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Neocons Are Back—But Not in the GOP

As hawks flock to Obama's side over Syria, their hold on Republicans is slipping.
Bill Kristol

After years of what seemed to be a self-imposed dormancy, the war hawks Barack Obama repudiated as a candidate are suddenly the biggest supporters of his Syrian intervention, proving there might be a second act for the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party after all.

But the new friendship comes with a catch: Obama’s Republican spear points, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, want an extended American intervention in Syria—beginning with the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. So far, the administration is only asking Congress to pursue limited air strikes in Syria: no regime change.

The question is whether the hawks have the clout to push the issue, or whether this time they’ll be sidelined by a growing anti-interventionism within the GOP. Either way, their surrogates are pulling out the stops, warning that anything less than a fatal blow to Assad would embolden Iran, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda, and cripple American credibility throughout the rest of the world.

“They’re kind of like the terminator, they just don’t die,” says Michael Lofgren, who worked on Capitol Hill as a defense budget analyst for 30 years before retiring and writing The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted in 2012.

Lofgren was one of a number of Beltway critics balking at a letter signed last week by 60 mostly neoconservative throw-backs from the Iraq War—including Paul Bremer, Karl Rove, Dan Senor, and Elliott Abrams—calling for the president “to take meaningful and decisive actions to stem the Assad regime’s relentless aggression, and help shape and influence the foundations for the post-Assad Syria.”

Led by neoconservative scion William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, the signatories are the latest incarnation of the now-defunct Project for a New American Century (PNAC), which in 1998 wrote to President Bill Clinton urging the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. PNAC once represented a powerful swath of the Washington neoconservative policy establishment, but later drew fire for its role in the run up to the Iraq War. It elicited particular ire after the promised weapons of mass destruction were never found and the United States became mired in an insurgency that none of the letter’s signatories—many of whom occupied top policy jobs in the Bush Administration—had anticipated.

PNAC later resurfaced as the Foreign Policy Initiative, which, along with the kindred Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, has pushed for an extended presence in Afghanistan, big defense budgets, and Syria as the next beachhead of regime change in the Middle East.

“You would think they would be so discredited they would be shamed, but they have no shame,” Lofgren tells TAC.

After the most recent letter was published on Aug. 27, critics jumped on what they suggested was a case of tone-deafness of the first order.

“I’d never claim to be a foreign-policy expert. But I know enough to scoff when The Weekly Standard grants ‘expert’ status to Karl Rove, and to discount the prognostication skills of everyone who urged American intervention in Iraq without the faintest idea of what would follow,” Conor Friedersdorf charged in The Atlantic on Aug. 28.

For a while it seemed the neoconservatives had taken their licks and were sitting out Washington’s foreign policy waltz, maintaining a relative silence during the Arab revolutions and subsequent turmoil in Egypt. Perhaps they were just keeping their powder dry for what they saw as the most critical foreign policy undertaking since Iraq—getting rid of Assad.

“The regime itself—its barons, its secret police, its elite military units and its air bases—ought to be legitimate targets, and the same is true of Assad’s presidential palace,” writes Fouad Ajami, a former advisor to senior Bush administration officials Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz and a signatory to the recent letter to Obama.

“No tears will be shed for Assad. The vast majority of Arabs must dream of an end for him similar to the macabre fate that befell Muammar Qaddafi.”

Over the last week, the hawks have alternately praised Obama’s willingness to show military force against Assad and rebuked him for limiting his plan to “punitive strikes.”

The Washington Post editorial page, run by the hawkish Fred Hiatt, has published more than one piece chiding Obama for his shortsightedness, saying, “military action should be seen as one component of a policy that finally recognizes a U.S. interest in helping to shape Syria’s future.”

Former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, in his own op-ed, concurs:

The best-case scenario is probably this: a negotiated outcome in which Assad departs and other regime elements agree to form an interim government with the non-extremist members of the opposition…The new government would then need to engage in a multi-year power struggle (aided by the United States) with the jihadists.

Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings Institute scholar but always a reliable heavy-lifter for the interventionist wing, goes the distance in a Aug. 26 column, writing that “Assad must go” and that a “political settlement among belligerents … may ultimately involve the deployment of 10,000 or more U.S troops to help implement any peace deal that may be reached in the future.”

More recently, as Obama announced his intention to put his plan before Congress, some neoconservative elements have turned up the heat, fearing, perhaps rightly so, that they do not have the votes among even Republican quarters. Already, in order to get the vote through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, sponsors had to limit the strikes to a 60- to 90-day “soft deadline.” It passed 10 to 7.

Not every hawk is happy there’s a vote at all. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, on Fox News Sunday. “President Clinton acted in Bosnia and Kosovo without endorsement from Congress. There is a mass murderer on the loose and right now while we’re debating he’s dispersing his critical assets” in anticipation of the attack.

“For the Congress not to give the President authority to act would be catastrophic.”

On Tuesday, faced with the prospect of losing even the go-ahead for limited strikes, Graham and McCain took to the media to start a weeklong lobbying blitz that—no surprise—heavily works the Iran-Hezbollah bugaboo.

“If we don’t get Syria right, Iran is surely going to take the signals that we don’t care about their nuclear program,” charged Graham. “If we lost a vote in Congress dealing with the chemical weapons being used in Syria, what effect would that have on Iran and their nuclear program?”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has been pretty successful at selling neoconservative policy to Washington, began a “full court press” Tuesday in favor of Obama’s plan. While stopping at endorsing “regime change,” one AIPAC official told Eli Lake at The Daily Beast:

Our view is that if this vote goes down, it will be devastating to American credibility and send a very clear message to Iran that they can press the accelerator on moving forward with their program. At this point Assad and Hezbollah are merely franchises for Iran.

Normally, these arguments work like a whistle with Republicans. But this is 2013, and not only are Americans leery of war, there are at least two more factions within the GOP lining up against it. One is represented by Kentucky libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (he voted “no” Wednesday) and Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, who have made their aversion to military action known (especially now that Obama’s plan could be more opened-ended than initially thought) and are now whipping up the opposition.

“I think [neoconservatives] have more of a battle on their hands than usual,” observes Jim Lobe, editor of LobeLog and Washington Bureau Chief for Inter Press Service. “I think there is much more contention in the party and it has certainly increased since Libya … and I think there’s a general war weariness especially for the Middle East because of how intervention has worked out so far.

Plus, he added, the “neoconservatives have really lost an enormous amount of credibility.”

And not all war hawks are on board with Obama’s plan anyway. John Bolton, who served as UN ambassador under George W. Bush, has spoken out against military force, saying a “decapitating blow” to Assad would risk putting al-Qaeda types among the rebel factions into power. Senate candidate Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, has long touted an aggressive military line. But she told voters Tuesday she cannot support Obama’s plan because it’s “amateurish” and too little, too late. This is similar to what Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told Fox News Tuesday. He too, voted “no” during Wednesday’s vote.

Cheney and Rubio do not appear to oppose air strikes or even regime change on their merits. This might put them into a Republican faction best described as “NObama”—opposing whatever Obama does, even if what he is doing is no different from what his Republican predecessor did. Former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who supported every military intervention during the Bush administration, is now fond of saying “let Allah sort it out” where Syria is concerned. She joins a cast of right-wingers, including radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Michael Gallagher, who are saying “no way” to intervention.

For the war hawks who are used to having an iron grip on the message and the votes, this could mean their comeback is over before it’s even begun.

“I think we can have a great debate about this and the role of the U.S in the world,” says Lobe. However, “I do think the neoconservatives—the interventionist nationalists—have a lot to lose in this regard.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor.



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