The Return of the Neocons (and their Scorn for International Law): A Sword without a Strategy

The Return of the Neocons (and their Scorn for International Law): A Sword without a Strategy

[Rob Howse is the Lloyd C. Nelson Professor of International Law at NYU and is guest blogging this week here at Opinio Juris.]

According to Jacob Heilbrunn, the editor of The National Interest, the neocons are about to make a spectacular comeback in American foreign policy.  Writing about the midterm elections in the Financial Times last Friday, Heilbrunn observed: “the Republican party is resurrecting the unilateral foreign policy doctrines that first took hold under President George W Bush and his vice-president Dick Cheney.” So let’s take a hard look at the weapons the neocons have in their arsenal these days.

The first, as Heilbrunn notes, is Barack Obama, or more precisely discontent with his apparently reactive and hesitating approach to foreign and security policy, exemplified by situations such as Ukraine, Syria and the rise of ISIS.  If you read the fine print, to the extent there is any, the neocons like Cheney and Bill Kristol don’t have any master plan or worked out strategy of their own for dealing with these problems.  They appeal to the heartwarming (for some Americans) fantasy that, if the United States simply drops enough bombs and puts enough boots on the ground, victory over the forces of evil will prevail.  In this fantasy world, every apparent failure of intervention–Afghanistan, Iraq–can be explained by not enough American force being applied.  Consider Bill Kristol’s approach to ISIS: “What’s the harm in bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens?” This is the key logic:force has got to be better than no force, a sort of dogmatic inversion of pacifism. Of course, Kristol’s remark also speaks volumes to the neocons’ stance toward international law.

Then there is Senator-elect Tom Cotton.  As Heilbrunn notes,”Perhaps no one has been more impassioned in their support of the foreign policy of George W Bush than Tom Cotton.” Cotton, 37 years old, is the neocon wet dream.  After Harvard College (where he wrote for the Crimson, citing intellectual idols Allan Bloom and Leo Strauss) and Harvard Law School, Cotton signed up for the military insisting that he be sent into combat in Iraq.  While, as the legend goes, the army urged him toward a JAG-type position, Cotton would have none of it:  he had little interest in the laws of war, he wanted to fight one.  Cotton is perhaps the most credible of any of the neocons–he, at least, chose to risk his life in the war that he praised as “just and noble”.  He has also (at least somewhat) distanced himself from the main neocon strategy of withering attacks on Barack Obama, calling on Republicans to support the President’s plan for use of force in Syria and rather nobly lecturing partisan Republican conservatives: “we have one commander in chief at a time, and the United States is weakened if our presidency is weakened. No matter the president’s party or his past failures, all Americans should want, and help, him to succeed when it comes to our national security.”   While he shares the outlook of the ideological and partisan neocons, offering his conviction that America can and should seek “victory” in Afghanistan and Iraq, my hunch is that, given that he has had the responsibility as a soldier for the lives of men and women in combat, Cotton may actually prove a constructive and moderating force behind the scenes, if he does not consume too much energy in battles with the isolationist Rand Paul wing of the Republican Party.

When trying to disguise the emptiness of the “bomb them and just see” approach, the neocons still like to appeal to the depth of the great 20th century German-Jewish emigre philosopher Leo Strauss. In one attack on the supposed weakness of Obama’s foreign and security policy, Bill Kristol cited Strauss’s remark  “the sorry spectacle of justice without a sword or of justice unable to use the sword.”  Typically, Strauss’s meaning here is completely distorted or misrepresented: he wasn’t referring to any view of foreign or (international) security policy, but the failure of the Weimar authorities to reign in extremists creating an internal climate of terror and intimidation in Germany.  As I show in my recent bookLeo Strauss Man of Peace, the appropriation of Strauss, a serious and subtle thinker, as a philosophical backstop for aimless sabre rattling is if anything a greater fraud than the exaggeration of the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or the fiction of an alliance between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda (thought at least it didn’t get anyone killed). Strauss had a strong belief in international law (he taught an entire course on Hugo Grotius).  In a remarkable essay on Thucydides, rejecting a realist reading of the Greek historian, Strauss offers the following syllogism:  the benefits of civilized life are not possible without peace, peace is not possible without treaties, and keeping the peace through treaties is not possible without having trust that states will abide by them. That’s surely a passage in Strauss that the neocons skipped over.

What about Hillary Clinton? A few months back a story appeared in the New York Times suggesting a possible alliance between Hillary Clinton and the neocons. Reading the story carefully, it seems all spin and no substance. It seems built around the theory that neocon Robert Kagan has avoided a strong partisan Republican profile.  But there is no actual evidence that Kagan or any other neocon is in cahoots with  Clinton. The fallacy here seems to be that since Clinton seems not averse to use of US military power in certain situations, she must find neocon company desirable.  Or perhaps, if you want to be seen as tough, you need a pit bull. But Clinton can draw on the likes of Anne-Marie Slaughter and Samantha Power, humanitarian hawks within the Democratic Party foreign policy establishment.

Finally, Neville Chamberlain. No politician wants to be compared to Chamberlain, with his policy of appeasing Hitler.  Whether its Russia and the Ukraine or a deal with Iran on its nuclear program, any stopping short of the use of force or its threat is labeled appeasement and any compromise with our supposed enemies, Munich or worse than Munich.  After all our enemies are “evil” and would evil people ever sign an agreement that was in our interests, if they meant to keep it?  I sense that the reductio ad Chamberlainum is running a bit dry these days.  From my teaching experience, I would say that fewer and fewer people view the world in those terms today; I simply doubt whether the neocon rhetoric is likely to touch generations who have grown up with the messy complexity of the post-Cold War World, where certainties about power and its projection are few and the idea of America in control is too distant even as a fantasy.  But then I’m an incurable optimist who believes people can and do learn, and that more and more Americans will see the neocon “vision” for what it is: a rhetorical sword without a real strategy.

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All one need do is read elsewhere in this blog on the topic of the current policies on Drone strikes, failed UNSC reform and expanding Executive Agreements to know that there is plenty of policy hypocracies to go around. Without apologizing for the Bush Administration or the vehement supporters of Israeli, I think it would be constructive to return to a more transparent, rules based interpretation of both, the Supremacy Clause, and seeking greater regulatory coherence among and between the proliferating multitude of UN and other multilateral and regional bodies. Let’s hope the new Congress triggers a meaningful debate and true reforms.

Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

Neocons have shown themselves to be chicken hawks. Case closed.

Ethan Curry
Ethan Curry

Howse discusses the neo-conservative approach to foreign policy, as well as the group’s distaste for international law, ultimately criticizing neo-conservatives for lacking direction or a coherent strategy. He structures his criticism by looking at the “weapons” that modern-day neo-conservatives have at their disposal. In this case, those weapons are four politicians and a philosopher, three contemporary and two historical. Howse first discusses Barack Obama, and how neo-conservatives can (and probably will) take advantage of his inconsistent and hesitant approach to foreign policy in order to promote more hawkish, violently reactive international policy. In particular, Howse notes and subtly condemns the neo-conservative suggestion that — for lack of more delicate language — bombing the shit out of enemy combatants and the forces of evil is a viable first strategy. While Howse’s criticism does put neo-conservatives in a bit of a box, it is at the very least an accurate criticism, one worthy of being made and being heard. Howse next discusses Senator Tom Cotton, who’s vocally supported George W. Bush’s quintessentially neo-conservative foreign policy for over a decade. Howse praises Cotton’s credibility, as Cotton put his money where his mouth was back in 2003, choosing to risk his life in the… Read more »