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The Myth of an American Neoconservative Cabal

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
January 14, 2004
The Daily Star

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For more than two years, a frenzy has been building about how neoconservatives supposedly have hijacked the Bush administration’s foreign policy and transformed America into a unilateral monster. In the process it’s become hard to figure out what “neocon” is supposed to mean. As one of those dreaded neocons, I can assure you that rumors of our ascendancy ­ and our platform ­ have been much exaggerated. The reality is more complicated and prosaic.

Let’s start by figuring out what a neocon is. The original neoconservatives were, in the famous formulation of writer Irving Kristol, “liberals who’d been mugged by reality.” Few were followers of Leo Strauss or Leon Trotsky, who are often cited as the key influences on neocons. Most were simply conservative Democrats who felt left behind by the left-wing drift of their party in the 1970s. And today, most of the younger neocons have never even been on the left. So what does the term mean anymore?

Some use it as a virtual synonym for “Jew,” citing neocon thinkers like former Pentagon official Richard Perle and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, to suggest that a Zionist conspiracy is running the United States. This ignores two rather important points: First, many neocons ­ including former government officials William Bennett and James Woolsey, as well as theologian Father John Neuhaus ­ aren’t Jewish. Second, neocons are far from exclusively focused on Israel’s well-being. In the past two decades they have championed democracy in places as disparate as the Philippines, Burma, South Korea and Poland. They have also been particularly strong advocates of interventions to help oppressed Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and Somalia.

If “neocon” has any meaning today, it refers to a variety of Wilsonian thought in American politics. The Wilsonian label has become affixed to those who believe that US foreign policy should be guided by the promotion of American ideals, not just, as advocates of realpolitik believe, the protection of narrowly defined strategic and economic interests. However, Wilsonians are not all alike and can be divided into two main camps.

“Soft Wilsonians” share with former Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter a faith that multilateral organizations like the League of Nations or the United Nations should be the main venues in which the United States should promote its ideals, and that international law should be its main policy tool. They are willing to use force, but preferably only when (as in Haiti or Kosovo) the intervention is untainted by any hint of national interest. This is also a view shared by Democratic Party presidential candidate Howard Dean and most other liberals today.

“Hard Wilsonians” place their faith not in pieces of paper, but in power, specifically the power of the United States. They believe that the US should use force if necessary to champion its ideals as well as its interests ­ not only out of sheer humanitarianism, but also because the spread of liberal democracy improves American security, while crimes against humanity (such as the mass murders perpetrated by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic) inevitably make the world a more dangerous place.

Neoconservatives are hard, not soft, Wilsonians. They have scant regard for Woodrow Wilson himself, whom they regard as hopelessly naive. Nor is there any love lost between them and realpolitikers such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Presidents Richard Nixon and George Bush, all of whom tried to pursue an amoral foreign policy. Their heroes are Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan ­ all presidents who successfully wielded power in the service of a higher purpose.

The Bush administration has become a convert to hard Wilsonianism, as seen from the president’s recent speeches calling for democratization in the Middle East. Is this the work of a neocon cabal that has infiltrated the government? Hardly. All the officials cited as neocons ­ such as National Security Council staffer Elliott Abrams and Wolfowitz ­ are second-tier policymakers. The most senior decision-makers are President George W. Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Not one of them is a neocon. They are mainly traditional, national-interest conservatives who in the past have been suspicious of mixing ideals into US foreign policy.

They have woken up to the need to spread democracy not because of the impact of the neocons, but because of the impact of the four airplanes that were hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001. These horrendous attacks made Bush realize that America could no longer ignore the despotism and fanaticism that had given rise to international terrorism. The US could no longer coexist with dangerous dictators such as Mullah Omar in Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The most realistic policy, Bush decided after Sept. 11, was one that would help spread liberal democracy in the Middle East and beyond.

But the triumph of neoconservatism was hardly permanent or complete. The administration so far has not adopted neocon arguments to push for regime change in North Korea and Iran. Bush has cooled on the “axis of evil” talk and has launched negotiations with North Korean President Kim Jong Il. The president also has established friendlier relations with China than many neocons would like, and he launched a high-profile effort to promote a “road map” for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that neocons (correctly) predicted would lead nowhere.

In addition, it’s still not clear how hard Bush will push for liberal reform among America’s ostensible allies in the war on terror, such as Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Neocons believe that the US has made a poor bargain by cozying up to these regimes, and that it should be doing more to promote openness, liberalism and democracy in those countries. But this runs counter to the arguments of realpolitikers, who want to focus on security cooperation above all. Despite the president’s rhetorical commitment to democracy promotion, particularly in the Middle East, it’s still not clear where the administration will wind up in practice.

In short, while neocons temporarily won the policy argument in some areas, the president and his inner circle are hardly marching in lockstep with their agenda. As in all administrations, there are competing factions at work, and no side will ever win all the policy arguments. The notion that neocons are running America is a myth on par with older conspiracy theories that held that the Freemasons or the Trilateral Commission were the ones secretly in control.


Max Boot is Olin senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard, and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power" (Basic Books, 2002).