Neo-Cons: Genesis to Ascendancy - I
by Michael Brenner on 17 Jul 2022 1 Comment

This is a long essay, part intellectual history, part anthropology, part social psychology, part foreign policy. The historical background section was written some time ago. The essay does not examine the present machinations in Ukraine and over Taiwan, except to punctuate the conclusions. The connections, though, are obvious and heighten awareness of the trap we have set for ourselves.



The latest formulation of a binary world pits the so-called democracies against the so-called autocrats. The United States is the self-designated champion of the former while China and Russia lead the array of autocrats. In effect, it’s a reversion to long-running democracy / capitalism vs Communism all-embracing conflict of the Cold War. Today’s version has even less authenticity than did its forerunner. It retains the advantage, though, of intellectual and diplomatic convenience while serving American global interests.


An American orchestrated global to shape a ‘rules-based’ future world order is taken uncritically as the United States’ strategic imperative. The goal is to maximize its effectiveness by enlisting as many like-minded and like-interested countries as possible in a multifaceted campaign of suasion. This project is promoted as a moral undertaking whose actions are justifiable, indeed validated in ethical terms. Its key postulates are: 


Ø  The United States is uniquely endowed to lead such an enterprise. In addition to its material strength, it has the capacity to inspire – it remains the beacon of idealism for those yearning to be free of repression.


Ø  American efforts to impress its vision on other governments are not tainted by imperial ambition. America’s rectitude and civic virtue validate its role as guide and prophet.   


Ø  The United States, therefore, is not a ‘global Leviathan’ that advances its selfish interests at the expense of others. It is, rather, the benign producer of public goods.  


Ø  The privilege of partial exception from the international norms, including the right to act unilaterally, is earned by an historical record of selfless performance.  


The cynosure of this creed is the neo-conservative movement whose adherents now dominate positions of rank within the Executive branch and who exercise intellectual hegemony among members of the foreign policy community more generally. “Neo-conservative” – or “neo-con” – is nowadays the most common term of reference in the discourse about American foreign policy. So ubiquitous has it become that the casual reader understandably may be confused as to whether it isn’t in fact a pronoun with plural antecedent nouns. That is a common phenomenon in Washington where phrases like ‘neo-con’ are used neither for clear communication nor even to obscure ulterior purpose – but rather as devices to avoid thinking altogether. Jettisoning it, therefore, could serve a valuable public end. So drastic a response should be avoided, though, since the term’s origins, mutations and spread are revealing of how the United States views itself in relation to the world. 


Before embarking on an etymological exploration, a few prefatory remarks are in order. One, neo-conservativism is as much a state of feeling as it is a state-of-mind. It is not grounded on rigorously thought-through theories and their exegesis. Two, such reasoned thinking as occurs among its devotees is deductive – downplaying empirical data and encouraging ad hominem conclusions and pronouncements. Finally, it is a highly adulterated species of doctrine. It has interbred with several other intellectual and ideological entities to produce a hybrid – a hybrid whose behaviour reveals its mixed genetic inheritance. It is as if we homo sapiens had assimilated a large infusion of DNA from Neanderthals, Denisovans, the newly unearthed homo sapien look-alikes in Morocco, Harbin and other humanin primates which made us act rather differently from the hairless ape who originated in Africa. 


Origins of the Species 


The first identifiable neo-conservatives recognized by political anthropologists appeared in the late 1960s in the asphalt jungles of East Coast cities. The Manhattan canyons were its Rift Valley. Their cranial capacity was exceptionally large – giving them at first a natural advantage in the competition to fill the evolutionary niche opened by the environmental shocks of the time. Those convention shattering developments registered across the entire country, thereby creating fertile conditions for the new creed’s success in moving rapidly beyond the asphalt jungle and its elitist precincts. Hence, its dramatic spread across the savannah of North America – eventually reaching Western Europe via the transatlantic electronic bridge. 


The most potent shock was administered by the great socio-cultural-political upheaval of the 1960s. The radical counter-culture movement was multi-dimensional. Its initial mobilizing themes were Civil Rights and resistance to the War in Vietnam. At the time, America’s liberal elite were uniformly strong supporters of the former cause and opponents of the latter cause.  The second is easily forgotten. Liberal Democrats were staunchly anti-Communist, anti-Soviet and anti-PRC. This was a matter of conviction. Many had toyed with Marxism in their youth and spent their middle age in reaction thereto. The only Cold War issue on which their position diverged from that of the hawkish Republican mainstream was nuclear arms control. Most supported Kennedy’s Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and rejected any idea of nuclear war-fighting (as well as roll-back in Eastern Europe). Otherwise, they were no less aggressive in their backing of an all-out, global campaign to prevent the spread of Communism (as was Kennedy). In addition, they all were strong, unequivocal backers of Israel.


Only one Democratic Senator voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Ernest Gruening of Alaska who later was joined by William Fulbright (the other being independent Frank Morse). There was virtually no debate within the party or its intellectual auxiliaries about the premises underlying the open-ended American commitment to the war. That did not change until the TET offensive of February 1968, the fall-off in popular support (until then overwhelming), maverick Senator Gene McCarthy’s surprising success and then the body blow dealt by Bobby Kennedy’s defection. Those who were coalescing into what became known as neo-cons numbered among the loyal guard who kept faith with the war effort. By the time that position became untenable in the 1970s, they were full-time warriors in a much wider campaign to save the Democratic Party and the United States from radicalism – as represented by the nomination of George McGovern in 1972. 


Mounting anxiety about the revolutionary methods of the fringe New Left exemplified by SDS, the Black Panthers and the violent Weathermen widened the gap between the neo-cons and those who rallied around George McGovern. People like Pat Moynihan (who joined Nixon’s White House staff), Nat Glazer, Walt Rostow, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Irving Kristol, Abe Rosenthal at the NYT et al remained New Dealers on domestic issues (for the most part) but saw that legacy being undermined by the New Left and the phenomenon’s exploitation by Nixon to drain support from the Democratic Party. A concrete issue was affirmative action for minorities (blacks in those days) that was seen as discriminatory by many working class, ‘ethnic’ democratic voters. 


1950s idealism was not all phony: it fostered the brave kids who went South to put their lives on the line for black civil rights – something that is hard to imagine today’s ‘with-it’ generation doing. It was more than self-interest in avoiding the draft that ignited the growing youth opposition to the bloody folly of Vietnam. Nowadays, students lack the gumption even to stand up to university authorities who routinely treat them with condescension. 


This “Macedonia” of discontents was laced with resentment and distaste for the purely “cultural” dimension of the Cultural Revolution. On those matters, most of the neo-cons were adherents to the conventions of post-war America. 1950s society which was experienced as a healthy crystallization of intrinsic American virtues with the New Deal corrective added. In purely economic terms, they were right – insofar as wealth distribution, opportunity and stable expectations were far more enlightened then than they are in today’s plutocratic America (for white men anyway). The massive challenge from a generation of youthful ‘anarchists’ made them recoil. 


(Re)-Enter The USSR 


With Vietnam on the way to being experienced as a bad dream, and then erased from the national memory-book as a smudge on America’s pageant of progress, neo-con attention focused on two international issues: the restoration of a credible national commitment to the country’s wide-ranging security engagements/interests; and standing up to a Soviet Union allegedly emboldened by the United States’ weakness. This is the period when the former Democratic liberals inter-bred with Republican hawks. 


The matters that were the object of intense debate may seem mouldy from today’s perspective. Except that their offspring (USSR-Putin’s Russia) and the passions aroused at the time are getting a belated lease on life in the Ukraine era. Most salient was the question of whether détente with Moscow was desirable or even possible. It shadowed debates on policy choices ranging from the terms of a nuclear arms race, Russia’s spreading influence in the Horn of Africa (Somalia) and West Africa (Angola – where Cubans were fighting to defend a self-declared Marxist warlord, Agostinho Neto - and Chevron oil facilities) from a South African and Washington backed warlord, Joseph Savimbi), West Germany’s Ost-Politik, the Helsinki Accords, and Che’s threat to assorted Latin American oligarchs (as goes La Paz, so goes Las Vegas).  


The contest was won by the hawks, on most issues – and certainly in regard to the overall strategic frame-of-reference, thanks largely to the USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan and the unrelated Mullahs’ revolution in Iran that followed on its heels. American political elites were in consensus that the country was endangered, that the Soviet Union was a renewed threat to vital American interests, that America had to get the Vietnam monkey off its back (as in the invasion of Grenada, then Panama), and the military budget greatly expanded. Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory marked that turning-point. The post-Vietnam recessional had lasted 5 years. 


Neo-Cons became strong backers of Reagan’s muscular foreign policy, adding their voices to the high-pitched anti-Communist rhetoric.  This was the era of the Sandinistas, the Contras, the insidious implantation of half-baked Communism just 800 miles from Brownsville, Texas. Some neo-cons took positions in his administrations, e.g. Elliott Abrams of Iran-Contra notoriety. Some gathered on the staffs on ultra-hawkish Democratic Senators like Scoop Jackson of Washington State (Richard Perle). Others joined conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation. They also infiltrated what had been liberal think tanks – gradually transforming them from within to the point where today all are carbon copies of each other.  


In the process, these ‘neo-cons’ lost their identity as New Deal Democrats on the entire gamut of domestic issues. In this, they trail-blazed the trajectory of the Democratic Party as a whole which, for 25 years now, has become steadily more hawkish abroad and corporatist at home. That phenomenon makes it difficult to singularize neo-cons today as inherently different from the Democratic establishment or most Republicans on security issues – other than in the packaging. We’re all “Neanderthals” now. 


Post-Cold War 


For the decade of the 1990s, the Classic neo-cons – and their partners – were in limbo. Not in the wilderness since the cohort, fellow-travellers and the like-minded occupied positions of influence – in government, in think tanks, in the MSM and the foundations. As a collectivity, though, they were less identifiable – a victim of their own success, and of an America basking in its post-Cold triumphalism. We won because of our ideals, our economic robustness, our dedication – not mainly because of our might (although the neo-cons never stopped arguing that the Soviet Union collapsed because we were ready to squander more treasure on useless armaments than they could afford). If fact, the USSR collapsed because of Mikhail Gorbachev – the last utopian Leninist.   


Attention shifted to neo-liberalism, not neo-conservatism. Anyway, it was the global spread of finance-driven capitalism that was consolidating the hard-won peace – ushering in an age of prosperity-based peace grounded on OUR values.  Or so “the end of history” was heralded! 


(To be continued …)

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