Neoconservatism Is So Ingrained We Don’t Even Realize It’s There

5 Jan

When the Iraq War began, I was 10 years old. I am now 27, but here we are again, facing the prospect of another Middle Eastern war started by the United States. The hallmarks are the same: transparently false explanations for why it is necessary and an incoherent rationale (even if the potential for escalation is thankfully lower at the moment). Given the unpopularity of the disastrous Iraq War, and a general lack of appetite for sustained military confrontation (both from the American public and our Commander-in-Chief) how could it be happening again? I think it’s difficult to explain this possibility without talking about the pervasiveness of neoconservatism.

What do I mean by neoconservatism? It’s a foreign policy doctrine that defines American interests very narrowly as “national security”, but defines the paths to achieving it very expansively. Most succinctly, it is the ideology of forever war, in which the only way to be safe is to constantly involve oneself militarily abroad through offensive actions. Military force is always justified against adversaries, and offensive violence will always deter, and not embolden, adversaries. Thinking in these terms is so common among foreign policy elites (government officials, politicians, journalists, analysts, etc.) that they have largely forgotten how important this specific ideology is in shaping their shared, unspoken assumptions about the menu of available options for American foreign policy. Neoconservatism was never fully repudiated after its biggest failure in Iraq, and even though its biggest proponents in Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bolton no longer hold government office, functionally it has won. American policy has been and will be neoconservative.

I see three indicators of neoconservatism’s influence that can all be observed in regards to the reaction of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination. First, violence is always an option against adversaries. Even if there are severely negative consequences resulting from this violence, violence against “bad guys” is legitimate. Second, neoconservatism reduces the debate around military force to one of tactics, demanding that the conversation center around how force should be used, not whether it should be considered in the first place. In this sense it depoliticizes the use of violence, by excluding rejections of violence from rational conversation. Third, neoconservatism is incredibly resistant to being disproved (in the language of social science, it is not falsifiable). Without doing x, we are told, American will be less safe. When x happens and causes negative consequences, we are told that more of x is needed to protect America from them. Despite the absurdity of these arguments, they carry serious intellectual weight in foreign policy circles.

Let’s take each of these in turn. First, the idea that war is always an option against adversaries was readily apparent in how Democrats, including every major Presidential candidate (with the notable exception of Sanders), responded to the Soleimani news. Before condemning the assassination on strategic grounds, Biden, Warren, and Buttigieg all stressed just how evil Soleimani was. Even Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, who is a Democratic leader in constructing an anti-war foreign policy, began his response in the same manner. Does it matter at all if Soleimani was a bad guy if his assassination leads to a sustained military confrontation and thousands of deaths? Or that Soleimani’s assassination is unlikely to have any meaningful impact on Iran’s military capabilities? Only in a world where using violence against the “bad guys” carries inherent legitimacy are these valid questions. Unfortunately, we live in that world. Tomi Lahren and Democratic politicians do not agree on much, but both accept the premise that Soleimani’s badness means he was a legitimate target of lethal violence.

To push this logic in another direction, it is clear that the harm one has caused is not enough to create a target of legitimate violence. Dick Cheney, Mohammed bin Salman, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have all caused immense suffering, but none of those that accept Soleimani as a legitimate target would do the same for these three. Neoconservatism is not really about the use of violence to punish evil, but rather the use of violence against people that foreign policy elites consider prudent to call America’s adversaries. As an ideology, neoconservatism is fundamentally nationalist, but its veneer is one of universal morality.

Second, I argued above that neoconservatism changes the conversation away from whether using violence abroad is a good idea to how violence should be best employed. Former Obama administration officials Ben Rhodes and Samanatha Power have largely focused their critiques not on the fact that the United States assassinated a foreign government official, but on the competency of the Trump administration to handle the crisis. George Packer, writing in the Atlantic, concedes that while, “There was a case for killing Major General Qassem Soleimani,” the Trump’s administration’s ploy will backfire for tactical reasons.

Third, neoconservatism feverishly resists discrediting arguments and any consequences for its ideologues. One part of this lies in the belief structure of neoconservatism. Neoconservatives have such an unshakable belief in the efficacy of coercion to achieve policy objectives that all foreign policy problems involving adversaries can be solved through more coercion. Even when all the signs point to the failure of coercion, it must be working. For example, despite polling prior to his assassination that show Soleimani was Iran’s most popular political figure, Alireza Nadar, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (the most prominent neoconservative think tank), is convinced that only regime repression is preventing spontaneous celebrations. Surely, we will be greeted as liberators.

Despite neoconservatism’s dogmatic, frequently calamitous policy recommendations, neoconservatives’ reputations have not suffered following the Iraq War debacle. In the first New York Times article reporting on Soleimani’s assassination, the first non-government official quoted is Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Bush administration officials Ari Fleischer and Karl Rove were on cable news reacting to the Soleimani killing, as was David Brooks. Like Brooks, Thomas Friedman and Bret Stephens both have New York Times columns. Despite Donald Trump’s vocal opposition to the Iraq War, he still ended up hiring one of its primary architects in John Bolton, who got the policy outcome he wanted following his dismissal. Even partially reformed neoconservatives, who have distanced themselves from Trump, remain prominent voices. Journalist Max Boot was on CNN in his role as a network analyst to discuss the assassination, while David Frum, who coined the term “Axis of Evil” is a Senior Editor at the Atlantic. Being wrong about everything for almost two decades hasn’t prevented neoconservatives from maintaining their influential positions in US policy circles.

The concept of hegemony, created by Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, is useful for understanding neoconservatism’s influence. Gramsci believed that the fundamental battle of politics was over what was considered common sense or taken for granted. He called this concept hegemony: when ideas are hegemonic, they are accepted as natural or obvious, and alternatives are considered as unnatural or impossible. The degree to which neoconservatism’s basic assumptions are ingrained in the thinking of American foreign policy elites is a prime example of hegemony. A foreign policy predicated on international cooperation, diplomacy, and restrained, time-limited involvement is considered by many in foreign policy circles to be beyond the realm of possibility.

Gramsci considered hegemonic ideas to be totalizing, in the sense that all members of society believe in them. Now when it comes to neoconservatism today, this is obviously not true. Dissenters exist. But the crucial point is that the basic assumptions of neoconservatism are not confined to the relatively small group of those that consider themselves neoconservatives. Even foreign policy elites who see themselves as opposed to neoconservatism have adopted some of its ideals.

I see three basic remedies. First, neoconservatives should be sidelined from foreign policy circles. There is no reason to listen to people who are so consistently wrong and who so callously support actions that will kill thousands abroad. As actual neoconservatives are a fairly small group numerically, they rely on others for media exposure, policy influence, and intellectual standing. Don’t give it to them. Second, recognize neoconservative influence on non-neoconservatives and explicitly articulate an opposing vision. Bernie Sanders has done an excellent job of this, and Representative Barbara Lee, long considered an irrelevant, anti-war extremist, is now the arguably the Democratic Party’s standard bearer on foreign policy. Finally, those in foreign policy circles would do well to accept that being opposed to military action by the United States and analyzing foreign policy dynamics are not incompatible. One can simultaneously perform reasoned analysis of the current potential for US-Iran escalation while rejecting the entire premise of militaristic foreign policy. It is of the utmost importance to reclaim the “anti-war” label from lunatics, and transform into a new set of hegemonic ideas.

2 Responses to “Neoconservatism Is So Ingrained We Don’t Even Realize It’s There”

  1. Pat Burns January 5, 2020 at 8:30 pm #

    Thomas Friedman’s NYT column came out against the assassination, saying the target was an economic disaster for Iran during his tenure.
    Pat Burns

    • dhirsch1 January 6, 2020 at 12:26 pm #

      Perhaps I should have put him in the “partially reformed” neoconservative camp, but I wanted to make the point that even after being wrong for so long, he still has a NYT column.

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