Neocons Down But Not Out in U.S. Politics

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

February 13, 2012

Amid the growing threat of a new war in the Middle East, some see a surge of neoconservative power in the United States. In an interview with Global Times, Justin Vaisse discusses the current state of American foreign policy and the history of U.S. neoconservativism.

GT: Is neoconservatism influencing or has it already influenced U.S. foreign policies? In your opinion, has Obama embraced an alliance of neocons and liberals in his policy?

Vaïsse: Certainly not. In the beginning, his foreign policy was marked by a clear strand of realism: He de-emphasized democracy promotion, extended a hand to the Iranian regime and operated a “reset” of relations with Russia. It is only with the popular revolts, first in Tehran in June 2009, which caught him wrong-footed, and then in the Arab world, that he sided more clearly with democratic movements.

Obama is above all a pragmatist, adapting his prudent stance to changing events, which served him well with the Arab Spring.

There are liberal interventionist elements in his team, like Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Michael McFaul, or even U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and on some issues, they happen to be close to the neoconservatives, but he doesn’t necessarily follow their advice.

On Syria for example, he has remained very cautious. And he still has a solid current of realism in his strategy, exemplified by the prudent exit from the two wars, which were dragging U.S. power down, in Iraq and Afghanistan. More generally, this is a time for cutting expensive deployments abroad, not asserting U.S. military power all over the world.

GT: Neoconservatism is regarded by many as having been “buried in the sands of Iraq.” How do you see the current situation and development of neoconservatism in the U.S.?

Vaïsse: Neoconservatism, a school of thought emphasizing the need for U.S. primacy and the importance of democracy, never really left the scene, and it is still present in the Washington foreign policy debates.

It has little or no influence on the Obama administration, but it does have some influence on the Republican party, including front-runner candidate Mitt Romney.

More generally, neoconservatives are very present, by their writings and media interventions, in important national debates like defense spending cuts, which they vociferously oppose, Iran, for which most neoconservatives advocate a more muscular answer, or the Arab Spring, where they have generally been at the forefront of support for democratic uprisings.

GT: How do you regard the present U.S. pressure on Iran over its nuclear program?

Vaïsse: The policy pursued by the Europeans and the Americans consists in increasing the pressure on Tehran until the regime gets back to the negotiating table with a real readiness to talk because it gets worried it will lose its power. Iran is in breach of its obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and vis-à-vis various UN resolutions, but even more importantly, its acquisition of nuclear weapons is literally unacceptable by Israel.

So in order to avoid an Israeli strike, the sanctions policy has to work, and both Washington and the Europeans must convince Israel that they won’t support a strike, because it would be disastrous for Israel’s image in the region, it would reinforce the Iranian regime, and would only delay the nuclear program by a few years. These are all things that the Israelis know very well themselves.

This is rational, and so far, has neither succeeded nor failed. The sanctions seem to be finally biting hard. But it is perhaps too rational, and it is also risky.

Many neoconservatives have been in favor of a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities for quite some time. Just read the right-wing U.S. magazines Weekly Standard or Commentary, for example. Indeed, at the high point of U.S. power in 2002-03, the joke among hawks was “Everybody wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”

GT: Is there a chance of a U.S. military strike against Iran?

Vaïsse: I don’t see any possibility of a U.S. military strike. True, for the U.S. President, the political price of letting Iranians get the bomb is very high, but launching a military strike would have all sorts of negative and potentially dramatic effects on the region, whereas a nuclear Iran could be contained.

Obama’s grand strategy has been to reconfigure U.S. leadership, to extract the U.S. from two costly wars in the Middle East, he is certainly not looking to start one with Iran. Although he supported the intervention in Libya, it was limited from the start.

GT: If Romney wins the presidential election, will neoconservatism return to the heart of U.S. policy?

Vaïsse: I don’t think Romney is a neocon at heart. Like on many other issues, he has tended to adapt to changing circumstances. For example, in June 2011, he was advocating getting U.S. troops out of Afghanistan as soon as determined feasible by the generals.

This is definitely not a neoconservative position, but one which reflects the reality of the current Republican base, who are tired of costly deployments abroad. More recently, Romney has sounded more neoconservative, vowing to keep the U.S. “the strongest nation on Earth” in a new “American century,” a phrase often used by neoconservatives, and promising to increase the defense budget.

That strategy is meant to draw a stark contrast with Obama, who is decreasing that budget, and is accused by Romney of leading a policy of weakness and apology. Obama, however, has garnered enough credential through Osama bin Laden’s death to be largely immune from this accusation. If you look at Romney’s foreign policy team, it incorporates both realists and neoconservatives, as the teams of major Republican candidates always do.

GT: What’s the future of neoconservatism in the U.S.?

Vaïsse: The current mood in the U.S. is toward introversion, not extraversion. It is loosely comparable to the mood of the 1950s, 70s or 90s, where foreign deployments are reduced and defense spending goes down. It is not isolationism, but U.S. public opinion is tired of military interventions.

The social context in the U.S. now is not favorable to neoconservatism, but it doesn’t mean that this school of thought will disappear. On the contrary, with many talented thinkers and writers, it is only preparing for better days, similar to the early 1980s or the early 2000s, where it can exert significant influence over policy again, because then it will be more in tune with the dominant mood of assertiveness in the U.S..