After the immediate success of the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003 turned into a worst-of-all-worlds counter-narrative, many keyboards were worn out in the ensuing years documenting what went wrong on many levels. There is no need, here, to go into what Thomas Ricks, the acclaimed Pentagon correspondent, aptly called a “fiasco,” in his book with that title.
Many analysts held neoconservative foreign policy thinkers responsible for it, and Donald Rumsfeld’s top neoconservative advisers – Paul Wolfowitz (deputy secretary of defense), Richard Perle (assistant secretary of defense), and Douglas Feith (undersecretary of defense for policy) – began demurring when critics implicated them, big time, in the unfolding disaster. As well, a chill toward neoconservatism set in among Washington’s political elite.
Then in 2005 and 2006, President Bush began removing neoconservative advisors from his administration and filling the positions with those who could be trusted to shift America’s Middle East policy in a more realist direction. Right after the November 2006 midterm elections, Bush accepted Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation and appointed the well-experienced Roberts Gates, a foreign policy realist, as his secretary of defense. In 2006, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), a neoconservative think tank, was shut down, and by 2008 most of the Bush administration’s many neoconservative advisors were out of government.
Although neoconservative ideology nose-dived, it would be a mistake to assume that its adherents crashed and burned. As in the 1990s, they busied themselves. Many leading neocon thinkers engaged in what critics have called a rewriting of their role in the Bush White House, trying to salvage their political philosophy. Claiming that they were merely getting the truth out, setting the record straight, their revisionist history typically has included identifying the State Department, the CIA, and many realists and idealists as having had an exaggerated the role of neoconservatism in the Bush White House. It also has included blaming CIA intelligence, the State Department, President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and other high-level targets for the debacle that arose in Iraq.
Certainly there is enough finger-pointing to go around, but the neoconservatives go too far, accepting little if any responsibility for the fiasco – everyone else is at fault (see, e.g., Douglas Feith, War and Decision; Richard Perle, “Ambushed on the Potomac,” The National Interest online; and Nathan Guttman, “No Longer in Power, Free to Talk, Neocons Seek to Rewrite History,” The Jewish Daily Forward online). In my view, the neocons lack the humility to see that when you point a finger elsewhere, three more fingers point back at you.
The neoconservatives, however, still had many high-level admirers, such as Republican Senator John McCain. When he was running for the presidency against Barack Obama in 2008, McCain included leading neoconservatives on his team of foreign policy and national security advisors (he also received ad hoc advice from realists Henry Kissinger and Richard Armitage).
Also around this time, formidable neoconservative thinkers such as the columnists Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol were getting regular bylines in Time magazine, and Kristol was writing for The New York Times. And both men became FOX News analysts. But also by this time, the word “neoconservative” wasn’t heard much in the mainstream media, and commentators such as Kristol and Krauthammer were doing their thing under the umbrella “conservative.”
That is, the mainstream media, not to mention talk radio, was now content to use the word “conservative” to test drive neoconservative ideas for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities and denouncing President Obama’s diplomatic efforts toward Iran are part of that ride. Of course it is not only the neocons and some conservatives who push such ideas but liberal hawks as well.
Jacob Heilbrunn, a foreign policy realist who knows a thing or two about neoconservatism, writes that the neocons want to engage in regime change around the world, and because that’s not current U.S. foreign policy they are blaming President Obama, big time, and anyone else of consequence who does not believe what they believe. “What the neocons are offering,” Heilbrunn concludes, “is a message of power worship, one that is a recipe for a permanent revolution abroad that will further ensnare the United States in foreign predicaments that it cannot reasonably hope to resolve.” To much of the world, then, it seems as if all the United States has to offer it is “unremitting combat.”
Conclusion. Much of American foreign policy conservatism during the Cold War era saw the world through an “us vs. them” / “good vs. evil” lens. Communism was the enemy, and many of conservatism’s staunchest foreign policy apologists followed William F. Buckley Jr., whose aggressive anti-communism was at odds with the bipartisan doctrine on “containment – the organizing principle of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union – because it was not consistent with his “good vs. evil” policy frame for U.S. – Soviet relations. Unlike the majority of Americans and U.S. presidents (liberals and conservatives) who supported containment, Buckley was not opposed to rolling back the spread of communism with the weapons of wars, and many conservative politicians followed his lead.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, these conservatives lost the foreign enemy over against which they had organized their foreign policy, and their Manichean frame of reference virtually dissolved, at least until the neoconservatives reconstituted it on September 11, 2001. Now intoxicated with power inside the George W. Bush administration, they used their considerable intellects to sway Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld to restore America’s “us vs. them” / “good vs. evil” foreign policy militarism and point it not toward Eastern Europe but the Middle East.
Despite the fact that “neoconservatism” is little heard today, its militarism since 9/11 has been, and continues to be, a heady brew, and much of foreign policy conservatism in America today walks around in that stupor. If you are an American and consider yourself a conservative, pay attention to the language you’re hearing on talk radio and from conservative politicians about what ought to be U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Caveat emptor.
The previous three posts discuses the strange history of political neoconservatism.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Images by Rudolfo Araiza G. & Cesar R. respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)