The Hillary Clinton campaign has recently been trumpeting endorsements from neoconservatives. The candidate’s embrace of figures such as Robert Kagan, Max Boot, and Eliot Cohen—all once regarded as anathema to the contemporary left—has engendered a wave of pushback from progressive critics.
Jane Sanders, wife of Bernie, is the most recent high-profile objector, publicly expressing queasiness about Clinton’s perceived allying with “architects of regime change.” Now, predictably, the pushback has been met with its own pushback, including from Brian Beutler of The New Republic, who cautions progressives not to fret.
“There is no evidence yet—none—that conservative figures with blemished records are rehabilitating their reputations by endorsing Clinton, or that Clinton is cozying up to new advisers, or that together they’re doing anything other than insuring against the risk of a Trump victory,” writes Beutler. Progressive skeptics of military interventionism, he posits, should take solace in the fact that despite her repeated entreaties to neoconservatives, Hillary has tangibly offered them and other bad actors “squat.” So there’s no reason, according to Beutler, to fear that they would exercise any meaningful influence in a Clinton administration. But this framing fundamentally misunderstands how neoconservatives customarily build networks and attain power.
Because their political program has virtually no support among large blocs of voters, neoconservatives have historically been forced to forge coalitions with other movements. Often their ostensible affinities are only tangential. It was not a given, for instance, that neoconservative intellectuals should have had any mutual goals with Evangelical Christians or diehard American nationalists. But they nevertheless fostered partnerships with these groups in the late 1970s and early 1980s, figuring (correctly) that this path would eventually lead them to positions of state authority.
By building what Beutler calls a “permission structure” prominently featuring neoconservatives, Hillary need not make any explicit “offer” to confer upon them tangible benefit. (By the way, what form would an explicit “offer” even take? A press release announcing formal cooperation?) Rather, she provides neoconservatives with an opening to ingratiate themselves into power merely by welcoming them into her prospective governing coalition. Evidence that their catastrophic failures have been forgiven can be seen in the uncritical adulation showered on Kagan, Boot, Cohen, and similar operators by the liberal media, suggesting that their blemished reputations are undergoing undeserved rehabilitation.
Furthermore, Beutler errs in asserting that there is no evidence of Clinton “cozying up to new advisers” who might envisage a role for themselves in a future administration. Kagan has given Hillary not only rhetorical praise, but material support—he even headlined an official campaign fundraiser on her behalf. Foreign-policy analyst Jim Lobe has suggested that Kagan is most likely angling for a job with Clinton.
Kagan, who not so long ago was denounced by liberal Iraq War opponents, co-signed a June report with Michèle Flournoy—the likely candidate for defense secretary under Clinton—calling for escalated U.S. military presence in Syria, a policy that could lead to all-out ground war or direct confrontation with Russia. So it seems he may already be on Clinton’s hawkish team in waiting.
Few reputable critics would argue that Hillary is herself a neoconservative. Far more plausible is that she’ll enable the implementation of a neoconservative foreign-policy agenda by casting the neoconservatives’ goals in liberal-interventionist terms, thus garnering Democratic support for initiatives that would face widespread opposition were they spearheaded by a Republican president. Lobe has written that Hillary represents “the point of convergence between liberal interventionism … and neoconservatism,” and Hillary’s willingness to empower a foreign-policy establishment featuring neoconservatives shows that they have in fact received concrete reputational benefit from lining up behind her.
Hillary may operate on the premise that anything that might conceivably garner her additional votes is justified on that basis alone. Yet even on that premise, heralding neoconservative ideologues doesn’t make sense. Again, neoconservatives have virtually no support in the electorate, as the recent Republican primary contest indicated. Their base is mostly among elites. Beyond that, there’s a serious chance that continuing to tout these people will actually damage her electoral fortunes by alienating left-wing voters who might be cajoled into voting for the Democratic ticket, but can’t countenance the possibility of ushering the Iraq-invasion architects of the George W. Bush era back into power.
So if there’s no obvious electoral upside, the most likely reason why Hillary is reaching out to such characters is a deceptively simple one: she shares common interests with them, respects their supposed expertise, and wants to bring them into her governing coalition. For that, anyone interested in a sane foreign policy over the next eight years should be exceedingly worried.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.