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.