By Michael Brenner
The latest formulation of a binary world pits the so-called democracies against the so-called autocrats. The United States is the self-designated champion of the former while China and Russia lead the array of autocrats. In effect, it’s a reversion to long-running democracy/capitalism vs Communism all-embracing conflict of the Cold War. Today’s version has even less authenticity than did its forerunner. It retains the advantage, though, of intellectual and diplomatic convenience while serving American global interests.
An American orchestrated global to shape a ‘rules-based’ future world order is taken uncritically as the United States’ strategic imperative. The goal is to maximize its effectiveness by enlisting as many like-minded and like-interested countries as possible in a multifaceted campaign of suasion. This project is promoted as a moral undertaking whose actions are justifiable, indeed validated in ethical terms. Its key postulates are:
The United States is uniquely endowed to lead such an enterprise. In addition to its material strength, it has the capacity to inspire – it remains the beacon of idealism for those yearning to be free of repression.
American efforts to impress its vision on other governments are not tainted by imperial ambition. America’s rectitude and civic virtue validate its role as guide and prophet.
The United States, therefore, is not a ‘global Leviathan’ that advances its selfish interests at the expense of others. It is, rather, the benign producer of public goods.
The privilege of partial exception from the international norms, including the right to act unilaterally, is earned by an historical record of selfless performance.
The cynosure of this creed is the neo-conservative movement whose adherents now dominant positions of rank within the Executive branch and who exercise intellectual hegemony among members of the foreign policy community more generally. “Neo-conservative” – or “neo-con” – is nowadays the most common term of reference in the discourse about American foreign policy. So ubiquitous has it become that the casual reader understandably may be confused as to whether it isn’t in fact a pronoun with plural antecedent nouns. That is a common phenomenon in Washington where phrases like ‘neo-con’ are used neither for clear communication nor even to obscure ulterior purpose – but rather as devices to avoid thinking altogether. Jettisoning it, therefore, could serve a valuable public end. So drastic a response should be avoided, though, since the term’s origins, mutations and spread are revealing of how the United States views itself in relation to the world.
Before embarking on an etymological exploration, a few prefatory remarks are in order. One, neo-conservativism is as much a state of feeling as it is a state-of-mind. It is not grounded on rigorously thought-through theories and their exegesis. Two, such reasoned thinking as occurs among its devotees is deductive – downplaying empirical data and encouraging ad hominem conclusions and pronouncements. Finally, it is a highly adulterated species of doctrine. It has interbred with several other intellectual and ideological entities to produce a hybrid – a hybrid whose behavior reveals its mixed genetic inheritance. It is as if we homo sapiens had assimilated a large infusion of DNA from Neanderthals, Denisovans, the newly unearthed homo sapien look-alikes in Morocco, Harbin and other humanin primates which made us act rather differently from the hairless ape who originated in Africa.
Origins of the Species
The first identifiable neo-conservatives recognized by political anthropologists appeared in the late 1960s in the asphalt jungles of East Coast cities. The Manhattan canyons were its Rift Valley. Their cranial capacity was exceptionally large – giving them at first a natural advantage in the competition to fill the evolutionary niche opened by the environmental shocks of the time. Those convention shattering developments registered across the entire country, thereby creating fertile conditions for the new creed’s success in moving rapidly beyond the asphalt jungle and its elitist precincts. Hence, its dramatic spread across the savannah of North America – eventually reaching Western Europe via the transatlantic electronic bridge.
The most potent shock was administered by the great socio-cultural-political upheaval of the 1960s. The radical counter-culture movement was multi-dimensional. Its initial mobilizing themes were Civil Rights and resistance to the War in Vietnam. At the time, America’s liberal elite were uniformly strong supporters of the former cause and opponents of the latter cause. The second is easily forgotten. Liberal Democrats were staunchly anti-Communist, anti-Soviet and anti-PRC. This was a matter of conviction. Many had toyed with Marxism in their youth and spent their middle age in reaction thereto. The only Cold War issue on which their position diverged from that of the hawkish Republican mainstream was nuclear arms control. Most supported Kennedy’s Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and rejected any idea of nuclear war-fighting (as well as roll-back in Eastern Europe). Otherwise, they were no less aggressive in their backing of an all-out, global campaign to prevent the spread of Communism (as was Kennedy). In addition, they all were strong, unequivocal backers of Israel.
Only one Democratic Senator voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Ernest Gruening of Alaska who later was joined by William Fulbright (the other being independent Wayne Morse). There was virtually no debate within the party or its intellectual auxiliaries about the premises underlying the open-ended American commitment to the war. That did not change until the TET offensive of February 1968, the fall-off in popular support (until then overwhelming), maverick Senator Gene McCarthy’s surprising success and then the body blow dealt by Bobby Kennedy’s defection. Those who were coalescing into what became known as neo-cons numbered among the loyal guard who kept faith with the war effort. By the time that position became untenable in the 1970s, they were full-time warriors in a much wider campaign to save the Democratic Party and the United States from radicalism – as represented by the nomination of George McGovern in 1972.
Mounting anxiety about the revolutionary methods of the fringe New Left exemplified by SDS, the Black Panthers and the violent Weathermen widened the gap between the neo-cons and those who rallied around George McGovern. People like Pat Moynihan (who joined Nixon’s White House staff), Nat Glazer, Walt Rostow, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Irving Kristol, Abe Rosenthal at the NYT et al remained New Dealers on domestic issues (for the most part) but saw that legacy being undermined by the New Left and the phenomenon’s exploitation by Nixon to drain support from the Democratic Party. A concrete issue was affirmative action for minorities (blacks in those days) that was seen as discriminatory by many working class, ‘ethnic’ democratic voters.
1950s idealism was not all phony: it fostered the brave kids who went South to put their lives on the line for black civil rights – something that is hard to imagine today’s ‘with-it’ generation doing. It was more than self-interest in avoiding the draft that ignited the growing youth opposition to the bloody folly of Vietnam. Nowadays, students lack the gumption even to stand up to university authorities who routinely treat them with condescension.
This “Macedonia” of discontents was laced with resentment and distaste for the purely “cultural” dimension of the Cultural Revolution. On those matters, most of the neo-cons were adherents to the conventions of post-war America. 1950s society which was experienced as a healthy crystallization of intrinsic American virtues with the New Deal corrective added. In purely economic terms, they were right – insofar as wealth distribution, opportunity and stable expectations were far more enlightened then than they are in today’s plutocratic America (for white men anyway). The massive challenge from a generation of youthful ‘anarchists’ made them recoil.
(Re)-Enter The USSR
With Vietnam on the way to being experienced as a bad dream, and then erased from the national memory-book as a smudge on America’s pageant of progress, neo-con attention focused on two international issues: the restoration of a credible national commitment to the country’s wide-ranging security engagements/interests; and standing up to a Soviet Union allegedly emboldened by the United States’ weakness. This is the period when the former Democratic liberals inter-bred with Republican hawks.
The matters that were the object of intense debate may seem moldy from today’s perspective. Except that their offspring (USSR-Putin’s Russia) and the passions aroused at the time are getting a belated lease on life in the Ukraine era. Most salient was the question of whether détente with Moscow was desirable or even possible. It shadowed debates on policy choices ranging from the terms of a nuclear arms race, Russia’s spreading influence in the Horn of Africa (Somalia) and West Africa (Angola – where Cubans were fighting to defend a self-declared Marxist warlord, Agostinho Neto – and Chevron oil facilities) from a South African and Washington backed warlord, Joseph Savimbi), West Germany’s Ost-Politik, the Helsinki Accords, and Che’s threat to assorted Latin American oligarchs (as goes La Paz, so goes Las Vegas).
The contest was won by the hawks, on most issues – and certainly in regard to the overall strategic frame-of-reference, thanks largely to the USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan and the unrelated Mullahs’ revolution in Iran that followed on its heels. American political elites were in consensus that the country was endangered, that the Soviet Union was a renewed threat to vital American interests, that America had to get the Vietnam monkey off its back (as in the invasion of Grenada, then Panama), and the military budget greatly expanded. Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory marked that turning-point. The post-Vietnam recessional had lasted 5 years.
Neo-Cons became strong backers of Reagan’s muscular foreign policy, adding their voices to the high-pitched anti-Communist rhetoric. This was the era of the Sandinistas, the Contras, the insidious implantation of half-baked Communism just 800 miles from Brownsville, Texas. Some neo-cons took positions in his administrations, e.g. Elliott Abrams of Iran-Contra notoriety . Some gathered on the staffs on ultra-hawkish Democratic Senators like Scoop Jackson of Washington State (Richard Perle). Others joined conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise institute and the Heritage Foundation. They also infiltrated what had been liberal think tanks – gradually transforming them from within to the point where today all are carbon copies of each other.
In the process, these ‘neo-cons’ lost their identity as New Deal Democrats on the entire gamut of domestic issues. In this, they trail-blazed the trajectory of the Democratic Party as a whole which, for 25 years now, has become steadily more hawkish abroad and corporatist at home. That phenomenon makes it difficult to singularize neo-cons today as inherently different from the Democratic establishment or most Republicans on security issues – other than in the packaging. We’re all “Neanderthals” now.
For the decade of the 1990s, the Classic neo-cons – and their partners – were in limbo. Not in the wilderness since the cohort, fellow-travelers and the like-minded occupied positions of influence – in government, in the think tanks, in the MSM and the foundations. As a collectivity, though, they were less identifiable – a victim of their own success, and of an America basking in its post-Cold triumphalism. We won because of our ideals, our economic robustness, our dedication – not mainly because of our might (although the neo-cons never stopped arguing that the Soviet Union collapsed because we were ready to squander more treasure on useless armaments than they could afford). If fact, the USSR collapsed because of Mikhail Gorbachev – the last utopian Leninist.
Attention shifted to neo-liberalism, not neo-conservatism. Anyway, it was the global spread of finance-driven capitalism that was consolidating the hard-won peace – ushering in an age of prosperity-based peace grounded on OUR values. Or so “the end of history” was heralded!
The Prophet Paul W.
Not all shared this vision of a Brave New World. They weren’t content to ride the historic wave of liberal teleology – with just a nudge here and a little coup there. These self-declared realists, in truth, thought more like Machtpolitik Europeans than idealistic Americans. The pivot of their thoughts and feelings were power constellations and any devils (real or imagined) who might arise to undermine Western supremacy – not a visionary liberal ideal of any sort. They saw a unique opportunity to establish the United States’ dominance as the master-builder and overseer of a global order than would ensconce American paramountcy for the foreseeable future. Without rival, without countervailing force, they felt that we were free to shape the international system as a potter shapes clay. The leading figures in this campaign were not neo-cons in the historical sense – albeit some of them emerged from that milieu. They were a self-conscious elite cadre of hyper-nationalists (Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, John Bolton), true believers in America’s Manifest Destiny, bureaucratic empire builders devoted to restoring the glory of the Pentagon and the Intelligence agencies, and those naïve souls who wanted the entire world to serve as their playground without adjusting any of their “Americanism.” A powerful impetus was added by Israel sympathizers and the Zionist lobby.
They were further emboldened by the stunning success of Operation Desert Storm where American forces employed the first generation of “Smart” weapons to crush Saddam’s army. ‘It could be done’ was the lesson drawn.
The Apostles were extremely well-organized, well-funded, experienced navigators in Washington’s corridors of power, and willful. Their aims and purposes were no secret. A declaration of faith was authored by Paul Wolfowitz in February 1992 from his post in the Pentagon as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. It took the form of a draft strategy blueprint for a New American Century: Defense Planning Guidance for the 1994–99 fiscal years (February 18, 1992). That phrase was adopted as the name for a foundation created the next year to propagate the creed during the Clinton interregnum. The paper leaked – causing embarrassment (temporary) for Bush the Elder’s administration where neither the President, Secretary James Baker, nor NSC Advisor Brent Scowcroft were prepared to sign on to so audacious a scheme. Wolfowitz’s plan, nonetheless, was inspired Gospel for its coterie of adherents whose proselytizing was pursued relentlessly – and effectively.
The Wolfowitz Grand Strategy was guided by these postulates:
- The United States’ long-term national interest dictates that it prevent the emergence of any rival to its global supremacy, or any regional power who could challenge its friends (Israel) and interests
- The United States should marshal all of its resources, including military forces, to enforce this strategy
- The United States should be prepared to intervene in ‘failed’ or ‘rogue’ countries who harbor enemies of the United States
- The United States should aggressively back friendly political forces (preferably but not necessarily democratic) abroad by helping to install and maintain them in office.
- The United States should expand NATO eastwards to embrace most of the former Soviet Union so as to ensure that Russia could not regain the position of a great power.
It is sobering to remind ourselves that Wolfowitz’s more radical ideas were marginal to the mainstream discourse within the country at large during the 1990s. Yes, Americans had shed the shroud of Vietnam in the first war against Saddam. Yes, they had restored their confidence in the prowess of American arms. However, they were not at all eager for another demonstration. Moreover, there were neither devils to slay nor a cause that could rouse the country’s latent moralizing impulses. Too, the hegemonists lacked the “idealism’ essential to make a strategic “sell” to the American people; just as there was no evil enemy to stir fear and anxiety as the prelude to making such drastic commitments. Hence, Wolfowitz’s Gospel evoked only a faint echo in political circles – even as its indefatigable apostles were roaming the land; proselytizing, founding cells and recruiting believers. There was nothing preordained about their ascendancy. It was the fear and dread sown by the horrific experience of 9/11 that allowed the plan’s authors to mobilize the public in support of actions that set it into motion. (Roughly comparable in a much-compressed time-frame – to the impact on Rome of the barbarian incursions of the 3rd century that prepared the ground for Christianity’s historic triumph).
At no time were ultimate objectives revealed to the country at large. Only oblique remarks hinted at the dimensions of the project. The convenient, all-justifying ‘war on terror’ was the ideal cover. Enraged, vengeful Americans found satisfaction in the war’s imagery and initial actions. They grafted their passions onto the unheroic person of George Bush. Every great cause must have a chief, however improbable the beneficiary of this transference. So it was. It was an easy passage for a people who, victimized as never before in their collective lives, were stirred by righteous faith in a cause whose necessity was sanctified by truth and justice. Moreover, America’s intrinsic virtue provided the assurance that none of its actions could be heinous.
When opportunity presented itself, the blueprint was in hand. A pliable, indolent George Bush would be their instrument; 9/11 the God-given occasion. That was provided by al-Qaeda, Osama bin-Laden and the Twin Towers. The world was transformed. So, too, was American politics. Islamo-Fascism was slotted perfectly and painlessly into the place previously occupied by Soviet-led Communism. Thanks to a handful of fanatics, and the ineptitude of America’s security services, the country was experiencing a new night of fear and anxiety. It was reaching out to grasp the ready hand of the so-called ‘neo-cons’ who, in fact, were practitioners of old-fashioned power politics.
It is true that a majority of Americans opposed the invasion of Iraq – unlike Afghanistan. Let’s remember the mass demonstrations that filled the streets of every American city. However, the Bush people and the ‘war party’ understood something crucial about public opinion in the 21st century. It is unorganized, ephemeral and liable to manipulation. Once the video game got underway with those incredible pyrotechnics, opposition dissolved like frost on a sunny morning. Lots of whiz-bang visuals, censorship of pictures showing the gruesomeness of combat, easy victories, a celebratory media, and universal political opportunism when the flag is waved vigorously and the patriotic drums are beaten. Moreover, the volunteer Army meant that only a tiny fraction of the population was affected directly by the invasion and occupation. Racial and religious bigotry also played its role.
By the time that the unsavory side of things – Abu Ghraib, IEDS, guerrilla war, sectarian strife, the birth of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia under our noses, massive corruption – began to slip into the collective consciousness, the entire country had signed onto the GWOT: the politicos, the think-tankers, the MSM, the elites generally. They had a tight monopoly on patriotism at a moment when Americans’ self-confidence had been shaken as never before and its vulnerability felt most acutely. There was nobody able and ready to challenge it – intellectually, politically or morally.
Moreover, successive government leaders exploited those emotions to mask their failures and their poor judgements. They kept the thirst for revenge at a fever pitch by fabricating threats, sponsoring FBI contrived plots, and encouraging Hollywood to go whole hog in promoting Cold War vintage terrorist porn of every variety. Military imagery and symbolism are now omnipresent – pervading every corner of American public life. As a result, there exists a de facto prohibition on public criticism of the Pentagon. Witness its total absolution from responsibility for the fiasco of the evacuation from Afghanistan. It was the Army and the Air Force together that made a complete mess of things: the premature, dead-if-night evacuation of Bagram; the absence of contingency plans – despite the deadline being extended 3 months by Biden; the random deployment of manpower; the panicked shooting of Afghan civilians after the bombing by undisciplined guards in the observation towers – despite Biden’s augmentation of the forces assigned to cover the evacuation, etc. Of course, the CIA made their predictable contribution to the botched operation by their off-base forecasts about the staying power of the Ghani government – thereby, extending their Guinness record of getting wrong just about everything of consequence over the past 20 years. Private wars by private armies and coups are their thing – not Intelligence.
In this environment, did ascendance of this ‘neo-con’ mutation deprive the Classic neo-cons of a distinct identity? Were the former just a variant of the genus ‘hawk’ whose coloration is an adaptation to clime and terrain? At the level of ideology, each has kept some of the original plumage; at the level of behavior, they blend into each other. The discrepancy can be explained by noting an independent variable: careerism. If power corrupts, careerism corrupts totally.
In order make it to the top in America’s foreign policy establishment, you have to demonstrate two contradictory traits: to present yourself as an idealist while acting as realist. You demonstrate your idealism via high-sounding verbiage. You demonstrate your realism through actions – like a mafia recruit making his bones. Since American foreign policy is all about acting tough these days, it is well-nigh impossible to elude the test – unless you’re content to pass your days in a university classroom or padding your resume of publications as a marginal think tanker on the free sandwich seminar circuit. That situational logic helps to explain Obama’s strenuous efforts to appear tough even though he didn’t have the stomach for doing the truly macho things like starting full-blown wars (Syria) or launching massive bombing campaigns (Iran).
It is not that Obama loved Democracy less; Rather, he loved America more – hegemonic America, Number One America
Within the foreign policy community more broadly, the ambitious no longer are content with being pen-pushers – especially in an age when the path into the inner sanctums of power seems open to anyone with a purchasable EZ-Pass. Example: Ben Rhodes – the failed novelist whose uber-rich brother leveraged a big campaign donation into a make-work job for Ben that soon placed him at the elbow of the Leader of the Free World.
Certifiable neo-cons with a veneer of the original idealist complexion have survived – indeed, thrived. Let’s name some names: Anthony Blinken and Jake Sullivan lead the pack; then Samantha Power, Strobe Talbott, Michele Flournoy, Derek Chollet, Ann-Marie Slaughter, Rhodes, Victoria Nuland, Susan Rice, Wendy Sherman with Thomas Friedman, David Ignatius, Timothy Garten Ash, and the NYT editorial board as high-profile cheerleaders. Yes – many are women. Most shared Madeleine Albright as godmother. Gender opens some doors, Hillary put Reserved signs on a plethora of State Department offices – as did Obama in the White House. It serves as effective camouflage, and it plays well among the party’s intelligentsia.
These Classic neo-cons are staunch interventionists – always in a just cause. Or so they proclaim. They stress human rights, democracy promotion, women’s rights, preventing abuses like ethnic cleansing, the four freedoms, etc. They fall under the rubric of R2P – Responsibility To Protect. That principle was first enunciated during the wars of the ex-Yugoslavia and the Ruanda genocide. It grew into a transnational movement whose promoters lobbied Western governments and the United Nations to accept that there exists an obligation to come to the defense of vulnerable populations exposed to organized violence. In this sense, it is an extension of the long-running debate about the scope and capabilities of peace-keeping – and the even more hoary debate as to whether America is destined to lead the world along the path of Enlightenment as model or agent.
The practical as well as intellectual challenge is two-fold. First, to take account of varying circumstances without vitiating the principle of credibility, e.g. differentiating Ruanda from human rights abuses in Bahrain, Qatat, Saudi Arabia or Guatemala. Second, marshalling the requisite capabilities when most national governments are chary of putting their troops in harm’s way where they have no national interest at stake, e.g. Somalia circa 1993; Bosnia. Finally, how to segregate the purity of good intentions from selfish political calculation. The R2P crowd never have been able to give satisfactory answers to these questions. When individuals gain power, their rhetoric and their actions both emit a distinctly hypocritical odor.
Case in point: Samantha Power at the United Nations. For her, and the Obama administration which she represented, Yemenis don’t count as legitimate objects of international assistance – nor do Rohingyas in Myanmar, nor do Palestinians. Realpolitik dictates otherwise. Moreover, charges of humanitarian abuses are magnified (and, at times, evidence twisted) when alleged victims are supposedly abused by governments on Washington’s enemies list, e.g. Russia, China, Assad in Syria, Iran, Venezuela etc. etc. Consequently, the difference in policy choices and in actions taken between R2Ps (Classic neo-cons) and hawkish Realpolitikers (Wolfowitz-like, mislabeled ‘neo-cons’) on questions of intervention vanishes – however different might be the points of philosophical departure.
Do the R2P people truly believe that there is a democratic teleology running through history – like a golden thread? That America has a singular duty to weave the pattern? There is ample reason to doubt it. Their behavior tells a different story – as do the sweaty egos of manifest careerism. Looking closely at American foreign policy discourse and conduct from 2008 to the present, one searches in vain for a single issue that pitted the neo-con ‘idealists’ against the realpolitik nationalists.
Whether de facto Realpolitikers share this mislabeling as neo-cons, therefore, is immaterial. It makes no practical difference what label you stick on Kenneth Pollock, Bruce Reidel, Tony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Wendy Sherman, Robert Kagan, Daniel Benjamin, Victoria Nuland, Michael McFaul, William Kristol or Richard Haass. They all share fealty to Netanyahu’s Israel, they share the currying of favor with Saudi Arabia, they share silent backing of Yemen’s Inferno, they share alignment with the al-Qaeda led opposition in Syria, they share in the castigation of Venezuela, and of course they outdo each other in the loud demonization of Putin’s Russia.
What we are left with are tactical differences over when to use coercive military force and in what magnitude. The American foreign policy community is as one in stigmatizing the Islamic Republic of Iran as inherently evil – an aggressive, destabilizing regime actively menacing major American national interests. The main divergence is over the tightening of coercive economic sanctions in violation of the JCPOA. (Only a handful of mavericks, associated with no Washington faction, recommend engaging Tehran in an effort to reach a general modus vivendi). One difference: fewer Classic neo-cons were ready to abrogate the JCPOA while some of the uber-hawks go so far as to advocate military assault on Iran’s nuclear sites. Biden’s people all agree on sabotaging current talks by setting unrealistic conditions. They remain divided on the question of resorting to air strikes. For the time being, it is a moot question since they recognize that a big war in the Gulf would sink what remains of the floundering administration. The two currents share another belief: they, like the past three – if not four – successive American Presidents, have preferred to see the Mullahs’ regime actually toppled – although the Classic neo-cons, like Obama, leave that objective unstated.
An even greater degree of uniformity prevails re. Russia – even before the Ukraine war. So-called progressive Democrats, R2Pers, neo-cons of every stripe, old-line Communist bashers, ultra-nationalists – all denounce Russia as an ominous threat to American security interests. Putin, personally, is castigated as bent on aggression in various forms designed to undermine the American position in Europe and the Middle East. In response, Washington has mobilized its NATO allies in an all-out display of muscle and bellicosity not seen since the Berlin crises of the 1960s. All this based on a fabricated account of recent history, rampant fantasizing and studied ignorance of who Putin is and what he says.
The bulk of this essay was written before China superseded Russia at the top of Washington’s enemy list. That does shift the strategic context in some respects – but the politico-psychological dynamic pretty much stays the same. Here’s why.
First, as to differences that count:
- The stakes are higher. The Russia ‘threat’ has been seen in restricted geographical terms concerning mainly Europe and the Middle East – to a lesser extent. China presents a civilizational challenge. American elites see us pitted in an historic contest to determine global supremacy. Whose values, whose interests, whose preferences will shape the interdependent world we all will inhabit? Deep in our national soul, Americans sense that the day of judgement in on the horizon when our founding belief in our Providentially endowed superiority and exceptionalism will be confirmed or denied.
- This dimension of the Sino-American rivalry may make it unique. However, the immediate, compelling emotions Americans feel closely resemble those experienced when the great threat and our dread came from Islamic terrorism and then Russia. For one thing, all these dangers are additive rather than simply substitutive. More important, the emotions of vulnerability and doubt that have shaken the American psyche over the past generation derive from within ourselves more than they do from specific external sources. That is the great constant.
The American foreign policy establishment’s mode of thinking about the world, their approach to understanding and interpreting observed phenomena, is the antithesis of Occam’s Razor. They implicitly assume archetypical forms of which the specific is a manifestation. Occam’s principle is to shave away unverifiable assumptions as misleading abstraction that too easily can led us into error. It rejects a priori supposed universals.
The characteristic American mindset today leans strongly in the opposite direction. While we vaunt ourselves as a pragmatic, down-to-earth people, when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world we are anything but. We do begin with the immediate which grabs our attention. Inescapably, though, we quickly shift gears by superimposing on it broad images and dispositions that are pre-existing. We rely on them to order the universe of observed experience.
Defining each incident’s meaning and implications for American interests requires a thorough examination of background, context and precedence. The chains of cause-and-effect are always intricate – for the preceding period and for projected effects. Yet, the impulse is to categorize the event by placing it in an existing frame of reference. Often, this impulse kicks in even before one gets a firm grasp on the facts of what happened. That tendency is understandable in terms of most human behavioral psychology. After all, we are not born researchers, analysts or disciplined reasoners. We live by mental shortcuts which abbreviate the phenomenological universe for us. However, when speaking of statesmen and diplomats we have in mind persons of exceptional responsibility who possess commensurate aptitudes and training/experience along with a keen sense of professional ethics. By this standard, the United States falls far short of what is needed or reasonably can be expected. The record provides ample evidence in support of that conclusion.
Consider the predominant approach to China, to Russia, to Iran. Occam’s Razor is nowhere to be seen. Quite the opposite.
China is Washington’s paramount worry. It constitutes a potential contender for the global supremacy. China’s economic cum military power, its iron-willed leadership – together are making it a challenger to everything Americans hold dear. That encompasses the one world order under Washington’s suzerainty project noted above, ‘escalation dominance’ in every region, realizing the teleological Truth of Western values, and – not least – the deep-seated belief in the Providentially bestowed American exceptionalism which is the bedrock of our collective and individual self-esteem.
Consequently, the strategic importance of everything China does is greatly exaggerated – from Huawei’s growing role in the American market for electronic technology to China’s constructing military facilities on the disputed Spratley Islets and its cultivation of ties with the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. Hence, the Spratly sandbars and reefs – and Melanesian coconut groves – are freighted with the entire load of meanings associated with the historic Sino-American competition. This compression derives from the combined strength of two oddly symbiotic mindsets. Most influential is the neo-cons’ raw drive to achieve the overarching goal of total hegemony by restricting the spread of Chinese presence in the Pacific. Accompanying it is the growing apprehension in the country that the United States’ supremacy in the world is slipping away, the sensation of losing national prowess, of its mastery in jeopardy. Together, they generate a predilection for seeking clear-cut outcomes in a relatively brief timeframe that reassure by confirming the optimistic belief in American exceptionalism.
This quintessential American approach to its foreign dealings is peculiarly linear. It too often sets a goal with inadequate regard to its intrinsic importance or the opportunity costs incurred in its single-minded pursuit. The interests and concerns of other protagonists are downplayed by an arbitrary delegitimizing of them combined with an inflation of American national interests. A direct line is then traced from where things are now to what you want them to be. The methods followed to accomplish that are accordingly taken as fixed and given. Contingencies for dealing with unexpected twists and turns are neglected. Hence, the strong inertial tendency to push ahead with initial ends and means or to abandon the enterprise totally. The former normally prevails before reality forces the latter. That has been the pattern in Afghanistan, re. Iran, Syria, and now Ukraine/Russia. The same holds for the escalating economic war launched against China. The consequence is that Washington finds itself repeatedly boxed into corners of its own creation.
The self-identified neo-cons, in particular, persevere by moving on to the next misadventure penciled in their agenda as derived from their immutable worldview. Doing so also permits the foreign policy apparatus to avoid two types of bothersome activity: nuanced thinking and skillful diplomacy. As one often hears in the corridors of power: “let’s remember that there also is a big risk in over-thinking problems.“ You declaim and you justify, you don’t discuss.
However, it is just not good enough to draft a one-dimensional plan and then set it in motion with the presumption of success. As a renown philosopher has cautioned: “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.” For almost always you do get hit in the face. What counts is what you did in advance to minimize the chances of being hit and how hard, your contingency plans, and your adaptability – diplomatic and at home. Failure to take those precautions lands you where we are today in Ukraine.
The founding neo-cons were thoughtful people, for the most part. However, the Kristols, Podhoretzs, Jeanne Kirkpatricks, Elliott Abrams, Kagans et al – the “hard” pragmatists – soon took control of the movement – in the manner of the 2nd – 4th century Christian Church centered in Rome. The Responsibility To Protect upwelling in the late 1990s was a sort of Protestant Reformation that sought inspiration in the faith’s original idealism. At the doctrinal level, the idealism endured into the Obama years. Its encounter with the world of profane power opened a gap between doctrinal principle and the power political ethic which they conveniently misrepresented as the duty to advance American national interest. This is exactly the thinking laid out by Barack Obama in his Nobel address.** Principle not only was lost; it was discredited. R2P today it is just another tributary of the great jingoist current that is pushing the United States beyond logic and reason in pursuit of a Heavenly Kingdom on Earth (global American hegemony) that exists only in its devotees’ deluded imagination.
The Wolfowitz Credo animates almost all: the Classic neo-cons, the macho neo-cons, and the raw neo-imperialists. The few non-believers are irrelevant to America’s foreign policy discourse. If you urge engagement with Tehran and dialogue with Putin, you are shunned as a heretic – like the Gnostics, and then Cahors, except that they at least acknowledged Christ, albeit as the Emissary of the true, concealed God (American exceptionalism) and Satan (Putin/Khamenei) before they were administered their just punishment.
This historical narrative brings to the fore two quite remarkable features of the present elite consensus that bears the imprint of the Neo-Con/Wolfowitz template. First, its near total conquest of the American mind succeeded despite an unmatched record of failure – in analysis and in action. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Belarus, Venezuela, Bolivia – capped by the catastrophe in Ukraine that we choreographed (including that fatal misreading of Russia). Second, the Biden administration has all but officially announced that we are now committed to a comprehensive hybrid war against a Sino-Russian bloc – a powerful rival that has come into existence because we did everything conceivable to encourage it. Yet, the foreign policy elite, the political class and the public have received the news of this titanic struggle with hardly a blink of the eye. The country has set itself on a fateful course in a state of mindlessness induced by a willful coterie of true believers inspired by dogma wreathed in ignorance and pursued in stunningly incompetence.
All or nothing: Hegemony or Armageddon. A logical outcome of a 40-year progression.