Stephen M. Walt

The ‘genius’ of neoconservatism

The ‘genius’ of neoconservatism

As expected, the debate on Monday night was long on posturing and short on specifics. I thought Romney did a good job of sounding like a less well-informed Obama, while trying to suggest that he’d implement Obama’s foreign policy better than Obama has. For his part, Obama showed a command of the issues worthy of a commander-in-chief, and worthy of someone who has done a good job of implementing President George W. Bush’s second term foreign policy agenda.

But Romney’s sudden lunge toward moderation raises the following obvious question, which Bob Schieffer (and the president) didn’t ask:

"Governor, you maintain that you’re a tough-minded, smart manager who knows how to pick good people. If so, why are you taking foreign policy advice from all those discredited neoconservative retreads? There are some sensible voices in your foreign policy brain trust, but also an awful lot of people who played key roles getting us into Iraq and generally screwing up our entire international position. Why in God’s name are you listening to them?"

To be fair, an awful lot of supposedly sensible Democrats supported the war too, including a lot of senior officials in the Obama administration. But they didn’t dream up the war or work overtime to sell it from 1998 onward. They just went along with the idea because they thought it was politically expedient, they couldn’t imagine how it might go south, or they were convinced that Saddam was a Very Bad Man and that it was our duty to "liberate" the Iraqi people from him. They were right about Saddam’s character, of course, but occupying the entire country turned out to be a pretty stupid way of dealing with him.

Nonetheless, the unsinkable resiliency of the neoconservative movement remains impressive. Indeed, there is a certain genius to neoconservatism, which one must grant a certain grudging respect. Unlike their liberal interventionist counterparts, who are always looking for consensus and eager to compromise, the neocons are both remarkably uncompromising and notoriously unrepentant. They don’t look back, if only because staring at their record of consistent failure would be depressing. So they always look forward, confident that their fellow citizens won’t remember the past and can be bamboozled into heeding their advice once again.

The success of neoconservatism can be traced to three key strategems. The first and most obvious element is their relentless championing of America as the model for the entire world, from which our duty to export democracy supposedly follows. Never mind that neocons aren’t very consistent in applying that principle (e.g., you don’t hear many of them talking about using American power to advance the democratic rights of Palestinians), and they routinely forget that their favorite tool — military force — is usually a very bad way to spread democracy. But their brand of jingoistic rhetoric resonates with America’s deep political traditions and helps them portray their critics as insufficiently devoted to America’s liberal/Wilsonian ideals.

Second, and more importantly, neoconservatives understand the efficacy of taking extreme positions and sticking to them. By recommending policies that are at the very edge of what is acceptable (and sometimes a bit beyond it), neoconservatives seek to gradually drag the consensus in their direction. Just look at the slow-motion march toward preventive war against Iran, where constant pressure from the right (and the Israel lobby) has forced even a sensible leader like President Obama to constantly reiterate his willingness to use military force if it becomes necessary to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Such threats merely increase Iran’s interest in some sort of deterrent, of course, but strategic consistency is less important than making sure Washington takes a tough line.

Interestingly enough, this tactic has some grounding in behavioral economics. In a justifiably famous experiment reported in the Journal of Marketing Research, Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky showed that consumer choices were powerfully influenced by "framing effects," and in particular, by the set of choices that the test subjects were given. When the subjects were offered a choice between a cheap camera with relatively few features and a more expensive camera with lots of them, their choices divided more-or-less evenly between the two. But when a similar group was given the same two options plus a third — an even more expensive camera with even more features — the percentage that preferred the middle choice rose dramatically. Why? Because being presented with the option of a really expensive camera made choosing the second most expensive seem less extravagant: It became the sensible "compromise" choice.

And that’s the genius of neoconservatism’s frequently outlandish policy recommendations. They are always calling for the United States to spend excessive amounts of money on defense, to threaten potential enemies with dire consequences if they don’t bend to our will, and to use force against just about anyone that the neocons don’t like (and it’s a long list). No president — not even George W. Bush — has done everything the neocons wanted, but by constantly pushing for more, it makes doing at least part of what they want seem like a sensible, moderate course. And as we saw after 9/11, every now and then the stars may line up and the neocons will get what they’re pushing for (See under: Iraq). Too bad it never works out well when they do.

Neoconservatism’s final strand of twisted genius is its imperviousness to contrary evidence. Because most of their prescriptions are so extreme, they can explain away failure by claiming that the country just didn’t follow their advice with sufficient enthusiasm. If we lost in Iraq, that’s because Bush didn’t attack Iran and Syria too, or it’s because Obama decided to withdraw before the job was really done. (Such claims are mostly nonsense, of course, but who cares?) If Afghanistan turned into a costly quagmire on Bush’s watch, it’s because Clinton and Bush refused to ramp up defense spending as much as the neocons wanted. If we now headed for the exit with little show for our effort, it’s because we didn’t send a big enough Afghan surge in 2009-2010. For neocons, policy failure can always be explained by saying that feckless politicians just didn’t go as far as the neocons demanded, which means their advice can never be fully discredited.

To be sure, neoconservatives are not the only people who employ the latter tactic. Liberal economist Paul Krugman famously argues that Obama’s stimulus package failed to produce the desired results because wasn’t big or bold enough; the difference between Krugman and most neocons is that Krugman may well be right. By contrast, there’s hardly any evidence to suggest that the United States would be better off if it had done all of the things that neoconservatives advised; all we can say with confidence is that the country would now be poorer, less popular around the world, and more American soldiers would now be dead or grievously wounded. 

In this sense, neoconservatives are like someone who is constantly telling you to jump off a twenty story building, and promising that if you do, you’ll fly. If you decide to be prudent and jump from the 10th floor instead, and find yourself plummeting toward earth, they’ll just say you failed because you didn’t follow their advice to the letter.  

In the end, one can only admire the esprit de corps and resolve that has kept neoconservatism alive and well despite its manifold failures. Of course, it helps to have lots of supporters with deep pockets who are willing to pay to keep them ensconced in safe sinecures at AEI or the Council on Foreign Relations. And I suppose it also helps that presidential candidates often know very little about foreign policy, and thus can’t tell the difference between a smart strategist and a snake oil salesman.

Which brings us back where we started. If Mitt Romney is such a good judge of character and policy advice, and really a moderate at heart, what’s he doing with all those neocons?