Neo-cons gone wild!

Neo-cons gone wild!

By Christian Brose

Those who have read the recent posts from George Packer, Steve Walt, and Matt Duss on the latest doings of the "neo-con cabal" — ahem, the Foreign Policy Initiative — must be eagerly awaiting a report of what happened at today’s conference on Afghanistan. Well, I won’t leave you hanging.

All that you suspect is true. Bill Kristol, wearing a Viking helmet and a bone through his nose, exhorted the participants to invade Chad, just because. He may have listed other countries, but he was speaking in tongues and war whoops half the time, and my Neo-con-to-English translation kept dropping out. Bob Kagan followed, bare-chested (as usual), in full war paint, banging the Mayflower china with a combat boot, shouting that America needed to put 10 million men under arms to extend its hegemony (benevolent, of course) into the Arctic, shouting something about the road to Moscow leading through the North Pole.

I saw this with my own eyes, people.

If only. It would have been a lot more exciting, that’s for sure. As it was, the conference was a pretty staid affair. Some might even call it a love-fest. There were countless expressions of support and admiration for President Obama and his new Af-Pak strategy from Kristol and the brothers Kagan, plus most of the other panelists, who aren’t neo-cons. People like CNAS president John Nagl, who probably summed up the conference best when he remarked what an amazing show of bipartisan support it was for Obama’s policy.

I say all this, believe it or not, to make a more serious point. The thing that always puzzles me about so much of the frothy commentary about the neo-cons is how it misses that their main antagonist always was, and still is today, as much (or probably more) fellow Republicans as it is Democrats.

When the infamous PNAC was founded, Congressional Republicans were on an anti-government crusade, which often included foreign policy — especially when opposition to humanitarian intervention, nation-building, democracy promotion, increased spending overseas, and internationalism in general served the added purpose of scoring political points against President Clinton. One could even argue that PNAC was set up not to tar and feather Democrats for being weak-kneed appeasers of evil, but to encourage Clinton’s more internationalist tendencies, and to give him political cover from the right to do so against his more nationalist, conservative critics. Judging by the conference today, my sense is that FPI has been founded with much the same purpose vis-a-vis Obama.

It’s easy for critics of the neo-cons to cast them as marginal thinkers with out-sized influence, along with all the dark conspiracies that implies. Harder, though more honest, is to recognize that the neo-cons are really championing tendencies in U.S. foreign policy that run much deeper in American life than the pockets of their advocacy shops. Yes, the regular cast of characters signed those PNAC letters that get quoted all the time, but at one point or another, so did folks like Jim Webb, Bob Zoellick, Ivo Daalder, John Bolton, Jim Steinberg, Rich Armitage, Dennis Ross, Michael O’Hanlon, Philip Gordon, Richard Holbrooke, and many others who would sooner take your scalp than be called a neo-con.

Indeed, as was apparent today, the latest "conspiracy" is rather mainstream stuff, like supporting Obama’s Af-Pak policy, and it enjoys healthy bipartisan support — just as Clinton’s Balkans wars did, and yes, just as Iraq did initially. Criticizing these policies is fair. But those criticisms should be aimed at a broad swath of the foreign policy establishment, on both sides of the aisle, not just at the neo-cons.

But go back to Iraq. Shouldn’t the neo-cons be held accountable for their views? Yes. Them and a whole lot of other people — Senators, Congressmen, and columnists, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, who seemly want to believe that the votes they cast and the articles they wrote in support of the war had nothing to do with how we found ourselves in it. Iraq was all the neo-cons’ fault, and blaming it on them absolves the rest of us. This is a convenient untruth for a lot of people in this town today.

The fact is, Iraq was a long-standing problem over which reasonable people disagreed, and many of those reasonable people came to believe in the aftermath of 9/11 that war was the answer. That they did says less about the neo-cons, I think, than it does about the prevailing mood at the time in America, and especially in Washington — the willingness of many people, shocked by a national trauma, and seized by the transformational potential of American power, to support a high-risk course of action over the uncertainty of no action at all. Yes, there are serious criticisms to be made of the Bush administration’s case for war, but it’s worth going back and reading what Bill Clinton and Al Gore said about Iraq back in the 1990s. Most of their statements are indistinguishable from Bush’s.

And here we are again. Obama is escalating America’s involvement in a distant war, and like Iraq in 2003 or the Balkans before that, he is doing so with considerable bipartisan support, only a small fraction of which comes from the neo-cons. I support this policy. Maybe it will end tragically. Maybe the critics will be proved right. If so, I won’t blame the positions I took on the Foreign Policy Initiative.