There are actually very few neoconservative purists, though their influence remains large and of course-their enthusiasm for war insatiable. When Bill Clinton was bombing Kosovo for no good reason in the 1990s, the neoconservatives stood with that Democrat president and against many in the Republican Party who generally agreed with talk host Sean Hannity, who said at the time, “There’s no stated goal. There’s no definition of success. All these important things. There’s no exit strategy. One mistake after another. Why would you go in deeper when we have not been successful up to this point? That seems to me to be folly.” Hannity was right, and George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, in which he said that the United States should be a “humble nation” that does not do “nation building,” reflected an America and a GOP fed up with the Democrats’ disastrous foreign policy.
After 9/11, the neoconservatives could once again find more reliable war allies on the Right, using that tragedy and a Republican administration to carry out what they could not get Clinton to do–invading and occupying Iraq. That Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11 posed a problem, so they lied. At the end of Bush’s second term so Americans many had soured on that war and the administration that had foolishly waged it that the country elected a Democratic president whose antiwar promises launched his campaign and played a significant role in his victory.
Like Bush, Obama also lied, and we now find ourselves escalating a war in Afghanistan, which according to an Associated Press poll in August only 38 percent of Americans support. On Afghanistan, the nation now echoes Hannity’s sentiments concerning Kosovo a decade ago: “There’s no stated goal. There’s no definition of success… . Why would you go in deeper when we have not been successful up to this point? That seems to me to be folly.” Of course, Hannity would never dare speak like this today about wars far more disastrous-further reflecting the neoconservatives’ far reaching influence.
But post-Bush, is that influence finally waning? The neocons still stand undisturbed in their thirst for war, however unpopular or illogical it becomes, still ignoring or deploring any questioning of it, and of course, still beating the drums loudly for new ones. Such was the case this week when Sen. Lindsey Graham spoke at the American Enterprise Institute to make his case for going to war with Iran. Seeming reasonable for a brief second, Graham said that “If you use military force against Iran, you’ve opened up Pandora’s box.” Fair enough. With our military stretched as far and as fatigued as it is and given the lessons of Iraq, many would agree that a new war with Iran right now would be pretty stupid. So of course, Graham went full-bore stupid: “If you allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, you’ve emptied Pandora’s box. I’d rather open up Pandora’s box than empty it.” Graham continued, “Has there been a serious exchange between any candidate–Tea Party, Republican, vegetarian, Libertarian, Democrat–about what we should be doing with Iran? Have you seen one commercial about whether or not our Afghan strategy is good or bad? We’re within days literally of a major shift in power in Washington, and you would never know that this nation is involved in two wars and looming threats face us all that could change the course of humanity.”
Similar to the Bush administration’s fearmongering over Iraq, propagandist Graham likely doesn’t believe his own rhetoric or that any of this will truly “change the course of humanity.” But he does seem concerned about conservatives changing course in their enthusiasm for war. Said Graham, “Our Tea Party friends have done the country a lot of good by focusing on our out-of-control spending in Washington and the imbalance we have at the federal level… but when we talk about foreign policy, I don’t hear much coming from either party or the Tea Party.”
For neoconservatives, such silence is deafening. There’s no tangible victory to be had in Afghanistan, Iran poses about as much a threat as Iraq did, and the extent to which the Right might wake up to the obvious would be a crippling blow to Republicans of Graham’s stripe. Even the audience at AEI–a think tank long considered by many to be neocon central–did not receive Graham’s warmongering this week with open arms. An acquaintance of mine who works for AEI was kind enough to forward an e-mail conversation she had with a coworker about Graham’s speech, in which he noted, “certainly there is a lot more skepticism and a lot less energy than there was a few years ago… Graham asked a lot of questions and had people raise their hands. Most thought the war was a mistake… certainly, there isn’t the stomach for aggressive military policy that there once was.”
Like Clinton in the ’90s, Bush in the last decade and Obama in this one, when it comes to foreign policy our government has always posed more of a threat to the American people than any of the near–mythical foes it likes to scare us about. If Iran had 20 nuclear weapons this would remain just as true, and that country and its president are no more of a danger to the United States than Saddam was. Such thinking was nearly impossible to get across to conservatives under Bush, but now that the commander in chief is a Democrat many on the Right are at least open to questioning our foreign policy, much like they once were under Clinton. Given the disaster in Iraq and the drudgery of Afghanistan, will the Right be less likely to fall for the current Iran-baiting? Will conservatives finally wake up? Only time will tell–and Graham’s speech this week was nothing more than the neocons’ latest attempt to hit the snooze button.