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Thursday, May 19, 2016

The False Neoconservative Claim of Consensus

The False Neoconservative Claim of Consensus

by Paul R. Pillar
The ululation among neoconservatives over their loss, at the hands of Donald Trump, of their control of the foreign policy of one of the two major American political parties continues with an op ed from one of the loudest grievers, Eliot Cohen. Cohen enumerates many valid reasons why the vulgar and erratic presumptive Republican presidential nominee would be an awful steward of U.S. foreign policy. Along with the valid reasons to oppose Trump, Cohen also delivers a few low blows, including a comment that Trump’s “America first” slogan recalls the pre-World War II movement “that included not only traditional isolationists but also Nazi sympathizers.” One can always rely on neocons to work in a Nazi reference if at all possible.
A more fundamental deception in Cohen’s piece involves his assertion that Trump’s candidacy imperils a “two-generation-old American foreign policy consensus” that “has framed this country’s work overseas since 1950.” It is true that there have been some depressingly persistent strains in American thinking about foreign relations in recent decades, the blatant and costly failures of which have had something to do with popular support for Trump (and, as Cohen correctly notes without acknowledging the failures, support for Bernie Sanders). But Cohen’s overall argument is another example of neoconservatives striving to wrap themselves in a larger mantle of what Cohen calls “American global leadership” and general U.S. involvement in world affairs that is the antithesis of true isolationism. They have been able to do this partly because neoconservatism is in some respects a more muscular and militant form of some themes that can be found in broadly held American exceptionalism. But where the mantle-wrapping involves wool-pulling over eyes is that neoconservatism itself is a narrow agenda that has never reflected the kind of consensus that Cohen is claiming.
Cohen writes, “Even in this era of partisanship, there has been a large measure of agreement between the two parties, cemented by officials, experts and academics who shared a common outlook.” But especially given the recent neocon domination of the Republican Party, this simply has not been true. A prime and recent exhibit is one of the biggest foreign policy accomplishments of the Obama administration: the agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program, on which the partisanship has been intense (and on which Trump, by the way, is siding more with the neocons). Or consider the biggest neocon foreign policy endeavor: the Iraq War, which a majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives, even amid all the pre-war propaganda about dictators supposedly giving weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, voted against. As for “officials, experts and academics”: the judgment of officials was never sought in a decision that was supported by no policy process, and many very credible experts and academics, including leading American foreign policy thinkers, opposed the launching of the war.

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