Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Neoconservative Cursus Honorum

The warmongering right has carefully built a network of credentialing institutions that secure it outsized influence.

Having experienced several more weeks of mainstream media jingoism about the “Iranian threat,” culminating in the outrageous Joshua Muravchik op-ed advocating war with Iran as the “best option” for dealing with that country, one has to ask why it is that a gaggle of self-proclaimed “experts” has been able to capture the foreign-policy narrative so completely, in spite of the fact that they have been wrong about nearly everything?

Neoconservatives have two core beliefs. First is their insistence that the United States has the right or even the responsibility to use its military and economic power to reshape the world in terms of its own interests and values. Constant war thus becomes the new normal. As Professor Eliot Cohen, a former State Department adviser under George W. Bush, put it, “For the great mass of the American public … and for their leaders and elites who shape public opinion ‘war weariness’ is unearned cant, unworthy of a serious nation… .”

The second basic neoconservative principle, inextricably tied to the first, is that Washington must uncritically support Israel no matter what its government does, which makes the defense of all things Israeli an American value. William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, made the neoconservative viewpoint clear when he recently wrote that Benjamin Netanyahu would win the GOP’s presidential nomination, if he could run, because “Republican primary voters are at least as hawkish as the Israeli public.” Other neoconservatives continue to pursue the goal set out by the “Clean Break” memo provided to then-Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in 1996, which recommended the reordering of the entire Middle East to benefit Israel. The memo was written by Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, James Colbert, and David and Meyrav Wurmser.

Beyond foreign policy, things get a bit fuzzy with large variations regarding the kinds of social issues that energize many actual conservatives. In fact, neoconservatives usually avoid discussing abortion, immigration, gay marriage, race, and the proper place for religion in a civil society because they find themselves on the progressive side of the argument. They are also light on the ground when it comes to constitutionalism and civil liberties, concerns of traditional conservatives, preferring instead to back the warfare state coupled with a unitary executive, which frees up the president to exercise the military option in international relations.

This ambivalence is because, as it has been observed, many neoconservatives are former leftists or even radicals who have by their own account “been mugged by reality,” leading to a gradual shift away from the Scoop Jackson Democratic nest where many of them were nurtured to the Republicanism of Ronald Reagan, where they focused more practically on obtaining positions in the Pentagon. Many eventually supported John McCain before gravitating to the George W. Bush administration, where some of them found senior-level government positions in both the White House and Defense Department.

Neoconservatives largely mix with other neoconservatives, which means that they operate with considerable internal cohesion, but that does not fully explain their success in selling a product that has begun to smell very bad if one judges by results rather than marketing. But perhaps the answer lies in understanding how the bubble around Washington works, which the neoconservatives have mastered. They are particularly adept at resume building within their clique, understanding full well that a Fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies is more likely to find space on a friendly editorial page than someone without that cachet who has a large audience on the alternative media, particularly if that someone is diverging from status quo policies or staking out a position that differs substantially from foreign-policy groupthink. Their ability to seek out and build relationships with friends in the mainstream media, which the Guardian describes as “extraordinary,” has significantly contributed to their success. In 2002 alone the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), an AIPAC spin-off, by itself placed 90 op-eds in the mainstream media. They also enjoy, for the same reason, unchallenged access to government committees and advisory commissions.

Muravchik, currently a Hopkins’ Fellow, is a prime example of an ascendant neoconservative. His biography is typical of the older generation of neoconservative, starting out as a socialist before becoming a Democrat in the Scoop Jackson-inspired Coalition for a Democratic Majority, and finally ending up as a GOP-leaning neocon. Stops along the way include what some have described as “neoconservative alphabet soup.” Muravchik is or has been affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI),  WINEP, Project for the New American Century (PNAC) the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) and the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq (CLI), where he served on the board.

Always completely protective of hardline Israeli interests, Muravchik was one of the neoconservatives who pushed most diligently for war against Iraq post-9/11, and he has persistently called for an attack against Iran. In 2006 he wrote an op-ed declaring that “We must bomb Iran,” with follow-up pieces demanding more of the same in 200720082011, and 2014.

Neoconservatives like to write books as part of their credential building process, making sure that the results are promoted through their networks and favorably reviewed no matter how ridiculous. Laurie Mylroie’s Saddam Hussein’s Unfinished War Against America, which claimed that Iraq had bombed the world Trade Center in 1993, was both printed and praised by AEI. Muravchik’s 2014 offering Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel explains that Israel has been the victim of the embrace of a progressive-inspired model of “national/ethnic struggle.” In other words, the turn against Israel is due to leftist politics and has not been the result of anything Israel has done.

Muravchik’s career has carefully advanced in such a fashion as to validate himself as an expert on international affairs even though it should be apparent that he is little more than an academic apologist for a rather narrowly construed point of view. And nearly every other neoconservative has a similar trajectory, starting out in elite academia and then bouncing from position to position inside and outside the government, aided at every step by others in the movement. The neoconservatives benefit particularly from their ownership of a number of foundations and institutes, the aforementioned alphabet soup, that provide resting places between university and government positions, complete with salaries and important-sounding titles. Many also are provided with lucrative opportunities in the private sector that free them to subsequently concentrate on the true task at hand, which is shaping U.S. foreign policy.

If one looks at the careers of 30 well-known neoconservatives, one notes that there are a number of stops that pop up on many of the resumes, a progression that might well be described as something like a cursus honorum whereby the neoconservative aspirant is afforded status and credibility before stepping out onto the national or international stage. Muravchik’s multiple affiliations are exceptional, but they are actually exceeded by Richard Perle, who has been connected to AEI, FDD, PNAC, JINSA, CLI, the Hudson Institute, U.S. Committee for a Free Lebanon, Center for Security Policy, and the Committee on the Present Danger.

The Project for the New American Century, launched in 1997 by William Kristol and Robert Kagan, served as an apparent incubator for the modern neoconservative movement and was a popular introduction to national politics. By the time it ceased to operate in 2006, four out of five of the neoconservatives who rose to prominence in the George W. Bush administration and subsequently were in some way affiliated with it.

The second most popular stop for neoconservatives, not surprisingly, was and still is the American Enterprise Institute, where more than half have been affiliated. Other popular destinations include the Foreign Policy Initiative, founded by Kristol, Robert Kagan, Dan Senor, and Eric Edelman. There is also the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which is backed by Kristol as well, but headed by Canadian Mark Dubowitz, a Hopkins product and FDD’s Executive Director, who is regarded by Congress as an expert on how to deal with Iran and also reportedly briefs “…counterterrorism officials on a range of national security and terrorism-related concerns.” Dubowitz’s resume suggests, however, that he actually doesn’t appear to know much about Iran apart from what can be done to punish it economically. Nor does he have the depth that comes from actually working for a law enforcement or intelligence agency. He is basically an academic, a familiar pattern for neoconservatives.

Another focal point is Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Paul Wolfowitz, architect of the disastrous Iraq War, served as dean prior to entering the Pentagon as a political appointee in 2001, which might partly explain the attraction. Indeed, one might suggest that SAIS is the academic wing of the neoconservative movement. Ten out of 30 leading neoconservatives have had some connection to Hopkins.

A third of neoconservatives have worked for JINSA. More than two-thirds have written for The Weekly Standard, National Review, or the Wall Street Journal. Surprisingly few have had any direct connection to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), but more than half have worked with WINEP, which was founded by AIPAC. Neoconservatives also figure prominently in the Middle East Forum and the Hudson Institute. Some have been active in Bill Kristol’s most recent venture the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), launched in collaboration with Christian Zionist Gary Bauer. Military service is rare among the neoconservatives, which has led to frequent charges that they are armchair warriors more than willing to let others die to achieve their aggressive foreign policy objectives.

That the neoconservative cursus is supported by large amounts of money should not be ignored, as that is the glue that enables aspirants to persevere and turn one’s political leanings into a viable career. AEI had income totaling $46 million in 2013. WINEP received $8.7 million in the same year.

So how do critics of the incessant warfare combined with obeisance to pro-Israel policies get heard? Well, by and large they don’t get to capture an audience because they have little or no access to the mainstream media or to policymakers. There are no traditional conservative media outlets in any way comparable to the mainstream magazines, newspapers, and talk shows that the neoconservatives dominate, though TAC probably comes closest to being a viable alternative. The Ron Paul movement’s interest in fixing America’s global role has withered and died as the organizations he spawned have turned inward and largely eschewed foreign policy. No one who is a traditional conservative with cautious views about interventionism is particularly welcome on television or in testimony before government panels or commissions.

Most of all, there is no structure in place in any way comparable to what the neoconservatives have developed to nurture, support and guide young conservatives who would like to make a career in exposing the all too evident falsehoods inherent in the new American nightmare. The neoconservative example may be deplorable, but it has been all too effective, and seemingly impossible for those with limited resources to emulate.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.