Neo-cons: Paradise Lost - and Regained - II
by Michael Brenner on 22 Oct 2021 1 Comment

The Prophet Paul W. 


Not all shared this vision of a Brave New World. They weren’t content to ride the historic wave of liberal teleology – with just a nudge here and a little coup there. These self-declared realists, in truth, thought more like Machtpolitik Europeans than idealistic Americans. The pivot of their thoughts and feelings were power constellations and any devils (real or imagined) who might arise to undermine Western supremacy – not a visionary liberal ideal of any sort. They saw a unique opportunity to establish the United States’ dominance as the master-builder and overseer of a global order than would ensconce American paramountcy for the foreseeable future. Without rival, without countervailing force, they felt that we were free to shape the international system as a potter shapes clay.


The leading figures in this campaign were not neo-cons in the historical sense – albeit some of them emerged from that milieu. They were a self-conscious elite cadre of hyper-nationalists (Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney), true believers in America’s Manifest Destiny, bureaucratic empire builders devoted to restoring the glory of the Pentagon and the Intelligence agencies, and those naïve souls who wanted the entire world to serve as their playground without adjusting any of their “Americanism.”  A powerful impetus was added by Israel sympathizers and the Zionist lobby. 


They were further emboldened by the stunning success of Operation Desert Storm where American forces employed the first generation of “Smart” weapons to crush Saddam’s army. ‘It could be done’ was the lesson drawn. 


The Apostles were extremely well-organized, well-funded, experienced navigators in Washington’s corridors of power, and willful. Their aims and purposes were no secret. A declaration of faith was authored by Paul Wolfowitz in February 1992 from his post in the Pentagon as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. It took the form of a draft strategy blueprint for a New American Century: Defense Planning Guidance for the 1994–99 fiscal years February 18, 1992.


That phrase was adopted as the name for a foundation created the next year to propagate the creed during the Clinton interregnum. The paper leaked causing embarrassment (temporary) for Bush the Elder’s administration where neither the President, Secretary James Baker, nor NSC Advisor Brent Scowcroft were prepared to sign on to so audacious a scheme. Wolfowitz’s plan, nonetheless, was inspired Gospel for its coterie of adherents who’s proselytizing was pursued relentlessly – and effectively. 

The Wolfowitz Grand Strategy was guided by these postulates: 


1] The United States’ long-term national interest dictates that it prevent the emergence of any rival to its global supremacy, or any regional power who could challenge its friends (Israel) and interests. 

2] The United States should marshal all of its resources, including military forces, to enforce this strategy. 

3] The United States should be prepared to intervene in ‘failed’ or ‘rogue’ countries who harbor enemies of the United States. 

4] The United States should aggressively back friendly political forces (preferably but not necessarily democratic) abroad by helping to install and maintain them in office. 

5] The United States should expand NATO eastwards to embrace most of the former Soviet Union so as to ensure that Russia could not regain the position of a great power. 




It is sobering to remind ourselves that Wolfowitz’s ideas were marginal to the mainstream discourse within the foreign affairs community during the 1990s. Yes, Americans had shed the shroud of Vietnam in the first war against Saddam. Yes, they had restored their confidence in the prowess of American arms. However, they were not at all eager for another demonstration. Moreover, there were neither devils to slay nor a cause that could rouse the country’s latent moralizing impulses. Too, the hegemonists lacked the “idealism’ essential to make a strategic “sell” to the American people; just as there was no evil enemy to stir fear and anxiety as the prelude to making such drastic commitments.


Hence, Wolfowitz’s Gospel evoked only a faint echo in political circles – even as its indefatigable apostles were roaming the land; proselytizing, founding cells and recruiting believers. There was nothing preordained about their ascendancy. It was the fear and dread sown by the horrific experience of 9/11 that allowed the plan’s authors to mobilize the public in support of actions that set it into motion. (Roughly comparable in a much compressed time-frame - to the impact on Rome of the barbarian incursions of the 3rd century that prepared the ground for Christianity’s historic triumph).


At no time were ultimate objectives revealed to the country at large. Only oblique remarks hinted at the dimensions of the project. The convenient, all-justifying ‘war on terror’ was the ideal cover. Enraged, vengeful Americans found satisfaction in the war’s imagery and initial actions. They grafted their passions onto the unheroic person of George Bush. Every great cause must have a chief, however improbable the beneficiary of this transference. So it was.  It was an easy passage for a people who, victimized as never before in their collective lives, were stirred by righteous faith in a cause whose necessity was sanctified by truth and justice.  Moreover, America’s intrinsic virtue provided the assurance that none of its actions could be heinous. 


When opportunity presented itself, the blueprint was in hand. A pliable, indolent George Bush would be their instrument; 9/11 the God-given occasion. That was provided by al-Qaeda, Osama bin-Laden and the Twin Towers. The world was transformed. So, too, was American politics. Islamo-Fascism was slotted perfectly and painlessly into the place previously occupied by Soviet-led Communism. Thanks to a handful of fanatics, and the ineptitude of America’s security services, the country was experiencing a new night of fear and anxiety. It was reaching out to grasp the ready hand of the so-called ‘neo-cons’ who, in fact, were practitioners of old-fashioned power politics. 


It is true that a majority of Americans opposed the invasion of Iraq – unlike Afghanistan. Let’s remember the mass demonstrations that filled the streets of every American city. However, the Bush people and the ‘war party’ understood something crucial about public opinion in the 21st century. It is unorganized, ephemeral and liable to manipulation. Once the video game got underway with those incredible pyrotechnics, opposition dissolved like frost on a sunny morning. Lots of whiz-bang visuals, censorship of pictures showing the gruesomeness of combat, easy victories, a celebratory media, and universal political opportunism when the flag is waved vigorously and the patriotic drums are beaten. Moreover, the volunteer Army meant that only a tiny fraction of the population was affected directly by the invasion and occupation. Racial and religious bigotry also played its role. 


By the time that the unsavory side of things – Abu Ghraib, IEDS, guerrilla war, sectarian strife, the birth of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia under our noses, massive corruption – began to slip into the collective consciousness, the entire country had signed onto the GWOT: the politicos, the think-tankers, the MSM, the elites generally. They had a tight monopoly on patriotism at a moment when Americans’ self-confidence had been shaken as never before and its vulnerability felt most acutely. There was nobody able and ready to challenge it – intellectually, politically or morally. 


Moreover, successive government leaders exploited those emotions to mask their failures and their poor judgements. They kept the thirst for revenge at a fever pitch by fabricating threats, sponsoring FBI contrived plots, and encouraging Hollywood to go whole hog in promoting Cold War vintage terrorist porn of every variety. Military imagery and symbolism are now omnipresent - pervading every corner of American public life.  As a result, there exists a de facto prohibition on public criticism of the Pentagon.


Witness its total absolution from responsibility for the fiasco of the evacuation from Afghanistan. It was the Army and the Air Force together that made a complete mess of things: the premature, dead-of-night evacuation of Bagram; the absence of contingency plans – despite the deadline being extended 3 months by Biden; the random deployment of manpower; the panicked shooting of Afghan civilians after the bombing by undisciplined guards in the observation towers - despite Biden's augmentation of the forces assigned to cover the evacuation, etc.


Of course, the CIA made their predictable contribution to the debacle by their off-base forecasts about the staying power of the Ghani government - thereby, extending their Guinness record of getting wrong just about everything of consequence over the past 20 years. Private wars by private armies and coups are their thing - not Intelligence.


In this environment, did ascendance of this ‘neo-con’ mutation deprive the Classic neo-cons of a distinct identity? Were the former just a variant of the genus ‘hawk’ whose coloration is an adaptation to clime and terrain? At the level of ideology, each has kept some of the original plumage; at the level of behavior, they blend into each other. The discrepancy can be explained by noting an independent variable: careerism. If you want to make it to the top in America’s foreign policy establishment, you have to demonstrate two contradictory traits: to present yourself as an idealist while acting as realist.  


You demonstrate your idealism via high-sounding verbiage. You demonstrate your realism through actions – like a mafia recruit making his bones. Since American foreign policy is all about acting these days, it is well-nigh impossible to elude the test – unless you’re content to pass your days in a university classroom or padding your resume of publications as a marginal think tanker on the free sandwich seminar circuit. That situational logic helps to explain Obama’s strenuous efforts to appear tough even though he didn’t have the stomach for doing the truly macho things like starting full-blown wars (Syria) or launching massive bombing campaigns (Iran).


It is not that Obama loved Democracy less; rather, he loved America more – hegemonic America, Number One America. Within the foreign policy community more broadly, the ambitious no longer are content with being pen-pushers – especially in an age when the path into the corridors of power seems open to anyone with a purchasable EZ-Pass.  


Certifiable neo-cons with a veneer of the original idealist complexion have survived – indeed, thrived. Let’s name some names: Samantha Power, Strobe Talbott, Derek Chollet, Ann-Marie Slaughter, Victoria Nuland, Susan Rice, Michael Ignatieff, Timothy Garten Ash. Yes, many are women. Gender opens some doors. Hillary put Reserved signs on a plethora of State Department offices – as did Obama in the White House. It serves as effective camouflage, and it plays well among the intelligentsia. These Classic neo-cons are staunch interventionists – always in a just cause. Or so they proclaim. They stress human rights, democracy promotion, women’s rights preventing abuses like ethnic cleansing, the four freedoms, etc.


They fall under the rubric of R2P – Responsibility To Protect. That principle was first enunciated during the wars of the ex-Yugoslavia and the Ruanda genocide. It grew into a transnational movement whose promoters lobbied Western governments and the United Nations to accept that there exists an obligation to come to the defense of vulnerable populations exposed to organized violence. In this sense, it is an extension of the long-running debate about the scope and capabilities of peace-keeping – and the even more hoary debate as to whether America is destined to lead the world along the path of Enlightenment as model or agent.


The practical as well as intellectual challenge is two-fold. First, to take account of varying circumstances without obviating the principle of credibility, e.g., differentiating Ruanda from human rights abuses in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or Tibet. Second, marshalling the requisite capabilities when most national governments are chary of putting their troops in harm’s way where they have no national interest at stake, e.g. Somalia circa 1993. Finally, how to segregate the purity of good intentions from selfish political calculation. The R2P crowd never have been able to give satisfactory answers to these questions. When individuals gain power, their rhetoric and their actions both emit a distinctly hypocritical odor. 


Case in point: Samantha Power at the United Nations. For her, and the Obama administration which she represented, Yemenis don’t count as legitimate objects of international assistance – nor do Rohingyas in Myanmar, nor do Palestinians. Realpolitik dictates otherwise. Moreover, charges of humanitarian abuses are magnified (and, at times, evidence twisted) when alleged victims are supposedly abused by governments on Washington’s enemies list, e.g. Russia, China, Assad in Syria, Iran, etc. etc. Consequently, the difference in action between R2Ps (Classic neo-cons) and hawkish Realpolitikers (Wolfowitz-like, mislabeled ‘neo-cons’) on questions of intervention vanishes – however different might be the points of philosophical departure. 


Do the R2P people truly believe that there is a democratic teleology running through history – like a golden thread? That America has a singular duty to weave the pattern? There is ample reason to doubt it. Their behavior tells a different story – as do the sweaty egos of manifest careerism. Looking closely at American foreign policy discourse and conduct from 2008 to the present, one searches in vain for a single issue that pitted the neo-con ‘idealists’ against the realpolitik nationalists.


Whether de facto Realpolitikers share this mislabeling as neo-cons, therefore, is immaterial. It makes no practical difference what label you stick on Kenneth Pollock, Bruce Reidel, Jake Sullivan, Robert Kagan, Daniel Benjamin, Victoria Nuland, David Ignatius, Michael McFaul, William Kristol or Richard Haas. 


They all share fealty to Netanyahu’s Israel, they share the currying of favor with Saudi Arabia, they share silent backing of Yemen’s Inferno, they share alignment with the al-Qaeda led opposition in Syria, they share in the castigation of Venezuela, etc. 


What we are left with are tactical differences over when to use coercive military force and in what magnitude. The American foreign policy community is as one in stigmatizing the Islamic Republic of Iran as inherently evil - an aggressive, destabilizing regime actively menacing major American national interests. The main divergence is over the tightening of coercive economic sanctions in violation of the JCPOA. (Only a handful of mavericks, associated with no Washington faction, recommend engaging Tehran in an effort to reach a general modus vivendi).


One difference: fewer Classic neo-cons are ready to abrogate the JCPOA while some of the uber-hawks go so far as to advocate military assault on Iran’s nuclear sites. The latter’s political clout is disproportionate to their numbers. The two schools share another belief: they, like the past three – if not four – successive American Presidents, have preferred to see the regime actually toppled – although the Classic neo-cons, like Obama, leave it unstated. 


An even greater degree of uniformity prevails re. Russia. So-called progressive Democrats, R2Pers, neo-cons of every stripe, old-line Communist bashers, ultra-nationalists – all denounce Russia as the paramount threat to American security interests. Putin, personally, is demonized as bent on aggression in various forms designed to undermine the American position in Europe and the Middle East. In response, Washington has mobilized its NATO allies in an all-out display of muscle and bellicosity not seen since the Berlin crises of the 1960s. All this based on a fabricated account of recent history, rampant fantasizing and studied ignorance of who Putin is and what he says. 


(To be concluded…)

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