Editor’s Note: After the recent publication of President George W. Bush’s memoirs, Justin Vaïsse argues that the neoconservatives responsible for the Iraq War are still influential in the Republican Party and in the foreign policy debate. In spite of some efforts to distance themselves from an unpopular war, they have been instrumental in the decision of waging it, by pushing for their ideas and vision of the world within the Bush administration after 9/11, and most are still convinced that it was a legitimate war. Concerning Dick Cheney, whom President Bush often blames for convincing him to invade Iraq, Justin Vaïsse argues that he is still influential.
HERE AND NOW: First and foremost, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, these are names that many people are trying to conjure up from the past, but you say it’s wrong to think of neocons as something of the past. Do you mean though these same neoconservatives, are they still been listened to?
JUSTIN VAÏSSE: Yes, there are still very present, certainly in the Washington foreign policy debate of today, of 2010, and many of them are still writing, making their voice heard. Then, of course, they also have an audience in the Republican Party where obviously their voice if not dominant is one of the main, I would say, foreign policy school of thought, with their blend of interventionism, their idea that American power should be used for good, and that the risk is that America would do too little, not too much. These ideas they still defend and push and so, by being an important force in the Republican Party, yes, I do think, they are still an important intellectual and political constituency to be reckoned.
HERE AND NOW: But again, is that neocons in general or the specific neocons that also were the big cheerleaders in the run-up in the Iraq War, people like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz?
VAÏSSE: No, they are still pretty much the same people, I wouldn’t mention Perle too much because there is a whole aura legend around him, but he has been mainly doing business in the past few years, he hasn’t been that influential. I would mention Bill Kristol, Bob Kagan on the intellectual side, Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations, Elliott Abrams for example, Doug Feith. These are the people who were either in the Bush administration or on the sideline of the Bush administration but at least pushing in a certain direction that actually did have an influence on Bush, especially on the Iraq War but also on other issues. So they are still pretty much the same people, except that they have been joined by younger policy analysts. But they have still basically the same program or vision of the world that I outlined one minute ago.
Falling apart? The politics of New START and strategic modernization
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.
Over the arc of his presidency, Trump has shed himself of cabinet secretaries he doesn’t trust and surrounded himself with loyalists. That will continue and escalate. But the big problem is, he doesn’t know where he’s going.