend and improve world order, not transform and improve human society” and only wanted to prevent Saddam Hussein from having access to WMDs. And then there was Bush Doctrine II that “promised to work toward the elimination of dictatorships the world over” and that Bush embraced only after it was discovered that there were no WMDs in Iraq.”

and the penultimate paragraph:

“But then, America in Retreat, like other neoconservative foreign policy literature, isn’t supposed to make sense since it’s not based on any clear elucidation of how the world works and how to deal with it other than arguing for the need to show “resolve” and militarily threaten anyone who doesn’t share America’s values and interests (as defined by Stephens and Co).”

Incidentally, to my mind, Wikipedia has the following fine passage in connection with its entry “Leo Strauss” which touches on some of the same points made by Dr. Hadar in his review, although I am not sure that Dr. Hadar has the same approval of the passage (the last sentence also has the nice touch of quoting Prof. Paul Gottfried, a man of much broader knowledge of the history of ideas than I):

“Strauss has also been criticized by some conservatives. According to Claes Ryn, Strauss’s anti-historicist thinking creates an artificial contrast between moral universality and “the conventional,” “the ancestral,” and “the historical.” Strauss, Ryn argues, wrongly and reductively assumes that respect for tradition must undermine reason and universality. Contrary to Strauss’s criticism of Edmund Burke, the historical sense may in fact be indispensable to an adequate apprehension of universality. Strauss’s abstract, ahistorical conception of natural right actually distorts genuine universality, Ryn contends. Strauss does not consider the possibility that real universality becomes known to human beings in concretized, particular form. Strauss and the Straussians have paradoxically taught philosophically unsuspecting American conservatives, not least Roman Catholic intellectuals, to reject tradition in favor of ahistorical theorizing, a bias that flies in the face of the central Christian notion of the Incarnation, which represents a synthesis of the universal and the historical. According to Ryn, the propagation of a purely abstract idea of universality has contributed to the neoconservative advocacy of allegedly universal American principles, which neoconservatives see as justification for American intervention around the world—bringing the blessings of the “West” to the benighted “rest”. Strauss’s anti-historical thinking connects him and his followers with the French Jacobins, who also regarded tradition as incompatible with virtue and rationality.[50] What Ryn calls the “new Jacobinism” of the “neoconservative” philosophy is, writes Paul Edward Gottfried, also the rhetoric of Saint-Just and Trotsky, which the philosophically impoverished American Right has taken over with mindless alacrity. Republican operators and think tanks apparently believe they can carry the electorate by appealing to yesterday’s leftist clichés.[51][52]”

I would note that Strauss died in 1973, which was years before Reagan took the neoconservatives under the tent of the Republican Party, after they had been booted out by the Democrats and had no other party to call home, unless it was the American Communist Party. Therefore, it is hard to attribute to him the evils of his later followers. If I were forced to draw an analogy, I would liken Strauss to old Major in Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” the old boar who pronounced the general principles to the assembled farm animals a few days before he died and drew a very attractive portrait of a future where the farm was run by the animals themselves and the animals could enjoy the produce themselves. According to old Major, the source of all the animals’ problems was Man and once Man was removed the root cause of hunger and overwork would be abolished forever. One of his principles was distilled down into the rule that “all animals are equal.” At least that was the “exoteric” version told to all the animals at the beginning. The “esoteric” version that was divined by old Major’s descendants, the pigs, using “Straussian analysis” was, of course, “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

Finally, I must direct you to a comment I made about three years ago on TAC which gives a layman’s (i.e., my) concise summary of neoconservatism:
[2] Toward the end you will see a paragraph touching on Leo Strauss’ role in forming the neoconservative vision.
See also [3]
and [4]

I also recommend the David Gordon review of two books on neoconservatism which appeared in TAC on October 2, 2010. [5]

For a contrary and sympathetic defense of Strauss, see the book review in the current edition of TNI by Gary Rosen (who studied for his Ph.D. at Harvard under Harvey Mansfield, one of the leading Straussians in academia). [6] Gary Rosen, btw, is the editor of the Wall Street Journal’s weekend Review section and the former managing editor of Commentary.(Also, btw, the author of a well-received book on Madison.) One interesting paragraph: “There is, among Straussians, the sense of initiation into an elite, an elect few whose distinction lies in seeing what others fail to see, in knowing truths that others lack the courage to confront.” Sort of like the Communist Party in its heyday.

That seems to be a recurring theme among analysts of the “Strauss movement”: “Certainly, Strauss’s embrace of obscurity is part of his appeal. When it comes to religion, the obscurity can get especially thick. Strauss, who wrote on Jewish issues all his life, held that atheism was not a viable public philosophy. And yet he often interpreted religious figures in an impious way. He suggested once that the great medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides secretly believed that reason and revelation were incompatible while pretending to reconcile the Bible with philosophy. In his book “The Anatomy of Antiliberalism,” Stephen Holmes maintains that, in Strauss’s view, only philosophers can handle the truth: that nature is indifferent to human values and needs.

“So where did Strauss really stand? “He was an atheist,” says Stanley Rosen flatly. “They [Straussians] all are. They are epicureans and atheists.”

“While some Straussians dispute the idea that the master was a godless cynic, it does seem that Strauss wanted a regime where the elite lived by a code of stoic fortitude while governing over a population that subscribes to superstitious religious beliefs. “He agreed with Marx that religion was the opium of the masses,” says Shadia Drury. “But he believed that the masses need their opium.” Sociologically, Strauss’s approach would seem to work well for the Republican Party, which has a grass-roots base of born-again Christians and a much more secular elite leadership-at least in its foreign-policy wing. . .But if you read Strauss with a skeptical mind, the way he himself read the great philosophers, a more disturbing picture takes shape. Strauss, by this view, emerges as a disguised Machiavelli, a cynical teacher who encouraged his followers to believe that their intellectual superiority entitles them to rule over the bulk of humanity by means of duplicity. The worst thing you can do to Leo Strauss, perhaps, is to read his books with Straussian eyes.” [7]

P.S.–I note that in a subsequent post you state “It strikes me that a main problem with neoconservatism is that it is all doctrine untethered to reality.” That seems to state the heart of the problem: how can any ideology “untethered to reality” properly be considered a “doctrine”? If someone described the planet Earth as a big gumball and the white clouds above as cotton candy, I don’t believe you would grace his thoughts as a “scientific theory.”

#33 Comment By Winston On December 24, 2014 @ 2:00 am

Anyone who dislikes America is getting their wish with neocon who are making America overreach abroad as it decays within.

#34 Comment By Brandenburg Conservative On December 26, 2014 @ 11:59 pm

Neoconservatism doesn’t have a theory because it isn’t a philosophy. It’s a gang.

#35 Comment By Dan Phillips On January 1, 2015 @ 4:40 pm

tbraton, sorry I have returned to this thread a bit late. Thanks for the explanation. It obviously took a lot of work. But with all due respect, I’m well aware of what neoconservatism is all about. For example, here is an article I wrote in 2006 about paleoconservatism, but it by contrast discusses a lot about neoconservatism.


My point was, that it didn’t ring true to me that neoconservatism doesn’t have a theory, because if you ever argue with them, all they do is spout theory because when asked to explain the actual threat posed to America by ISIS or whoever, they can’t do it, because minimal actual threat exists.

I contacted Dr. Hadar on Facebook, and we had a productive discussion, for which I thank him. I think our disagreement is largely semantic. As someone said above, it depends on whether neocon boilerplate qualifies as a “theory” or “doctrine.” I’m still a bit reluctant to say it doesn’t, because I believe the conceptualization of neoconservative foreign policy as all theory untethered to reality is useful, but I see his point that it doesn’t qualify as a coherent theory by the standards of foreign policy scholars. I’m am leaning toward calling it “dogma” as a compromise term. I’m currently writing an article in response to this one.

And FTR, when I speak of neoconservative dogma I am speaking of the public face of neoconservatism as articulated by its foot soldiers. Because with Straussians and the issue of them not really believing what they say they believe, it becomes too cumbersome to repeatedly make that point. So for the sake of the argument, I just accept the public beliefs at face value and leave discussions of alleged Straussian double speak to separate articles.

#36 Comment By Bangle On January 4, 2015 @ 8:13 am

An absolutely fabulous opinion piece that firmly hits the Neoconservative foreign policy interventionist nail squarely on the head. The realpolitik U.S. foreign policy of the 21st century (dictated as well by our massive $22 trillion dollar national debt including our obscene military spending over the last two decades) dictates that America can no longer play top-cop to the world providing a tax-payer funded and young American citizen soldier military to protect the rest of the world from itself. The very idea of a Pax-Americana world where everyone dances to our drummer or else, has flown out the window and is gone in the wind after the debacle of Iraq, Afghanistan etc. And it should have been long gone “for good” over five decades ago in the aftermath of our hubris filled mistake of Vietnam. What is shocking is that 50 years after that debacle the same shrill voice of intervention and preemptive action still agitate for an American empire. In my opinion those Neoconservative voices of non-reasoned war at all costs are no better than domestic terrorist with their constant shrill and unending mantra of war at all costs and in every situation that does not fit their geopolitical demands and damn the consequences of that action. Maybe that is a bit harsh but that is my opinion never-the-less.

#37 Comment By Ron Pavellas On March 31, 2018 @ 1:25 pm

For me, a real conservative, neo- or otherwise, would be an old conservative, like George Washington. His Farewell Address provides, perhaps, the foundation for a proper “theory.”

#38 Comment By Andrew On April 5, 2018 @ 6:53 am

That unflattering Stephens photo is anti-semitic will be among the calm and reasoned responses to this piece I’m going to guess. It’s a go to tried and true counter-argument.