THE PATIENT RISE TO POWER OF THE NEOCONSERVATIVES part 2 of 3

Story continued from the previous post.

Brandenburg Gate1970s-1980s. The neoconservatives now shift from the Democrat to the Republican Party. The move made some sense. For one thing, in 1975, President Gerald Ford, a Republican, had appointed Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a political neoconservative, as U.S. ambassador to the UN. Also, neoconservatives in general were not fans of the human rights foreign policy of U.S. President Jimmy Carter (1976-1980). And by 1980, as the Carter – Reagan presidential election loomed, most had become convinced that they would never become lieutenants of power in the Democrat Party. During the Carter – Reagan presidential campaign, many transferred “their hopes to Ronald Reagan and the Republicans, expecting that a conservative victory would bring them all the opportunities and rewards they had been denied by the Democrats” (John Ehrman, The Rise of Neoconservatism).

But that was not to be. The stars had yet to align. After Reagan won the presidency he did bring in the neoconservative intellectual Jeane Kirkpatrick as a foreign policy advisor and in 1981 named her U.S. ambassador to the UN. As with Gerald Ford, this gave neoconservatives at least one high-level access to the Reagan administration. But then in 1983, Reagan, during the Lebanese civil war, acted on reports from the Department of Defense and the NSA and withdrew U.S. troops from Lebanon after a terrorist bombing in Beirut killed 241 American servicemen. Removing those troops did not set well with neoconservatives.

It became clear to the neoconservatives that President Reagan was never going to buy into their political philosophy. This was especially true regarding their foreign policy. Reagan may have gone so far as to call the Soviet Union an evil empire and promote the development of a bizarre “Star Wars” missile defense system against the Soviet threat, but he avoided neoconservative ideas for rolling back communism through military interventions.

In fact, Reagan was the U.S. president who, reached out skillfully diplomatically to the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Over a several year period, and against great political pushback in both countries, they hammered out and signed nuclear arms control treaties. Further, Reagan and Gorbachev are key players for anyone wishing to understand the end of the Soviet Union.

Losing their perennial enemy. With Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (“restructuring”) and glasnost (“opening”), the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the formal dissolution in of the Soviet Union, or USSR, neoconservatism by the end of 1991 had lost the perennial communist enemy over against which much of its foreign policy had been organized. The net result, politically, was that whatever appeal neoconservatives may been accumulating during the Cold War decades as  dependable guides for U.S. foreign policy dwindled considerably.

engineers (Seattle Municial Archives)1990s. Clinton and the neoconservatives. Their political marginalization was ensured with the election of Bill Clinton to the White House in 1992. Clinton, a liberal internationalist and a Democrat, had no time for “the neocons.” But they had time for themselves, and they spent it rethinking their image. Although small in numbers compared to realist and idealist networks, neoconservatives are well-funded and resourceful. Garaged during Clinton’s two terms in office (1992-2000), they plied their time, re-engineering their basic political philosophy in a language and with policy proposals suited to what now occupied everyone’s mind in Washington: America’s changing role in the world – what would it be, now that the world was no longer divided into two opposing superpower camps?

Neoconservative thinkers addressed this by rolling out their views through the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a respected and influential right-wing think tank, and in National Interest, a foreign affairs journal founded in 1985 by Irving Kristol. Another outlet, The Weekly Standard, was founded in 1995 by William Kristol (son of Irving). These three outlets provided public platforms for a new generation of keen neoconservative intellects, including Elliot Abrahams, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Charles Krauthammer, to disseminate their views.

In 1997, several influential neoconservatives, led by William Kristol and Robert Kagan, founded the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), which promoted an aggressive U.S. foreign policy that they called neo-Reaganite. In America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, former neoconservative thinker Francis Fukuyama writes that the 1990s, neoconservative intellectuals “proposed a foreign policy agenda involving concepts like regime change, benevolent hegemony, uni-polarity, preemption, and American exceptionalism.”

Perhaps their boldest move during these years of their marginalization and rethinking was when they sent a formal letter to President Clinton in 1998 arguing for regime change in Iraq. We’ll pick up the story here in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Werner Kunz & Seattle Municipal Archives respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)

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