(Gary Cameron/Reuters)

“In Egypt, democratic authoritarianism is replaced with military junta. American neocons say send them more of your money.”

— Tweet by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), July 8, 2013

Sen. Rand Paul has staked out a vaguely isolationist position in the Republican Party, skeptical of foreign aid and military intervention. Earlier this week, he reflected that stance with a pair of tweets.

In Egypt, governments come and go. The only thing certain is that American taxpayers will continue to be stuck with the $1.5 billion bill.

— Senator Rand Paul (@SenRandPaul) July 8, 2013

In Egypt, democratic authoritarianism is replaced with military junta. American neocons say send them more of your money.

— Senator Rand Paul (@SenRandPaul) July 8, 2013

We were struck by his use of the phrase of “American neocons,” meaning neoconservatives. This is a strain of foreign policy thinking generally associated with Republicans (or sometimes, in the distant past, Democrats such as the late senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson). But it is frequently misunderstood and misapplied.

Does Sen. Paul have it right? (His spokeswoman, Moira Bagley, did not respond to repeated queries asking for specific examples of “American neocons” calling for more aid.)

The Facts

First of all, a precise definition of “neoconservatism” is rather difficult to come by, and people often associated with the term tend to dislike it. (Some argue that it is actually negative code for “Jewish,” though not all supposed neoconservatives are Jewish.) But broadly, neoconservatives are perceived to want to influence the internal politics of countries toward a more democratic path, in contrast to the so-called “realists” who prefer to deal with states, which may be headed by authoritarians, as they are.

Such facile definitions, of course, do little justice to the range of foreign policy options available to policymakers. And people who might agree on the course of action for one country might disagree on the options for different foreign policy issues.

Indeed, given the close association of the George W. Bush administration with the rise of neoconservatism, some key figures from that era are frequently misidentified as neoconservatives.

Former U.N. ambassador John R. Bolton, for instance, is not a neoconservative at all, but a hawkish realist who wants to advance U.S. interests and power overseas. (Peg him as a “national conservative.”) Just this week he penned an article in which he lamented the downfall of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who he said “understood his country better than the Western know-it-alls.” He said “the lesson for America [in Egypt] is to give priority to its national interests, not abstract democratic theory.”

Similarly, former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and former vice president Richard B. Cheney were not true neoconservatives; they cared more about the projection of American power. But they surrounded themselves with neoconservative aides adept at working the levers of power, which is why they often are associated with the term.

Okay, so who are some real neoconservatives? Jacob Heilbrunn’s 2009 book, “They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons,” provides a list on page 108. It includes figures such as William Kristol, Francis Fukuyama, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Elliott Abrams, John Podhoretz and Robert Kagan.

Not everyone on this list has taken a position on aid to Egypt, but of those who have — they want it halted. Abrams and Kagan, for instance, signed a declaration issued by the nonpartisan Working Group on Egypt on July 8. This is its first point:

The Obama administration should apply the law that requires suspending $1.5 billion in military and economic aid to Egypt following the removal of a democratically-elected leader by coup or military decree. Not only is this clearly required under U.S. law, but is the best way to make clear immediately to Egypt’s military that an expedient return to a legitimate, elected civilian government—avoiding the repression, widespread rights abuses, and political exclusion that characterized the 18 months of military rule after Mubarak’s fall—is Egypt’s only hope.

This is not a new position taken by this group. In 2012, the Working Group on Egypt also urged then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to withhold $1.3 billion in military aid from Egypt “until Egyptian military authorities reverse their recent actions and demonstrate their commitment to the democratic process and to permitting human rights groups to conduct their activities without harassment or interference.”

It is important to note that not all members of the Working Group would be considered neoconservatives, which is why such labels are generally not particularly useful. The group is made up of former officials and think-tank experts from both sides of the aisle, and not all previous signatories of Working Group statements signed the most recent statement.

Meanwhile, President Obama — no one’s idea of a neoconservative — has so far has refused to label the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi as a coup, which would start of process of cutting off aid.

In an interview on Fox News on Monday, Paul was critical of that stance. “We have a law on the books that says, you don’t give foreign aid to military coups when they topple an elected leader and give you a military junta and yet, we continue to do it and we think somehow we’re going to influence these people by continuing to throw money at them,” he said. “And I think it’s a real mistake.”

The Pinocchio Test

Paul either does not understand the term “neoconservative” or is deliberately misusing it. In any case, he has it backward. Some of the most prominent “neocons” are asking for aid to be halted — and people who are certainly not neoconservative are wary of cutting aid.

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