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1.4  The Rise of Neoconservatism

1 December 2016

The implosion and disintegration of Soviet Union created a geopolitically unipolar world where the US reigned supreme. US role’s shifted from keeping communism in check to one of maintaining the international order as a global policeman. During the 1990s, however, that self-defined role in maintaining the international order gravitated progressively towards maintaining its status as the sole remaining superpower. US’ supremacy in a unipolar world catalyzed the rise of a new breed of intellectuals and political elites, known as neoconservatives (neocons in short) in the US.

The Origin of Neoconservatism in the US


The movement has its origins in the Democratic Party. The early neocons were liberals and social progressives who strongly backed the Second World War. Because of their dislike of communism, they adopted a similarly negative view towards the Soviet Union and supported the Cold War after WWII. Many of the early neocons were faithful to the tradition of active involvement in world affairs and of fierce anti-communism practiced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, or even Johnson. 


In the late 1960s, they disagreed strongly with the political realism in foreign policy adopted by President Richard Nixon (served 1969 – 1974) and Henry Kissinger who, despite being anti-communists, practiced the more traditional balance of power realpolitik by not only pursuing détente with the Soviet Union but also establishing relations with the communist China.[1]


In the course of the 1970s, the neocons felt that their own Democratic Party was not living up to that tradition, that the Democrats were becoming either too isolationist or way too dovish. Democrat President Jimmy Carter (served 1976 – 1980) alienated the neocons further with his even ‘softer’ course towards the Soviet Union and China as well as his non-interventionist policy concerning revolutions in Third World countries.[2] Despite so, they generally still supported liberal internationalists in the Democratic Party like Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, whose bids for the presidency in 1972 and 1976 were unsuccessful.


By 1980, however, most of neocons decided they could not support Carter running for re-election and they switched over to Republican Ronald Reagan (served 1980 – 1988) because the staunchly anti-communist Reagan was offering the right foreign policy that they were advocating themselves. That is when they switched allegiance from being liberals in Democratic Party to conservatives in Republican Party, hence the name neo-conservatives (‘neo’ is a prefix meaning ‘new’) to differentiate them from the traditional conservatives in the Republican Party.


Another plausible reason for the migration of these particular neocons to the Republic Party is their strong pro-Zionist orientation.[3]


Historically, the Republican Party was marred by a strong strain of anti-Semitism. During the 1930s when many southern-European and eastern-European Jewish workers arrived in the US and worked as labourers, they found a more supportive environment within the New Deal Democratic Party. Consequently, the Democratic Party became the site of the most intensive lobbying by US Jews supportive of the creation of the state of Israel. Until the 1980s, the Democrats were the more aggressive of the two major US parties in offering Israel unconditional support.


By the 1980s, however, a number of pro-Zionist and Jewish leaders had begun to make significant inroads into the Republican arena which was by then less overtly anti-Semitic. This was a transformation facilitated by the rise of Likud as the predominant Israeli political party which displaced the Israeli Labour Party that had been the most natural ally of the US Democrats. Within the US, the Republican Reagan administration had also made effort to establish an increasingly supportive and friendly relationship with Likud. Progressively, the far right became home to a quite bizarre hybrid ideology of Christian fundamentalism and right-wing Zionism.[4] Although right-wing – and ultimately anti-Semitic – Christians remained prominent among such rightists, many now began to perceive favourably the Zionist settler colonialism in the Middle East, and the conflicts that it was causing.


In short, by the 1980s, the US Christian far right had made its peace with US right-wing Zionists. With this switch from the Democrats to the Republicans, the neocons had come to have an especially marked effect on US policies in the Middle East which had by then become the focal point of most foreign-policy activity. The emergence of such Zionists as a crucial force within the neoconservative project marks one significant transformation of the American political blocs that have developed since the 1930s.


Notably, there is also a domestic perspective to neoconservatism. In fact, the epithet “neoconservatives” were first used to tag a group of working class Jewish American liberal intellectuals based in New York. They were criticized and banished by the New Left and by liberals from liberalism for being too closed to the conservatives in their views over domestic affairs. That was in the 1960s when the neocons were increasingly concerned with the issue of big government as a result of Great Society programs of the 1960’s and the welfare state.[5] In addition, they also shared a disdain for the popular counterculture, especially its political radicalism and its animus against authority, custom, and tradition. In that regard, neoconservatism resembled the traditional conservatism of the 18th-century. The neocons charged that Western (and particularly American) society had become amoral, adrift, and degenerate as evidenced by the violence and sexuality depicted explicitly in films, television programs, and video games. Some neocons traced the crisis to the 18th-century European Enlightenment, which encouraged people to question established authority, to criticize religion, and to reject traditional beliefs. Others blamed the “adversarial” counterculture, which dismissed traditional values and religion as old-fashioned, irrelevant, or even reactionary. Whatever its source, neocons maintained that the degeneration represented a real and present danger to Western civilization.


One of the ways these early neocons sought to address the moral degeneration was to reorient domestic American politics by harnessing the ready-made Judeo-Christian moral foundations that religion provided, without necessarily being religious themselves.[6] They felt that it was their duty to steer the misguided populace, and later the world via neoconservative application in foreign policy, to their senses. They began to see, as one of their goals, the establishment of and respect for order, both domestically and upon the world stage. Hence, the rise of neo-conservatism over the past decades in US saw not only the concomitant rise of Christian fundamentalism but also the increasingly distinct footprint of neocons in the making of foreign policy which they see is the paramount responsibility of government.

Neocons' Political Participation from the 1980s


From the 1980s, neocons initially played an important role in formulating foreign and military policies in the administration of President Ronald Reagan who was a stanch anti-communist. In addition to pushing aggressive and unilateral actions in Central America, they argued that America had to ditch Nixon’s and Kissinger’s policies of détente and balance of power in favour of a more aggressive approach in the face of Soviet Union’s determination to extend its domination over the entire Eurasian landmass. At their behest, Reagan confronted the expansionism of the Soviet "evil empire" head on. Foreign policy under Reagan was thus more aggressive than under the dovish Carter presidency. However, neocons gradually also parted ways with Reagan as he again shifted towards détente with the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.


The neoconservatism movement underwent resurgence in the early 1990s under President George H.W. Bush (hereafter as Senior Bush) as the US emerged as the sole superpower with the demise of communism and the disintegration of Soviet Union. The crumbling of the rival superpower had immense consequences for the neoconservative school of thought. While it did lead to a sense of accomplishment among the group, the dissolution of their biggest foreign policy pillar – anti-communism – also resulted in a political vacuum that upset all schools of thought particularly the realists whose conception of US foreign policy for half a century was motivated by the Cold War. In the 1991 Gulf War, the neocons were disappointed when, after the liberation of Kuwait, Senior Bush chose not to invade Iraq to remove the strongman Hussein from power due to absence of UN mandate for it and to the fear that doing so would unleash a civil war within Iraq, creating instability for the region.[7]


The neocons then tried to set new goals in American foreign policy for the realist Senior Bush administration in 1992 when Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz under the supervision of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, wrote the 1994 – 1999 Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) calling for the promotion of America’s status as the sole remaining superpower in the world, while deterring and, if necessary, even unilaterally and pre-emptively attacking hostile nations. In short, the DPG was a US blueprint for total global supremacy. The paper, known later as the Wolfowitz Doctrine, was revised and moderated only after a leak of the early draft to The New York Times led to massive protest, especially by the media and high ranking officials like Collin Powell and realist National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.[8]


Neocons also lamented the Clinton years as a period in which America did not capitalise on a once in a lifetime chance to cement its leading position in the world as it was without a peer competitor. Like his predecessor, Clinton’s whole approach to Iran and Iraq, for example, was based on containment and sanctions, not regime change, to perpetuate the status quo. In addition, the neocons were also displeased with President Clinton’s preference for soft power to hard. Instead of using US’ advantaged position as leverage, for example, Clinton gradually accommodated to the increasingly more assertive Chinese and Japanese governments by delinking human rights from economic issues with China while separating security policy from trade and other economic issues with Japan.[9]


In 1997, a group of neocons got together to form a think tank called the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) to oppose the timidity and drift of President Clinton’s foreign policy.[10] Its founding members included future Bush administration officials, such as Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz; prominent scholars, such as Francis Fukuyama; and intellectuals, such as Bill Kristol. Its stated goal was to “restore a ‘Reaganite’ foreign policy of ‘military strength and moral clarity’ by increasing military spending, challenging hostile regimes, promoting economic and political freedom, and accepting responsibility for America’s ‘unique’ role in defending a world order friendly to US interests and values”.[11] The group also asserted that appropriate codes of conduct could be exported and imposed upon the rest of the world if necessary. A document produced in 2000 by PNAC also called for radical change in American foreign policy amidst concerns over the unpredictable challenge potentially from China as well as threats from ‘rogue states’ Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Iraq, in particular, had long been a central concern, but the neocons recognized that public support for military actions was unlikely to materialize without ‘some catastrophic and catalyzing event, 'on the scale of Pearl Harbour'.[12]


While remaining in opposition under President Bill Clinton, neocons worked quietly to dominate Republican foreign policy. When President George W. Bush (served 2001 – 2009, hereafter known as Junior Bush) was elected, many PNAC members including Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz found themselves finally in positions of decision-making power again within the White House and Pentagon where they could effect changes in US foreign policies.[13]


In line with their idealist convictions, the neocons assert that the foreign policy of a country must represent its internal moral character, in direct opposition to the practice of realpolitik in foreign affairs which often entails the detestable practice of maintaining alliances with dictators. They hold the domestic and international sphere to a clear moral and ideological standard and champion the use of militarism to further that standard globally. With the disintegration of rival superpower Soviet Union, the neocons believed that US was blessed with the unique opportunity to prosecute such an endeavour and that they alone possessed the moral and ideological foundations to successfully orient US’ international relations to the benefit of not only the US but all.


The neocons also identify closely with Fukuyama’s 1989 “end of history” thesis which presupposes that, with the demise of communism, liberal democracy will spread globally rendering all opposing political orientations obsolete.[14] They assert that democracy can and should be installed by the US around the world, including even in Muslim countries such as Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, even by force if it is necessary. To them, unused power is wasted and that US greatness is measured by its willingness to be a great power through vast and virtually unlimited global military involvement.[15] Driven by their skepticism over the ability of international law and institutions to solve serious security problems, they eschew the multilateral and inclusive posture of Senior Bush and Clinton administrations and maintain that US must be prepared to unilaterally enforce the rules of world order. In effect, the neocons valued military power over diplomacy and neoconservatism is essentially “Wilsonianism with teeth”.[16]


In short, neoconservatism is a complex socio-political movement that, even though had been traced by some to have roots as far back as the 1930s, really gained prominence first in the 1960s for its views over domestic issues and then in foreign affairs from the 1970s. In his insightful book “Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement” published in 2011, author Justin Vaïsse frames the movement in three distinct ages: the New York intellectuals who reacted against the 1960s leftists; the hawkish democrats in the 1970s and 1980s who tried to preserve a mix of hawkish anti-communism abroad and social progress at home but failed to recapture the soul of the Democratic Party and migrated to the Republican Party; and the “Neocons” of the 1990s and 2000s, whose only distinct identity by now was only in foreign affairs and whose primary focus was the creation of an post-Cold War American-centric world order in which democracy flourished and America’s primacy would not be challenged


Today, domestic issues have fallen by the wayside for the neocons. Much of the domestic-policy critique mounted by neoconservatives eventually became common wisdom particularly with that of the conservatives. Concerned over issues of big government and welfare states were also somewhat assuaged by Clinton’s and Junior Bush welfare-reform programs.


Neocons’ identity today is thus solely associated with preserving the primacy of US as a global hegemon. PNAC was closed down in 2006 just as US was bogged down by intense fighting in Iraq resulting from rising sectarian insurgency. In 2009, the neocons set up Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) as its new ideological platform but that its final curtain fell too on August 18, 2017.


Notwithstanding, neocons continued to wield influence, working within the myriad of think tanks and foundations that constitute an industry all by themselves. Neoconservatism thus remains very much a fixture within the US political, security, media, and military establishments.[17]


More importantly, neoconservatism is no more an ideology reserved for the Republicans. Leaders of the neoconservative have been realigning also with the Democratic Party. Former Republican presidents Senior Bush and Junior Bush, were reported as indicating that they would vote for the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton instead of backing Donald Trump, the official Republican presidential candidate. This broadening of neoconservatism base to include both Republicans and Democrats is one of the most significant political events of the new millennium.[18]

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NEXT: 1.5  9/11 & Bush's Unilateralism (Bernard Lewis’ “Clash of Civilization” Thesis)



[1] See “Neoconservatism.” New World Encyclopedia

[2] See Peter Just. (2010).

[3] See Jim Glassman. (2005). pp 1527 - 1544.

[4] See Chomsky, 1999a

[5] See Muravchik, Joshua. (2007).

[6] See Mcglinchey, Stephen (2009).

[7] See Kalaitzidis, Akis & Streich, Gregory W. (2011). pp 201.

[8] See Peter Just. (2010).

[9] See Huntington, Samuel P. (1996). Pg 213.

[10] The PNAC ceased to function in 2006 and was replaced by a new think-tank named the Foreign Policy Initiative, co-founded by Editor of The Weekly Standard William Kristol and Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Robert Kagan in 2009. The latter two were project directors of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century.

[11] See Kalaitzidis, Akis & Streich, Gregory W. (2011). pp 257

[12] Quoted in ‘The Plan: Were Neo-Conservatives’ 1998 Memos a Blueprint for Iraq War?’,, 10 March 2003.

[13] See Kalaitzidis, Akis & Streich, Gregory W. (2011). pp 257

[14] See Fukuyama, Francis. (1992).

[15] See Ball, Terence & Dagger, Richard.

[16] See Mearsheimer, John. (2005).

[17] See Johnstone, Caitlin. (2017). 

[18] See Caitlin Johnstone. (2017).

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