Over the past several months, a certain intolerance has crept into the rhetoric
of leading neoconservative publications and writers.
This intolerance has
become particularly noticeable since February’s neoconservative-supported
overthrow of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and President Barack Obama’s
neoconservative-supported decision to commit US forces to battle against Libyan
leader Muammar Gaddafi in March.
The basic concept being propounded by
leading neoconservative writers and publications is that anyone who disagrees
with neoconservative policies is an isolationist. A notable recent example of
this tendency was a blog post published on Wednesday by Commentary
Executive Editor Jonathan Tobin regarding the emerging contours of Texas Gov.
Rick Perry’s foreign policy views.
After listing various former Bush
administration officials who are advising Perry on foreign affairs, Tobin
concluded, “Perry might have more in common with the neoconservative wing of the
Republican Party than the isolationists.” While this is may be true, it is
certainly true that the neoconservatives and the isolationists are not the only
foreign policy wings in the Republican Party. Indeed, most Republicans are
neither isolationists nor neoconservatives.
Isolationism broadly speaking
is the notion that the US is better off withdrawing to fortress America and
leaving the rest of the world’s nations to fight it out among themselves. The
isolationist impulse in the US is what caused the US to enter both world wars
years after they began. It is what has propelled much of the antiwar sentiment
on the far Left and the far Right alike since September 11. The far Left argues
the US should withdraw from world leadership because the US is evil. And the far
Right argues that the US should withdraw from world leadership because the world
Neoconservatism broadly speaking involves the adoption of a
muscular US foreign policy in order to advance the cause of democracy and
freedom worldwide. Wilsonian in its view of the universal nature of the human
impulse to freedom, neoconservatives in recent years have wholeheartedly
embraced the notion that if given a chance to make their sentiments known, most
people will choose liberal democracy over any other form of
Former president George W. Bush is widely viewed as the first
neoconservative president, due to his wholehearted embrace of this core concept
of neoconservativism in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Aside from
their belief that if given the choice people will choose to be free,
neoconservatives argue the more democratic governments there are, the safer the
world will be and the safer the US will be. Therefore, broadly speaking,
neoconservatives argue that the US should always side with populist forces
While these ideas may be correct in theory, in
practice the consequence of Bush’s adoption of the neoconservative worldview was
the empowerment of populist and popular jihadists and Iranian allies throughout
the Middle East at the expense of US allies. Hamas won the Palestinian Authority
elections in 2006. Its electoral victory paved the way for its military takeover
of Gaza in 2007.
Hezbollah’s participation in Lebanon’s 2005 elections
enabled the Iranian proxy army to hijack the Lebanese government in 2006, and to
violently take over the Lebanese government in 2009.
Brotherhood’s successful parliamentary run in Egypt in 2005 strengthened the
radical, anti-American, jihadist group and weakened Mubarak.
election of Iranian-influenced Iraqi political leaders in Iraq in 2005
exacerbated the trend of Iranian predominance in post-Saddam Iraq. It also
served to instigate a gradual estrangement of Saudi Arabia from the
THE NEOCONSERVATIVE preference for populist forces over authoritarian
ones propelled leading neoconservative thinkers and former Bush administration
officials to enthusiastically support the anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahrir
Square in Cairo in January. And their criticism of Obama for not immediately
joining the protesters and calling for Mubarak’s removal from power was
instrumental in convincing Obama to abandon Mubarak.
Between those who
predicted a flowering liberal democracy in a post-Mubarak Egypt and those who
predicted the empowerment of radical, Muslim Brotherhood aligned forces in a
post-Mubarak Egypt, it is clear today that the latter were correct. Moreover, we
see that the US’s abandonment of its closest ally in the Arab world has all but
destroyed America’s reputation as a credible, trustworthy ally throughout the
In the wake of Mubarak’s ouster, the Saudis have effectively
ended their strategic alliance with the US and are seeking to replace the US
with China, Russia and India.
In a similar fashion, the neoconservatives
were quick to support Obama’s decision to use military force to oust Libyan
leader Muammar Gaddafi from power in March. The fact that unlike Syria’s Bashar
Assad and Iran’s ayatollahs, Gaddafi gave up his nuclear proliferation program
in 2004 was of no importance. The fact that from the outset there was evidence
that al-Qaida terrorists are members of the US-supported Libyan opposition,
similarly made little impact on the neoconservatives who supported Obama’s
decision to set conditions that would enable “democracy” to take root in Libya.
The fact that the US has no clear national interest at stake in Libya was
brushed aside. The fact that Obama lacked congressional sanction for committing
US troops to battle was also largely ignored.
have castigated opponents of US military involvement in Libya as
In so doing, they placed Republican politicians like
presidential candidate Rep.
Michele Bachmann and former Alaska governor
Sarah Palin in the same pile as presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul and Pat
The very notion that robust internationalists such as Bachmann
and Palin could be thrown in with ardent isolationists like Paul and Buchanan is
appalling. But it is of a piece with the prevailing, false notion being argued
by dominant voices in neoconservative circles that “you’re either with us or
you’re with the Buchananites.” In truth, the dominant foreign policy in the
Republican Party, and to a degree, in American society as a whole, is neither
neoconservativism nor isolationism. For lack of a better name, it is what
historian Walter Russell Mead has referred to as Jacksonianism, after Andrew
Jackson, the seventh president of the US. As Mead noted in a 1999 article in The
National Interest titled “The Jacksonian Tradition,” the most popular and
enduring US model for foreign policy is far more flexible than either the
isolationist or the neoconservative model.
According to Mead, the
Jacksonian foreign policy model involves a few basic ideas. The US is different
from the rest of the world, and therefore the US should not try to remake the
world in its own image by claiming that everyone is basically the same. The US
must ensure its honor abroad by abiding by its commitments and maintaining its
standing with its allies. The US must take action to defend its interests. The
US must fight to win or not fight at all. The US should only respect those foes
that fight by the same rules as the US does.
THE US president that hewed
closest to these basic guidelines in recent times was Ronald
Popular perception that Reagan was acting in accordance with
Jacksonian foreign policy principles is what kept the public support for Reagan
high even as the liberal media depicted his foreign policy as simplistic and
For instance, Reagan fought Soviet influence in Central
America everywhere he could and with whomever he could find. Regan exploited
every opportunity to weaken the Soviet Union in Europe. He worked with the
Vatican in Poland.
He deployed Pershing short-range nuclear warheads in
Western Europe. He called the Soviet Union an evil empire. He began developing
the Strategic Defense Initiative. And he walked away from an arms control
agreement when he decided it was a bad deal for the US.
presidency, Reagan never shied away from trumpeting American values. To the
contrary, he did so regularly. However, unlike the neoconservatives, Reagan
recognized that advancing those values themselves could not replace the entirety
of US foreign policy. Indeed, he realized that the very notion that values
trumped all represented a fundamental misunderstanding of US interests and of
the nature and limits of US power.
If a Jacksonian president were in
charge of US foreign policy, he or she would understand that supporting
elections that are likely to bring a terror group like Hamas or Hezbollah to
power is not an American interest.
He or she would understand that
toppling a pro-American dictator like Mubarak in favor of a mob is not sound
policy if the move is likely to bring an anti-American authoritarian successor
regime to power.
A Jacksonian president would understand that using US
power to overthrow a largely neutered US foe like Gaddafi in favor of a suspect
opposition movement is not a judicious use of US power.
Jacksonian president would recognize that it would be far better to expend the
US’s power to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad – an open and active foe
of the US – and so influence the nature of a post-Assad government.
all the deficiencies of the neoconservative worldview, at least the
neoconservatives act out of a deep-seated belief that the US is a force for good
in the world and out of concern for maintaining America’s role as the leader of
the free world. In stark contrast, Obama’s foreign policy is based on a
fundamental anti-American view of the US and a desire to end the US’s role as
the leading world power. And the impact of Obama’s foreign policy on US and
global security has been devastating.
From Europe to Asia to Russia to
Latin America to the Middle East and Africa, Obama has weakened the US and
turned on its allies. He has purposely strengthened US adversaries worldwide, as
part of an overall strategy of divesting an unworthy America from its role as
He has empowered the anti-American UN to replace the US as
the arbiter of US foreign policy.
And so, absent the American sheriff, US
adversaries from the Taliban to Vladimir Putin to Hugo Chavez to Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad are empowered to attack America and its allies.
In the coming
months, Republican primary voters will choose their party’s candidate to
challenge Obama in next year’s presidential elections.
With all the
failings of the neoconservative foreign policy model, it is clear that Obama’s
foreign policy has been far more devastating for US and global
Still, it would be a real tragedy if at the end of the primary
season, due to neoconservative intellectual bullying, the Republican
presidential nominee were forced to choose between neoconservativism and
isolationism. A rich, successful and popular American foreign policy tradition
of Jacksonianism awaits the right candidate.