CONSERVATIVES BEWARE

smoking volcanoAfter 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).

human eyeAlso 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.

Wisdom is better than weapons of war.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Rudolfo Araiza G. & Cesar R. respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)

THE PATIENT RISE TO POWER OF THE NEOCONSERVATIVES part 1 of 3

the white houseIn January 2001, political neoconservatism moved from think tanks, journals, and university classrooms into the foreign policy decision-making process of the Bush White House as vice-president Dick Cheney and secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld appointed leading neoconservative thinkers as advisers at the highest levels on their teams. The most notable of these appointments included, in the White House, I. Lewis “Scooter’ Libby as the vice-president’s chief of staff, and at the Pentagon, Paul Wolfowitz (deputy secretary of defense), Richard Perle (assistant secretary of defense), and Douglas Feith (undersecretary of defense for policy). Many other neoconservatives also held advisory roles in the administration, such as Elliott Abrams, one of President Bush’s deputy national security advisers.

As we will see, Rumsfeld’s stacking of his team with neoconservative advisers at the Pentagon well-suited the militaristic foreign policy of the United States that emerged after 9/11. Many Americans at the time, and I admit to having been one of them, were unaware of neoconservatism as an approach to U.S. foreign policy or what that would mean militarily. And when we began hearing about it after 9/11, it seemed to have come from out of nowhere. Not so. The neoconservatives rise to power has a patient history tracing back decades.

I thought it would be good to look at its odd history, its leading figures, and its foreign policy influence, especially its militarism, in order to come to grips with its absorption into American conservatism today.

1930s-1950s. Francis Fukuyama, a former neoconservative thinker, wrote in America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy that neoconservatism traces its origins to “a remarkable group of largely Jewish intellectuals who attended City College of New York (CCNY) in the mid- to late-1930s and early-1940s, a group that included Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, Seymour Martin Lipset, Philip Selznick, Nathan Glazer, and, a bit later, Daniel Patrick Moynihan.” (In an email to me in July 2006, Fukuyama said: “even though I continue to agree with them [neoconservatives] on some issues, I don’t feel like I’m in their camp anymore.”) During the 1930s-1950s, this loose-knit group of liberal politicians, social scientists, and intellectuals belonged to the Democrat party, and the two most important ideas around which most of these liberal intellectuals coalesced, writes Fukuyama, was an intense anticommunism and opposition to utopian social engineering.

1960s. Things now get interesting. During the 1960s, this loose-knot Democrats began tightening around what they had concluded were a number of wrong-headed approaches to the most pressing issues of the decade.

orange flowerDomestically, they were rattled by flower power and by the decade’s social upheavals, fearing that America was becoming ungovernable. They were, however, sympathetic to domestic social reform, racial justice, and to tackling poverty – all of which were towering issues in the 1960s. But they did not like the way President Lyndon Johnson (a Democrat) was handling these issues, and they reproached him for the expansive government policies behind his Great Society program, which arose in 1964-1965 to deal with such issues and sounded a bit utopian to these Democrats. Irving Kristol, for one, believed “that poverty could be overcome,” but not by government gigantism, “only by gradual economic growth that brought with it greater economic opportunities for outsiders” (Murray Friedman, The Neoconservative Revolution: Jewish Intellectuals and the Shaping of Public Policy).

Regarding U.S. foreign policy, the group in principle was not opposed to international organizations, treaties, international law, and the UN, but their higher principle was that the United States ought to spread democracy in the world unilaterally. And they were serious supporters of Israel.

Key to understanding them for our purposes in this series of posts is that the group was strongly anti-communist. They loudly criticized what they perceived was the too-soft approach of the radical left to the Soviet threat, and their approach to diplomacy was more hard-nosed than what either realists or idealists practiced. They favored an aggressive agenda to Soviet expansion that included not only the promotion of American ideals, democracy, and free market economics overseas but also the rollback of Soviet expansion by military interventions. This went against the grain of all U.S. presidents during the Cold war era, as well as many other powerful Democrats and Republicans, who adhered to “containment” – the perennial U.S. policy of preventing communist expansion by means other than military interventions.

The group’s foreign policy in general made them unpopular with the political left, who criticized them for having left liberalism. It was during the 1960s the word “neoconservatism” began to be used invidiously by such opponents to describe the group’s move to the right and its emerging political philosophy.

In 1965, Kristol, with help from Daniel Bell, founded the journal Public Interest, which addressed questions about Democrat policy, such as urban renewal, law and order, education, and racial justice, and communism. “Led by Podhoretz and Kristol,” writes historian John Ehrman, “the neoconservatives used the pages of Commentary and Public Interest to warn against the dangers of radicalism at home and Soviet expansionism abroad” (The Rise of Neoconservatism: Intellectuals and Foreign Affairs 1945-1994.)

Story continues in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Adam_Inglis & marcusrg respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)

THE BATTLE OF THE BUSH GIANTS OVER IRAN part 1 of 2

town at nightIn the previous two posts we looked at the fascinating yet fairly secretive years of gingerly cooperation between the United States and Iran that began in 1997 and ended abruptly in 2003. Much of this history remains unknown to most Americans, including how in 2001 Colin Powell, as George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, sought and got Iran’s tactical help to work with the CIA, the U.S. military, and the Northern Alliance to oust al Qaeda and the Taliban from Afghanistan.

If you were the president of the United States, wouldn’t you to try to keep building on that cooperation? After all, President Khatami of Iran had seriously proposed to do just that. But when Iran formally reached out to President Bush in May 2003 to do just that, President Bush crudely snubbed Iran. In this current series of posts, begun here, I am arguing why I believe that the snub could go down in history as the worst foreign policy decision in the history of the United States. It was a needless decision, the outcome of a battle of giants over Iran that had been brewing inside the Bush White House since 9/11.

The evening of September 11, 2001, Secretary Powell and a team of his closest advisors worked through the night to produce a diplomatic strategy for Afghanistan, which became instrumental in getting Iran’s tactical help in Afghanistan to go after Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the Taliban. Beyond that tactical help, Powell wanted to persuade Iran to move into a positive strategic relationship with Washington.

Trita Parsi, in Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S., writes that Powell, Richard Armitage (Powell’s deputy), Larry Wilkerson (Powell’s chief of staff), and Ryan Crocker (a seasoned Middle East diplomat) had been working to build a proactive policy toward Iran, and they had incentive to push for a strategic opening with Iran after Iran’s tactical help in Afghanistan had paid off. But on Iran the Powell team faced ferocious opposition from Vice-president Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (a staunch neoconservative ideologue).

Flash forward to 2014.This year, President Obama has been chided from many quarters, including from his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for what many are calling his “Don’t do stupid stuff” foreign policy. We can’t enter that discussion here, but I mention it because “Don’t do stupid foreign policy stuff” is an apt descriptor for what happened to Iran policy inside the Bush White House in 2002-2003.

Despite the successes of Powell’s diplomatic initiatives in getting get Iran’s help with Afghanistan after 9/11, President Bush began leaning increasingly on the advice about Iran from  Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz – all adamantly opposed to Powell’s push to get Iran into a strategic relationship with the United States. Bush himself would begin to scotch that possibility big time, when, in his January 2002 State of the Union address, he included Iran, with North Korea and Iraq, as part of his “axis of evil.”

Needless to say, the Iranians were shocked. In his book Confronting Iran, Ali Ansari writes that “few Iranians could reconcile themselves with the notion that they belonged in the same category as their old foe Saddam Hussein or the totalitarian regime in North Korea.” And what then took place inside the Iranian government ensured the break in relations. For there was a battle of political giants playing out in Tehran just as there was in the Bush White House. And, just as occurred in the White House, the diplomats in Tehran lost to the hardliners.

We’ll pick the story up there in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Olgierd Pstrykotworca (permission via Creative Commons)