Much has been written about “neoconservatism.” For those who would like the most authoritative source I would suggest the collected works of the “father of neoconservatism,” Irving Kristol (“The Neoconservative Persuasion”), which I reviewed on this blog. Simply put, in the foreign policy realm, neoconservatism as Kristol wrote (pages 190-191), swallowed conservatism a while back, creating “a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing in a modern democracy.”
This is especially so when it comes to foreign policy. There will always be an isolationist strain on the left and on the right, but the prevailing view of the Republican Party for a generation has been, in broad terms, supportive of a strong national defense, human rights and democracy promotion, and unwilling to yield American interests to multilateral institutions (although dedicated to forming alliances to advance the interests of America and the West more generally). That was Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy and that was George W. Bush’s foreign policy.
When the Tea Party came along there was consternation about its foreign policy views. However, as I have previously written, the large swath of conservatives in this country, especially Christian conservatives, have remained faithful to a forward-leaning foreign policy.
In a piece in Politico by Ben Smith and Byron Tau, Elliott Abrams explains, “Once upon a time, there was a debate within the party between realists of the Brent Scowcroft variety and the neo-cons. . . .It seems like realists have lost that debate.” He continues, “The party is reasonably united . . .There is a consensus about the need for American leadership of the world.”
And that brings me to the remainder of the piece. Smith and Tau write, “When George W. Bush left office in 2009, liberal Democrats and a fair number of moderate, traditional Republicans proclaimed the good news: The GOP neo-cons were dead, chased from Washington in disgrace. But as Republican presidential hopefuls begin developing foreign policy platforms, a clear and surprising pattern has emerged: They’re back, and so far winning the fight for the direction of the party.”
Smith and Tau are right that the 2012 GOP presidential contenders (at least the serious ones) are not isolationist. Other than the father and son Pauls, there are very few national Republicans who are. But it is a misnomer to say that the neocons are back. In short, they never left. After all, the Republicans nominated Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008. He, along with his finest surrogate in the race, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), remains the principal voice in the Senate for a robust American foreign policy that projects American power and values. There is no Republican leader in the House or Senate who can be characterized as isolationist. And while budgets are tight, the freshmen class of Republicans remains pro-defense, pro-Israel and pro-human rights.
Moreover, it is not correct that critics of such a policy were or are “moderate, traditional Republicans.” To the contrary, they are hard-core conservatives who have always been isolationist (e.g. Grover Norquist, Pat Buchanan) or Libertarians, e.g. Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.). The “mainstream Republicans” are the ones who consistently support Israel, who back missile defense, who recoil when President Obama bows before dictators and who scream (or cry) when he perpetually misses the boat at critical moments (e.g. Iran 2009, Libya 2011).
As for the 2012 field and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Smith and Tau are right that Barbour’s remarks on Afghanistan caused a double take from many conservative insiders. But to be fair, Barbour has never had any foreign policy role, has never spoken extensively on it (his Israel speech, as I reported, was boilerplate stuff), and, I will wager, has no foreign advisers at his disposal. So before we write him off as a Ron Paul acolyte, perhaps he should have a chance to get up to speed.
Smith and Tau’s central message, however, should not be obscured: The Republican Party remains internationalist and, yes, neoconservative in its foreign policy.