Special Report

Neoconservatism Interrupted

Once our president embraced its main tenets, our foreign policy was doomed.

By 8.18.11

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You will remember the Obama campaign of 2008. His was a fresh and pleasingly multicultural face and his candidacy, although unexamined by an incurious national media, took pains to present a foreign policy sharply different from either the meliorism of Hillary Clinton or the jingoism of John McCain. Barack Obama was unambiguously the peace candidate and it was on that basis that he became our President.

That was then. Once in office, Obama established Ms. Clinton as his Secretary of State, listened long and mindfully to Sen. McCain, and then proceeded to outreach both of them in an intermittently coherent but unmistakably neoconservative assault on the Middle East (however horrified the anti-Israeli Obama would be to know he's acting neoconservatively). Obama amped up the war in Afghanistan, started another one in Libya, helped to topple a staunch U.S. ally in Egypt, and launched "kinetic military actions" against Somalia and Yemen that, to the locals, looked very much like war. All of these initiatives were undertaken in the name of Western democratic values and, unlike the Bush wars, could not be said to have been contaminated by either a thirst for Arab oil or a hunger for Israeli favor. Obama's policy was manifestly propelled by neoconservative impulse, most brightly illuminated in the putsch against Mubarak. In that instance, the U.S. made it clear that it would support any successor regime. Our strategic judgment, ultimately arrived at, was this: better the street mob, any street mob, than the aging autocrat, even a reliably pro-American autocrat. That judgment represented neoconservatism in its distilled form.

The reaction here at home to Obama's neocon tropism has been both predictable and disappointing. From the peace movement, predictably, there has been protest so restrained as to be almost inaudible. It appears that only Republican wars summon "the movement" to principled dissent and ideological flash mob. Democratic wars are different somehow and must be examined closely for nuance overlooked and consequence unintended. As of this writing, that examination continues. (Sanders? Waters? Anyone? Anyone?) Within the broader base of the Democratic Party, out beyond the anti-war fringe, there has congealed what appears to be a resigned and perplexed acquiescence. If Obama will just get on with the central business of income redistribution, the party activists seem to be saying, he is free to spray Western values around the Middle East even if he chooses to do so at the tips of missiles.

The disappointing response has come from the Republicans. On Capitol Hill, we now have reports of "conservative Congressmen" mobilizing against the skin-deep cuts proposed for the defense budget (even before the specific reductions are particularized by the so-called Super Committee). I don't pretend to have interviewed these Pentagon hawks in depth, but a quick scan suggests that the operative word here is much more likely to be "Congressmen" than "conservative." It is hard to find a conservative anywhere, either sitting in Congress or fretting at home, who thinks that the U.S. should continue to spend more on defense than all of the other almost-two hundred countries of the world combined. (The minor cuts suggested -- what the Pentagon lobby describes as "gutting the military" -- would impose a reduction in the rate of increase.) Do Republicans support a strong national defense? Absolutely. And they have no trouble whatsoever in separating Obama's wars from our heroic warriors: virtually all conservatives and most libertarians support American servicemen and women without reservation. But… legions of democracy imposing "Western values" on Muslims at the point of a bayonet? Trust me. There are reservations.

My sense of the Capitol Hill hawks, in other words, is that they are acting very much like Congressmen and not at all like conservatives. They want to keep the juice flowing to the military base back in the district, as also the grants to the research outfits, the contracts to the suppliers, and the fees to the lobbyists who keep the process running agreeably for all concerned. (For all of those directly concerned, to put it more carefully.) If any of these Congressmen are zealots fired by the neocon incubus, I haven't spotted them. They seem to be nothing more than politicians doing what politicians do, which should be cause more for ongoing dismay than proximate alarm.

The response from the GOP's presidential candidates has been more disappointing still. With the usual exception of Ron Paul -- a phrase that, in a more perfect world, political reporters could type with a single keystroke -- all of the candidates are flipping through the old neocon songbook about legitimate aspirations and democratic structures and the blessings of modernity, all of which will soon be attainable if we will just exercise patience and sign the check and embrace the wisdom of, uh, wait a sec, here it is -- Plan F. Each time the GOP candidates debauch from the time capsule and strut out onto the 2011 debate platform, it is as if the last decade never really happened. It is as if we were still back in 2001 and, with our troops marching off to Afghanistan to deliver a much-deserved, swift, and punitive blow, the commander had crossed out the original orders at the last minute and scribbled in, "Oh, and while you're there, replace their ancient society with one like ours. No hurry -- and spare no expense."

What's that old wives' tale about nature abhorring a vacuum? Not in contemporary politics, it doesn't. Nature this year is put off by the vacuum and buffered by the consensus. All of the GOP candidates, pace Mr. Paul, are clustered around the conventional wisdom that we must back our troops -- as if these missions were of their design -- and continue to stare into the blackness of the abyss. Wouldn't you think that Providence or raw political calculation or even a Hail Mary pass from a single-digit outrider would offer up some alternative possibility, some shifting of the exhausted paradigm? (Gingrich? Johnson? Anyone? Anyone?)       

Actually, you would think that if you had spent the summer as I have done. Eager to learn how regime change might possibly be configured next year, I have been out talking to people with skills and passions and long lists of digital contacts. (I have too much respect for the Broders and Novaks of journalistic legend to call these wanderings shoe-leather reporting. It's more of a Yogi Berra thing, where I have attempted to see things by looking around.) What I have found, or tripped over, is what I predict the major media will find, and view with alarm, before the snow flies. Namely, that there's a potent new force in American politics and that it is coming together crisply with strength and purpose. Call it the extended military family. It includes not just active-duty spouses and retired military personnel, and not just their families, friends and base-neighbors. It includes also a vast number of Americans who love the military, honor them and see in them a unique restorative capability in a society gone soft and commonsense-less. For the first time in my reporting experience, this extended military family has become fully engaged in the political process: you see them at gatherings everywhere, from Republican and Tea Party to independent and goo-goo. And they're no longer sitting in the back taking notes. They are moving up front and taking leadership roles. My assessment, for what it's worth, is that these are not summer soldiers: in the early rounds of the 2012 battle, including Wisconsin and Iowa, there's been no quit in them.

What are the members of this uniquely American family saying to each other and to those who will listen sympathetically? A few general themes emerge from a few dozen in-depth conversations:

• There is not a trace of cockiness among today's best and brightest, but something much closer to wariness. With the U.S. military scaled to fight two wars, they feel acutely the strain of fighting two-and-a-half wars simultaneously. They worry about the possibility -- no more than that just now -- that there could be breakdowns and that they could let their country down. They will do whatever they are asked to do, that is, but they may have been asked to do too much.

• They are primed and poised to defend this country. We are in very good hands on that score. But they are made uneasy by a mission creepiness that casts them as the paramilitary arm of the international welfare state or, even less comfortably, as the enforcement division of D.C. think tanks.

• Military families, better than most, understand the basics of forward planning -- budgets, priorities, discipline. While they brush off the mindless charges of "isolationism," they wonder quietly if the Fulda Gap might better be defended by Germans, the 38th parallel by South Koreans. Most of them think that foreign nations should be built by other, non-American people and preferably by the people who live there. In sum, they are utterly loyal to civilian authority, but they are more measured and considerably less grandiose.

The story of the extended military family will play out over the months ahead, first as breathless Exclusive! and then as pensive thumbsucker. But one thing the extended military family knows for sure (and, in this, they are miles ahead of both the press and the politicians of both parties). When it comes to neoconservatism's global agenda, the question is now closed. We can't afford it.

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About the Author
Neal B. Freeman is chairman of the Blackwell Corporation.