The rise of Donald Trump has led to predictions that the neoconservative dominance of Republican foreign policy is about to end, whether or not Trump wins. The Donald has challenged the perpetual military interventionism aspect of neocon-think without doing any damage to his campaign and, in the process, he has certainly noticed who the most strident voices being raised against him are.
Admittedly the prospect of a world blissfully free of neocons is appealing, but some observers have noted how the neoconservatives are chameleon like, blending in with whoever is controlling the levers of power and capable of moving from their original home in the Democratic Party over to the GOP—and then back again to the Democrats whenever it seems tactically advisable. Their eradication is far from a sure thing and one expects to see the neocon stalwarts Victoria Nuland and Robert Kagan at the top of any Hillary Clinton administration.
The effort to disparage Trump is to a considerable extent neocon driven, featuring the usual publications, as well as frequent television and radio appearances driven by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol’s talking points. Recently the Washington Post, as part of its own unrelenting campaign to destroy the Trump candidacy, has been featuring numerous articles attacking the candidate from every conceivable perspective. An op-ed queried seven “Republicans” regarding their own views of the Trump phenomenon plus their advice regarding what might be done to stop him. Former Congressman Eric Cantor stated flatly that “I don’t believe Donald Trump is a conservative” while Kristol called for mounting “an independent Republican candidacy in the general election.” Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute said Trump “is no conservative and will do lasting damage to the conservative movement,” a sentiment topped by Ari Fleischer’s assertion that “Trump is not really a Republican.”
This playing of word games is an effort to excommunicate individuals who do not fit into an acceptable template drawn by those who comprise the nation’s political elite. Congressman Ron Paul suffered from such attacks labeling him a libertarian when he ran for president. Pat Buchanan had preceded him, described by the neoconservative crowd as an anti-Semite and fascist. In reality, both were attacked for not being internationally interventionist enough to be considered true conservatives, which actually tells one more about the critics than it does about the victims of the denigration.
In its current incarnation, the Republican Party leadership, in going along with the charade, is essentially yielding to the neoconservative view that willingness to assert American leadership through overseas wars was and still is a sine qua non when it comes to being considered a conservative.
All of which makes one wonder about the abuse of the word “conservative.” Perhaps it is the neocons that should actually have the word stripped from their self-designation. The Republican Party has long been regarded as the home of “conservatism,” but that value has most often been linked to what have been regarded as family and traditional values, limited government, and, most particularly, an antipathy towards foreign wars. The GOP in Congress resisted President Woodrow Wilson’s and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s efforts to get America involved in both the First and Second World Wars, and also refused to join the League of Nations after the first war had ended. If anything, nonintervention was solidly in the GOP DNA.
But traditional reluctance to go to war on the part of Republicans was challenged when John F. Kennedy discovered a fictional “missile gap,” forcing the GOP for electoral reasons to become part of the developing national security consensus. It subsequently became the party of robust defense when Ronald Reagan sought to distinguish himself from the lackluster Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s term of office coincided with the appearance of the so-called “neoconservatives,” most notably at the Pentagon (a development that was, not coincidentally, combined with the final purges of the so-called Arabists at the State Department).
While it has often been noted that a group of like-minded individuals gradually commandeered the foreign and defense policy of the Republican Party starting in the 1970s, it is less frequently observed that the hijacking of the tag “conservatism” was itself also part of the process as a way to make the transition more palatable to the public and the GOP rank-and-file.
Many neoconservatives began as Communists. One of the founders of the movement, Irving Kristol, was a radical student at City College of New York in the 1930s. Kristol has been described as an anti-Soviet Trotskyite in his leanings prior to experiencing a political conversion in middle age. That meant advocacy of worldwide revolution, which for Kristol and his later associate Norman Podhoretz later morphed into endorsement of global pax Americana by force majeure.
Kristol famously quipped that he and his colleagues were liberals who were mugged by reality. The joke is amusing, but not completely convincing, since it begs the question of whose reality and to what end. Kristol himself described neoconservatives as “…unlike old conservatives because they are utilitarians, not moralists…”
Though Irving Kristol did not study under leading “neoconservative” theorist Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago, his belief in his own peer group of dedicated “intellectuals” as the leadership elements that would direct a broader movement was at its heart Straussian. Kristol summed up the Straussian view that
There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.
In his own words, Kristol stated his belief that a robust U.S. military would be the catalyst for positive developments globally and most particularly for Israel. In 1973, Kristol attacked Democratic Presidential nominee George McGovern, stating that
Senator McGovern is very sincere when he says that he will try to cut the military budget by 30 percent. And this is to drive a knife in the heart of Israel… Jews don’t like big military budgets. But it is now an interest of the Jews to have a large and powerful military establishment in the United States… American Jews who care about the survival of the state of Israel have to say, no, we don’t want to cut the military budget, it is important to keep that military budget big, so that we can defend Israel.
Complicating the definition of neo-conservatism is the fact that there are several currents that have more-or-less come together to form the current incarnation. The historic roots of the movement derived from Kristol and Podhoretz are radical leftist, but there is another source of neoconservatives gathered around the former senator from Washington, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who was liberal on social policies but a hard liner vis-à-vis defense and most particularly the Soviet Union. He was the source of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which tied relaxing trade policies with Moscow to the willingness of the Soviet government to allow Jews to emigrate. Prominent Scoop Jackson Democrats who became Republicans during the Reagan administration include Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, Douglas Feith, and Ben Wattenberg. Wolfowitz had also been a student of Strauss at Chicago.
A third element that has joined the historic and Jacksonian traditions are the second generation neocons, to include Bill Kristol, John Bolton, Michael Rubin, Charles Krauthammer, Laurie Mylroie, Jennifer Rubin, Dennis Ross, the Kagans, the Makovskys, and Elliot Abrams. It is this generation who staffs the Washington foundations and think tanks that have been associated with neoconservative policies, including AEI, the Hudson Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Emergency Committee for Israel and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. They also are prominent in the Rupert Murdoch media empire and in publications to include the Weekly Standard, Commentary, National Review and the Washington Post. Many are fixtures on Sunday morning talk television. They are also heavily overrepresented in groups like the John Hay Initiative that have succeeded in shaping the foreign policy positions being taken by nearly all of the GOP presidential aspirants.
There is, of course, considerable mixing and cross fertilization among the neoconservative groups, meaning that they sometimes differ on issues that they consider secondary to their main foreign policy agenda. They are reticent or even silent on many social conservative issues, even accommodating a progressive viewpoint on abortion and gay marriage, education, and health care reform. They support open borders or are at least ambivalent about immigration, favor free trade, promote diversity and multiculturalism. Their failure to address these issues in a serious way reveals above all that they are not genuine conservatives and are more like a one-trick pony that only performs foreign policy.
So what do all neocons actually believe? The unifying principle of neoconservatism is the conviction that the United States has a moral duty to serve as the world’s policeman, preempting the development of challenges from rogue states, which has sometimes caustically been described as “invade the world.” In practical terms, this pursuit of de facto global hegemony means that military force is by default the first option in bilateral relations with foreign states. It also becomes necessary to manufacture an enemy or enemies that theoretically pose a significant threat. This role is currently being played by Russia, China, perennial favorite Iran, and the somewhat more amorphous “Islamo-fascism.”
The fearmongering is necessary for two reasons. First it justifies inflated military budgets that in turn keep the defense contractor money flowing to neoconservative organizations. Second, a robust military, per Irving Kristol’s thinking, guarantees that the United States will always be ready, willing, and available to protect Israel, an imperative derived from the perception that both the U.S. and Israel are morally exceptional states. All neoconservatives support military buildups and interventions, plus they all are zealous in their uncritical support of Israel, to such an extent that the two issues define them.
Confronting the neocons requires first of all exposing the fact that they are not actually conservatives by any reasonable definition. Peter Beinart agrees that the “incoherent definition” needs to be retired and wants to replace it with “imperialist.” Call them what you will, but exposing their exploitation of the conservative label that enables their parasitical relationship with the GOP is perhaps the simplest way to create some separation from their peculiar brand of internationalism. Whether that will make them disappear or not is perhaps debatable, but, at a minimum, it would prevent them from defining what an acceptable Republican party foreign policy might or should be. Donald Trump has for all his faults opened the door just a crack in bringing about that kind of change, including in his rant a direct criticism of the neocons. In that respect, one should most certainly wish him success.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.