GOP Foreign Policy: Neoconservatives Looking For A Comeback In 2012

The Republican Party is divided like never before on the issue of U.S. foreign policy, with rifts over foreign engagement, Pentagon budgeting and the efficacy of diplomacy and international institutions. This article is the second in a series examining some of the key figures and movements within the GOP foreign policy establishment and the conservative press.

WASHINGTON -- Their ideology has been declared dead, done in by two wars that have sapped the country of blood and treasure and sent its economy and international reputation plummeting.

But if neoconservatism has gone out of style with most Americans, the most controversial and consequential foreign policy philosophy since the end of the Cold War has hardly faded away. The results of the unilateralism, preemptive war and democracy-promotion that the neocons forcefully advocated and helped make the official policy of President George W. Bush's administration are still playing out as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down. President Barack Obama may have banned the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques," but other elements of the "War on Terrorism" remain, from secret prisons in Afghanistan and Europe to Guantanamo Bay to the use of illegal wiretapping. And despite Herman Cain's claim that he was "not familiar with the neoconservative movement" -- among other things -- its influence is clearly on display in the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

If there was any doubt, last week's foreign policy debate should put them to rest. In the audience asking questions were some of the most notable -- and, to some, notorious -- neocons of the Bush era, among them Paul Wolfowitz and David Addington.

The government officials, lawmakers and scholars who held sway in the years after the 9/11 attacks remain unapologetic -- even if, as one of them put it, "neocon" has become synonymous with "baby killer." Whether working behind the scenes as advisers to the Republican presidential candidates or ensconced in establishment think tanks or new organizations formed to defend their honor and rehabilitate their image, neoconservatives are working for a comeback.

The earliest GOP debates this year exuded a distinctly isolationist cast, but that quickly changed.

At the first foreign policy debate earlier this month, Cain and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said they would bring back waterboarding. In the second, Texas Gov. Rick Perry called for a no-fly zone over Syria. And after Jon Huntsman repeated his call to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney declared, "This is not time for America to cut and run."

"Appalling," was the reaction of Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, to the GOP candidates' chest-thumping. "The Republican would-be candidates are simply regurgitating ideas originally disseminated by the neocons." He accused all but Huntsman of "demagoguing" and said the field lacked "historical memories absent from mass psychology."

"The Republican policy establishment, by and large populated by second- and third-generation Republican hawks whose government experience was Bush's war on terrorism, must have gotten to the candidates," said James Rubin, State Department spokesman during the Clinton administration. "It's like two different parties. ... Assuming that economic sanctions won't convince Iran to change course -- and I don't think they will -- Romney seems pretty locked into bombing Iran if he's president."

American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin, who is not related to James Rubin, sees it another way. "Perhaps neoconservatism is the new realism," he said. "Pundits dismissed the Iraq war as neoconservatism's Waterloo, but President Obama's failure to sway Iran with diplomacy seems to be swinging the pendulum back and may lead Washington's majority fence sitters to give the neoconservatives' arguments a second hearing, even if they don't want to admit it."

The GOP candidates are certainly lending their ears. Romney's roster of foreign policy advisers is heavy on Bush administration retreads, including neocons like Robert Kagan, Dan Senor and Eliot Cohen. Newt Gingrich has an eclectic list that includes several old war hawks as well as David Wurmser, a former aide to John Bolton -- once dubbed "the angriest neocon," whom the ex-speaker of the House has mentioned as a possible candidate for secretary of state.

Douglas Feith, former head of the Pentagon's controversial Office of Special Plans, is an informal adviser to Perry. Cain has also mentioned Bolton, a former U.N. ambassador, as cabinet material.

"Were I a politician running for the White House, I don't know what would cause me to look to Doug Feith as a source of wisdom and counsel," said Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University international relations professor whose son died in 2007 while fighting in Iraq. He made clear his comment could apply to others within the party: "Neoconservatives have brought discredit upon their views by proposing and vigorously supporting policy initiatives that have cost the country dearly and produced next to nothing in terms of positive results."

Neocons, however, are unfazed by such criticism.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is "very disappointed" to hear fellow Republicans endorse torture, but otherwise he has no regrets for toeing the neocon line during the 2008 presidential campaign and now in Congress. "The fact that we have not had another attack is validation of both past and present policies [on terrorism]," he said. "But we still have progress to make. We still have to continue the fight."

To ensure that message is reinforced, neocons and their fellow travelers have formed new groups since the 2008 election to defend their ideas. Liz Cheney's Keep America Safe, is among the most prominent working to protect and salvage the reputation of the previous administration. Its website reminds all that, "The United States remains a nation at war" and that besides Iran, "America's interests are challenged by an authoritarian China, a resurgent Russia, and dictators in our own hemisphere who ally themselves with our adversaries."

Another think tank, the Foreign Policy Initiative, promotes "continued U.S. engagement -- diplomatic, economic and military -- in the world and rejection of policies that would lead us down the path to isolationism." Its principles, including William Kristol, are the same as those behind the now-dormant Project for the New American Century, which helped craft the Republican talking points used to build a case for war in Iraq.

"Obviously not everything we did in Iraq was right. It hasn't been neat. It's very complicated," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), another leading neocon on Capitol Hill. "It continues to be a struggle, but now it's a political struggle" following "the most democratic elections" ever held in the Arab world. And the inspiration, he insists, it not the Arab Spring uprisings but the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Still, even as neoconservatives are working hard for a second coming of their ideology, the GOP candidates seem to recognize the stigma of being associated too openly with them -- and with George Bush, specifically. So this time they are looking to another, more popular savior to personify the cause.

"George W. Bush was a highly controversial president and the controversies are still fresh. It seems to me that current politicians who want to embrace those policies can ascribe them to Reagan and call them Reaganite policies," said Feith. "All the symbolism [about a strong America] you would want by embracing Bush you can get by embracing Reagan."

"Ronald Reagan called it 'Peace through Strength' and he was never more right than today," Romney said in a major speech on foreign policy last month. "It is only American power -- conceived in the broadest terms -- that can provide the foundation of an international system that ensures the security and prosperity of the United States and our friends and allies around the world."

Elliott Abrams, a national security adviser in the Bush White House, said even if some GOP candidates display antipathy toward global involvement, that has more to do with disgust with Obama's policies than any real shift away from neoconservative values.

"They don't trust him as steward of American power, but that doesn't make them isolationist," he said. "People who believe the lesson of Afghanistan and Iraq will be that the United States will never use its military might again are learning the wrong lesson."

Michael Rubin says neoconservatism wasn't only right, but that Obama's record qualifies him as a neocon. It was the Democratic president, not Bush, who oversaw the demise of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Islamist propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki and Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, he noted, marveling that the idealistic president who made a "fantastic rhetorical speech about democracy" in Cairo in 2009 became a leader "whose actual triumphs are in killing his enemies. He's come to appreciate the importance of a robust national defense."

It's too early to know, of course, whether Republican candidates are truly adopting neocon ideas or just their overheated rhetoric.

"The vocabulary that we associate with neoconservatives survives, so when we hear Mitt Romney promising to extend the American Century into perpetuity, embracing the idea of American exceptionalism, using the phrase 'free world' 20 years after the Cold War ended, that all echoes," Bacevich said. "That doesn't necessarily follow that it's going to translate into basic policy."

Francis Fukayama, whose book The End of History famously declared democracy the victor over other political ideologies and then changed his mind after the fiasco in Iraq, agrees. Despite blustery talk by some candidates, Fukayama said, "You just don't have the kind of consensus on the right in favor of a strong policy."

The Stanford professor said Romney's assumption of the Reagan mantle by calling for more defense spending or vowing to continue Bush's go-it-alone style to protect America's interests are "nonsense" at a time of fiscal crisis when the American public has become weary of foreign entanglements.

"Under the current fiscal circumstance, anyone has got to contemplate cutting back on Pentagon expenses," Fukayama said. "If Romney is elected there will be a shift in rhetoric, more of this chest-thumping and 'America is number one' rhetoric, but I don't think it will amount to much."