Opinion

What do neocons have to do with Obama?

President Obama may be a pragmatist, but he's now in charge of two fundamentally neoconservative wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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The US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are fundamentally "neocon" wars. They were shaped by the neoconservative belief that American military might can replace rogue regimes with Western-style democracies that won't threaten US security.

Today, these wars are being led by a commander in chief, Barack Obama, whose views on foreign policy amount to a polar opposite of neoconservatism.

The neocons' grand ambitions are now in the hands of a pragmatist.

The resulting tension will shape much of Mr. Obama's work in foreign affairs. And it will also test one of America's most enduring claims: its commitment to spreading democracy abroad.

Today, Dick Cheney is probably the most famous neocon, so many people assume that neoconservatism is a right-wing movement that took root after 9/11. Not so.

Neoconservatism was founded in the 1960s and '70s when Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and other Democrats came to view their party – with its demands for an expanding welfare state and a less militaristic approach to the USSR – as a bastion of naive and destructive policies. They were liberals who despised hippies.

They associated themselves with the perceived more muscular liberalism of the first half of the 20th century, especially concerning foreign policy. In a 1995 Foreign Affairs piece, John Judis writes that neocons "were Cold War liberals who searched for a Truman in the 1970s and found Reagan."

The neocons' shift rightward initially brought them to the offices of Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the Washington senator and Democratic hawk on Vietnam. Later, many flocked to the Reagan administration. George W. Bush didn't campaign as a neocon, but his staff was dominated by neocon thinkers. After 9/11, neoconservatism was virtually synonymous with Republican foreign policy.

Across those decades, neoconservatives have supported myriad, sometimes contradictory policies. For this reason, Mr. Kristol describes his creed as neither a social movement nor full-bodied ideology, but rather a "persuasion." Still, there exist core neocon values, all of which relate to a notion of imperialistic democracy.

Obama opposes them all.

The most crucial feature of neoconservatism is its Manichean worldview, wherein the Earth is pitted in an urgent struggle between purely good and purely evil nations. As George W. Bush famously told then Sen. Joe Biden: "I don't do nuance."

During the cold war, this perspective was understandably commonplace, but neocons clung to it dogmatically, even railing against Reagan's overtures to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. From their view, the USSR was evil, end of story. It is this dualistic mindset that led to Bush's designation of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as the "axis of evil."

Obama, conversely, does nuance and he does a lot of it. Consider his tactic to reach out to "good" Taliban, militants presumed to be more worried about their salary than global jihad.

A second core feature of the neocon "persuasion" involves a commitment to the military as the ultimate tool of foreign policy. Neocons are skeptical of diplomacy and international institutions. President Bush sent an ambassador to France who did not speak French. And he nominated John Bolton, irascible critic of the idea of the United Nations, as ambassador to the UN.

Obama has staked his foreign policy on a return to American diplomacy, renewing discussions with Iran, Syria, and Russia, and sending Susan Rice, one of his closest advisers, to the UN. But diplomacy doesn't equal pacifism and Obama is no dove, as his Afghanistan troop surge shows.

Related to the neocon's militarism is their abrasive foreign policy tone. Neocons fear for the future of Western masculinity and pride, maybe understably so, but they project power in a paradoxically juvenile manner, employing the silent treatment and name-calling, among other tactics. They seemingly view aggression in speech and act as intrinsically valuable; whether it leads to the best result often seems beside the point. Obama delivers a markedly calmer and more respectful approach to allies and enemies alike. The result is a cool confidence more genuine than the neocon brashness.

All these aspects of neocon foreign policy – its dualistic worldview, militarism, distrust of diplomacy, and aggressive tone – lead to its unilateralism. It's not a principled commitment, but rather a natural occurrence that doesn't worry neocons much. Obama, by contrast, views multilateralism as a crucial foreign policy tool, which works hand in hand with diplomacy.

Neocons believe that American security and moral obligations demand the US spread democracy. They argue simply that every person deserves the freedoms associated with legitimate governance and that democracies don't fight each other.

In practice, however, neocons often carve out exceptions to their democracy promotion. They didn't applaud, for instance, when the Islamist Hamas party won big in the 2006 Palestinian elections. Neoconservatism would be more coherent if it promoted liberalism and individual rights, and in nations that had little relationship to US security.

All modern US presidents speak about the spread of democracy, but politics is about priorities. And Obama has focused more on international stability and economic development. For instance, he recognized the legitimacy of Iranian leadership after an illegitimate election because he wanted to maintain a stable negotiating partner. And his support for Afghan and Iraqi democracy is best understood in the context of searching for long-term stability in those nations; he never mentions spreading democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Finally, neocons hold the "realist" view that the only relevant international actors are nation-states. Their answer to Al Qaeda involved wars to remake states that sponsored terrorism. Obama sees a greater role for international institutions and, more important, for global populations. His greatest foreign policy stroke thus far was his Cairo speech in June, which was directed more to Muslim people than Muslim governments.

After "change," Obama's second favorite word is "pragmatism." Obama's pragmatism prizes global stability. This represents his deepest disagreement with neocons, who desire stability abstractly, but believe it will be achieved only through short-term chaos and US willpower to install democracies globally. Obama separates stability and democracy promotion intellectually.

Obama has five gigantic fires to put out – Iraq, Afghanistan-Pakistan, Iran, Islamic radicalism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – all of which threaten global stability. Unlike the neocons, he doesn't unite his solutions to these challenges into a grand strategy to save mankind. The flexibility this affords is a good thing. Whether any of his policies will ultimately work is another question

Jacob Bronsther, a law student at New York University and former Fulbright Scholar, writes for ThePublicPhilosopher.com .

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