The Conservative Case against the Neo-Cons

The case against Bush’s foreign policy is often diminished by attack style books such as Michael Moore’s or tired and repetitive critiques such as Noam Chomsky’s. It’s refreshing then to come across in my reading for my PhD thesis a well-argued, brilliantly documented and cogent critique of the Neo-Cons and their influence on American foreign policy and American democracy and civil society. What’s even more interesting is that this critique is a critique by Republican conservatives, Magdalene College Fellow and former Nixon, Reagan and Bush official Dr Stefan Halper and Cato Institute Scholar and former British diplomat Jonathan Clarke… Given that the Cato Institute‘s motto is ‘Individual Liberty, Limited Government, Free Markets and Peace’, such a critique can hardly be ignored by Bush supporters or dismissed as leftist, and ought not to be.

In America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and The Global Order Halper & Clarke don’t dwell too long on the Straussian antecedents of Neo-Con thought, though they do trace the links. What’s more interesting is their discussion of the Neo-Cons’ move from left to right, their misappropriation of the Reagan legacy (which the authors rightly see as being a more pragmatic tradition in Republican foreign policy), and the decline in the intellectual quality of Neo-Con thought from the first generation exemplified by Irving Kristol to the Wolfowitzes and Perles of today. Despite youthful flirtations with Trotskyism, the Neo-Cons weren’t too dissimilar from the sort of muscular liberalism associated with Kennedy or Truman, and rose to prominence first through a concern with “what works” in policy analysis. Their move right began with a reaction against the anti-Vietnam War turn of some Democratic liberals, but as late as 1992 some Neo-Cons supported Clinton, and Senators such as Scoop Jackson of Washington and Hilary’s predecessor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York were squarely in a certain Democratic tradition.

So what then, according to Halper & Clarke, is the baleful influence of the Neo-Cons on American foreign policy and the strength of American democracy and civil society?

FURTHER READING: Halper & Clarke have an op/ed piece on the ‘Twilight of the Neo-Cons’ in The Washington Monthly and the ‘godfather’ of Neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, writes about the movement in The Weekly Standard.

Much of what Halper & Clarke want to argue against in Bush’s foreign policy is not dissimilar to critiques from further left, which is interesting in itself, suggesting that the common criticisms of the Iraq adventure – imperial over-stretch, failure to match means to ends, wishful thinking and invention of intelligence, unintended negative consequences in further destabilisation of the Middle East – is fact-based and rational rather than ideological. Halper & Clarke forcefully argue instead for a pragmatic multilateralism, a realist posture in international relations, and engagement with the Middle East informed by anthropological and diplomatic expertise rather than ideological dreaming. As they correctly argue, the widespread perception of the US as a benificent force was a function of the foreign policy of both Republican and Democratic administrations from Roosevelt onwards, and the disappearance of this perception poses grave problems for the US.

Of great interest also is the point forcefully argued by the authors that the actual reaction to s11 was not an automatic choice, and that it was a choice (and the fact that the Neo-Cons had articulated a pre-existing agenda for over a decade influenced that choice, as well as their strategic positioning in the media and links with Christian Zionists). Distancing themselves from Clintonism, the authors don’t argue for a police action or a judicial model. Rather they argue that a political rather than a military settlement is the only proven panacea for terrorism. Militarisation of society and foreign policy will inevitably fail, and stoke the sources of future terror. Nor will dissimulation in advancing the reasons for war advance citizens’ confidence in government. They’re particularly concerned with the irony that a posture in defence of liberty leads to its negation at home, and the politics of fear, as well as the decline of civility and engagement in political discourse exemplified by Fox News. The book is particularly strong on how a binary frame was applied to the post-s11 word, and how this discursive construction of reality in terms of good and “evildoers” is positively harmful to any real action against terror in its elision of the complexities of the world and the need to act in the world that actually exists.

Thoughtful conservatives could do much worse than read America Alone. Progressives can also benefit from considering a powerful and well argued case from a conservative Republican perspective.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

Long, long ago I did my Honours thesis on the neo-cons. Back then, this kind of thing was a debate *among* neocons, not them against the rest. I’m not sure about the intellectual quality argument. Probably – the were more likely to be professional intellectuals rather than intellectual bureaucrats, advisers, or journalists. But someone like Irving Kristol was an excellent polemicist and organiser rather than a great intellectual.

I think there is a general tendency to over-state ideological influences. Key players are not neocons – not Bush, not Cheney, not Rice, not Rumsfeld. Iraq was a product of circumstance and personalities, and where US foreign policy goes next will depend far more on pesonalities and circumstances than academic debates about neonconservatism.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“I think there is a general tendency to over-state ideological influences”

Andrew, that’s why I wrote, “Halper & Clarke don’t dwell too long on the Straussian antecedents of Neo-Con thought.” I probably tend to overplay the ideological because my training leads me to think in such a way. The benefit of the book, as I tried to make clear, is that it’s a documented history of what has actually happened as well as an imminent critique, if you like. It’s far more of an empirical than a theoretical case. As to Rumsfeld, Cheney, etc. cogent reasons are given as to why they’ve tended to align with the Neo-Cons (let’s not forget Cheney hired most of them) and the debate within the administration is highlighted. Condi Rice cops alot of blame for her performance as NSA. It was interesting for instance to learn of the vast amount of work done in State for post-war Iraqi governance. All this was just brushed aside. The authors (who are in a position to know) argue that in bureaucratic and policy terms the Bush II administration is far more dysfunctional than any post ww2 Republican administration.

So it’s worth a look – I’ve given the wrong impression if I’ve dwelt too much on the ideological side.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

They’re dudes getting a stiffy because they realise they have the resources to remake the map of the world.

But now they’re discovering the map is not the terrain.

Peter Kemp
Peter Kemp
2022 years ago

The op-ed piece is of particular interest, short and pithy. Halper and Clarke’s comment on Perle and Frums recent book is cute:

”This book is for the true beliievers …if you loathe Clinton, despise the CIA, scorn the State dept, hate the French or generally fell contempt for most foreigners…this book will deliver you…with your anger fortified.”

And another gem ”One-size-fits-all belligerence”

Perle and Frum must come close to John Terraines description of advocating WW1 policy of slaughter being akin to savages trying to extract a screw from a piece of timber with a claw hammer, failing, but using more force each time.

In relation to: ”Halper and Clarke argue forcefully for a pragmatic multilateralism” —- actually this what many advocated in the first place. The problem for Bush admin 2 is that so many bridges have been burnt with traditional allies that no amount of cajoling will ever get them to trust the US for the rest of the Bush term. Being labelled ”irrelevant” (theUN) and ”cheese eating surrender monkeys” (the French) will not be forgotten easily. Nor the bullying and arm-twisting to get token forces for the coalition of the ”unrepresentative swill” and all the other acts of wanton hubris.

Multilateralism is of course the only rational answer, but the ”crisis of international legitimacy” of the US, I posit, has poisoned multilateralism, unless, for example the policy on Israel was overturned and genuine pressure was brought upon Israel to make a peace deal with the Palestinians. This, of course cannot be done without the Jewish lobby gutting the GOP at the next house elections in revenge.

I can’t see the leopard changing his spots anytime soon, or are Halper and Clarke implying this can be done post Bush?

A very good subject for further thought, thanks Mark B.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

No probs, Peter. Re – bridges being burnt, the book’s section on the way forward read a little like what Kerry was saying. It was published in 2004 but came out before the election. The argument that Dean’s position was not radical was also interesting – given that Dean had a fairly moderate to conservative and definitely Clintonesque/New Democrat record as Governor of Vermont.

Peter Kemp
Peter Kemp
2022 years ago

I’ve forgotten what Dean’s position was, anti-war? I think—how time flies.

The really scary thing was how the major media networks made out that being anti-war was akin to being a traitor. Engineering the media must rate as a coup d’etat of its own, ‘support the troops’ and exceptionalism notwithstanding.

Another aspect which is interesting is whether the neo-cons saw their input (and war) as helping to entrench the GOP into permanent power or whether this was the the Machievellian plan of Rove and Cheney alone.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yep, Dean was anti-war. This gave him early momentum and tied in with the grassroots and internet based fundraising and mobilisation effort.

I doubt the neo-cons care that much for the future of the GOP. That’s almost a subtext in the book’s tracing of their political lineage from the Democratic party. I think it’s an alliance of convenience while Cheney and Rove (and DeLay) certainly have a vision of endless Republican majorities.

Peter Kemp
Peter Kemp
2022 years ago

And what’s happened to Douglas Feith, according to one US general ”The stupidest s.o.b. I’ve ever met”

Peter Kemp
Peter Kemp
2022 years ago

I hope that Colin Powell in future does a Robert McNamara, recants, and writes a book in the same line as his original autobiography (re-stating the general principle of set goals and exit strategy which he has had amnesia about for the last 2 years)

The guy must have been so pissed that State’s planning was all junked in favour of Rummy’s Pentagon plans. ( minimum forces and flower power welcome)

Joel Parsons
2022 years ago

Neocons, neocons, neocons . . .

To put it crudely, my impression of Neocons is that they are welfare state loving, big government worshipping, clost leftwingers, who woke up one day and realised that all that pork barrelling and nest feathering needed to be protected.

They might sit beside real conservatives in some arguments, but we can never forget that while they believe in political liberty, they don’t necessarily believe in economic liberty.

As to whether or not Bush’s foreign policy has been neo conservative or not, I would call it reinvigorated conservative, they drew passion from the neocons, but not ideology.

Within conservative America there has been a growing disillusionment with their foreign policy since the early 1990s. Americans want to either run the show or have nothing to do with it. Perot v Bush Snr. in 1992 could be interpreted as conservative America having a very public disagreement between the elite multilateralists of Bush Snr. and the populist isolationists around Perot.

George W. has returned to a more populist path that keeps America involved internationally but rejects the impotence of contemporary multilateral institutions. In doing so, he has vanquished the populist isolationism of Perot & Buchanan which haunted the Republicans during the 1990s.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

‘…tired and repetitive critiques such as Noam Chomsky’s..’

The right has has been totally successful in turning Chomsky into an untouchable, a self-evident lunatic no respectable person would want to be seen endorsing. And making sure his name is always linked with Pilger and Moore, a propogandist and a vulgar propogandist respectively.

As I said on JQ’s site a while ago, the proof of this is that any moderate leftist now feels the need to sink the boot into Chomsky in order to establish his own claim to credibility.

If he has to be dragged in to every second blog post or comment, I would enjoy some responses to specific arguments he’s made, rather than general dismissals based on the cariacatures established by apologists for US foreign policy.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Fair enough, James.

Three problems with Chomsky:

(a) he sees states as monolithic and has no appreciation of political contestation, nuance and variation in power;

(b) thus he’s one of many arguing that electoral politics for instance doesn’t really matter;

(c) he appears to have no positive agenda aside from utopian anti-statism.

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

Hi Mark,

Another thought provoking post. Thanks. I’ll look the book up. And very interestign comments too.

Yet again, I agree with James Farrell about Chomsky. I too bridle at the usual way his views are summarily dismissed.

I would contest that all three matters you raise with his work are at all critical to it. In particular, I think his work is “nuanced” as well as exhaustively (exhaustingly) documented. And he has a keen appreciation of the actual distribution and exercize of power in our polities.

As examples, I would advance the three pillars of his political work: “manufacturing consent”, “necessary illusions” and “deterring democracies” as important critiques of how our Western democracies actually function. Themes that are now to some extent being popularized by Moore and docos such as “Outfoxed”, an issue to which you allude in your post.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Gaby, I find Chomsky of limited use – I should be more specific and state that my concerns with regard to political nuance are that he saw no difference between Bush and Kerry. Kerry’s no screaming leftie (and neither was Dean despite the yell!) but there’s no doubt that the world would have looked very different under a Kerry presidency.

I reiterate my point that accordingly, aside from a utopian vision, there is no practical political strategy that arises from his work.

I think his work on the media is probably his best conceptualised thought, and I agree that the cases he makes out are invariably well documented.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

The people who have been carving huge holes in the ‘Neo-cons’ policcies particularly with regard to Iraq, have been Bush1 Advisers ( such as Scowcroft, Eagleburger etal) And Cato people.
This has passed by Bush2 apologists. Of more signifance has been the remarkable prescience they had regard to Iraq.
They they are now saying loudly we told you so.

I do believe it was Ken Parish who said the Neo-Cons were neither neo nor conservative but merely old fashioned imperialists. I would add to this an abysmal ignorance of economics which has put the US budget deficit up in the clouds with little hope of it getting into the black for some time.

Unfortunately it appears ignorance of economics seems to be a proud boast of Bush apologists.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Homer, on the Neo-Cons’ ignorance of economics, this excerpt from the Kristol article I linked to is salutary reading:

“The cost of this emphasis on economic growth has been an attitude toward public finance that is far less risk averse than is the case among more traditional conservatives. Neocons would prefer not to have large budget deficits, but it is in the nature of democracy–because it seems to be in the nature of human nature–that political demagogy will frequently result in economic recklessness, so that one sometimes must shoulder budgetary deficits as the cost (temporary, one hopes) of pursuing economic growth. It is a basic assumption of neoconservatism that, as a consequence of the spread of affluence among all classes, a property-owning and tax-paying population will, in time, become less vulnerable to egalitarian illusions and demagogic appeals and more sensible about the fundamentals of economic reckoning.”

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

Bummer Homer. I was just about to say that. And “it’s one of” Parish’s. Oh well, nuthin’ new under the sun I suppose.

Mark, on Chomsky, to be honest, I haven’t read any of his “positive vision” stuff, although I have read of initimations of some form of “anarchistic utopianism” or some such. But I think this is an unfair criticism too.

I think Chomsky would be generally happy with a world with less hypocrisy and in which avowed public goals and values as disclosed by public discourse or rhetoric were actually implemented by actions. He continually castigates our leaders for hypocrisy to their own stated values while they simultaneously hold others to these same standards. If nothing else, this is an extremely valuable research programme in a democracy.

On what Chomsky said about Kerry, I don’t know but I guess we can all be wrong. Although I don’t believe it would be such a different world with him at the helm of the “PT” ship of state.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I think we’ll have to agree to disagree about Chomsky, Gaby. I’m not saying that his work lacks value.

On Kerry, I’m sure that at the very least there would have been a more positive climate for international co-operation and a lowering of tensions. That’s no small thing.

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

Mark, fair enough. But disagree and agree though.

Disagree about Chomsky. I think he is generally hard done by in commentary.

Agree generally about utility of greater international co-operation and decreasing of tensions.

Reasonable people can differ reasonably.

Some great things about blogs. First, how much one can learn. Secondly, the opportunity for reasonable, and reasoned, argument. Thanks for the opportunity to all of your Troppo bloggers.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

No probs at all, Gaby!

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Mark, I wouldn’t be able articulate Chomsky’s positive vision, but I think it’s nonsense to characterise it as utopian anti-statism. That’s exactly the sort of thing that, say, Gerard Henderson would say. As for the points about monolithic states, nuance and so on, it’s a matter of emphasis and audience. Chomsky’s mission throughout has been to demolish entrenched myths about American democracy, for the benefit of a general public, not to refute vulgar Marxist theories of the state for the benefit of academic sociolgists.

But even if you disagree with aspects of the analysis, from what I’ve read of your views I’m sure you agree with the basic points that: Republicans and Democrats are fundamentally one party acting for big corporations; US foreign policy has by and large been imperialist and supportive of brutal, undemocratic regimes; the mainstream media, thanks to the influence of the corporations, portrays this situation as the polar opposite.

If you do broadly go along with this then, unless you happen to be discussing Chomsky in particular, why take a swipe in passing? Especially when there is a reason not to, namely that the right (not to mention the faux centre) are doing their best to make him a laughing stock, so they won’t have to address the substance of his critique. If you call someone a ‘conspiracy theorist’ often enough, or keep saying he thinks ‘America is the source of all evil’ or even that the Americans deserved the WTC attack, people start to believe it.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

James, it’s difficult to characterise his positive agenda because he himself rarely articulates one. Nor am I asking him to “refute vulgar Marxist theories of the state for the benefit of academic sociolgists”. I’m quite capable of handling that mission myself, should it be required! I’m not trying to take a gratuitous swipe, it’s just that I think his more recent work isn’t as good as it should be. And it’s reasonable to ask someone who makes a strong critique of policy what they’d do themselves in a real world sense, or if they have an alternate vision of the world, how they think we should get there.

I don’t at all deny that the Demos and Republicans are both largely corporate driven though as I said earlier, I agree with Todd Gitlin that the Democratic Party has the potential to be transformed. And yes, the foreign policy differences are not massive. But they’re there, and it’s worth saying that, and pointing out that things would probably be better for the world if Bush hadn’t won.

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

James, very well written and succinct comment. Nice one.

Boomer
Boomer
2022 years ago

Neo-cons are money-grubbing, blood-sucking, heartless “survival of the fittest” candy-coated Social Darwinists with blow-dryed hair, designer clothes, and a smile….they think they have manipulated, conned, and fooled everyone…I never thought I would be nostalgic for the days of Ronald Reagan and the “Trads”, but this bunch has done it!!!!