Sunday, February 24, 2008

Who's the Election's Neoconservative Standard-Bearer?

Candidates talk a lot about change, and this year's no exception. But once in office we often see the implementation of policies different from prominent campaign pledges.

If that's so this year, we might see the candidate who's elected sticking with the country's basic direction if foreign policy, and thus the Bush administration's neoconservative ascendency may get a fresh squall of wind at its back.

Jacob Heilbrunn examines which candidate is the most neonconservative this year,
at the National Interest:

On the surface, McCain easily wins that contest. He’s a longtime pal of William Kristol, who, along with David Brooks, has been flogging his candidacy on an almost weekly basis in the New York Times, admonishing conservatives that they need to get behind McCain. McCain exemplifies the kind of Winston Churchill figure that the neocons worship—a warrior turned politician, who also writes books on the side. For the neocons, who want to, as they put it, "remoralize" America, McCain is the genuine article, at least in terms of his talk of valor and manhood. McCain advisor Randy Scheunemann, former president of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, has been working overtime to defend him against the charge that’s he’s soft when it comes to Israel. But whether McCain is himself a neocon is another matter. He has both realist (Henry Kissinger) and neocon advisors (Robert Kagan). He may talk tough about stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but there’s no certainty that McCain would actually attack it. Still, if McCain becomes president, it would be a field day for the neocons, as fellow-travelers like former UN ambassador John Bolton are likely to get top posts and battle the realists for influence in the administration.

What about Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY)? To judge from her numerous detractors on the left of the Democratic Party, she’s a neocon in all but name. The truth is that the border between liberal hawk and neocon has always been a murky one, and Hillary’s advisors, including Richard Holbrooke and Michael O’Hanlon, are no shrinking violets when it comes to the use of force abroad. O’Hanlon might even be called a professional sanitizer of neocon views, given his recent, rosy assessment of the Iraq War.

And Hillary herself, of course, has taken a tough line on Iran, including voting on September 27, 2008 for a nonbinding resolution that declares the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. She wouldn’t hesitate to bomb Iran if she thought it was necessary; according to Gail Sheehy’s account in Vanity Fair a few years ago, Hillary was pushing Bill to attack the Serbs militarily. She and Madeleine "The Indispensable Nation" Albright are chums and probably see eye to eye on foreign policy. But forget about high politics for a moment. Perhaps Hillary resembles a neocon most in her character: she doesn’t hesitate to impugn the motives of her opponents, sees the world as filled with personal enemies, surrounds herself with a cabal, lacks credibility and is constantly plotting to increase her own power. In addition, many pundits view her with suspicion and hostility, which has also become the fate of the neocon movement.

So at first glance, Barack Obama might appear to be the least likely candidate to maintain the neocon crusade. He’s been espousing the Rodney King theory of international relations—can’t we all just get along? But Obama is pushing an idealistic vision that bears some neoconservative imprints. He’s pushing his own kind of democratization crusade, based not on weapons, but on the notion that the United States can set an example for the rest of the world, which is to say he appears to believe in American exceptionalism. He’s left no distance between himself and pro-Israel Democrats. And with Samantha Power as an advisor, the question about the distance between liberal hawks and neoconservatives once again emerges. Power, as her Pulitzer Prize–winning book A Problem From Hell indicates, believes that the real problem in American foreign policy is that the United States has not been active enough in halting human rights abuses around the world. An Obama administration, no less than a Clinton one, would almost surely view America as the indispensable nation and might well yield to the temptation to intervene abroad militarily in the name of humanitarian missions.

Whether such impulses are neoconservative or simply older American Wilsonian traditions is probably a matter of semantics. For now it’s enough to watch what the candidates promise—knowing that the results of what they actually do may be rather different, which is something, come to think of it, that neoconservatives have developed a specialty in.
Heilbrunn's provided an excellent opening for a discussion of the foreign policy diferences among the candidates.

Yet it's odd he's omitted what both Clinton and Obama would do on Iraq: Implement an immediate withdrawal.

Clinton's repeatedly promised to initiate a troop withdrawal within sixty days of taking office, and Obama's stump speeches have become more shrill in his denunciations of the war effort. Both candidates spent 2007 demonizing General David Petraeus.

Still, I agree that Clinton's personal characer is basically neoconservative, but Heilbrunn leaves out one key element: She's like silly putty in the hands of the Democratic Party's activist base. She'll twist and turn on an issue to satisfy any constituency.

She's John Kerry's evil twin on Iraq, classically voting for the war before she was against it. I doubt she'll be as firm on Iran as Heilbrunn suggests. If her husband's administration is any indication of a renewed Clintonesque foreign policy, we'll see lofty rhetoric, perhaps an airstrike here or there, but any longer term commitment - especially involving a sustained role for ground troops - will likely be out of the question.

The truth is, on Iraq McCain's unbeatable, which has largely
neutralized national security as a campaign issue.

What about America's larger role in the world? Are all the candidates equally neoconservative?

Again, I'm surprised at Heilbrunn,
who's just written a book on the movement, for his failure to clarify differences on international institutions.

Neoconservatives are suspicous of multilateral institutions, preferring the exercise of raw hegemomic power to the Lilliputian effects of action under the auspices of U.N.-type organizations.

This is why Heilbrunn's point about Samantha Power and Obama is particularly interesting. Power, a Harvard human rights specialist, has been AWOL on the Iraq war, instead pumping up - George Clooney-style - a U.S.-led multinational incursions into countries like the Sudan.

The feeling here is that the exercise of American military might for humanitarian purposes is fine, but the deployment of American capabilities for the power politics of national-security regime change is pretty much off the table.

In this sense, then, McCain remains the true neoconservative in the race. On the basis of his Churchillian eloquence and his staunch record as a national security hawk, McCain's neoconservative aim is true.