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Neocons Have Disturbing Amounts of Influence Over Obama

For those who thought the end of the Bush Administration spelled doomsday for the neoconservative movement, think again.

For those who thought the end of the Bush Administration spelled doomsday for the neoconservative movement, think again.

According to a May report (pdf) from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC think tank, neoconservatives associated with prominent figures like former Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol and pundit Richard Perle are still broadly active, despite policy failures associated with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Brookings Institution senior fellow Justin Vaisse, author of Neoconservatism: A Biography of a Movement, argues that because neocons never had the degree of influence that opponents credited them with, and also because of a general unawareness of their history, observers don’t fully understand the trajectory of the neoconservative movement that began long before the Iraq invasion and one continues today.

“Neoconservatism remains, to this day, a distinct and very significant voice of the Washington establishment,” Vaisse insists. In May, he published the report, Why Neoconservativism Still Matters.

Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, says that the most obvious place the neocons are still influential is in U.S. policy toward Iran, where the Obama administration is “continuing the Bush administration’s basic approach, albeit with a ‘kinder, gentler’ face.”

Walt’s assessment squares with a number of recent op-eds in the pages of the Wall Street Journal by Richard Perle, Abram Shulsky, Douglas Feith and Danielle Pletka, the latter of whom also testified on Iran before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs earlier this month.

Walt calls attention to two major reports produced by the Bipartisan Policy Center on Iran, where neoconservative Michael Makovsky was staff director for the studies and Dennis Ross -- whose role “in the administration remains something of a mystery," according to Walt -- was directly involved. The studies, Walt says, “are quite hawkish” and promote the use of force against Iran if diplomacy doesn’t work. Walt also points out that Ross has argued that diplomacy is necessary in part to win international support for military action later.

Following the neocon lead, says Walt, the Obama administration’s insistence “that Iran give up its enrichment capability is simply a non-starter, and keeps us on the same road as Bush’s policy did."

Benjamin Balint, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right, says that even despite their overly rosy predictions surrounding Iraq, neoconservatives have remained steadfast.

They'e offered “not a heart-searching mea culpa, not a re-examination of first principles, but very nearly the opposite,” Balint says.

In part, Brooking's Vaisse suggests, the continued influence of the neocons has to do with the organizing principles of the movement and the persistent concerns of U.S. foreign policymakers even under the Obama administration.

Among issues of importance during the Bush administration that have not subsided in the Obama years include: the role the U.S. plays in the world; the U.S. as the sole superpower; a tendency toward unilateralism (whether intentional or by default); the question of militarism; and the exportation of democracy. These issues provide an opening for neocons to assert their leverage.

The three generations of currently-operating neoconservatives show “their substantial presence and political dynamism in Washington,” making it “difficult to imagine that they will not play a significant role in the future of American foreign policy,” according to Vaisse.

Numerous prominent neocons still active

The report indicates that there is still an active and influential older generation of neoconservatives, such as Norman Podhoretz, Elliott Abrams, Joshua Muravchik, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and James Woolsey. The middle generation includes The Weekly Standard publisher Bill Kristol, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar Robert Kagan, New York Times columnist David Brooks and AEI scholars Danielle Pletka, and Tom Donnelly. Former AEI scholar David Frum is also counted among their ranks.

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