John Bolton: Neoconservative? Part I

Over at Swampland, JJ, linda, James, Los Angeles, and others were discussing whether John Bolton counts as a neoconservative.  Here’s a more detailed look.  This post examines only the controversial issue of what might be considered neoconservative thought on foreign policy.  John Bolton’s views are reserved for Part II.

There is some controversy over whether the term “neoconservative” has any meaning at all.  David Brooks and other quotidian GOP commentators have asserted, or at least implied in a quasi-joking manner, that the term is merely anti-semitic code.  Influential self-proclaimed neoconservatives and intellectuals, such as Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, and Joshua Muravchik, have written otherwise.  Let’s take their word for it, and not those whose careers depend on a willingness to spend the bulk of their time defending whatever the GOP’s interests and talking points du jour might be. 

Muravchik, an AEI scholar and self-proclaimed “dyed-in-the-wool, true-believer neocon,” defended neoconservatism just after last year’s mid-term elections.  He generally declined to provide any positive definition of neoconservatism, instead taking potshots at straw man versions of “what liberals think.” (This is fitting; Irving Kristol wrote: “If there is any one thing that neoconservatives are unanimous about, it is their dislike of the counterculture.”  Norman Podhoretz: “Revulsion against the counterculture accounted for more converts to neoconservatism than any other single factor.”  This obsession with the powerless extremes of the left is essential to the neocon worldview).

Muravchik did explain that “in the 1990s, neocons were more idealistic than conservatives, more militaristic than liberals,” on the matter of intervention in the former Yugoslavia.  He portrayed conservatives as indifferent to ethnic cleansing, and liberals as “loath to endorse U.S. military intervention or to act without the United Nations.”  He omitted mentioning the salient fact that the Democrat in the Oval Office, and the bulk of Democrats in Congress, did support US military intervention without the approval of the UN.  After 9/11, Muravchik wrote, neocons believed in “overhauling the way the [Middle East] thinks about politics so that terrorism would no longer seem reasonable.”  He also implied that neocons are relatively unconcerned about complying with international law and working with international organizations.

Writing three years earlier, neocon “godfather” Irving Kristol wrote that “what we call neoconservatism has been one of those intellectual undercurrents that surface only intermittently. It is not a ‘movement,’ as the conspiratorial critics would have it,” but rather “a ‘persuasion,’ one that manifests itself over time, but erratically, and one whose meaning we clearly glimpse only in retrospect.”  He explained that as to domestic policy, the neocons believe in “cutting tax rates in order to stimulate steady economic growth” (see Jon Chait on the intellectual bankruptcy of this idea), but “impatient with the Hayekian notion that we are on ‘the road to serfdom.'”

Kristol’s explanation of what neoconservative foreign policy requires is worth quoting at length:

First, patriotism is a natural and healthy sentiment and should be encouraged by both private and public institutions. Precisely because we are a nation of immigrants, this is a powerful American sentiment. Second, world government is a terrible idea since it can lead to world tyranny. International institutions that point to an ultimate world government should be regarded with the deepest suspicion. Third, statesmen should, above all, have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies. This is not as easy as it sounds, as the history of the Cold War revealed. The number of intelligent men who could not count the Soviet Union as an enemy, even though this was its own self-definition, was absolutely astonishing.

Finally, for a great power, the “national interest” is not a geographical term, except for fairly prosaic matters like trade and environmental regulation. A smaller nation might appropriately feel that its national interest begins and ends at its borders, so that its foreign policy is almost always in a defensive mode. A larger nation has more extensive interests. And large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns. Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal. That is why it was in our national interest to come to the defense of France and Britain in World War II. That is why we feel it necessary to defend Israel today, when its survival is threatened. No complicated geopolitical calculations of national interest are necessary.

Behind all this is a fact: the incredible military superiority of the United States vis-à-vis the nations of the rest of the world, in any imaginable combination. … With power come responsibilities, whether sought or not, whether welcome or not. And it is a fact that if you have the kind of power we now have, either you will find opportunities to use it, or the world will discover them for you.

Neocons, then, believe in reflexively supporting and advocating US military action abroad.

Kristol orients his entire framework around four principles: nationalism, which he misconstrues as “patriotism,” suspicion of foreigners and of cooperating with foreigners because a world tyranny might ensue, the importance of identifying “enemies,” and the stressing of ideology instead of empirics.

Neoconservatives rarely bother to articulate which principles they believe they are upholding; rather, they know that We are Good, and They are Bad, so We should attack Them.  If foreigners or liberals make an argument that We should not attack Them, this is mere proof, to neocons, of the intrinsic foreignness or unpatriotic outlook of the critics, so the argument need not be engaged.

Because they define themselves by who they hate, neocons are very emotionally invested in opposing a straw-man version of what liberals think.  As mentioned above, Muravchik doesn’t engage with the fact that the Democrat in the Oval Office took military action without UN support in Serbia, with the support of most of the Democratic Party.  Kristol frets about “intelligent men who could not count the Soviet Union as an enemy,” but those folks were never near anything approaching political power in the real world US.  Truman, LBJ, Kennedy, their advisors, and the entire Democratic establishment of the past 50 years cannot be thought to have believed that the Soviet Union was our friend.  Kristol and Muravchik’s focus on irrelevant extremes by which to define their entire view of the world is of a piece with Karl Rove’s assertion that after 9/11, liberals wanted to “offer therapy and understanding for our attackers.”

It is also not an accident that neocons tend not to have served in the military.  This does not, of course, mean that they are necessarily wrong.  However, conservatives who have fought in wars tend to realize that war should not be a first resort, and to formulate Powell Doctrines and warn about the military-industrial complex.  This is not because they lack resolve, or because they think nothing is worth fighting for, but because they realize that Sherman was correct when he declared, “I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.”

Because their views are all ideology and zero strategy, neoconservatives refuse to even consider arguments actually made by critics. They guarantee that their plans are based only on wishful thinking and best-case scenarios, and that any action taken in their name will fail.  Neoconservatives will describe vague, general principles, and assert that, in all circumstances, we need to show more resolve.  (Were the US omnipotent and omniscient, I would be a neocon, because I believe the US is the most benign world power in history, and certainly more moral than any potential rival power).   Assessment of costs and benefits has no place in the nationalistic worldview of the neocons.  Because of their instinctive aversion to discussion of facts or criticism, their vague generalities, like those of committed Communists, can never be disproven.

Part II will be on whether John Bolton is properly considered a neoconservative.  Some neoconservatives have written that he is not.


8 Responses to “John Bolton: Neoconservative? Part I”

  1. James, Los Angeles Says:

    Jeebus, can I. Kristol come up with any more straw men? World government? WTF? Have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies? Duh!

    I’ll look forward to part II, Elvis.

  2. linda Says:

    Waiting for the rest, Elvis.

    Know that you are busy doing this, but when you have time this is ‘just interesting’:

    adolescent invincibility, willing suspension of disbelief, not me, math is hard…We went to War while America went to the Mall [my kid is in harm’s way so you can drive your SUV]

  3. James, Los Angeles Says:

    hey linda. Good to see you!

  4. linda Says:

    Hey, James. Good to see you.

    You have to check this one [Afghanistan] out.

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