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by Ralph Burr, instructor, political science, law


For the past six years, neoconservativism has emerged as a major intellectual force in American politics, particularly in the field of U.S. foreign policy. Neoconservatism isn’t new, of course; it’s been lurking in the background of political thought and action for many years, quietly seeking influence in Washington circles. With the election of George W. Bush in 2000, it suddenly emerged from the shadows to take a clearly visible and highly vocal position in the federal government and the U.S. policy-making apparatus. And with Bush’s re-election in 2004, it fully established itself as the driving force in foreign affairs in the Bush administration.

During the past six years, neocons have occupied some of the most powerful positions in the administration, including vice president, secretary of defense, deputy secretary of defense, national security advisor, and more recently secretary of state. Their principal foreign policy goal pre-emptive war against America’s enemies, real or imagined was not only adopted philosophically by President Bush but actually implemented by him in his 2003 invasion of Iraq. Neocons generally continue to support the war, even though some of them now openly critique the way it has been handled by the administration.

How the movement developed, and what individuals and institutions promulgate it, will be covered in a separate article next issue. This will briefly sketch the ideology of the “neoconservative movement,” describe its most visible contribution to American foreign policy and action, the war on Iraq, and try to look into its future, if any.

The neocons now stand as a distinct right-wing faction of the Republican Party and are indisputably the party’s dominant intellectual prime mover, at least in the area of foreign policy. Republican moderates are left on the fringes of party power and politics.

Neocons preach and practice a rough style of politics that’s driven by unveiled hatred of liberalism, multilateralism, and the Democratic Party. I would go so far as to aver that their writings and alignment with their loyal Republican voting block of Christian evangelicals, sometimes called the Religious Right, threaten America with an incipient theocracy.

Neocon ideology embraces a muscular brand of American nationalism, or ostentatious patriotism, or “Americanism,” or what they sometimes call “American exceptionalism”—the notion that American society is not only exceptionally good but somehow morally superior to all other societies and destined to rule all other societies! Needless to say, this ideology hints at dangerous undercurrents of racism, imperialism, and fascism. Its raw exercise of power smacks of Ayn Rand’s extreme individualism, bordering on self-deification.

This sense of “American exceptionalism” is tinged with religious, almost messianic, sentiments. Indeed, the neocon links to the Religious Right (socially conservative Christian fundamentalists and aggressive evangelicals) are becoming more and more evident. The link was demonstrated in the November 2004 election when neocon power and principles were confirmed by a huge turnout of Religious Right voters that returned Bush to The White House. (Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political guru, saw the neocons and theocons as providing a powerful one-two punch on that election day, and he characterized the two groups as “the generals” and “the foot soldiers.”)

One perceives a sort of Puritan fervor in these religious overtones, a theology-driven imperialism that reminds us of 19th-century British imperialistic thinking captured by Kipling in his famous phrase, “the white man’s burden.” A sense of destiny permeates neoconservative visions of world domination through Judaeo-Christian redemption and salvation. It smacks of Admiral Mahan’s century-old notions of “Manifest Destiny”—the belief that the United States was destined to spread, not only across the North American continent, but across the Pacific Ocean, too. Fulfillment of this destiny, as the admiral well knew, requires unparalleled military (particularly naval) might and the will to use it.
And this brings us to the most significant aspect of neoconservative policy: America’s right and duty to conduct pre-emptive war whenever and wherever its interests are threatened. As indicated above, this interventionist foreign policy, which substitutes forced regime change for patient diplomacy, and unilateralism for internationalism, has now been overtly adopted by President Bush, with all its mix of thrills and chills, of possible rewards and enormous risks.

Neocon Foreign Policy Theory
The neocon argument for pre-emptive war reads unabashedly as follows:

1. With the demise of the Soviet Union and its threat of communist aggression, the United States is now the world’s only superpower, economically and militarily.

2. We should use our military power to establish our “global benevolent hegemony.” We can do this now without fear of nuclear retaliation, and we must do it now while we are in this advantageous position.

3. Our supremacy should be used to advance, not only our economic and political interests, but also our societal, moral, and religious values that flow from our Judeo-Christian heritage. In short, we must establish an American empire that will militarily impose a Pax Americana-Christiana on the world community.

4. Our military supremacy should be exercised not merely defensively, but affirmatively and aggressively, without warning and without waiting to be attacked—in other words, we are free to engage in pre-emptive war.

5. Pre-emptive war would be fought unilaterally, without allies or the sanction of multilateral institutions and organizations such as the UN and NATO. (However, it may be politically “useful” to construct a façade of internationalism or multilateralism and call it a “coalition of the willing,” as was done in preparation for the invasion of Iraq).

6. The ultimate goal of regime change is to establish democracies in the place of autocracies, on the debatable assumption that democracies are less prone to violence and war than are other types of governments, and that democracies created in our own image and sharing our values are likely to be our friends and accept our hegemony.

Theory in Action
The neocons saw the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as an opportunity to implement their cherished idea of pre-emptive war to effect a forced politico-religious conversion on the Middle East, starting, of course, with Afghanistan and Iraq. In this connection, it’s important to understand that a key building block of this idea, now known as the “Bush Doctrine,” is an intimate working relationship with, and protection of, Israel. It’s that relationship that serves to tie in the Religious Right to the whole scheme, because of their belief that Israel is vital to the Second Coming of Christ, at which time the Jews will either convert to Christianity or be killed. Where this “conversion” can be accomplished through covert regime change, pre-emptive war may not be required; but war would always be the favored option if other means are not quickly successful.

Many neocons had long argued for the elimination of Saddam Hussein, and are still angry over the decision of the first President Bush (Bush 41) not to undertake that task at the end of the Gulf War in 1991. They immediately seized on 9/11 as the excuse they had been waiting for, and urged Bush 43 to launch America’s first pre-emptive war. It’s not hard to hear echoes of militaristic expansionism similar to Admiral Mahan’s advocacy of muscular, far-ranging sea power that would necessarily rely on bases in foreign countries (now called, by the Pentagon, “pre-positioning” or “forward positioning”).

The Uses of Fear
Karl Von Clauswitz, a 19th-century Prussian general, famously said, “The first casualty of war is truth.” My modern corollary might be, “The first casualty of fear is liberty.” In pursuit of their war agenda, the neocons have used the fear of terrorism as an excuse to demand acquiescence in their pre-emptive war and as justification to encroach upon our civil liberties. Ostensibly in the name of national security, the Bush administration bullied Congress into enacting the USA PATRIOT ACT (the full title of which is “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act”). Passed without debate just six weeks after 9/11, the president’s 342-page act authorizes the government to, for example:

• Conduct surveillance of political activists and organizations if they “appear to be intended…to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion” (emphasis added),

• Bar entry into the United States of anyone the secretary of state determines has engaged in speech that “undermines U.S. efforts to reduce or eliminate terrorist activities,”

• Covertly search a person’s home or office without a search warrant if notification would have an adverse result on the investigation,

• Obtain sensitive personal records by simply certifying that they are being sought for an investigation “to protect against international terrorism,”

• Install an eavesdropping system that is “capable of intercepting all forms of Internet activity, including e-mail messages,”

• Conduct secret wiretaps and personal searches without having to show “probable cause” to a judge whenever the investigator merely claims they are for “a significant purpose” and the content is considered “foreign intelligence.”

Because of the PATRIOT Act, we have more reason to fear oppression from within than terrorism from without; more reason to fear the subtle desiccation of our liberties through an overreaching federal government acting in the name of national security, than violence at the hand of foreign terrorists. We are uncomfortably reminded of Lord Acton’s famous maxim, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And James Madison’s remarkably prescient warning comes to mind: “If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.”

Challenges to Neoconservative Theory
There are many risks associated with the neocons’ go-it-alone policy. We have had a unipolar world since the end of the bipolar world that existed during the Cold War between the Unitd States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. However, many insightful observers predict, in the not-too-distant future, a tripolar world: the United States, the European Union, and China. Europe is well on its way to a foreign policy union that goes well beyond the economic and monetary union it has already achieved. And dynamic leaders in Europe are preparing the European Union to flex its expanding diplomatic and military muscles in opposition to what they see as misguided American leadership.

And China isn’t far behind Europe. The world already recognizes China as a giant economy that will likely surpass the United States in not too many years, while her leaders are taking big steps to modernize her huge military establishment. In a few years, the United States will be only one of three major centers of economic and military power in the world. (This may be one reason why the neocons want to remake the world in their image now, while they still can!)

The situation in Europe is particularly urgent, and it has been exacerbated by American neocons, particularly Bush’s arrogance and Rumsfeld’s hubris. The “Bush Doctrine” of go-it-alone has ended a half-century of “Atlanticism”—a strong sense of historical, ethnic, cultural, and diplomatic commonality between America and Western Europe. The neocons convinced Bush that we don’t need “the old Europe,” as Rumsfeld rudely put it, and that we’re better off without them.

Thus ended the policy and practice of “liberal internationalism” that developed after World War II and that was so important in meeting the challenges of aggressive Soviet expansionism. Liberal internationalism rested on Europe’s agreement to accept U.S. leadership, while the United States agreed to compromise and work through international institutions rather than unilaterally. To all of that, the neocons now say, “Good riddance!”

But close observers of what was once called “The Atlantic Alliance” detect even more than a divergence between political leaders.

They see a more radical divergence between the two populations, due largely to the emergence in America of theocratic conservatism as the dominant force in domestic politics and social issues.
Commentators see stark differences between U.S. and European societal attitudes in such areas as religion and its place in public life, secularism, the death penalty, homosexuality, abortion, sex education, and economic egalitarianism. Political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic now use these and other differences to advance their own agendas.

European Union leaders use anti-Bush and anti-U.S. arguments to create a common enemy, hoping to pull all 27 EU countries tightly together with the intent of creating a new bipolarity in world affairs. They see the need to create a counterforce to U.S. hegemony that has become, in their eyes, ever more dictatorial and unilateral.

At the same time, neocon leaders, especially Rumsfeld (who, speaking of “Good riddance!” was a morning-after casualty of last November’s mid-term elections), heap scorn on “old Europe,” and resent its opposition to their experiment in pre-emptive war. (There can be little doubt that this remains their prevailing attitude, despite Rumsfeld’s departure and recent efforts by Bush, Rice, and others to kiss and make up with Europe.)

This loosening of ties to Europe may be due in part to a generational shift in America. As years pass, so do the generations that fought in two world wars. Our sense of connection to “the old country” lessens as we become farther removed—temporally, ethnically, emotionally—from the ties our grandparents and great-grandparents felt. The grand unity of purpose we all embraced in the 1930s and ‘40s—the defeat of fascism, first in Europe and then in Japan—is literally dying out among what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation,” and it is fast fading from the consciousness of our present not-so-great generation. And again, the neocons cheer, “Good riddance!”

Extent of Neocon Power
How much power do neocons really have in the Bush administration? Some observers think it’s not as great as it may seem. The neocons definitely carried the day after 9/11, which gave them grounds for convincing Bush that their way—pre-emptive war—was the only feasible way to fight terrorism. And of course, the war on Iraq will certainly go down in history as the Neocons’ War. But on many other issues the administration remains unsettled, and neocons are by no means in the driver’s seat.
For example, Iran: Both the neocons and Bush/Cheney want regime change in that country, but the methods of achieving it are by no means settled. Military power is being actively and at times loudly talked about in Washington—and almost as loudly denied by the administration, even though we recently saw some well-publicized naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf that caused faint echoes of saber rattling. Bush is undoubtedly being tempted to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. At the same time he’s being courted by European leaders to participate in continued negotiations. We’ll have to wait to see how this issue plays out.

One reason neocons seem so powerful is that they are loud and articulate, arrogantly self-assured, and even, purportedly, divinely inspired; and their arguments are vigorous and uncompromising, luring the listener with super-confident promises of quick and permanent successes. But their aura of infallibility, and of America’s invincibility, has certainly been tarnished by the debacle in Iraq, an adventure on which they have clearly “bet the farm.”

The Future of Neoconservatism
What is the future of neoconservatism in America? The short answer is, it all depends on the Iraq war. Because the neocons have lost so much credibility due to their fraudulent justification for the invasion, and their subsequent mismanagement of the occupation, it seems unlikely they’ll ever be trusted again. As Americans grow more and more angry over unrelenting casualties, extended deployments, disruptive Guard and Reserve call-ups, the mismanaged and corrupt occupation, the multipartied civil war, and huge budgetary demands and deficits, the neocons will look like dangerous fools and will quickly lose their supporters and their audience.

If, on the other hand, something can yet be salvaged in Iraq, if the neocon experiment in forcefully exporting democracy to the Middle East somehow “succeeds” – however that word may be defined—they’ll look like geniuses. And that will undoubtedly mean more pre-emptive wars to export democracy and remodel the world in their image. If so, what country will be next?

At the moment, “success” seems highly unlikely. The lasting pacification and true democratization of Iraq will, I believe, prove to be impossible to achieve by us or by any other outside force, although it may be possible through the will and societal evolution of Iraq’s people. I am profoundly skeptical of the exportability of true democracy, or even its forms and trappings, to places where the soil of civil society has not been prepared over many generations to receive this tender plant, and where native cultural institutions are not available to nurture and sustain it.

The neocons cannot escape being judged on Iraq, because it is the most visible implementation of their most highly touted policy. Their future depends on whether we, the American public, will ultimately decide that their war was, in fact, necessary for our security and worthy of our costs; or whether we were conned into it for their and Bush’s own political purposes. It will depend on whether we decide that the attempt to democratize the Middle East is worth the enormous expenditures of American lives and resources—if, indeed, it is feasible at any cost—and whether democracy would, in fact, bring about the alleged result: that “democratic nations” would be more like us and therefore would dependably accept U.S. global hegemony.

World opinion is becoming highly skeptical of the neocons’ confident assertions, but they toss off world opinion, especially European opinion, with scorn. American opinion won’t be so easy to toss off, because we vote.




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