For neoconservatives, those that remain, last week’s Republican debate must have been paradoxical. On one hand, they should be cheered: in a primary dominated by economic headlines, this debate was on national security, a topic closer to their heart, and was co-sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, still a refuge for neocons including the almost-forgotten Paul Wolfowitz who asked a notably un-hawkish question about development assistance. But on the other hand the candidate responses talked little about moral purpose and foreign policy interventionism and more about sanctions, no-fly zones, limiting troops stationed in Afghanistan and the reality of Pentagon budget cuts – all things most neocons find unsettling.
Indeed, to a neocon, a number of comments from the other night would have signified a hair-raising realignment of GOP priorities:
John Huntsman: “I believe our national security strategy and our foreign policy increasingly needs to follow, number one, economic policy.”
Mitt Romney: “The right course in America is to stand up to Iran with crippling sanctions, indict Ahmadinejad for violating the Geneva [sic?] — or the Genocide Convention, [and] put in place the kind of crippling sanctions that stop their economy.”
Ron Paul: “I am convinced that needless and unnecessary wars are a great detriment. They undermine our prosperity and our liberties. They add to our deficits and they consume our welfare. We should take a careful look at our foreign policy.”
All of this asks questions about whether neoconservatives have much sway in the GOP anymore, much less with an electorate wary of costly adventures overseas. As the debate showed, the candidates are keen to spend as little time on the topic as possible; they preferred to steer debate questions toward things like budgetary matters and immigration policy. A number of commentators have also written them off. In August, Peter Bienart wrote in the Daily Beast that the neoconservative ideology is dead – rendered irrelevant in lean economic times and after the death of Osama Bin Laden.
I think people like Bienart are right to an extent. But neoconservatism has died many a death only to become relevant again. Even neocons have mistakenly sounded the death knell of their own persuasion. Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, wrote “Neoconservatism: A Eulogy” in 1996 where he downplayed the “tiny handful” of second-generation neocons who supported democracy promotion. We should also recall that foreign policy was an almost nonexistent topic in the 2000 elections. Most neocons supported John McCain in the Republican primaries and were wary of then Governor Bush’s “realism.”
It is also important to remember that neoconservatism has never been a “mass movement” with wide political appeal. Neoconservatives never held Tea Party rallies. The Project for the New American Century, the now defunct neocon think tank credited with cheerleading the invasion of Iraq never had a staff more than six people. Their publications like Commentary, The Public Interest and The Weekly Standard never had large readerships or made much (if any) money. In truth, neoconservatives always felt more comfortable with the minority voice, in opposition to the general consensus of the status quo. As liberals most of them went against the grain of the New Left in the 60s and as conservatives they chastised Reagan on arms control in the 1980s. At his funeral in 2009, Irving Kristol, know as the godfather of neoconservatism, was celebrated as the “perennial outsider.”
In this role neoconservatives are still hanging around. The American Enterprise Institute is still sponsoring events. Bill Kristol, son of Irving, still edits The Weekly Standard and appears regularly on television. He is also involved with The Foreign Policy Initiative, a think tank aiming to remind America of its global mission, as is Robert Kagan, also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Charles Krauthammer still writes an op-ed column for The Washington Post and appears on Fox News. Neocons have always operated from these vantage points, disinterested in the day-to-day life of the politico. In their well-worn public intellectual capacity they will still have some influence in reminding candidates of the importance of limited intervention in places like Libya and perhaps Syria and in preserving American power through robust defense spending. So, even in the midst of the fiscal policy heavy 2012 elections, I would not write the obituary of their “ism” just yet.