Return of the Neocons

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President Trump, flanked by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, addressing a press conference at a NATO summit, Brussels, Belgium, July 12, 2018

Two years ago, as Donald Trump ascended to the presidency, you might have thought that, if nothing else, neoconservatives had finally been put out to pasture. In the campaign, Trump had blasted the neocons’ signature policy, the war in Iraq, as a “big fat mistake,” and repudiated their ostensible program of turning nations into liberal democracies. He paid no political price with voters, and probably the opposite, as white evangelicals once drawn to George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” flocked to Trump in record numbers.

Even allowing for Trump’s opportunism and inconsistencies, his election victory appeared to deal a double blow to the neoconservative persuasion. It not only broke the neocons’ hold on the Republican Party, but also, in the same stroke, revealed that they lacked a popular constituency. There they were, free-floating pundits, alone and exposed—neither intellectually credible nor politically representative.

Why, given this development, would Republican politicians respond by once again seeking out the neocons’ counsel? Why, far less, would Democrats? And why would much of the news media, grappling with historic levels of public distrust, accept neoconservatives and neoconservatism as the baseline for foreign policy analysis?

Yet exactly this has happened. Today, neoconservatives are riding high once more, in the White House, on Capitol Hill, in the most prominent organs of opinion. The Weekly Standard may have shuttered, but anti-Trump neocons enjoy increasing influence in the center of the Republican and Democratic parties and in publications like The Atlantic and The Washington Post. Others, meanwhile—call them neo-neoconservatives, or post-neoconservatives—are busy making policy in the Trump administration. They’ve gone with Trump for good reason. Although he is repudiating the export of liberal democracy and degrading its practice at home, Trump is also reasserting the American right’s pugnacious antipathy to “globalism.” He is acting as many within the neocon firmament have long favored, positioning the United States against a vicious world and fetishizing brute force in response.

As a result, Trump has forced neoconservatives to decide, for the first time, whether they are more against “totalitarianism” or “globalism.” If anti-totalitarians take Trump to be perverting what they hold dear, anti-globalist neocons have found in Trump a kindred spirit and vehicle for power. Yet, even as they are fracturing, neocons are flourishing. They have bypassed the political wilderness and vaulted themselves to the vanguard on either side of the Trump divide. A new configuration of right-wing foreign policy is coming into view, and neocons are in the lead once more.

For the dominant strand of neoconservatism, embodied by those who left the Democratic Party in the 1970s and 1980s in order to keep waging the cold war behind Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump’s political ascent offered a unique opportunity, even if it did not look that way at first. Ever since the Iraq War began to lose the American public’s support in 2005, the neocon agenda had proved increasingly bankrupt, out of step with the world and therefore dangerous if imposed upon it. The hallmark of the mainline neoconservatives was their alarm against totalitarianism, originally aimed at the Soviet threat. But their anti-totalitarian ethos had little to offer in the post-totalitarian twenty-first century. After the September 11, 2001, attacks, some neoconservative mainstays, such as Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz and Bill Kristol’s The Weekly Standard, tried to conjure “Islamofascism” into existence. Here was a totalitarian enemy to succeed the Nazis and the Soviets, the idea went—except that numerically small terrorist groups, however threatening and odious, possessed neither the geopolitical strength nor the universalist ideology to sustain the analogy, even among Islamophobes. It was due to their basic intellectual commitments, and not just their particular policy failures, that neoconservatives spent the Obama years on the defensive, carping about Obama’s supposed weakness but unable to put forward a fresh program of their own.

Then Trump ran for president and gave neoconservatives a new mission for their cause: regime change at home. Just when neocons could no longer muster the support to destroy totalitarian monsters abroad, Trump supplied them with the next best thing, the enemy within. “It is time for some moral straight talk: Trump is evil incarnate,” Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin pronounced in October 2016. By casting Trump as the greatest of villains, neocons could reclaim their preferred role as the moral truth-tellers of the nation. And once the Democratic nomination went to Hillary Clinton, whose hawkish record had years earlier earned the praise of neoconservative think-tankers Max Boot and Robert Kagan, they could swing their loyalty a little leftward in order to maintain their advocacy of a 1990s-style foreign policy, in which the United States would be militarily preeminent, belligerently liberal, unconditionally pro-Israel, and leading brashly from the front. Scathing toward Obama and now toward Trump, Rubin was not altogether wrong when she claimed, “My views and analysis remain the same.”


More surprising, perhaps, is that Democrats and outlets of the anti-Trump resistance have welcomed these neocons into their fold. Boot, Kristol, Rubin, and former advisers of George W. Bush and Senator John McCain appear daily on MSNBC to excoriate Trump and Trumpism. David Frum, who coined the “axis of evil” as George W. Bush’s speechwriter, earns resistance retweets by warning of “this hour of liberal peril” in The Atlantic. In 2017, The New York Times hired Bret Stephens from The Wall Street Journal in an effort to “broaden the range of Times debate about consequential questions,” a curious rationale given that Stephens represented just the kind of Never Trump pundit repudiated by GOP voters and did nothing to change the op-ed page’s lack of a single Trump-supporting columnist.

In Washington, D.C., liberal foreign policy hands have reacted to Trump’s presidency less by reaching out to ordinary citizens than by crossing K Street to make common cause with their neighborhood neocons. Among other efforts, the Center for American Progress (CAP), the leading Clintonian policy shop, is now issuing joint reports with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the leading neocon incubator, which this year sent John Bolton to be National Security Adviser. CAP donated $200,000 to AEI in 2017. The think tanks’ latest joint missive defends the “rules-based international order” against Russian-backed transatlantic populism. Centrist Democrats apparently choose to overlook the fact that neocons ludicrously accused Obama of retreating from the supposed “order,” a charge repeated by Kristol in an AEI forum as recently as February 2018. They might rather have asked whether these newfound friends will warn of catastrophe at home only until they can cheer on a fresh, righteous war abroad. As Kristol recently tweeted: “Shouldn’t an important US foreign policy goal of the next couple of decades be regime change in China?”

Of course, tactical alliances are often necessary in politics, and any immediate diminution of Republicans’ support for Trump may feel like a win to Democrats, much as a drone strike may appear worthwhile for leaving the world one terrorist fewer. But Democratic mainstays could make any number of tactical alliances, including with non-interventionists on both the left and the right. Instead, they have chosen to the court the neocon vote, if there is one, at the risk of colluding with a class of discredited pseudo-experts. Back in March 2016, as Hillary Clinton’s campaign geared up to woo Republicans, one observer raised doubts: “Now that the neocons [have] been revealed as having no real grassroots to deliver, and that their actual constituency consists almost entirely of a handful of donors subsidizing a few dozen think tankers, journalists, and letterheads, why would Democrats want them back?” This insight might have benefitted the Clinton campaign, which lost the pivotal states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin where communities suffered high casualties in Middle East wars criticized by Trump.

What best explains centrist Democrats’ rapprochement with neoconservatives isn’t an anti-Trump strategy but rather a genuine affinity with their current political objectives and style. Neocons have spent decades reducing politics to an all-encompassing crisis, a Manichean struggle between an imperiled liberal democracy and a pervasive totalitarian menace. Now certain liberals see things in much the same way. Lionizing the neocons indulges these Democrats’ fantasy that respectable Republicans will rise up to sweep Trump and all he stands for onto the ash heap of history. Decent citizens, the tale goes, will recoil at Trump’s profanities and banish his like for good—but only if they are led by the very authorities for whom those citizens have demonstrated deep mistrust. “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” Vice President Dick Cheney claimed in March 2003, days before the first bombs dropped. The Never Trump neocons hold out a similar promise. The question is whether they have any more to offer America than they had to Iraq.

But it would be incorrect to say that neoconservatism has become simply a resistance creed. While the Kristols of the Beltway have salvaged their reputations by teeing off on Trump, Trump has drawn on neoconservative ideas and goals, not to mention some neocons themselves, in order to fashion his foreign policy. This outcome should be less surprising than it may sound. All along, neoconservatives have positioned themselves against not only totalitarian powers but also global institutions and interests. “World government is a terrible idea” was how Irving Kristol, the father of Bill and so-called godfather of neoconservatism, defined a core neocon belief in 2003. Prizing American power above international rules and bureaucracies, neocons have historically assailed liberal internationalists, not banded together with them. The elder Kristol, in 1985, dismissed liberal internationalism as “one vast fiction.” In order to combat liberals, with their faith in “the United Nations or NATO or whatever,” he argued, conservatives must affirm the spirit of “nationalism” (to which he added religion and economic growth). This view informed the George W. Bush administration, in which Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in particular, elevated the unilateral exercise of hard power to a first principle of American policy.


During Trump’s presidential campaign, commentators heard him denounce globalism and figured that his America First foreign policy would spell a retreat from US global leadership. They had some basis for this view: since World War II, right-wing non-interventionists—sometimes called paleocons—have attacked “globalism” in order to argue that far-flung wars serve the interests of others, but not those of Americans. Commentators missed, however, that globalism, or something close, is also a target of neocon interventionists, most notably National Security Adviser Bolton, the Yale-trained, UN-bashing lawyer and veteran of every Republican administration since Reagan’s. Whereas most neocons have trained their rhetorical fire on villainous regimes first, and global institutions second, Bolton flipped those priorities, making his career by railing against globalism and the un-American Americans who bow before it. 

“If I were redoing the Security Council today,” Bolton said in 2000, “I’d have one permanent member [the United States], because that’s the real reflection of the distribution of power in the world.” During the Obama administration, when other neocons were warning of America’s retreat from promoting democracy and leading the world order, Bolton framed his 2010 tract, How Barack Obama is Endangering Our National Sovereignty, around the struggle between “Americanists and globalists.” Bolton implored the country to wake up to the danger that leftists like Obama were attempting to give away American sovereignty, bit by bit, to international bodies. (Not that Bolton regarded sovereignty as a universal principle: he mocked in a 2008 book the “diaphanous idea of ‘sovereign equality’ that no one outside the UN pays the slightest attention to.”)

Back then, Bolton sounded like a despairing Cassandra, warning that the globalists’ assault on sovereignty was something that “most Americans didn’t even know was happening.” Whether out of conviction or opportunism, he joined forces with far-right, anti-immigrant Islamophobes like the Gatestone Institute while offering commentary on the mainstream platforms of the AEI and Fox News. Bolton and then-Congressman Mike Pompeo also became regular guests on the radio show of ex-Reagan official and neocon fellow-traveler Frank Gaffney, who, through his Center for Security Policy, thundered that American sovereignty was under attack by “globalists, socialists, Islamists and others who seek our submission,” as he recently characterized them. Yet Gaffney’s outfit remained a fringe-ish organization known for spreading conspiracy theories. How, then, to gain power? In the 2016 primaries, Gaffney, together with more traditional neocons like Elliott Abrams and Michael Ledeen, decided to advise Senator Ted Cruz, who made a show of denouncing neocons who went on naïve adventures to spread liberal democracy. Cruz vowed to carpet-bomb America’s enemies instead, and find out “if sand can glow in the dark.” It was a promising message, but it required a different messenger. 

For Bolton and company, Donald Trump turned out to be a deliverance. Trump elevated “globalism” from a marginal slur to the central foil of American foreign policy and Republican politics. “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” Trump declared on capturing the nomination. He filled out Bolton’s arid anti-legalism with a set of cultural tropes—white nationalism, Christian traditionalism, Western civilization—that spoke to a GOP base fearing decline and seeking restoration. Here, Trump made a distinctive contribution to anti-globalist neoconservatism: he recast the United States as a global victim.

Bolton had long expressed resentment toward malevolent outsiders and sanctimonious elites, but Trump went further, calling the United States a “Third World country” exploited by cunning foreigners and enabled by domestic collaborators. Already fallen, America had to be made great again. The anti-totalitarian neocons heard apostasy. Was not the United States already great, now and forever shining the light of freedom on a benighted world? Not to Trump. Positioning the United States behind the rest, Trump portrayed America as a humiliated, subjugated dupe—and gave a new, more dynamic rationale to a stale neocon agenda. Unleash American power, Trump promised, to take back what others had stolen. Turn the tables on a “vicious” world by being more vicious than the rest. “As far as I’m concerned,” the president said, “we have to fight fire with fire.”

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

US military personnel listening to President Trump at the Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, December 26, 2018

This is fundamentally not a vision of restraint and withdrawal—or “isolationism,” as critics deride it. Trump wants to take things from the world and assert America’s dominance over it. In the name of opposing globalism, Trump has upheld one pillar after another of the neocon policy agenda. He is building up America’s already supreme military, to the tune of $750 billion slated for 2019. He is confronting a panoply of adversaries from Venezuela to Iran to China. He has escalated military engagements in parts of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, without leaving a single of the nation’s dozens of formal security obligations around the world. He has released the United States from multilateral arrangements like the Paris Climate Agreement, UNESCO, and the UN Human Rights Council, and is exiting the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. And he has steadfastly supported the right-wing government of Israel, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and slashing aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. If Dick Cheney were president, the record would be similar.

Still, Trump remains a mixed blessing for neo-neoconservatism, and not just because of his penchant for chaos and incoherence. Anti-globalism is a position shared by paleocons and neocons, and Trump vacillates between the two variants. In the name of opposing globalism, Trump can execute nationalist withdrawals as well as the vigorous exercise of America First power. Trump’s decision to pull 2,000 US troops out of Syria—made suddenly, though telegraphed in public for months—makes sense in anti-globalist terms: the United States should crush its ISIS enemy and then leave, rather than get entangled in an open-ended, nation-building, world-ordering mission. 

Likewise, Trump took the dramatic of step of meeting personally with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June 2018, and he continues to appear friendlier than his advisers toward deal-making with North Korea. He seems to have stumbled upon a nationalist defense of bilateral diplomatic negotiation at odds with neocon orthodoxy. Because Trump ascribes no exceptional moral virtue to America, he sees no concession in meeting with an adversary, especially if he can claim to have cowed the other side through sanctions and threats of “fire and fury.” Anti-globalism opens up space for a muscular kind of diplomacy—bilateral and leader-to-leader—that anti-totalitarianism closes down. For that reason, some paleocons, such as Pat Buchanan, applauded the diplomatic initiative with North Korea, just as they adopt the framework of “nationalism versus globalism,” in the hope that Trump will heed their version of it.

So far, however, Trump has sought to put America above the world, not set it apart. The anti-globalists are fully capable of projecting American political-military power on a global scale. They tap existing reserves of cultural chauvinism and nationalist animus as they jettison the old rationale of liberal world-ordering. In this way, Trump has salvaged the neoconservative policy agenda, and rebranded it for a new generation. The legacy neocons are not unprincipled in their opposition to Trump, but a quarter-century removed from the end of the cold war, their endless crusades against totalitarianism look more and more like yesterday’s cause. 

Other neocons see Trump’s as a banner they can get behind. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Twitter-happy advocacy group that trashed the Iran nuclear deal, has emerged as the leading redoubt of Trump-friendly neocons. Its chief executive, Mark Dubowitz, recently opined that “democracy has been a disaster” in the Middle East and suggested “inclusive authoritarianism” as the way forward—not the sentiment one might expect from a titularly pro-democracy group. Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy maintains a direct line to Bolton, who appointed one of its fellows as his chief of staff.

While the older neocons make the rounds on the Sunday shows and newspapers of record, the new breed exerts influence through alternative media and party politics. In a sign of things to come, ambitious Republican politicians like Pompeo and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton have gravitated toward Trump’s sovereigntist, anti-globalist pitch. Cotton, once hyped by Bill Kristol and hailed as the “last, best hope for GOP hawks,” gave a speech in May complaining that a “bipartisan, cosmopolitan elite has… tended to put its own interests and the interests of foreigners above the national interest.” Cotton’s trajectory is explicable: he and other Trumpist Republicans may yet be the hawks’ best hope. “Give anti-globalism a chance,” writes Clifford May, FDD’s founder and president. He has every reason to say so. We will find out what this proudly iron-fisted impulse will bring in the remainder of the Trump years, and after.

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