The World

What Is a Neocon, Anyway?

Don’t feel bad for these guys. 

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

My new colleague Reihan Salam’ column “Why I Am Still a Neocon” has set the foreign policy Twitterati ablaze with denunciations. But from what I can tell, this is almost entirely due to his use of that particular word. If the article had been titled and framed as “why Rand Paul’s critique of American militarism goes too far,” or “why the U.S. still needs to maintain overwhelming military superiority,” or “why I  hold basically mainstream views on U.S. foreign policy,” it’s unlikely we would all be talking about it. 

Part of the problem is that the meaning of the word “neoconservative” is a little nebulous. Originally coined to describe a group of liberal and leftist intellectuals who drifted rightward on foreign policy issues during the 1970s, it’s now more often used to describe the views of members of the Bush administration like Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney as well as their ideological allies at places like the American Enterprise Institute and the Weekly Standard. As generally described, a neocon is one who believes the U.S. should maintain an activist foreign policy, using American power and influence, including military force, to promote U.S. interests and the spread of democracy. Neocons also differ from liberal internationalists in that they are generally skeptical of multilateral institutions like the U.N.

Some would probably quibble with that definition or add to it, but the one Salam offers is quite different. He is a neocon, he writes, because he believes “that the U.S. should maintain an overwhelming military edge over all potential rivals, and that we as a country ought to be willing to use our military power in defense of our ideals as well as our interests narrowly defined.”

If this is what a neocon is, then there are a lot more neocons than I thought. Pressed last night on Twitter by the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf on what the difference is between a neocon and the rest of those “who believe in US military supremacy and some interventions to protect human rights,” Salam replied, “Some are willing to embrace the label and others aren’t.” But if a label is broad to the point that Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and every U.S. senator with the exception of Paul and Bernie Sanders could probably be considered neocons, is it still a useful label?

Salam writes, “we neocons have fallen out of favor,” but I don’t really see a major threat to the worldview he describes. Given that Paul, considered the most radical isolationist in the Senate, has proposed a 6.5 percent cut that would still leave the U.S. vastly outspending any of its potential rivals, including China, I don’t really see a major political threat to the idea that the U.S. should maintain military pre-eminence, even if some cuts to wasteful programs—which Salam concedes exist—are made.

The question of humanitarian intervention is a little thornier. Salam Brings up Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger turning a blind eye to atrocities in Bangladesh in 1971 as an example of the moral failings of a strictly realist approach to foreign policy. The fact is, nearly every administration operates somewhere between doctrinaire realism and humanitarian interventionism. Clinton intervened in Kosovo but not—as we are reminded this week—in Rwanda. Obama has intervened in Libya and sent military advisers to aid the hunt for Joseph Kony, but provided only limited support to the anti-Assad rebels in Syria. Opposing or supporting intervention in any one of these cases doesn’t automatically make one a neocon or a realist.

What’s odd about Salam’s piece is that it doesn’t really touch on any current foreign policy issues. Does he believe the U.S. should topple Bashar al-Assad by force? Should we be taking more aggressive measures to counter Russia’s actions in Ukraine? Should we be skeptical of efforts to reach a diplomatic agreement with Tehran on Iran’s nuclear program? Should Israel not be pressured to make territorial concessions on the West Bank? It’s these issues, not vague support for military superiority and standing up for human rights, where those typically described as neocons actually differ from mainstream foreign policy views. If we’re going to have a debate about neoconservatism, we need to talk about the policies neoconservatives actually espouse. 

One other reason I’m skeptical of the idea that neocons are becoming a presecuted fringe group is that while the U.S. public may have turned against the war, it’s most prominent supporters—the actual neocons—don’t seem to have suffered many professional consequences. The first time I go a month without reading about something Bill Kristol said on Morning Joe, I’ll know that neoconservatism is actually a thing of the past.