Where are the neocons today?

The neocons face their latest challenge in Barack Obama. His election and new vision on foreign policy opens the next chapter in the long-running clash -- and sometimes fraternity -- between presidents and neoconservatives. In their book, "The Forty Years War: the Rise and Fall of the Neocons, from Nixon to Obama," released today by HarperCollins, Len Colodny and Tom Shachtman explore the influence of the right wing, conservative movement on American foreign policy.

GUEST BLOGGER: Tom Shachtman

Had Senator John McCain won the presidency in 2008, the neoconservatives would still be in charge of foreign policy. A year into President Barack Obama's administration, with its highly pragmatic approach to international matters, the neocons remain the major group opposed to Obama's foreign policy.

But then, throughout their decades in the public eye, the neocons have been more comfortable -- and more effective -- in voicing cogent opposition than in executing policy. The neocons formed in opposition to President Richard Nixon's initiatives of d├ętente with the USSR, rapprochement with China, and a negotiated end to the war in Vietnam. They slowed Gerald Ford's pursuit of Nixonian foreign policies, ground Jimmy Carter's do-gooder foreign policy to a halt, blocked Ronald Reagan from too closely adhering to SALT II and embracing Mikhail Gorbachev's crumbling USSR, and continued their underminings during the presidencies of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

In a recent interview with Politico, former Vice President Richard B. Cheney disparaged President Obama's drawn-out process for coming to a decision on added troops to Afghanistan, accusing the president of projecting "weakness," and by delaying and over-discussing the question of extra troops, and "apologizing" to other nations for past (read: Bush Administration) actions, emboldening our adversaries in the world.

Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld leans over to talk with then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz while testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill in March 2003. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

This Cheney argument echoed a signature tenet of the virtually unknown godfather of the neocons, Fritz G. A. Kraemer, a charismatic civilian strategist at the Pentagon who died in 2003 at the age of 95. Kraemer discovered Henry Kissinger, mentored Alexander Haig, and counseled Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle.

Kraemer's concept of "provocative weakness" -- that any hint of weakness by the United States would provoke our enemies to aggressive moves because they would think we would not retaliate -- has been a centerpiece of neocon thought throughout the last forty years. So have Kraemer's other tenets, including a belief that the only foreign policy worth having is one backed by military force and the willingness to use it, a mistrust of diplomacy and of international organizations such as the U.N., and an unrelieved elitism that dismisses the executive branch's need to inform and consult Congress on foreign policy matters.

Recently, when the media has needed a voice to oppose, say, the Obama administration's diplomatic engagement with North Korea or Iran, they knew that neocons such as John Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations, would be sure to deliver a stinging critique. While prominent liberal Democrats wring their hands over Bush's war in Afghanistan becoming Obama's war, the neocons and their fellow travelers are the main applauders of the new troop surge.

The neocons have quieted their call for pushing democracy around the world -- that hasn't been working out very well -- and offer no coherent idea on countering Iran's apparent drive to create nuclear weapons, other than to back Israel should that country try to take out Iranian nuclear facilities. Similarly, they have no workable idea on dealing more effectively with missile-happy North Korea.

Today the neocons are on the outs, but they are used to being in opposition and are far from disillusioned, because they understand one great truth about America's foreign policy: that presidents have seldom successfully been harried from the left, but have been repeatedly and successfully assailed from the right.

By Steven E. Levingston |  December 8, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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I would think that chicken hawks would be a better term to describe these cowards. They have no problem sending others children to fight and die but would never put their own blood on the line.

Posted by: mjwies11 | December 8, 2009 3:00 PM

You forgot their principal characteristic. They're paranoid as all get-out, and like cornered rats, they figure if you just bite everybody, you'll be safe.

Posted by: gasmonkey | December 8, 2009 3:27 PM

It is easy to be a critic when you are on the sideline. The problem with the neocons is that they were in charge for 8 years and their ideas were total faiscos. Anyone who listens to them is obviously no student of history.

Posted by: cdierd1944 | December 8, 2009 3:32 PM

The NeoCons have been completely discredited by their horribly failed Iraq policy. They presented their plan to GHW Bush and he threw it in the trash, where it belongs. They spent the 1990s putting out ads attacking Clinton, and then they got Cheney and Rumsfeld to carry their water under Bush, Jr., who knew too little about his own job to understand what they were talking about.

Anyone advocating for NeoCon policies should pony up the $1 trillion they've already wasted in Iraq and put Afghanistan at risk from neglect.

Posted by: AxelDC | December 8, 2009 4:05 PM

With Surge II about to start, I'm not sure the neocon era is over.

Posted by: tfirey | December 8, 2009 4:06 PM

If one were to examine the policy goals of many of the neo-cons and then consider the goals of a traitor, one would be hard pressed to tell one from the other. Of course if one
were to ask an inmate at St Elizabeth's what policies they would like to implement one would also get the policies of the neo-cons leading me to posit that either treason or madness lay behind their reasoning.

Perhaps there was other causes, but, these seem the simplest explanations.

Posted by: patb | December 8, 2009 4:10 PM

They are still out there - they are being quiet because one day they may have to stand trial for some of the **** they pulled of in the last 8 years.

Posted by: dcperspective | December 8, 2009 5:10 PM

When I see these complaints about neo-con 'traitors,' I can't help sniffing the stench of anti-semitism coming to the surface.

Posted by: dennis10 | December 8, 2009 5:30 PM

"A year into President Barack Obama's administration, with its highly pragmatic approach to international matters,"

You mean pragmatic like selling out Eastern Europe by unilaterally dismantling our missile shield, in hopes that it might guilt Russia into supporting sanctions on Iran, which Russia immediately rejected?

Or perhaps like snubbing Canada, our closest allied neighbor, by not even including them in Afghanistan discussions despite them having one of the largest military missions?

Or insulting Great Britain by responding to extremely thoughtful inaugural gifts by giving them a DVD movie set -- in the wrong region code, for a British PM who is nearly blind?

Or screwing up relations with usually friendly Japan so badly that now Japan refuses to support U.S. Navy refueling operations for the very fleets that protect Japan, and is rethinking a 50-year old strategic base alignment plan?

Or completely ignoring an honest-to-goodness grass roots revolution in Iran - IRAN - in the hopes that he would maintain his imaginary rapport with the malignant thugs running the theocracy, who turned around, crushed the revolution, and then announced the creation of 20 different nuclear enrichment sites for their "peaceful" military nuclear program?

I didn't realize the Post had just started redirecting to the Onion. The next thing you know, you'll be telling me that President Obama resisted the Iraq Surge, claimed he would still have voted against it even after it worked, but then turned around and after 8 months of navel-gazing announced he was going to do the exact same thing in Afganistan. That would be downright nutty.

Posted by: zippyspeed | December 8, 2009 5:49 PM

Not until this very day did I know that the actual father of neo-con philosophy was Fritz Kraemer. In my book he ranks near the very top of the list of disgraced Americans/leaders who have failed the American people; disgraced leaders such as but not limited to George W. Bush; Dick Cheney; Donald Rumsfeld ,Paul Wolfowitz,and Richard Perle. Thousands of young men and women lost their lives to neo-con political philosophy. The decisions of these men, among others, has wounded this nation gravely,and most tragic of all are the countless lives sacrificed in unjustified foreign adventures, and the trillions of dollars of related expenses which cannot ever be retreived.

Posted by: joe100821 | December 8, 2009 7:39 PM

Conservatives and neo-cons have had disastrous effects upon this country's foreign policies, especially from a moral perspective. They have supported repressive, right wing governments that killed tens of thousands of innocent people, supported militaristic, imperialistic policies by our nation.

Unfortunately the neo-cons and moderate conservatives seem to dominate Obama's foreign policy "team" too. Obama may have duped most Europeans and other foreigners into thinking his foreign policies were a major departure from those of the Bush-Cheney regime. But most Americans realize this is merely spin and propaganda.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | December 8, 2009 9:49 PM

Shachtman is just schilling his book on Neocons. Labels are so meaningless - 'Plus ca change...' The more things change the more they stay the same.

The Democrats have spawned their own neocons, like Clinton, Gates and the whole west wing - Afghanistan or bust. The hawks are totally in charge. Labels are so meaningless.

Posted by: alance | December 8, 2009 10:10 PM

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