Neo-cons: Paradise Lost - and Regained - III
by Michael Brenner on 23 Oct 2021 2 Comments



The bulk of this essay was written before China superseded Russia at the top of Washington’s enemy list. That does shift the strategic context in some respects, but the politico-psychological dynamic pretty much stays the same. Here’s why. 


First, as to changes that have occurred: 


1] The stakes are higher. The Russia ‘threat’ has been seen in restricted geographical terms concerning mainly Europe and the Middle East, to a lesser extent. China presents a civilizational challenge. American elites see us pitted in an historic contest to determine global supremacy. Whose values, whose interests, whose preferences will shape the interdependent world we all will inhabit? Deep in our national soul, Americans sense that the day of judgement in on the horizon when our founding belief in our Providentially-endowed superiority and exceptionalism will be confirmed or denied.   


2] The dimension of the Sino-American rivalry may make it unique. However, the immediate, compelling emotions Americans feel closely resemble those experienced when the great threat and our dread came from Islamic terrorism and then Russia. For one thing, all these dangers are perceived as additive rather than simply substitutive. More important, the emotions of vulnerability and doubt that have shaken the American psyche over the past generation derive from within ourselves more than they do from specific external sources. That is the great constant. 


Occam’s Razor 


The American foreign policy establishment’s mode of thinking about the world, their approach to understanding and interpreting observed phenomena, is the antithesis of Occam’s razor. They implicitly assume archetypical forms of which the specific is a manifestation. Occam’s principle is to shave away unverifiable assumptions as misleading abstraction that too easily can lead us into error. It rejects a priori supposed universals. No preconceptions as mental crutches.


The characteristic American mindset today leans strongly in the opposite direction. While we vaunt ourselves as a pragmatic, down-to-earth people, when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world we are anything but. We do begin with the immediate which grabs our attention. Inescapably, though, we quickly shift gears by superimposing on it broad images and dispositions that are pre-existing. We rely on them to order the universe of experience. What does this mean in practice? Let’s look at a number of concrete issues. 


[1] We experience a terrorist attack. [2] The government of Ecuador takes decisive measures to curb the actions of Chevron. [3] President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez makes a speech hostile toward the United States at the UN General Assembly. [4] Vladimir Putin meets with Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych in a bidding war with the EU for preferential economic ties with Kiev. [5] China constructs military facilities on the disputed Spratly Islets. [6] The Houthis of Yemen, long discriminated against and abused, rise up against the unelected President Hadi who is an instrument of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman aiming to make Yemen a Saudi dependency. [7] Germany presses Russia to joining in the construction of a natural gas pipeline (Nordstrom II) desperately needed to fill a major shortfall created by the projected closure of all nuclear plants. The project, begun in 2016, is on the verge of completion. 


Discerning each incident’s meaning and implications for American interests requires a thorough examination of background, context and precedence. The chains of cause-and-effect are always intricate – for the preceding period and for projected effects. Yet, the impulse is to categorize the event by placing it in an existing frame of reference. Often, this impulse kicks in even before one gets a firm grasp on the facts of what happened. That tendency is understandable in terms of most human behavioral psychology.


After all, we are not born researchers, analysts or disciplined reasoners. We live by mental shortcuts which abbreviate the phenomenological universe for us. However, when speaking of statesmen and diplomats we have in mind persons of exceptional responsibility who possess commensurate aptitudes and training/experience along with a keen sense of professional ethics. By this standard, the United States falls far short of what is needed or reasonably can be expected. The record provides ample evidence in support of that conclusion. 


Consider the predominant approach to the events noted above. Occam’s Razor is nowhere to be seen. Quite the opposite.  


-        The terrorist act, 9/11 and subsequent minor occurrences – mainly abroad, evoke a Global War On Terror. It is a “war” without geographical or time boundary. It does not stipulate a tangible enemy other than al-Qaida – a movement constituted of 200 or so persons. The ‘war’ justifies a radical program that twists out of shape the country’s Constitution (the Patriot Act ++). The word ‘terrorist’ becomes widely used as an all-purpose insult like “son-of-a-bitch”. 20 years later, little has changed – except that the 200 have grown into 20,000 widely dispersed and capable of destabilizing a few dozen countries. 


-        Latin American radicalism run amok. The ‘leftish’ trend across the continent is a threat to our national interest. ‘National interest’ left undefined; implicitly the commercial interest of American mega-corporations – especially in resource extraction – who historically have aligned with autocratic local elites to exploit poor countries with weak, corrupt government. Moreover, ‘left’ carries the heavy connotations of Revolution, Communism, the Cold War, Soviet influence, etc. Washington automatically imposes a Cuba-Castro-Ché template on all Latin American politics.# 


-        Ditto for Venezuela. Imagery reinforced, and readiness to promote regime change increase due to Chavez’s sharp tongue and his talent for personal invective.


-        We badly need a personalized enemy to concentrate our anxieties, our enmity, our ambition to clear away any obstacle that stands in the way of our grand post-1991 project to build a global system that is whole, democratic, neo-liberal and unanimous in accepting the United States as custodian and guide. Hence, Putin is demonized (Hillary’s “new Hitler;” Biden’s “yes, he is a killer.”). Russia is the avatar of the Soviet Union, all of the latter’s former satellites and Republics should be incorporated into NATO & the EU, and Moscow neutered as a player on the international scene. 


-        China is the “big enchilada.” Its huge size, fantastic growth in economic cum military power, its iron-willed leadership – together are making it a challenger to everything Americans hold dear. That encompasses the one world under Washington’s suzerainty project noted above, ‘escalation dominance’ in every region, realizing the teleological Truth of Western values, and – not least – the deep-seated belief in the Providentially-bestowed American exceptionalism which is the bedrock of our collective and individual self-esteem. The Spratly sandbars and reefs carry that entire load of meanings. 


-        The Saudi-American alliance is the keystone of the United States’ position in the greater Middle East. It holds in place an assiduously built structure to secure energy (these days, for allies and friends if not ourselves), dominance in the Persian Gulf made crucial by the implacable adversary across the water, keeping the dollar as the world monetary system’s reserve currency, and unlimited monies available to bribe, cajole or undercut governments unfriendly to the Washington-Riyadh axis (now: Washington-Jerusalem-Riyadh axis). 


So, if MBS wants to control Yemen, let him do what he pleases; indeed, we are ready to be an active accessory to the assault. Anyway, Houthis are Iranian ‘pawns’ – even if that is grossly misleading. If that means signing up as a supporter of the Sunni side in the eternal Islamic civil war between Sunnis and Shi’a, the American presence in the region transcends all those dreary hangovers from the past. What about the Shi’ite government in Baghdad that we are trying to control? Well, we saved them from the Islamic state – didn’t we? How about the Saudis and friends hatching the Islamic State?  Ever hear of disinformation?


Besides, let’s remember that there also is a big risk in over-thinking problems. 


NORDSTROM II: A critical element in the Kremlin strategy to divide the West by creating resource dependency. The Germans are too self-absorbed to see the big picture (unlike the plucky Lithuanians). We offered them the option of meeting their needs by supplying vast amounts of Liquified Natural gas from Texas, but they let nit-picking of a modest 20% price differential cloud their strategic vision. What’s a few tens of billions EUROS? They’re rich for god’s sake – they even have high-speed trains. That’s why we must double-down on strengthening NATO where we can show tough love and shore up discipline. At the end of the day: “Fuck the Europeans!” 


This quintessential American approach to its foreign relations might not come close to matching what a Talleyrand or a Bismarck could achieve. But those guys didn’t have to deal with chronic jet-lag. It’s damn hard to do heavy thinking when your brain doesn’t know whether it’s in Brussels or Beijing – and your stomach is telling you that you’re still in Bethesda. 




The founding neo-cons were thoughtful people, for the most part. However, the Kristols, Podhoretzs, Jeanne Kirkpatricks, Elliott Abrams, Kagans et al - the “hard” pragmatists - soon took control of the movement - in the manner of the 2nd-4th century Christian Church centered in Rome. The Responsibility To Protect upwelling in the late 1990s was a sort of Protestant Reformation that sought inspiration in the faith’s original idealism. At the doctrinal level, the idealism endured into the Obama years. Its encounter with the world of profane power opened a gap between doctrinal principle and the power political ethic which they conveniently misrepresented as the duty to advance American national interest. This is exactly the thinking laid out by Barack Obama in his Nobel address.§ Principle not only was lost; it was discredited. R2P today it is just another tributary of the great jingoist current that is pushing the United States beyond logic and reason in pursuit of a Heavenly Kingdom on Earth (global American hegemony) that exists only in its devotees’ deluded imagination.  


The Wolfowitz Creed animates almost all: the Classic neo-cons, the macho neo-cons, and the raw neo-imperialists. The few non-believers are irrelevant to America’s foreign policy discourse. If you urge engagement with Tehran and dialogue with Putin, you are shunned as a heretic* – like the Gnostics, and then Cahors, except that the latter at least acknowledged Christ (American exceptionalism) and Satan (Putin/Khamenei) before they were administered their just punishment.  




# Why should the United States be upset by these modest moves towards giving peasants and miners (largely indigenous) a square deal after 500 years of systematic oppression? Does it threaten the national interest? Does it run counter to American ideals? The uncomfortable truth is that the United States has become a major – if selective - reactionary force in today’s world. We can talk as much as we want about democracy, human rights and self-determination – but the facts say otherwise. 


§ The concept of a ‘democratic peace’ – build around the premise that democracies do not go to war with each other, enjoyed wide currency in the post-Cold War decade. It still has adherents, especially as an abstract principle. In practice, democracy promotion has been instrumentalized; that is to say, it has been weaponized to bring pressure on states that the U.S.-led West finds hostile. Russia and China top the list which includes: Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Syria and Pakistan (on odd days of the week). The concept is relegated to the attic when the subject is Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, Qatar, Bahrain, Brazil, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Guatemala, Bolivia, Colombia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey, or Texas (?).  All of the latter group's records on human rights and political freedom are worse than Russia's - even if we credit the largely unsubstantiated - certainly, greatly exaggerated - charges levelled at the Kremlin.


* This small coterie includes Charles Freeman, Andrew Bacevich, Lawrence Wilkerson, Paul Pillar, Anatol Lieven. With rare exceptions, they are denied access to the op ed pages, to TV interviews, to the major international affairs journals, to Congressional hearings, and to the speaker’s lectern of such august institutions as the Council on Foreign Relations. Not a single U.S. Senator is numbered in their ranks – at least until Bernie Sanders’ conversion. 



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