They may be down, but they're not out

July 2, 2004

As power is handed over in Iraq, academics assess the impact of US foreign policy at home and abroad.

Have the neocons had their day or could they bounce back? ask Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke.

Some might think it obvious that setbacks in Iraq would cause the architects of the current unrest there to fall into disrepute. Indeed, reports from Washington suggest that Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defence and the intellect behind the Iraq War, is now a much subdued personality. Individuals aside, there is increasing evidence that policy - or at least the style in which it is made - is moving against the neoconservatives.

At the recent G8 meeting in Sea Island, Georgia, President George W. Bush seemed determined to step back from his earlier disdain for international allies and to chart a more multilateral course in which much of the earlier sweeping neocon vision for Middle East transformation was abandoned.

A confidential briefing in Washington from a European Union ambassador suggested that all sides, the US included, acknowledged that the disarray caused by Iraq was unacceptable and could not be allowed to recur. Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, recently hinted that, having received assurances that neocon wings would be clipped, he might stay on another year or so (assuming a Bush victory in November). A group of former senior diplomats and military commanders has called for the end of an administration "blinded by ideology".

These developments have prompted cognoscenti in Washington and world capitals to ask whether we have seen the end of the neocons. This is not the first time this question has been posed. In the 1990s, announcements of the neocons' demise turned out to be premature. The waning of the Cold War at that time led those who had defined the neocon movement to move on to a variety of new interests, acknowledging that the themes and directions that had informed their anti-communism had faded.

Historian Jay Winik wrote in 1989: "With the warming of US-Soviet relations and the ratification of the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF), America is witnessing the end not just of the Reagan era, but perhaps of the neocons as well." Even Norman Podhoretz, one of the movement's founders, pronounced in the early 1990s that neoconservatism "no longer exists as a distinctive phenomenon".

Quite unexpectedly, however, the neocons used their years of political exile during the Clinton administration to start anew. They backed away from their earlier emphasis on social and cultural issues and reinvented themselves as foreign-policy specialists, with their identifying characteristic being an updated "hard" Wilsonianism that drew on America's predominance in military technology. They saw how "smart" weapons could bring even greater precision - and expanded options - to the liberal-idealistic interventions witnessed a decade earlier in the Balkans.

And, asserting that the greatest threat to US security and the security of its allies emanated from the Middle East, they brought a laser-focus to that region. In Washington law firms and think-tanks, most notably the American Enterprise Institute, a new generation of neocons - Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, John Bolton, Elliott Abrams, William Kristol, Robert Kagan and others - led an intellectual revival, in which the following themes predominated:

  • That the human condition is defined as a choice between good and evil and that the true measure of political character is to be found in the willingness by the former (themselves) to confront the latter
  • That the fundamental determinant of the relationship between states rests on military power and the willingness to use it
  • That the Middle East and global Islam is the prime theatre for US overseas interests.

In putting these themes into operation, neocons:

  • See international issues in black-and-white morally based categories. They are convinced that they alone hold the moral high ground and argue that disagreement effectively offers comfort to the enemy
  • Emphasise the uni-polar nature of US power and are prepared to exercise the military option earlier than others. They repudiate the "lessons of Vietnam", believing they undermine US willingness to use force, and they embrace the "lessons of Munich" and the virtues of pre-emptive military action
  • Disdain conventional diplomatic agencies such as the State Department and conventional country-specific, pragmatic analysis because they dilute and confuse the ideological clarity of their policies. They are hostile toward multilateral institutions and treaties while drawing comfort from international criticism, believing that it confirms US virtue
  • Look to the Reagan administration as the exemplar of these virtues and seek to establish their version of Reagan's legacy as the Republican orthodoxy.

When the Bush administration took office, many moved into high positions at the State and Defence Departments, at the National Security Council and, perhaps most crucially, in the vice-president's office, where Libby became chief of staff. In the days immediately following 9/11 they were able to advocate the Iraq policy that was eventually adopted by the Bush administration. The practical outcome of this policy - the highly uncertain political and security prognosis in Iraq, the persistent controversy over the reasons by which the war was justified, the deepened US estrangement from the world community and a more volatile context for international terrorism - has led to a re-evaluation of neocon foreign policy.

The more trenchant question, however, for those in the UK and elsewhere who need to access the future course of US foreign policy, is a slightly different one - and one that produces a slightly different answer: namely, how long and in what manner the themes embraced by the neocons may continue to be influential, even after their harsh methodological unilateralism has been moderated. On this, rather than speculating about the future of the neocons per se, it may be more productive to ask whether several of the more prominent themes in today's neocon thinking have appeared before.

Specifically, we might ask if these themes weren't illuminated during the run-up to the Vietnam War.

In several respects, today's neocons are not unlike the Vietnam "best and brightest" generation also animated by ideology - Alan Antovin, Robert MacNamara, McGeorge and William Bundy, Walt Rostow - who believed they understood the evil represented by communism (terrorism), who misunderstood the function of nationalism in Vietnam (Iraq), and who believed that resolution would be found through the use of military power. In this sense, we would alter, somewhat, the question at hand to ask whether one explanation of the neocon rise to influence is that, at a time of crisis, they tapped a deep well-spring in the US political culture - the combination of a messianic idealism, a confidence in US values and exceptionalism, and the willingness to use force to support these themes.

Certainly, these qualities, and the instinct to view adversaries in Manichean terms pitting "freedom and democracy" against the dark forces of totalitarianism, has characterised US policy both during the Vietnam War and in Iraq. And it is the case that these instincts remain. Potential adversaries are cast in a similar light as we have seen in the demonisation of the North Korean, Iranian and Syrian regimes. The return and compelling rise of a messianic, force-based foreign policy following 9/11 begs the question of whether the present neocon ascension may have illuminated what may be a structural problem for the US. As before in Vietnam, the venerable system of "checks and balances" thought to be so much a part of the American political process failed to stop policy miscalculations. Where were the critical articles in the learned journals? Where were the voices of the political establishment in the fall and winter of 2002 and spring of 2003 challenging the administration's assumptions and asking for hard proof of weapons of mass destruction, links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and involvement in 9/11?

The question about the future course of neoconservatism does not, therefore, permit a binary answer. In terms of the modalities of how US foreign policy is executed, the evidence from several different theatres suggests that neocon influence has seen its high-water mark. Indeed, the neocon sword has been blunted by miscalculations and the inability to achieve even minimal security in Iraq.

But it would be more prudent to assume that we are witnessing the passage of an active neocon phase rather than a permanent departure. Should, for example, another "perfect storm" on the lines of 9/11 recur over Iran, in which fear and confusion suspend the political process, these patterns of unilateral US assertiveness will be back in business - probably irrespective of the party affiliation of the White House incumbent.

Stefan Halper is a senior research fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and a former White House and State Department official in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations. Jonathan Clarke, a former British diplomat, is a foreign affairs scholar at the CATO Institute, Washington DC. Their book America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order is published by Cambridge University Press.

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