The term “neoconservative” has evolved over time. It started out in the 1970s meaning more or less exactly what it sounds like: “new” conservatives. These were New Deal liberals who spent the 60s not getting high or laid (so, mostly they were pricks?) and being increasingly irritated that other people were frequently doing both, and so it was their hated of hippies that pushed them to the right. These former liberals shared a few common beliefs; they were stridently anti-Communist, retained from their liberal years a basic belief in the rightness of government action, and, again, generally seething at the hippies with their drugs and sex and WHY WON’T ANYBODY GET HIGH AND HAVE SEX WITH ME, GODDAMNIT (again, probably the whole “prick” thing)? When the anti-war and pro-drugs hippies of the 60s turned into the simply pro-drugs nightclub crowd of the 70s, and then into the “pro-drugs for me and my pals but fuck everybody else” business types of the 80s, the neocons found themselves without an enemy and thus without an animating principle.
Luckily for the neoconservative movement and pretty goddamn unfortunately for the rest of the country, their pro-intervention, activist foreign policy beliefs still worked pretty well as a wing of Republican Party politics, set against the so-called “paleo-conservatives” with their isolationist tendencies. What had been a movement of disaffected, possibly somewhat prickish liberals who still sort-of supported activist government both in the New Deal/Great Society welfare state sense and in the “ship American kids off to die all over the world because Communism” sense now started to shed those welfare state principles, the better to fit under the ever-shrinking GOP tent, while focusing on their strong desire for America to exercise a, shall we say, vigorous foreign policy in defense of her national interests and in opposition to the Soviet Union’s interests. The neocons were Art Vandelay, and they had decided to drop the importing and focus on the exporting.
Continue the journey with me below, please.
That was the 80s; when the USSR collapsed under the weight of its own internal absurdities at the end of the decade, the neocons cast about for a new Big Bad, but it was pretty clear that they would pick Islam. After all, the Middle East was already very near and dear to American neocons as one of the key regions (by the 80s, maybe the key region, although the Central America/Caribbean region was up there as well) in which our international chess game against the Soviets was being played out. The American foreign policy establishment, neocons included, had spent the decade of the 1980s being angry at Iran for installing a repressive, anti-American, theocratic despot at the expense of the repressive, pro-American, autocratic despot who had been in power before (which didn’t prevent us from doing sleazy backroom deals with Iran, because when there’s money to be made and human rights atrocity-committing anti-Communist militias to support in violation of Congressional prohibitions, principle can take a hike, you know?), to the extent that we sold chemical weapons to a disgusting Iraqi tyrant named Saddam Hussein because he promised to use them on Iranian soldiers, then watched as he also used them as part of a genocidal campaign against Iraqi civilians who were deemed insufficiently loyal to the cause. Heck, we even gave Saddam targets for the chemical weapons we sold him, because our customer service in this area is simply unmatched. Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, the book that became the Bible of the “us versus Islam” modern neocons, wouldn’t be published until 1996, but neocon godfather Bernard Lewis had already employed the term “Clash of Civilizations” in a 1990 piece in The Atlantic called “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” so it was pretty clear that America’s next opponent was going to be Islam even as the Berlin Wall was just starting to crumble. Indeed, one of the immediate criticisms (from the right) of neocon (since repented) Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) was the notion that Fukyama had overlooked Islamic fundamentalism as the new Great Enemy of liberal democracy, replacing the now-defunct Communist menace.
(As an aside, I am a great admirer of the way that Bernard Lewis uses titles to deliver his point before you ever get to the text of whatever he’s written. Examples include the aforementioned “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, “The Other Middle East Problems,” The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, and “The Middle East: Westernized Despite Itself.” You don’t have to be Nostradamus to predict what you’re about to read when you see titles like these.)
The rest of this story should be familiar: neocons, particularly at Project for a New American Century, pressured Bill Clinton to finish the work started by the 1991 Gulf War (when, oops, we needed to go to war against our old chemical weapons running buddy) and topple Saddam, but he only deigned to bomb Iraq a few times and maintain sanctions that hurt the Iraqi people but probably didn’t inconvenience Saddam all that much. But then GW Bush got elected and plugged hardcore neocons into every spot in his administration that he could find, 9/11 happened, and radical Islam in the form of Al-Qaeda was our Worst Enemy for about a minute before Donald Rumsfeld started running through the halls of the just-attacked Pentagon screaming about how Iraq must have been behind it all and anybody who disagrees is a fucking traitor, and we invaded Iraq. Saddam was removed, Iraq became the peaceful and stable nation it remains to this day, and the neocons, again at risk of having no enemy to organize around, announced that America had always been at war with
Eastasia Iran. Except, wait a minute, what the hell were we doing invading and overthrowing an avowed enemy of Iran, installing a government that would inevitably become a strong Iranian ally, no less, if Iran was the Big Bad all along?
This brings me to my point, which is that I’m pretty sure whatever animating principle neoconservatism may once have had has been fully replaced with a sort of wild-eyed, crazed shrieking about how America should be bombing somebody right now, why the hell aren’t we bombing anybody, OMG we look so weak for not bombing somebody right now, our national prestige is at stake here, for Christ’s sake let’s go bomb somebody already. The signs were already there with the lurching insistence that now Iran is our Worst Enemy, no wait it’s Iraq, no now it’s Iran again even though we just made Iran stronger by invading Iraq, which, if Iran is a bigger threat to us than Iraq was, seems pretty goddamn stupid in hindsight. There’s been a fair bit of chaos in the Middle East lately, maybe you’ve noticed, and this has kind of sent the neocon establishment into a berserker rage, where the only consistent position they seem able to take is that Whatever Barack Obama Is Doing Is Obviously Wrong and Weak and Disorganized (which, hey, I kind of agree, but not for the same reasons). America must insist that the Mubarak government and its military backers in Egypt stand aside and transition to democracy! America must insist that the elected Morsi government in Egypt stand aside and let the military take over again! America must insist that the military government in Egypt transition to democracy, again! OMG OBAMA WHY IS OUR EGYPT POLICY SUCH A MESS? We must do more to fight Al-Qaeda! No, that’s stupid, Al-Qaeda isn’t the problem, Iran is! Al-Qaeda is our worst enemy because They Did Benghazi*! OMG WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO DO A DEAL WITH IRAN THEY’RE OUR WORST ENEMY DO YOU EVEN HAVE A MIDDLE EAST POLICY OBAMA?
Take neocon…I want to say thinker?, Michael D. Weiss (please! HAHA try the veal!) and his long piece in Politico on “How Obama’s Syria Policy Fell Apart.” Now, my question would be, Obama had a Syria policy? Weiss doesn’t really answer this, probably because it’s not clear there ever was one, but then he kind of substitutes his own policy preference with respect to Syria (which, as Syria is filled with Arabs, you can probably guess is “we should be bombing the shit out of it”), then declares that Obama has failed because, hello, do you see any American ordinance falling on Syria right now? The thing is, the actual circumstances in Syria right now, which Weiss does a pretty good job of describing if you can wade through the “Jesus why are we not bombing this place yet” subtext, make it pretty clear that there is no case to be made for American intervention in this war. The rebels are fighting amongst themselves; ISIS and the FSA are essentially fighting a civil war within a civil war, except that the FSA is so weak that it needs to get help from the Islamic fundamentalists who are opposed to ISIS despite being in about 95% ideological alignment with them (these are the groups with big stacks of Saudi money to spend). If Assad is toppled tomorrow, there is virtually no chance that Syria comes out of it as anything but a fundamentalist theocracy, because the only rebel forces with any muscle are fundamentalists. Weiss’s argument is that the US must have missed a window in which it could have armed and trained the secular Syrian rebels, while also bombing Assad’s forces, of course, to allow them to fight the civil war without the fundamentalist brigades, or at least so that they could effectively beat back the Islamist challenge that now threatens to drive them from the field completely, but he makes this argument without ever demonstrating that such a window actually existed.
The thing is, the administration’s current policy in Syria, and Iraq, where we’re sending weapons to Maliki to fight the same groups that are fighting to oust our enemy Assad in Syria, is incoherent, but if the administration’s overriding consideration is to contain groups like Al-Qaeda, then its Syrian policy hasn’t “fallen apart.” The FSA’s inherent weakness and vulnerability to an Islamist challenge within the ranks of the rebellion made it a very poor partner for American aid from the very beginning, regardless of how horrible Assad is or how much we must contain Iran because they are our Worst Enemy. I keep harping on the fact that Assad remaining in power is only the second-worst outcome in Syria from an American perspective, but it’s true if you take the position that our biggest regional problem is still radical terrorist networks and not Iran. Neocons like Weiss obviously have a different agenda, where 9/11 is a hazy memory and Iran is The Problem, but the argument that Iran is less of a problem for us right now than Salafi terrorism is a legitimate argument, and that’s obviously Obama’s position here. Iran is clearly a bigger problem for Israel than Al-Qaeda, but while we are Israel’s ally we are not Israel itself, and our national priorities are allowed to diverge from theirs. And anyway, if we intervened full-scale tomorrow, toppled Assad, and saw the Syrian Islamic Front take power (as it probably would, after a bloody fight with ISIS), you can bet your ass that folks like Weiss would immediately start angrily wondering why Obama overthrew that nice secular Assad and turned Syria over to these crazy jihadis, when Sunni fundamentalism is, after all, our Worst Enemy.
Notice that I haven’t talked about the Syrian people much here, which is OK because neither does Weiss; local populations are props for the neocon agenda. We must Free Them or Stop the Genocide or whatever as long as that kind of rhetoric is useful in making the case for war, but then we start bombing and the civilians we kill don’t seem to matter that much. The only thing that can help the Syrian people is an end to the war, period, and it’s arguable that an end that leaves Assad in power, provided it comes quickly, might even be preferable (from the standpoint of minimizing civilian deaths) to an end that topples Assad and leaves a bunch of jihadi militias going at each other tooth and nail, and probably slaughtering a bunch of Alawite and Christian kuffar at the same time, to burnish their holy warrior credentials. Again, these are the people the neocons would currently prefer to see come to power in Syria, except if they actually did, the neocons would flip their constantly flipping lids in response.
It must be damn tough to be a neocon these days, leaping from one “existential” threat to another and complaining all the while that whatever we’re doing is wrong and FOR FUCK’S SAKE WHERE ARE THE GODDAMN BOMBS? How do you keep track of who we’re supposed to be hating on which day?