Is it the End of History for Neonservatives?
Posted by James Lamond
As Heather writes below, Peter Beinart has a very interesting piece up at the Daily Beast on the death of neoconservativism. His basic argument is that the Obama administration’s success at decimating al Qaeda leadership through counterterrorism operations rather than democracy promotion and nation building is evidence that the ideology is broken. Combine this with the culture of limits that is dominating Washington and the national debate, the ideology that rejects limits is not likely to survive. While, I wish this were the case, I think Beinart’s focus on post-9/11 neoconservatives ignores the movement’s ability to hype threats and reinvent the boogeyman.
“Today, by contrast, it is increasingly obvious that the real successor to German fascism and Soviet communism is not Al Qaeda, whose mud-hut totalitarianism repels the vast majority of Muslims. It is China’s authoritarian capitalism, the first nondemocratic ideology since the 1930s to challenge the idea that democracy is the political system best able to promote shared prosperity. And not only is Al Qaeda sliding into irrelevance, its demise is being hastened by exactly the narrowly targeted policies that neoconservatives derided.”
Battling terrorism through nation-building is not the ideological foundation for neocons, just the most recent incarnation. In his history of the neoconservatism Justin Vaisse of Brookings identifies five pillars that transcend the various generations that have worn the neocon label: internationalism, primacy, unilateralism, militarism and democracy. This is what drove the Cold War hawks who criticized Nixon and Kissinger on détente and Team B-ed the intelligence on Soviet military threat and strategic objectives. These pillars can again be easily transferred to a new boogeyman. Including, the most likely candidate Beinart mentions: China.
Beinart also points to the lack of a connection to the Republican Party as further evidence of the death of the ideology:
"But to grasp neoconservatism’s demise, you don’t need to look at the Middle East. Just look at the Republican presidential race. None of the major candidates is attacking President Obama along neoconservative lines. None is focusing on his withdrawal from Iraq or his timetable for exiting Afghanistan or his refusal to bomb Iran. The one Republican candidate with a truly coherent foreign policy vision—Ron Paul—is attacking Obama for acting too much like a neoconservative. The other candidates don’t have any coherent critique at all, because while they know they’re supposed to call Obama an appeaser, they also know that even Republican voters have little appetite for the neoconservative agenda of continued war in the Middle East."
But neconservativism never had a wide political base, electoral force or popular movement behind it. As Vaisse writes, “nobody ever got elected on a ‘neoconservative platform.’” George W. Bush famously ran in 2000 pledging a “modest” foreign policy. As Beinart rightly points out, for what they have said about foreign policy thus far, the GOP presidential candidates tend towards the “modest” George Bush of 2000, versus the George Bush of 2003. But this is probably as much attributable the lack of a Tea Party foreign policy and a lack of a coherent world view from the broader GOP as anything else. And as Jake wrote earlier this month, Rick Perry -- a Tea Party candidate -- is being advised by Donald Rumsfeld, Doug Feith and Dan Blumenthal, all either widely considered neocons or longtime allies.
I think Beinart is correct in many respects, particularly on the fact that the economic-centric national debate does not bode well for the movement without an economic outlook. But ultimately, even if post-9/11 neoconservativism is dead, that doesn’t mean we have heard the last from the group.