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)


spiral staircase (Chris Smith Out of Chicago)You don’t hear the word “neoconservative” very often these days. It’s funny that, considering how much press the neoconservatives received not long ago, when they were high-level foreign policy advisers to President George W. Bush during his first term (2000-2004). In 2005, however, beginning with his second presidential term, Bush began replacing the neoconservatives in his administration with realists. They had fallen out of favor because neoconservatism was the prominent political ideology behind the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Begun in March 2003, the war after less than two months seemed to have ended with an unquestionably decisive U.S. victory. The neoconservatives, whose program includes reordering the Middle East, were flying high. By late 2003, however, the situation in Iraq was rapidly deteriorating and in 2004 the project was turning into a disaster. In 2005, President Bush had become wise enough to discern the limits of neoconservative militarism, not to mention the gloomy mood of the electorate concerning U.S. policy in Iraq (many pundits were shocked, especially in Europe, that Bush had been reelected).

As the neocon advisers were being replaced, two important trends emerged. One, editorials, major articles, and books critical of neoconservative foreign policy fell from the publishing skies. Two, leading neoconservatives, seeking to dig themselves out from under the avalanche of criticism, responded on television, in print, and on the Web by blaming CIA intelligence, the State Department, President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and other high-level targets for the debacle in Iraq. There was blame enough, of course, for widespread sharing, but the neocons overreached. They pushed a revisionist history in which they accepted little if any responsibility for the debacle. When that did not convince people, the word “neoconservative” was quietly exorcised from the American political lexicon.

But neoconservatism itself, particularly its militaristic foreign policy toward the Middle East, has not disappeared. For one thing, neoconservative foreign policy under a different name, “conservative,” now finds a voice with numerous men and women in the U.S. Congress. As well, leading neoconservative thinkers have for several years been welcomed by the media and the press in America as “conservative” commentators and writers, including in Time and The New York Times. And it is not possible for the discerning to listen to conservative talk radio or Fox News political analysts for very long, on topics such as Iraq, Syria, and Iran, without hearing neoconservative militarism being touted as the solution.

As John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge say in their book The Right Nation, the role of the neocons “may be exaggerated both by themselves and their enemies, but conservative American has moved in their direction.” This explains a good deal of the strong “conservative” pushback in America to President Obama’s diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East, especially regarding negotiating with Iran.

The absorption and promotion of neoconservative foreign policy into the worldview of American conservatism is an alarming development and little understood in this country outside of Washington, including by the conservative electorate that has bought into it. It is especially troubling to me as a Christian to see many well-meaning conservative Christians supporting it just because it’s being passed off as conservative. If they knew what they were being asked to sign off on, many would most likely reject it.

Beginning in the next post, I want us to look at this alarming development by exploring the fascinating history and influence of neoconservatism, its leading figures, and its militarism.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Chris Smith/Out of Chicago (permission via Creative Commons)