Jacob’s Jottings: Will the Real Neocon Please Stand Up?
by Jacob Heilbrunn
The Romans called it haruspicy—trying to divine the future by studying animal entrails. Judging by the records of American presidents, attempting to predict their foreign policy stands based on what they say during the election campaign may not be a much more scientific approach. President Bush promised humility and denounced nation-building in 2000. Bill Clinton said he would focus like a laser on the economy and ended up devoting much of his second term to foreign affairs, including waging war in the Balkans. In 1968 Richard Nixon said he had a plan to exit Vietnam and four years later ran for reelection as a war president. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt said that they would never—well, you get the idea. A cynic might even speculate that it’s safest to expect the very opposite of the policies that the candidate is espousing.
To be fair, this is supposed to be a time of heady optimism since the candidates haven’t become sullied by actually having to govern. The Democrats can guarantee full health care for everyone even if there’s no money in the federal kitty to pay for it. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) can talk about making nice with the likes of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And Senator John McCain (R-AZ) can offer all kinds of promises about reviving American might and prestige abroad, that he’ll get right what the Bush administration got wrong, even as he threatens to become the Bill Clinton of the GOP, forced to suppress his own "bimbo eruptions."
But with all the talk of reform and change and boldness, might there be less of it in 2008 than anyone is currently anticipating, regardless of who is elected? Might even the doctrinal movement that guided the Bush administration continue to exercise an outsized influence on the next one? Might one clue to where the candidates are headed even be determining who is the most neoconservative of the bunch? Might there, in fact, be neocontinuity?
On the surface, McCain easily wins that contest. He’s a longtime pal of William Kristol, who, along with David Brooks, has been flogging his candidacy on an almost weekly basis in the New York Times, admonishing conservatives that they need to get behind McCain. McCain exemplifies the kind of Winston Churchill figure that the neocons worship—a warrior turned politician, who also writes books on the side. For the neocons, who want to, as they put it, "remoralize" America, McCain is the genuine article, at least in terms of his talk of valor and manhood. McCain advisor Randy Scheunemann, former president of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, has been working overtime to defend him against the charge that’s he’s soft when it comes to Israel. But whether McCain is himself a neocon is another matter. He has both realist (Henry Kissinger) and neocon advisors (Robert Kagan). He may talk tough about stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but there’s no certainty that McCain would actually attack it. Still, if McCain becomes president, it would be a field day for the neocons, as fellow-travelers like former UN ambassador John Bolton are likely to get top posts and battle the realists for influence in the administration.
What about Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY)? To judge from her numerous detractors on the left of the Democratic Party, she’s a neocon in all but name. The truth is that the border between liberal hawk and neocon has always been a murky one, and Hillary’s advisors, including Richard Holbrooke and Michael O’Hanlon, are no shrinking violets when it comes to the use of force abroad. O’Hanlon might even be called a professional sanitizer of neocon views, given his recent, rosy assessment of the Iraq War.
And Hillary herself, of course, has taken a tough line on Iran, including voting on September 27, 2008 for a nonbinding resolution that declares the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. She wouldn’t hesitate to bomb Iran if she thought it was necessary; according to Gail Sheehy’s account in Vanity Fair a few years ago, Hillary was pushing Bill to attack the Serbs militarily. She and Madeleine "The Indispensable Nation" Albright are chums and probably see eye to eye on foreign policy. But forget about high politics for a moment. Perhaps Hillary resembles a neocon most in her character: she doesn’t hesitate to impugn the motives of her opponents, sees the world as filled with personal enemies, surrounds herself with a cabal, lacks credibility and is constantly plotting to increase her own power. In addition, many pundits view her with suspicion and hostility, which has also become the fate of the neocon movement.
So at first glance, Barack Obama might appear to be the least likely candidate to maintain the neocon crusade. He’s been espousing the Rodney King theory of international relations—can’t we all just get along? But Obama is pushing an idealistic vision that bears some neoconservative imprints. He’s pushing his own kind of democratization crusade, based not on weapons, but on the notion that the United States can set an example for the rest of the world, which is to say he appears to believe in American exceptionalism. He’s left no distance between himself and pro-Israel Democrats. And with Samantha Power as an advisor, the question about the distance between liberal hawks and neoconservatives once again emerges. Power, as her Pulitzer Prize–winning book A Problem From Hell indicates, believes that the real problem in American foreign policy is that the United States has not been active enough in halting human rights abuses around the world. An Obama administration, no less than a Clinton one, would almost surely view America as the indispensable nation and might well yield to the temptation to intervene abroad militarily in the name of humanitarian missions.
Whether such impulses are neoconservative or simply older American Wilsonian traditions is probably a matter of semantics. For now it’s enough to watch what the candidates promise—knowing that the results of what they actually do may be rather different, which is something, come to think of it, that neoconservatives have developed a specialty in.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest. He is the author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons (Doubleday, 2008).