NEOCONSERVATISM: A GOOD IDEA THAT WON’T GO AWAY

Standpoint Magazine, London, in the June 2013 issue published an article by Elliot Abrams on neoconservatism. Excerpts below:

According to Abrams a good starting definition of neoconservatism is patriotism, American exceptionalism, a belief in the goodness of America and in the benefits of American power and of its use, and a conviction that democracy is the best system of government and should be spread whenever that is practical. It should not be shocking that such views win wide popularity in the United States, though perhaps that last idea — spreading democracy — is the most controversial.

The continuing relevance, indeed power, of these ideas is clear, and it is equally clear that they are not held only by a small coterie of intellectuals in Washington. As that article on the Daily Beast noted, those neocon “impulses” are “as old as the country itself, dating back to John Winthrop and running through Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and John F. Kennedy.” President George W. Bush endorsed democracy promotion yet again at the dedication of his presidential library in April when he said, “My deepest conviction, the guiding principle of the administration, is that the United States of America must strive to expand the reach of freedom.” During the 2012 campaign, neoconservatives and neoconservative ideas were prominent in the Romney campaign and throughout the primary season.

Jacob Heilbrunn, who in 2008 wrote the book They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, now in 2013 writes about a “neocon resurgence” and their “mounting dominance” in the Republican Party. “By and large,” he says, neocons “set the template for the discussion of foreign policy in the GOP. Their ascendance suggests that it is most improbable that a debate, let alone a civil war, will erupt within the GOP over foreign affairs. On the contrary, the neocons appear to be more firmly in control than ever,” which Heilbrunn, it must be added, laments.

Neoconservatism emerged in the Democratic Party as a reaction against two evils (as seen by hawkish Democrats). The first was the Nixon-Kissinger version of realpolitik, which was seen as an amoral policy — the kind of thing that led President Ford to refuse to receive Alexander Solzhenitsyn at the White House. The second was “McGovernism” in their own party, with its urgings to “Come Home, America” and avoid foreign entanglements, based on the view that America would only make things worse by extending its history of supporting repressive, right-wing regimes…neocons wanted a foreign policy that was both muscular in promoting American interests and moralistic in promoting freedom, “They found themselves battling not only the left wing of the Democrats but also Nixon and Kissinger’s realist policy of détente, which included de-emphasising ideological concerns.”

Neocons find themselves in the same battle still, and still in both parties [against] the new Ron Paul, Rand Paul libertarian isolationism (though Rand Paul protests that he is more a very careful internationalist than a true isolationist). In the Democratic Party, the enemy is the Obama version of McGovernism: the reluctance to use American power, the apparent view that American influence and intervention will always make things worse, the fear of American nationalism, and the almost contemptuous dismissal of democracy-promotion.

It is clear that many neocon founders were Jews, but equally clear that many who were over the years champions of neoconservative ideals, from Henry M. Jackson and Jeane Kirkpatrick, to George W. Bush and Richard Cheney, were not.

A look at the newest generation of neocons (of this, more below) — some of them lesser -known today, but give it five or ten years — also shows people like Liz Cheney, Jamie Fly and Christian Brose who, whatever else they may be, are not Jewish.

Steven Walt is a Harvard professor and co-author of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, which says American support for Israel cannot be explained except by pressure from Jews who cleverly manipulate American foreign policy; not coincidentally the same charge made against neocons.

When the administration was young this may have seemed simply like Republicans critcising a Democrat. But now in year five of Obama, the neocon critique finds reverberations among Democrats as well.

A policy of American weakness, a desire to remain out of the fray, and a deeply dubious assessment of American morality, will such policies bring victory in 2016, when Obama is gone and those wars are behind the United States? Within the Democratic Party there remain internationalists, many of them associated with the Clinton years, and indeed Hillary Clinton herself may be the next Democratic candidate. She is no neocon, but she does appear to be far closer than Obama to the view that Madeline Albright, her husband’s secretary of state, espoused when she called the United States the “indispensable nation”.

War-weariness is always a powerful sentiment, as it was after Vietnam. But it passes. And so will that element of Republican reluctance to support overseas actions that is in fact a vote of no confidence in the sitting President. I too would shrink from having Barack Obama as commander-in-chief in any new conflict, given the administration’s record in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, and Syria of reluctance to engage forcefully enough to win.

Those in both parties who argue for intervention in Syria (as I have for two years) do not do so primarily because we favour free elections there, but precisely because we thought it in America’s interests to bring down a key part of Iran’s and Hezbollah’s defence perimeter, and because we feared the growing arrival of jihadis in Syria to fight what they viewed as Sunni battles.

“Responsibility to protect” doctrine is about military intervention, but neoconservatism —from its roots in Henry Jackson’s efforts to liberate Soviet Jewry, to Reagan’s push for transitions to democracy in places like Chile, the Philippines, and South Korea and his creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, to Bush’s espousal of democracy in Lebanon, Palestine and Burma and his support for the Dalai Lama — is caricatured if its emphasis on ideological warfare and on verbal and programmatic support for the expansion of freedom is forgotten.

I suspect that no presidential candidate in 2016 will say “I am a neoconservative” or “we are all neoconservatives now”. The term has suffered from too much opprobrium, and why should any politician wish to spend his time explaining himself lexicographically? But the ideas remain potent, and a look at the GOP line-up — Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan — suggests that as with McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012 the easiest one-word explanation of their foreign policy planks will be “neoconservatism”: American exceptionalism, American power, patriotism, freedom.

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