My father suggested to me recently that it might be helpful to better explain what the term “neoconservative” means. “A lot of people don’t know,” he said. As usual, Dad was right. Though decades old, the mainstream use of the word neoconservative is relatively new. I mentally filed away my father’s suggestion agreeing that a layman’s explanation of “neoconservative” might be helpful when the time was right. The time is right—as the American intervention in Libya has drawn a clearer line between neoconservatives and conventional Republicans than any event in recent memory.

The “neocons” believe American greatness is measured by our willingness to be a great power—through vast and virtually unlimited global military involvement. Other nations’ problems invariably become our own because history and fate have designated America the world’s top authority.

Critics say the US cannot afford to be the world’s policeman. Neoconservatives not only say that we can but we must—and that we will cease to be America if we don’t. Writes Boston Globe neoconservative columnist Jeff Jacoby: “Our world needs a policeman. And whether most Americans like it or not, only their indispensable nation is fit for the job.” Neocon intellectual Max Boot says explicitly that the US should be the world’s policeman because we are the best policeman.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) heartily champions the neoconservative view. While virtually every other recognizably Tea Party congressman or senator opposes the Libyan intervention, Rubio believes the world’s top cop should be flashing its Sherriff’s badge more forcefully in Libya—and everywhere else. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat explains:

“Rubio is the great neoconservative hope, the champion of a foreign policy that boldly goes abroad in search of monsters to destroy… His maiden Senate speech was a paean to national greatness, whose peroration invoked John F. Kennedy and insisted that America remain the ‘watchman on the wall of world freedom.”

Rubio’s flowery rhetoric is worth noting because neoconservatism has always been sold through the narrative of America’s “greatness” or “exceptionalism.” This is essentially the Republican Party’s version of the old liberal notion promoted by President Woodrow Wilson that it is America’s mission to “make the world safe for democracy.” Douthat describes Rubio as the “great neoconservative hope” because the freshman senator is seen by the neocon intelligentsia as one of the few reliable Tea Party-oriented spokesman willing to still promote this ideology to the GOP base. I say “still” because many Republicans have begun to question the old neocon foreign policy consensus that dominated Bush’s GOP. Douthat puts the neoconservatives’ worries and the Republicans’ shift into context:

“Among conservatism’s foreign policy elite, Rubio’s worldview commands more support. But in the grass roots, it’s a different story. A recent Pew poll found that the share of conservative Republicans agreeing that the U.S. should ‘pay less attention to problems overseas’ has risen… In the debate over Libya, Tea Party icons like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin have sounded more like (Rand) Paul than Rubio, and a large group of House Republican backbenchers recently voted for a resolution that would have brought the intervention screeching to a halt.”

As one of only a handful of Republicans to oppose the Iraq War, Republican Congressman Jimmy Duncan said in 2003: “It is a traditional conservative position not to want the United States to be the policeman of the world.” At the time Duncan’s party strongly disagreed with him.

But this is because most Republicans didn’t think of the Iraq War as “policing the world” but as a legitimate matter of national defense. We now know that it had absolutely nothing to do with America’s defense and we’re still bogged down needlessly in another nation’s civil war.

But this has always been the neocon ruse—if neoconservatives can convince others that fighting some war, somewhere is for America’s actual defense, they will always make this argument and stretch any logic necessary to do so. Whether or not it is true is less important than its effectiveness. But their arguments are only a means to an end. Neoconservatives rarely show any reflection—much less regret—for foreign policy mistakes because for them there are no foreign policy mistakes. America’s wars are valid by their own volition. America’s “mission” is its missions. Writes Max Boot: “Why should America take on the thankless task of policing the globe… As long as evil exists, someone will have to protect peaceful people from predators.”

Needless to say, perpetual war to rid the world of evil is about as far as one can get from traditional conservatism but it was also the mantra of Bush’s Republican Party. Boot now snidely asks the current GOP if they want to be known as the “anti-military, weak-on-defense, pro-dictator party” due to their opposition to the Libyan intervention. This argument might sound strange yet familiar to Republicans—it was exactly what they said about Democrats who opposed the Iraq War. John McCain now calls Republicans who oppose the Libyan War “isolationist.” The Senator’s use of that term is as illogical as it is illustrative—in that his bizarre definition is identical to what most of his fellow Republicans believed just a few short years ago.

The Libyan War makes clear what the Iraq War made confusing: There is a difference between conservatives who believe in a strong national defense and neoconservatives who believe in policing the world under the guise of national defense. The neoconservatives will only remain successful to the extent that they can continue to blur this distinction. Conservatives will only remain conservative to the degree that they can continue to maintain it.