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The tragedy of the neocons

It’s the cognitive dissonance, stupid!

July 20, 2018

11:44 AM

20 July 2018

11:44 AM

There are two policy issues that you can count on to provide Republican Never Trumpers with a common ground. In addition, of course, to their almost pathological loathing of the man occupying the White House, it’s support for a strong relationship between the United States and Israel—and a really bad case of Russophobia.

In fact, if you were to prepare a list of prominent Never Trumpers, you would probably end up with an updated list of prominent neoconservatives who subscribe to these two foreign policy dogmas.

It is true that the label of neoconservative has occasionally been abused by anti-Semites disparaging American-Jewish figures who happen to support Israel. But following Max Weber’s social science guide to constructing the abstract, it does qualify as an “ideal type” to describe a familiar bunch of Washington think tankers, media pundits, and policy wonks.

Or to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart’s attempt to explain what was “hardcore” pornography: We know a neoconservative or a “neocon” when we see him or her. They are always ready to defend the Jewish State against its critics at home and abroad, while depicting Moscow as the world headquarters of anti-Americanism.

During the Cold War, first-generation (FG) neoconservatives and their intellectual godfather, the late Irving Kristol, seemed to agree that Washington wasn’t tough enough towards the Soviet Union, and not friendly enough towards Israel. They believed the US was appeasing the anti-American Soviets and Arabs.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, second-generation (SG) neocons, led by Kristol’s son, Bill, have recycled those same themes, arguing that Washington wasn’t tough enough towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia or friendly enough towards Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel. DC was pandering to Russian nationalists and to anti-Western Arabs and Islamists.

FG neoconservatives that included intellectual giants like Daniel Bell, Nathan Glaser, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Jeane Kirkpatrick helped shape the foreign policy debate during the Cold War by promoting a Realpolitik agenda, pressing presidents to embrace a tough stand vis-à-vis Moscow, and to protect Israel against radical Arabs that were seen as being allied with the Soviet Union.

But then, SG neoconservatives, consisting mostly of intellectually light-weight Washington, operators and pamphleteers, like Max Boot, David Frum, Elliott Cohen, Bret Stephens, and the late Charles Krauthammer, began promoting an idealist, almost messianic foreign policy program. They argued that America needs to establish geo-strategic dominance and to export its liberal democratic ideas to the four corners of the world—a Pax America, that would allow for the continuing marginalization of the former Soviet Union, and provide security for the Jewish State in the Middle East.  

And from their well-paid and secure positions at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and magazines like The Weekly Standard, and the office of former Vice President Dick Cheney, these foreign policy intellectuals served as the driving force behind President George W. Bush’s excursion into foreign policy fantasy-land. Liberating Iraq and transforming it, and the other countries of the Greater Middle East, into thriving liberal democracies, followed by a global campaign in support of the Freedom Agenda in Russia’s near abroad was the dream.

Forget the conventional wisdom that Trump is running an “anti-globalization” foreign policy. Instead, if you try to deconstruct his stream-of-consciousness comments about world affairs, and come up with the Trump Doctrine, all you need know is that it is the mirror image of the Neoconservative Doctrine.

If the neocons wanted to remake the Middle East, Trump wants to get the United States out of there, if possible ASAP. They supported regime change and democracy promotion, here, there, and everywhere. The current White House occupant is willing to cooperate and make deals with the world’s despots. Neocons regard Russia’s Putin as Evil Incarnate. The Donald seems to treat Vlad as his new BFF.

So, unlike most Republicans before they announce that they are running for the presidency, Trump did not invite Kristol to assemble leading neocons and join him at Trump Tower in Manhattan in late 2015, and ask them to serve as his foreign policy brain trust. In fact, he blasted everything they stood for and insisted that no member of Washington’s “foreign policy establishment”, AKA those who worked for W., and were responsible for the Iraq War, would serve in his administration.

It was also not surprising these same neoconservative foreign policy professionals in turn made it clear that they would never, never support Trump as a presidential candidate, and that they would never, never work for him.

But their scorn was nevertheless a pathetic gesture, since Trump insisted he would never hire them anyway. And it was ironic that the same people who predicted that the Iraq War would turn into great strategic victory were also so confident that  Trump would never become the Republican presidential candidate. The next president? Don’t make us laugh! Our bet is on Gov. Jeb Bush or Sen. Marco Rubio.

And it was certainly ironic that Kristol and Company campaigned for Republican Sen. John McCain to pick Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, yet relentlessly bash Trump—who compared to the former Alaska governor is a Renaissance Man and the embodiment of refined cosmopolitan virtues—for his boorish behavior and mediocre intellectual abilities, not to mention his populist and nationalist agenda.

It made sense that the Never Trumpers have been leading the charge against Trump over the allegations of his so-called “collusion” with Russia, depicting the president as the head of a sleeper cell operating at the White House, waiting for orders from his handler in the Kremlin. And you know who that is.

Yet, on one issue, Trump sounds at times more neoconservative than the neoconservatives: American support for Israel. Indeed, the president, a New Yorker whose son-in-law was an Orthodox Jew and a Zionist with close ties to Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, a favourite of the neoconservative crowd, turned out to be one of the most pro-Israeli American presidents.

Not long ago, many of the current Never Trumpers were condemning the cold shoulder that former President Barack Obama was giving to Netanyahu’s Israel. They also called for revoking the nuclear deal with Iran, and for adopting a tough(er) U.S. stand against the Islamic Republic.

And while many of them support moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, not even the most ardent neocon would have conceived of that happening under any American president. But it did happen under a president that some of them have compared to Hitler.

When it comes to Israel and the Middle East, there is one element that seemed to fit into the neoconservative narrative. Mainly that the evil Putin was providing support for Syria’s brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad, who in turn an ally of the Ayatollahs in Iran—Damascus and Iran being Israel’s implacable enemies—and that Trump wasn’t doing anything about that. The president was even willing to make a deal with Putin over Syria, suggested that being a Never Trumper, plus demonizing Putin, plus supporting Israel make for a consistent equation.

It worked until last week, when even the smartest Never Trumper could not resolve a painful cognitive dissonance. Netanyahu and Putin met in Moscow, and struck a deal under which Israel would refrain from taking steps to challenge Assad’s control of Syria—breaking with neoconservative dogma that “Assad must go”—in exchange for Russian pledges to bring to an end to Iranian military presence across the Syrian-Israeli border.

The bottom line is that Israel would agree to turning Syria into a military protectorate of Putin’s Russia. This is an outcome that President Trump is likely to support, demonstrating that both Washington and Jerusalem, as well as Moscow, prioritize their national security interests over any aspiration to do regime change in Syria, to export democracy to that country.

There is no doubt that this development could prove traumatic to some neoconservatives. One of their Capitol Hill darlings, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, called on Netanyahu not to strike a deal with Putin over Syria, tweeting a few hours before they did just that: “To our friends in Israel–be very careful making agreements with Russia re Syria that affect U.S. interests.”

But honestly, when it comes to its national security, why should Israel—or for that matter, the White House—accept advice from a bunch of people whose policies—ousting Saddam Hussein from power and spreading democracy in the Middle East—helped strengthen the power of Iran and its Shiite satellites? Who destabilized the region, and created the conditions for the rise of ISIS? With friends like this, who needs enemies?


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