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This is the third in a series of articles in the International Relations 101 section about “understanding international relations and foreign policy decision making.” These articles seek to make this complex, multi-dimensional arena accessible to people outside the halls of power. The series also pulls duty as a necessary backdrop for understanding the wisdom-based alternative approaches to the field that are being developed by The Wisdom Project.

Neoconservatism: Dead in the Water?

by Charles Strohmer

With the inauguration of George W. Bush as President of the United States in January 2001,  neoconservatism moved from think tanks, journals, and the classroom into the policy decision-making process of the White House, as Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appointed numerous neoconservative thinkers to high-level positions of influence in the administration (see IR & Theory article). These appointments to the highest levels of government included, at the White House, I. Lewis “Scooter’ Libby as Chief of Staff to the Vice-President, and at the Pentagon, Paul Wolfowitz as Deputy Secretary of Defense, Richard Perle as Assistant Secretary of Defense, and Douglas Feith as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. As a result, neoconservatism become a household word across America, Europe, and the Middle East.

To many people, the political philosophy seemed to have arrived from nowhere. Not so. Francis Fukuyama and others trace 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.” 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. (Fukuyama, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, 2006, p. 15.)

No fans of flower power

During the 1960s, this loose-knit group of liberal politicians, social scientists, and intellectuals in the Democrat party began reacting critically to what they had concluded were a number of wrong-headed approaches to the most pressing issues of the decade. They were, for one thing, rattled as many others were by the decade’s social upheavals, fearing that America was becoming ungovernable. Although they were sympathetic to domestic social reform and racial justice and to tackling poverty – all of which became towering issues in the 1960s – they reproached President Lyndon Johnson (a Democrat) for the expansive government policies behind his Great Society program, which arose in 1964–1965 to deal with such issues. One of leading figures of the group, Irving Kristol, 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, 2005, p. 116.)during the 1960s, the group’s emerging political philosophy began to wend its way into the bloodstream of U.S. domestic and foreign policy thinking and the word “neoconservatism” began to be used

It was during the 1960s, the group’s emerging political philosophy began to wend its way into the bloodstream of U.S. domestic and foreign policy thinking and the word “neoconservatism” began to be used invidiously by opponents to describe the group. In 1965, Kristol, with help from Daniel Bell, founded the journal The Public Interest, which addressed questions about Democrat policy, such as urban renewal, law and order, education, and racial justice. “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.” (Ehrman, The Rise of Neoconservatism: Intellectuals and Foreign Affairs 1945-1994 1995, p. 34.) To Kristol is attributed the saying: “A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”

Strongly anti-communist in their foreign policy, the group criticized what they perceived was the too-soft approach of the radical left to the Soviet threat, and they favored an aggressive agenda to Soviet expansion that included the promotion of American ideals, democracy, and free market economics overseas. Their approach to diplomacy was more hard-nosed than what either realists or idealists practiced, and their proclivity to see Soviet expansionism rolled back via military intervention was well-known in Washington, and considered by many as a very bad alternative to containment policy, which many Democrats and Republicans adhered to. Their foreign policy made them even more unpopular with the political left, although they argued that international organizations, treaties, international law, and the UN should not become a hindrance if in certain cases the United States sought to spread democracy in the world unilaterally. And they were serious supporters of Israel.

The 1970s and 1980s

Neoconservatives were no fans of President Carter’s human rights foreign policy, and by 1980, as the Carter-Reagan presidential election loomed, they had become convinced that they would never become lieutenants of power in the Democrat Party. During the Carter-Reagan campaign, many neoconservatives 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.” (Ibid., p. 136.) After Reagan won the presidency, he did bring in the neoconservative intellectual Jeane Kirkpatrick as a foreign policy advisor, and later named her U.S. ambassador to the UN. This gave neoconservatives high access to the Reagan administration, but Reagan never bought into their political philosophy extensively, and he lost a lot of support from neoconservatives when he pulled the U.S. military out of Lebanon (February, 1984).

With the perestroika and glasnost policies of Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991), the fall of the Berlin Wall (end of 1989), and the formal dissolution of the USSR (December 1991), neoconservatism lost the enemy over against which it had defined itself. And gone with it was whatever appeal it may been accumulating as a guide for Washington’s foreign policy. (Ibid., p. 176.) Although the political philosophy was further eclipsed with the election of Bill Clinton to the White House in 1992 (Clinton was a liberal internationalist Democrat with little time for “the neocons”), the neoconservatives, though small in numbers compared to realist and idealist networks, are  resourceful and well-funded, and they plied their time.

Clinton and the neoconservatives

Garaged during Clinton’s two terms in office, neoconservatives re-engineered 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, now that the world was no longer divided into two opposing superpower camps. Neoconservative thinkers during this period rolled out their views through the prestigious American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy (AEI), a conservative think tank that allows for other views, and National Interest, a foreign affairs journal founded in 1985 by Irving Kristol.before the 2000 presidential election, neoconservative intellectuals “had proposed a foreign policy agenda involving concepts like regime change, benevolent hegemony, uni-polarity, preemption, and American exceptionalism.”

Both venues gave outlets to a new generation of keen neoconservative intellects, including Elliot Abrahams, William Kristol (son of Irving), Robert Kagan, and the nationally syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. Another outlet, The Weekly Standard, was founded in 1995 by William Kristol, and in 1997 a number of 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.

Fukuyama writes that in their years out of power before the 2000 presidential election, neoconservative intellectuals “had proposed a foreign policy agenda involving concepts like regime change, benevolent hegemony, uni-polarity, preemption, and American exceptionalism.” (Fukuyama, Crossroads, p. 3.)

Promoting regime change in Iraq

Perhaps their boldest move from the garage during President Clinton’s tenure was when they rolled out their January 26, 1998 PNAC letter to the president that called for regime change in Iraq. Presented to Clinton, the letter argued that “the aim of American foreign policy” should be “removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power.” “We urge you to articulate this aim,” the letter concluded. “We stand ready to offer our full support in this difficult but necessary endeavor.” It was signed by Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kagan, William Kristol, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and eleven other key political allies.

The Clinton White House did not act on it. Or did it? We may never know. As Al Gore once told Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, the public only knows one percent of what goes on at the White House (The Charlie Rose Show, PBS-TV, July 16, 2009). Certainly Clinton did not remove Saddam Hussein from power. But these things take time. What we do know is that in September 1998, nine months after Clinton received the letter, a bill was introduced to both the House and the Senate under the cumbersome title: “To establish a program to support a transition to democracy in Iraq.” It sailed through Congress and was signed into law by President Clinton on October 31 as “The Iraq Liberation Act.” Although conventional wisdom lays the decision to change the regime in Iraq squarely at the feet of President George W. Bush, whose U.S.-led military effort did remove Saddam Hussein from power in early 2003, the policy had in fact become official U.S. policy under Clinton, who, with Congressional sanction, got the ball rolling.

But, as an aside, it is much more cloudy than that. Americans like to ignore that it is the CIA that has been tasked with engineering regime changes since the early years of its founding. The organization is tops in the field. (A wealth of information on this covert area of the institution’s activities is increasingly in the public record on the official National Security Archives website of Georgetown University.) That, and the Halloween, Iraq Liberation Act, gives us an entirely different take on the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which began March 20, 2003. A widely disseminated and believed conventional wisdom has arisen to show that the CIA during this turning point period in American history was in disarray, acting with anything but intelligence, the indisputable “proof” being seen by everyone, in the much discussed “facts” of a CIA that had stupidly botched the intelligence about Iraq’s WMD. But did it? Certainly our imaginations ought to at least allow for the possibility that the CIA had finally found a time, a way, and a White House through which to fulfill what it had been tasked by Congress to do four-and-a-half -years earlier? If scaring the heck out of Americans about Iraq’s WMD program was the way to do it, what was that to an organization trained to deceive?


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