|A guide to|
|Hail to the Chief?|
|Persons of interest|
|—Chris Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning|Imperialism Neoconservatism is a particular brand of American conservatism, remarkably different from other brands of American political philosophy. Its two major concerns are free market capitalism and an interventionist foreign policy. During the George W. Bush administration and onward, more attention has been paid to this movement than in the past.
However, it is very poorly understood by the average citizen. It was probably best defined by the values of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a neocon think tank headed by William Kristol, whose father, Irving Kristol, was a key founder of neoconservatism, and who characterized a neoconservative as a "liberal mugged by reality." Well, their version of reality, anyway.
Its adherents are often referred to as "neocons."
|—Gil Scott-Heron, "Comment #1"|
Neoconservatism first manifested in the early 1970s. It started among disaffected – mostly Jewish – liberals and some former leftists from the Schactmanite branch of Trotskyism who were upset at mainstream liberalism's "unwillingness" to confront the Soviet Union and its "soft" stance on national security, and aversion to the counterculture. One example is Social Democrats, USA, a bizarre party which has a social democratic faction and a neoconservative faction, with the social democrats in the party criticizing the neocons, and the neocons denying that they're neocons. Also of importance to the early neoconservatives was what they saw as decreasing levels of support for Israel. The term was coined by the democratic socialist Michael Harrington in the 1970s.
Together, they forged a vision of an interventionist US that acted muscularly abroad to support human rights, democracy, and free markets (the last was seen as essential in protecting the first two). Yet early neoconservatives were also relatively comfortable with the level of state welfare. Both their interventionism and their commitment to free trade made them remarkably different from the rest of the conservative tradition; nonetheless, they became part of the broader New Right coalition during the 1970s and 1980s.
Leo Strauss and the "Noble Lie"
Political philosopher Leo Strauss is cited as a founding influence of neoconservatism. Strauss, who had been reading Plato a little too much, mistook that philosopher's Republic for a how-to manual, and actually started believing in such concepts as the "noble lie," by which elites are justified in duping the hoi polloi so long as it is for the common good. In the context of defending why so many highly intelligent neocons pretend to reject evolution, neocon godfather Irving Kristol endorsed lying and declared:
“”There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work.
|—quoted by Ronald Bailey, Ronald Bailey: Origin of the Specious|
Among Strauss's former students include such neoconservatives as Paul Wolfowitz, Allan Bloom, Harry V. Jaffa, and Abram Shulsky. Loosely characterized as "Straussian," these students and their students have gone on to teach according to permutations of Strauss's style. The types of classes generated by Straussians tend to involve
thinly-veiled neoconservative indoctrination of unsuspecting philosophy and poli-sci sophomores in the form of exoteric close readings of most of Plato and Aristotle. Strauss's reading of Plato in particular is viscerally controversial to the scholarly body of work from basically all other time periods. However, Strauss was convinced that his other favorite philosophers were on the exact same page that he was about Plato and so to hell with those milquetoast "scholars", to include: Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and, perhaps explaining certain inexplicable neoconservative obsessions, Friedrich Nietzsche. Of course, you should never be suspicious that Straussian reading is based in politically-motivated intentional fallacies.
“”You start off as basically a Leninist, someone who's going to become part of what Bakuunin called the "Red Bureaucracy," you see that power doesn't lie that way, and then you very easily become an ideologist of the right, and devote your life to exposing the sins of your former comrades, who haven't yet seen the light and shifted to where power really lies. And you barely have to change at all, really."
Neoconservatism has, it is posited, been influenced by many of its founders being ex-communists. The idea of forcibly spreading democracy and free markets throughout the world is parallel to the Communist idea of a world revolution.
The political philosopher Francis Fukuyama stated that his book, The End of History, which was written from a neoconservative perspective, set forth an essentially Marxist vision of social evolution with liberal democracy replacing "pure communism" as the final state of society. He furthered this parallel by stating that the Bush administration's sort of neoconservatism was a form of Leninism, i.e., a sort in which an elite vanguard tries to push the revolution forward when the proles won't.
The much more low-brow neoconconservative pundit Dennis Prager also authored a book similar to Fukuyama's called Still the Best Hope, which set forth a vision of the world in which people worldwide would embrace "American values" after the liberal media, universities and politicians could no longer dupe the public into voting left-wing. After this, the world would largely embrace American ultraconservatism, which would result in the fall of "leftism" and Islamic fundamentalism, leaving neoconservatism as the most widely embraced ideology in the world for the foreseeable future. Sound familiar?
Neocon ideas were given their first weight during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. In particular, Jeane Kirkpatrick was made ambassador to the UN, and often had the president's ear on foreign policy. However, they did not have a full lock on foreign policy yet. Moreover, as most neocons were still rather liberal regarding domestic policy, they were not given any role in that field. (Most neocons would go on to become more traditionally conservative in this field as time passed.)
During the presidency of Bill Clinton, the neocons worked to develop a full plan for foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. Foremost in this plan was the idea that the US, as the world's sole hyperpower, should work to remold the world in its image. This meant spreading free markets and elections. Think tanks were founded, and grand manifestos were written. Their policies got widespread support because of the successful intervention in Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War under George H. W. Bush; this "cured" the US of its Vietnam syndrome.
With the onset of the Yugoslav Wars, NATO intervened after Bill Clinton authorized airstrikes against Serbia and the Serbs in Bosnia during the Kosovo War. Neocons have held these interventions up as proof of why the US must lead in interventions around the world.
In the fall of 1998, neocons supported the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act which established the official policy of the United States "to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government." One of the first major actions from this new policy occurred in December 1998 when Clinton initiated the Operation Desert Fox bombing campaign against Iraqi targets.
Bush II administration
|—Colin Powell, 2004|
When George W. Bush became president, he brought many well-known neocons (Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, among others) with him into foreign policy roles. The original plan had been to provoke confrontation with China, in an effort to either push China into reforming or else to lessen China's influence in the rest of the world, thus increasing the power of the US even further.
However, after 9/11, they switched priorities to the Middle East. According to Gen. Wesley Clark, the plan changed to removing post-Soviet states in the Middle East before they could align with another superpower. These countries included Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Sudan, Somalia, and Iran. Neocons are credited with refocusing attention on Iraq by continuing the policy set forth in the aforementioned Iraq Liberation Act. They planned to use a "democratic" Iraq to help democratize the whole region. This idiotically idealistic (probably even utopian) plan was pursued by President Bush.
Project for the New American Century influence also led to massive diplomatic relations failures. Bush's first fuck-up was to announce the US's withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which had restricted the number of anti-ballistic missiles the US and Russia could possess in order to deter further production of and provocation by nuclear weapons. This and NATO's eastward expansion, specifically the possible inclusion of Georgia, Ukraine, and Finland, has escalated tensions with Russia. The administration soon broke relations with North Korea by asserting, without evidence, that they had highly enriched uranium; this led to North Korea pulling out of the Agreed Framework established by Bill Clinton. Lastly, after the US invasion of Iraq, Iran offered a proposal for the US to lift sanctions in return for nuclear cooperation, recognition of Israel, and an end to state-sanctioned support of terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. This proposal was rejected by the US, and Iran chose to instead fund Shia terrorist groups in Iraq like the infamous Mahdi Army. Bush then recanted and attempted, but failed, to create a nuclear deal with Iran in 2006; this deal was later accomplished under Barack Obama.
Yes, they're still here, sadly. President Barack Obama invited several so-called "humanitarian interventionists" or "liberal hawks" in his administration, to the consternation of many non-interventionists. These "humanitarian" interventionists provide cover for neocons by insisting that the United States has the moral obligation, and thus moral authority, to intervene overseas; Kyle Kulinski often calls them "soft imperialists."
Ashton Carter, an Iraq War supporter, who called for preemptive missile strikes on Russia, was selected as Hagel's replacement as Secretary of Defense. Carter supports preemptive wars against Iran and North Korea.
Samantha Power, Ambassador to the United Nations, has long appealed to neocons who admire her "moral crusader" stance on Rwanda and Yugoslavia, believing that America has the moral obligation to intervene. Her admirers include John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Alan Dershowitz, who credited Power for the "duty to intervene" doctrine, and says she understands that "national borders and notions of sovereignty can’t stand in the way of humanitarian intervention," implying that she would support preemptive war like any other neocon.
Susan Rice, the National Security Adviser, was one of a trio of women (Clinton and Power included) who pushed for Obama to intervene in Libya. While the UNSC resolution allowed for attacks on Libya short of an invasion, it did not call for regime change, which Rice was arguing for, as were Clinton and Power. Hagel and John Brennan were arguing that Libya was not vital to American national security interests, and Brennan in particular worried that the Libyan rebels, whom Rice and Clinton wanted to arm, could have ties to Al Qaeda. Nonetheless, regime change occurred, precisely because of Rice's involvement in pushing Obama to it.
Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, is the wife of noted neocon Robert Kagan, who agrees with her about the "exceptional" role of America in the world. Nuland was deputy foreign policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, and was once the US ambassador to NATO. In a leaked phone call, Nuland expressed frustration with European efforts to resolve the Ukraine crisis, saying "fuck the EU" as she called for United States being the only mediator in the crisis. Nuland gained notoriety in Europe for her bellicose and belligerent stance against Russia over Crimea, but particularly for her support for Arseniy Yatsenyuk to take part in the post-Yanukovych government. Yatsenyuk would become Prime Minister of Ukraine shortly thereafter. She insisted that Vitali Klitschko should not become deputy prime minister. He did not. She later confirmed that she has "close relationships with each of the key members of the opposition." She also supported arming Ukraine against Russia, apparently not understanding that such an action would constitute a direct proxy war against a nuclear-armed Russia.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, General David Petraeus, who called for arming "moderate Al Qaeda members", opposes the Iran Deal, and authored the Iraq War troop surge, was Obama's top adviser on the Middle East.
Possible roles in future administrations
“”If we're gonna do this, if we're going to basically reveal that this system we have, this military hegemony, this global police force for capital is gonna do what it's gonna do regardless of who's in power, regardless of whether it's a good idea, regardless of everything—because that's all it can do, is show force—then strip away all the bullshit. Have those orders be given by a fucking senile game show host dipshit who is making the decision in his fucking country club while digging into a gristly London Broil with three retired dentists from Boca Raton."
Jeb Bush, a 2016 presidential candidate, was one of the signatories of the PNAC doctrine, which called for regime change in Iraq three years before 9/11. His top foreign policy adviser is Paul Wolfowitz, the architect of the Iraq War. Most of his advisers are former staffers and members of previous administrations, from Reagan to Papa Bush and Baby Bush, including John Negroponte, the other architect of the Iraq War, and James Baker.
Jeb's frequent fuck ups, in addition to Donald Trump's relentless criticism and disavowal of the Iraq War, decimated Jeb's approval in the polls. However, when asked about Marco Rubio, noted neocon Bill Kristol said "We'll be fine," leading to bloggers and commentators to speculate that the neocons may jump ship from Jeb to Rubio, as the establishment's next best hope.
Many neocons have fled the Republican party since Donald Trump became the Republican nominee in 2016 after he accused the Bush administration of lying about WMDs in Iraq; 50 former neoconservative Republican national security advisers explicitly condemned him in a letter. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton's foreign policy positions have attracted many of the traditionally Republican neocons to support those positions such as Max Boot, a self described "American imperialist", Jamie Weinstein, the neocon writer at the Daily Caller, Jennifer Rubin, a neocon writer for the Washington Post who has advocated against the Iran nuclear deal since it was signed in 2015, Robert Kagan, the founder of the Project for the New American Century, Colin Powell, Bush's Secretary of State who presented false evidence of Iraq's production of biological weapons and lied about Saddam Hussein's connection to al-Qaeda, and Dick Cheney, Dubya's Vice President and fellow war criminal who still endorses the use of torture.
All that said, Trump has not shied away from hiring many neocons, or at the very least rather hawkish individuals, into his administration. Even putting Bolton aside, Trump's Secretary of State is Mike Pompeo, who pledged to "expel every last Iranian boot from Syria", his (now former) UN Ambassador Nikki Haley threatened to sanction any country that does business with Iran, and his (also now former) Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said that we have "put Iran on notice for continued mischief". All of this suggests that Trump has at least some desire for regime change in Iran, which has been a goal of neocons since the fall of the Shah.
Within his first two years, Trump gradually stacked his foreign policy and national security teams with old school Bush era warmongers like black site torturer Gina Haspel as CIA Director, rabid anti-Muslim Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State, and one-note warmonger John Bolton - considered too extreme even for the Bush White House - as National Security Advisor. All of the Afghanistan and Iraq war vets, such as H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, and James Mattis - themselves either war criminals or social reactionaries - have been marginalized the more they tried to rein in Trump's inherent love of violence and military options in foreign policy. They were all later fired. This lead to several prominent Neocons endorsing Joe Biden in 2020, albeit only in a backhanded "lesser of two evils" sense.
A Jew and a neocon walk in to a bar...
The fact that the original neocon movement was largely composed of Jewish people has led to some interesting rhetorical and argumentative problems. Some people have been willing to engage in rank anti-Semitism in arguing about neocons and their ambitions.
On the other hand, some defenders of neocons have claimed that all criticism of them is actually just a masked way of Jew-baiting. Both reactions have made it extremely difficult to talk about neoconservatism in an intellectually honest way.
It is not anti-Semitic to attempt to discuss how neoconservatism came about by looking at the context of America as Jewish intellectuals experienced it at the time, just as it is far from racist to try to understand how the Nation of Islam or the Black Panthers emerged by examining the black intellectual experience of life in America at the time. There are pockets of extremism in every movement, and neocons have arguably exacerbated tensions in the Palestinian statehood debate by yelling that anyone that doesn't accept their view is an anti-Semite.
As a matter of fact, the majority of American Jews do not think of themselves as neocons, and are in fact very liberal. No Republican presidential candidate has ever gained more than 40% of the Jewish-American vote since the 1940s (the high water mark was 1972 and only because of the fact that Nixon strongly supported Israel publicly — though he hated Israel and the Jews privately, with an actual majority achieved by Reagan in 1980 which saw a failure to do so in '84), and starting in 2015, there will be precisely
zero one Jewish Republican in Congress. Nonetheless, this does not stop people like Bill Kristol from occasionally claiming that Jews are or should be conservatives. Nor does this negate the fact that in neoconservative circles Jews are frequently found influencing neoconservatives. Some neocons predicted that 2008 would be the year the Jewish vote tipped towards the Republican Party, but according to CNN exit polls 78% voted for Barack Obama. In 2012, 69% did so again.
Additionally, many of the most publicly recognizable neoconservatives are not Jewish, such as Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Dubya.
- Gotcha argument
- Heritage Foundation
- American exceptionalism
- Conservative liberalism, Liberal conservatism — In Europe and Japan, figures close to America-like neoconservatism also describe themselves as "liberal."
- Social conservatism
- New Right
- The Power of Nightmares: Three part BBC documentary juxtaposing the rise of Straussian neo-cons and Islamic fundamentalism (or as the neocons still call it, "Islamofascism")
- Noble lies and perpetual war: Leo Strauss, the neo-cons, and Iraq
- Why Straussianism? by John Hickman. Theorizing the attraction of Straussianism.
- The term is sometimes thrown around indiscriminately to describe other American conservatives, but properly only applies to those described in this article. Not to say there's no overlap, but...
- Because we all know who escalated Vietnam.
- Neocon 101: Some Basic Questions Answered, Christian Science Monitor
- Stephen J. Sneigoski (1 September 2008). The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel. IHS Press. p. 50. ISBN 978-1-60570-022-9.
- Why Neoconservatism Still Matters, Brookings Institution
- Batnitzky, Leora, "Leo Strauss", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/strauss-leo/>.
- Chomsky, Noam, Understanding Power p. 226 (US), The New Press 1 Febuary 2002.
- Fukuyama, Francis, "After Neoconservatism", NYT 19 February 2006.
- Operation Deliberate Force
- NATO bombing of Yugoslavia
- Public Law 105-338
- Colin Powell in four-letter neo-con 'crazies' row, The Guardian
- Cold War II, Electric Boogaloo.
- It is said that some neocons, such as Kirkpatrick, did not support the President's plan, or the way he conducted it; however, none of them spoke up before the war. Several hardline neocons left the movement, feeling that the current administration had corrupted it, most notably Francis Fukuyama.
- Chapo Trap House Episode 98, "Gorka II: The Gorkening"
- This has come in the form of calling them a part of the "Zionist conspiracy" or even rude things about noses.
- Why Jewish Americans vote Democratic, The Guardian
- For Jewish Republicans: Oy vey, Politico
- And the neocons declared victory with the "historic low" of Jewish support for Democrats (no really, they're that desperate).