I have been identified as a neoconservative ever since I started to work for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan on the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1981, and subsequently for my similar work in the Reagan White House. Being the executive director of the infamous “neocon inspired” Project for the New American Century cemented that label. It’s not a label I object to. And contrary to some of the more conspiratorial accounts, it doesn’t come with a membership—secret or not—in Israel’s Likud. I am a crib to coffin Catholic.
I do object, however, to how readily the term “neocon” is used by writers, commentators, and politicians (both here and abroad) to describe anyone on the right they find objectionable when it comes to foreign and defense issues. Two relatively recent examples come to mind.
In late June, Presidential hopeful Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat representing Hawaii in the House of Representatives, appeared on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” There, she asserted that “The neocons in the Trump Administration,” along with the Saudis and Israel Prime Minister Bibi Netanyhu “have created a situation where it is going to be very difficult for President Trump to avoid a war with Iran.”
Gabbard didn’t bother to name who those neocons were. And there is a reason she didn’t. Unless there are secret White House employees, there are in fact no neocons working there in sufficiently senior positions to create the situation the Congresswoman is complaining about. Indeed, the vast majority of noteworthy neocons signed “Never Trump” statements prior to his election to the Oval Office in 2016. Moreover, as best one can tell, the White House is still not hiring anyone who signed one of those missives.
Shortly after Donald Trump pulled back from striking Iran during the latest round of escalations, Tucker Carlson himself took to the air to praise the President and excoriate those pushing him to war.
Donald Trump was elected President precisely to keep us out of disasters like war with Iran. So how did we get so close to starting one? Simple. The neocons still wield enormous power in Washington. They don’t care what the cost of war with Iran is. They certainly don’t care what the effect on Trump’s political fortunes might be. They despise Donald Trump.
Now, one of their key allies is the National Security adviser of the United States. John Bolton is an old friend of Bill Kristol’s. Together they helped plan the Iraq War.
Here’s the thing, though: Bolton is no neocon. Just ask him. A friend and former colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, John is a rather traditional national security conservative, who sees American security concerns through the lens of very concrete interests. Pushing democracy abroad has never been on his agenda.
And pace Carlson, being in favor of the Iraq War is hardly what it means to be a foreign policy neoconservative. If it was, one would have to count as being neo-cons any number of major Democrat politicians and officials, as well as “national interest” Republicans like Donald Rumsfeld. National security hawks and neocons may overlap at times in the complex Venn diagram of American foreign policy schools, but they are not the same.
A second example of the tendency to toss the term “neocon” around is found in the Financial Times’s recent review of the documentary “The Brink.” There, FT movie critic Nigel Andrews writes that the film is “a documentary about the U.S.’s most swashbuckling and ill-shaven neocon,” Steve Bannon. Again, I’m sure it would be a surprise to Mr. Bannon to be so described. A nativist “American First” program is not easily reconciled with such neoconservative concerns as support for liberal regimes and human rights abroad. Unlike Mr. Bannon, neoconservatives are not ringing the bell for Orban’s Hungary, France’s Marine Le Pen, or any of Europe’s populists. Perhaps what a British film critic has to say about American politics doesn’t matter, but it’s a good example of just how prevalent the use of the word “neocon” has become for anybody the center-Left or Left finds objectionable. That an editor wouldn’t think twice about letting the descriptor into the paper’s pages suggests both how accepted that practice has become and why some push-back is called for.
Admittedly, since there is no formal club or membership card to be handed out, defining what neo-conservatism is in the arena of foreign affairs will inevitably be open to dispute. (Even in domestic affairs, full clarity about neo-conservatism’s content is open to question, which is one reason why Irving Kristol, the godfather of neo-conservatives, preferred calling it “a persuasion.”) Nevertheless, one provisional way to tackle this problem is to look at three of the high-water marks of neo-conservatism as capturing more or less its meaning.
Undoubtedly, the first of these is Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1979 Commentary essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” She drew a distinction between liberal democracies, traditional autocratic regimes, and totalitarian states, and warned that while the U.S. might encourage liberalization where it could, it should be quite cautious about turning out “friendly” autocrats when one was uncertain about what might follow. Then presidential candidate Ronald Reagan thought so much of the essay that he appointed Kirkpatrick to be his ambassador to the UN once in office.
Reagan, of course, was fully on board, judging the main enemy to be the Soviet Union—the “Evil Empire.” And the Reagan Doctrine has been defined as his support for counter-communist insurgencies in Central America, Africa, and Afghanistan. In that respect, he and Kirkpatrick were in accord in seeing the main threat to the United States as the USSR and its communist proxies around the world. Yet the Reagan Doctrine was not simply about pushing back against communism.
Where he eventually broke with Kirkpatrick, the second high-water mark, was his greater willingness to put the promotion of liberal democracy on his list of foreign policy priorities. As he put it in his 1982 Westminster Speech, “democracy is not a fragile flower. Still it needs cultivating. If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals, we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy.” In practice, this meant the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy and its sister organizations, the International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, and the Center for International Private Enterprise. It also meant a policy of siding with democrats in South Korea, Chile, and the Philippines when those forces wanted to topple their respective existing autocratic rulers. The policy wasn’t a passive one, being a “light to the world; a city on the hill,” where example and success might lead others to follow; rather, Reagan’s was an active statecraft designed to challenge where possible both totalitarian and autocratic regimes.
Arguably, the third chapter in neo-conservatism was initiated by William Kristol and Robert Kagan in their 1996 Foreign Affairs article, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy.” Their pitch was for Americans to put aside the soft and hard versions of what they dubbed the “pinched nationalism” of leading Republicans of the time. As they argued, America had “achieved its present position of strength not by practicing a foreign policy of live and let live, nor by passively waiting for threats to arise, but by actively promoting American principles of governance abroad—democracy, free markets, respect for liberty.”
What these three moments in neo-conservatism share is an underlying view that there is ultimately no moral equivalence between types of regimes. Not all countries are “exceptional,” as President Obama once seemed to suggest. Nor, as President Trump has said, in response to the idea that Russian President Putin was a killer: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”
Rather, what matters most is a country’s system of governance. Most often, a state’s foreign policy behavior will be decisively connected to its domestic practices. An autocrat’s interest in staying in power at home will almost certainly inform his actions with neighbors and the larger world. Moreover, there is plenty of fact-based scholarship that shows liberal democracies are more peaceful toward each other, more likely to be better trade partners, and less likely to adopt policies that create the internal distortions that lead to civil wars, coups, and mass migrations. The benefits of having democratic allies far outweighs in the long run whatever problems they present in the short run. For neocons, there are real strategic reasons to push for liberal democracy abroad.
This is not to say that geography, commercial interests, and particular personalities don’t matter in the conduct of statecraft; they do. Yet none of these factors, from a neo-conservative point of view, can be the lodestar guiding national security.
However, as indicated by the distance between the general policy recommended by Jeane Kirkpatrick in her Commentary piece and the actual policy Ronald Reagan undertook, there is room for debate and disagreement over what specifically is to be done in any given situation. That requires an assessment of relative strength, military and diplomatic capacities, and what partners one has to work with. But while prudence might dictate that these necessities and limitations be taken account of when putting forward a policy or strategy, the principle of “It’s the regime, stupid” remains the most pertinent fact for understanding national behavior and guiding strategy.
Although President Trump’s own national security strategy implicitly makes this point, the President himself speaks far more often than not about simply protecting American sovereignty, seemingly denuded of any larger feature than the fact it is our own. Certainly his constant ambivalence about our democratic allies, and his willingness to see personal diplomacy as more essential than a clear-eyed account of the state he’s dealing with, are far from how a neoconservative “infested” administration would behave or talk. So, for all the Gabbards, Andrews, and others who loosely toss around the term neo-con, find some other moniker for individuals and policies you don’t like. It’s not just lazy. It’s flat out wrong.