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Neoconservative Comeback? They Never Left

In many ways, Trump’s bellicosity, his militarism, his hectoring cant about American exceptionalism and national greatness, his bullying of allies—all of it makes him not an opponent of neoconservatism but its apotheosis

Donald Trump and Nikki Haley (Michael Candelori via Shutterstock)

Donald Trump and Nikki Haley (Michael Candelori via Shutterstock)

Just as with entomology or botany, foreign policy analysis is largely an exercise in taxonomy: is some politician a realist or an idealist, a liberal internationalist or a national-interest proponent, an interventionist or an isolationist? Although thinking in categorical terms is a convenient way of sorting out and appearing to make sense of the turbulence of the real world, it can lead to seeing artificial distinctions where none exist.

Reluctantly, I must critique a recent piece by Lawrence Wilkerson in that spirit. Reluctantly, because I like Colonel Wilkerson and admire his public break with the Bush administration over Iraq, the war on terror, and torture. But I believe his piece illustrates a common misconception about the current political dynamic in the United States, one that tempts us to see an occasional sheep where there are only goats.

Without any real explanation, Wilkerson seems to categorize Donald Trump as something other than a neocon, although he doesn’t say precisely what he is. (Is Trump an isolationist? Paleoconservative? Unilateralist? We’d like to know). He then assumes that the president’s current legal jeopardy is so grave that there is a non-negligible chance he will resign or be impeached in the foreseeable future. This danger, in turn, weakens him such that neocons are poised to make a comeback in the corridors of power, to the detriment of our foreign policy.

There are, of course, some reasons to think that Trump is not a neocon. During the 2016 campaign he criticized the invasion of Iraq as a stupid mistake committed by George W. Bush (the brother of a Republican primary opponent whom Trump was trying to dispatch). His unilateralism and alliance-breaking appear at first sight to be the opposite of the neocon playbook. And some prominent neocons, like Bill Kristol and Eliot Cohen, vehemently dislike him.

But these reasons are superficial. Trump supported the invasion of Iraq until he determined—correctly—that a significant portion of the Republican base had turned against it and he could use it as a stick with which to beat Jeb Bush. He gets away with lying about his past position because his supporters constitute the 35-40 percent of the population who simply don’t care about truth or consistency. In any case, his other positions on the Middle East are pure neocon, like “bombing the hell out of” the Islamic State and pursuing a line of extreme confrontation with Iran. Policies with respect to drone strikes, lax as they were under Bush and Obama, have even fewer restrictions under Trump. Are neocons regretting that? I doubt it.

As for the neocons’ abiding love, Israel, for which everything else must be sacrificed, even George W. Bush did not go so far as to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. And the recent cutting of U.S. aid to the Palestinians was at Prime Minister Netanyahu’s express request. These are policies right in the neoconservative wheelhouse. How on earth did they occur if Trump was not in favor of them?

Then there is the little matter of the military budget. Under Trump, it is now $700 billion and climbing, perfectly in line with the neocons’ fervent belief that Pentagon spending can never be too high.

As for Trump’s unilateralism and contempt for alliance partners, it may simply be an issue of Trump’s blatantly visible crudeness. For all that neocons now extol NATO and other military partnerships, there has always been an admixture of unilateralism in the neoconservative movement along with an impatience towards cautious allies that sometimes bordered on contempt.

The traditional neoconservative approach to alliances is like that of Athens towards the Delian League: underlings whose duty it is to support the United States unconditionally.

The traditional neoconservative approach to alliances is like that of Athens towards the Delian League: underlings whose duty it is to support the United States unconditionally. Everyone surely remembers Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s crack about “old Europe” when it failed to fall in line on Iraq, and who could forget the infamous Freedom Fries? Those who profess horror at Trump’s belligerent tirades (“fire and fury”) should remind themselves that this is standard neoconservative swagger, from Kristol’s ghoulish talk about crushing Serb skulls, to Thomas Friedman’s juvenile discourse on the glories of invading Iraq and pushing people around, to John McCain’s singing bomb-bomb-bomb Iran. McCain, on whose behalf official Washington’s funeral panegyrics were so extreme it would have made the Gracchi blush, was in complete lockstep with Trump’s foreign policy bellicosity.

The only major foreign policy area where Trump departs significantly from the neoconservative agenda is Russia. But in that case, the reason is not ideology, but the exigencies of Trump’s own personal and financial entanglements with that country. Even there, his natural hostility, narcissism, and emotional imbalance may on one fine morning lead Trump to decide that Vladimir Putin is playing him for a fool, and a dangerous confrontation may ensue. As for the North Korean negotiation, it was a photo-op of no importance other than it may have made U.S.-North Korean relations slightly worse after all the hoopla died away.

How about all those neocons now nesting in the administration, the ones Wilkerson sees as waiting in the wings for Trump to stumble: did they fall out of the sky into the positions they now hold? Did someone force them on Trump? Nobody (except maybe Putin) ever forces Trump to do anything. He freely chose Nikki Haley, just as he dumped H.R. McMaster for John Bolton, and just as he recently appointed neocon and ex-Dick Cheney adviser Samantha Ravitch to be deputy chairman of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

Robert Mueller’s investigation, as far as I can tell, has had no effect whatever on what flavor of conservative Trump chooses, nor are the neocons salivating at the prospect of what they can do in the event Trump leaves office. They’re already doing their level worst now. Given the fact that it will likely require between 15 and 20 Republican senators to vote to convict Trump and they have been thus far as slavishly obedient to him as the Supreme People’s Assembly is to Kim Jong Un, that prospect appears negligible in the near and medium term.

As for classifying Bolton (and Cheney) as ultra-nationalists rather than as neocons, that is a distinction without a difference as far as I can see. Their nationalism and unilateralism are extreme for most well adjusted people, but well within the ambit of neoconservatism. No doubt some neoconservative never-Trumpers have read Bolton out of the movement, but those of us who like to think of ourselves as foreign policy realists should not give their ideological fatwas any outside validation.

What we are now seeing is a squabble within the neoconservative movement, just as we are seeing the same feud on a grander scale within the Republican Party. It is largely an argument over timing, tactics, appearances, and etiquette rather than fundamentals, just as in the 1930s the battle of international revolution versus socialism in one country was fought between two camps that both considered themselves to be orthodox communists.

Joe Scarborough and other Republicans are constantly lamenting that in order to get the Trumpian policies they like, such as tax cuts for the wealthy and judges straight out of The Crucible, they have to accept an embarrassing jackass for a president. In the same fashion, neocon never-Trumpers are mainly discomfited by Trump’s cringeworthy crudeness and his followers’ down-market lack of couth. Their bad manners give the whole neoconservative (and, in a larger sense, conservative and Republican) game away. Trump’s worshipful fans follow Breitbart, Infowars, and, maybe, the Daily Stormer; they don’t read Commentary or the Daily Standard. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that is the crucial distinction in this tempest in a teapot.

Trump, more than any president in memory, is stubborn and willful and not amenable to being persuaded against his impulses. No one brainwashed him into his policies on Iran, Israel, drones, or the cruise missile strikes in Syria. Syria is a perfect illustration of this point. Several inveterate critics of U.S. foreign policy in my acquaintance believe that the naïve tyro Donald Trump is being misled and inveigled into his misadventures there by an all-powerful camorra consisting of neocons and the military-industrial complex. But according to Bob Woodward’s new book, after the apparent chemical weapons incident in 2017, “Trump called Mattis and said he wanted to assassinate the dictator [Assad]. ‘Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them,’ Trump said . . . Mattis told the president that he would get right on it. But after hanging up the phone, he told a senior aide: ‘We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.’ The national security team developed options for the more conventional airstrike that Trump ultimately ordered.” Woodward’s account squares with Seymour Hersh’s reporting that the military and intelligence establishments attempted to give Trump the mildest rather than the most aggressive options.

Trump’s belligerent nature and pathological need to demonize others are on display daily. Why do we assume that these traits will disappear when he deals with countries like Iran, which the mass of Americans have in any case been conditioned for decades to regard as the devil incarnate? In many ways, Trump’s bellicosity, his militarism, his hectoring cant about American exceptionalism and national greatness, his bullying of allies—all of it makes him not an opponent of neoconservatism but its apotheosis. Trump is a logical culmination of the Bush era as consolidated by Obama.

If our foreign policy is a dangerous and incoherent mess, the lion’s share of the blame properly rests with the guy in charge, and with the voting public that pulled the lever for him.

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