Neo-Cons: Genesis to Ascendancy - III
by Michael Brenner on 19 Jul 2022 0 Comment



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 Rwanda 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 defence 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 vitiating the principle of credibility, e.g. differentiating Rwanda from human rights abuses in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or Guatemala. 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; Bosnia. 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 odour. 


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, Venezuela etc. etc. Consequently, the difference in policy choices and in actions taken between R2Ps (Classic neo-cons) and hawkish Realpolitikers (Wolfowitz-like, mislabelled ‘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 behaviour 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 mislabelling as neo-cons, therefore, is immaterial. It makes no practical difference what label you stick on Kenneth Pollock, Bruce Riedel, Tony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Wendy Sherman, Robert Kagan, Daniel Benjamin, Victoria Nuland, Michael McFaul, William Kristol or Richard Haass. They all share fealty to Netanyahu’s Israel, they share the currying of favour 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, and of course they outdo each other in the loud demonization of Putin’s Russia.  


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 were ready to abrogate the JCPOA while some of the uber-hawks go so far as to advocate military assault on Iran’s nuclear sites. Biden’s people all agree on sabotaging current talks by setting unrealistic conditions. They remain divided on the question of resorting to air strikes. For the time being, it is a moot question since they recognize that a big war in the Gulf would sink what remains of the floundering administration. The two currents share another belief: they, like the past three – if not four – successive American Presidents, have preferred to see the Mullahs’ regime actually toppled – although the Classic neo-cons, like Obama, leave that objective unstated. 


An even greater degree of uniformity prevails re. Russia – even before the Ukraine war. So-called progressive Democrats, R2Pers, neo-cons of every stripe, old-line Communist bashers, ultra-nationalists – all denounce Russia as an ominous threat to American security interests. Putin, personally, is castigated 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. 




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 differences that count: 


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.   


This 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 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 led us into error. It rejects a priori supposed universals. 


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 observed experience.   


Defining 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 behavioural 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 China, to Russia, to Iran. Occam’s Razor is nowhere to be seen. Quite the opposite.  


China is Washington’s paramount worry. It constitutes a potential contender for the global supremacy. China’s economic cum military power, its iron-willed leadership – together are making it a challenger to everything Americans hold dear. That encompasses the one world order 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. 


Consequently, the strategic importance of everything China does is greatly exaggerated – from Huawei’s growing role in the American market for electronic technology to China’s constructing military facilities on the disputed Spratly Islets and its cultivation of ties with the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. Hence, the Spratly sandbars and reefs – and Melanesian coconut groves - are freighted with the entire load of meanings associated with the historic Sino-American competition. 


This compression derives from the combined strength of two oddly symbiotic mindsets. Most influential is the neo-cons’ raw drive to achieve the overarching goal of total hegemony by restricting the spread of Chinese presence in the Pacific. Accompanying it is the growing apprehension in the country that the United States’ supremacy in the world is slipping away, the sensation of losing national prowess, of its mastery in jeopardy. Together, they generate a predilection for seeking clear-cut outcomes in a relatively brief timeframe that reassure by confirming the optimistic belief in American exceptionalism.  


This quintessential American approach to its foreign dealings is peculiarly linear. It too often sets a goal with inadequate regard to its intrinsic importance or the opportunity costs incurred in its single-minded pursuit. The interests and concerns of other protagonists are downplayed by an arbitrary delegitimizing of them combined with an inflation of American national interests. A direct line is then traced from where things are now to what you want them to be. The methods followed to accomplish that are accordingly taken as fixed and given.


Contingencies for dealing with unexpected twists and turns are neglected. Hence, the strong inertial tendency to push ahead with initial ends and means or to abandon the enterprise totally. The former normally prevails before reality forces the latter. That has been the pattern in Afghanistan, re. Iran, Syria, and now Ukraine/Russia. The same holds for the escalating economic war launched against China. The consequence is that Washington finds itself repeatedly boxed into corners of its own creation.


The self-identified neo-cons, in particular, persevere by moving on to the next misadventure pencilled in their agenda as derived from their immutable worldview. Doing so also permits the foreign policy apparatus to avoid two types of bothersome activity: nuanced thinking and skilful diplomacy. As one often hears in the corridors of power: “let’s remember that there also is a big risk in over-thinking problems.” You declaim and you justify, you don’t discuss.


However, it is just not good enough to draft a one-dimensional plan and then set it in motion with the presumption of success. As a renown philosopher has cautioned: “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.” For almost always you do get hit in the face. What counts is what you did in advance to minimize the chances of being hit and how hard, your contingency plans, and your adaptability – diplomatic and at home. Failure to take those precautions lands you where we are today in Ukraine.




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 centred 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 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 Credo 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 Cathars, except that they at least acknowledged Christ, albeit as the Emissary of the true, concealed God (American exceptionalism) and Satan (Putin/Khamenei) before they were administered their just punishment.  


This historical narrative brings to the fore two quite remarkable features of the present elite consensus that bears the imprint of the Neo-Con/Wolfowitz template. First, its near total conquest of the American mind succeeded despite an unmatched record of failure – in analysis and in action. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Belarus, Venezuela, Bolivia – capped by the catastrophe in Ukraine that we choreographed (including that fatal misreading of Russia).


Second, the Biden administration has all but officially announced that we are now committed to a comprehensive hybrid war against a Sino-Russian bloc – a powerful rival that has come into existence because we did everything conceivable to encourage it. Yet, the foreign policy elite, the political class and the public have received the news of this titanic struggle with hardly a blink of the eye. The country has set itself on a fateful course in a state of mindlessness induced by a wilful coterie of true believers inspired by dogma wreathed in ignorance and pursued in stunningly incompetence.


All or nothing:  Hegemony or Armageddon. A logical outcome of a 40-year progression.



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