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Think tank: Neocons’ influence remains strong under Obama

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For those who thought the end of the Bush Administration spelled doomsday for the neoconservative movement, think again.

According to a May report (pdf) from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC think tank, neoconservatives associated with prominent figures like former Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol and pundit Richard Perle are still broadly active, despite policy failures associated with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

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Brookings Institution senior fellow Justin Vaisse, author of Neoconservatism: A Biography of a Movement, argues that because neocons never had the degree of influence that opponents credited them with, and also because of a general unawareness of their history, observers don’t fully understand the trajectory of the neoconservative movement that began long before the Iraq invasion and one continues today.

“Neoconservatism remains, to this day, a distinct and very significant voice of the Washington establishment,” Vaisse insists. In May he published the report Why Neoconservativism Still Matters.

Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, says that the most obvious place the neocons are still influential is in U.S. policy toward Iran, where the Obama administration is “continuing the Bush administration’s basic approach, albeit with a ‘kinder, gentler’ face.”

Walt’s assessment squares with a number of recent op-eds in the pages of the Wall Street Journal by Richard Perle, Abram Shulsky, Douglas Feith and Danielle Pletka, the latter of whom also testified on Iran before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs earlier this month.

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Walt calls attention to two major reports produced by the Bipartisan Policy Center on Iran, where neoconservative Michael Makovsky was staff director for the studies and Dennis Ross — whose role “in the administration remains something of a mystery,” according to Walt — was directly involved. The studies, Walt says, “are quite hawkish” and promote the use of force against Iran if diplomacy doesn’t work. Walt also points out that Ross has argued that diplomacy is necessary in part to win international support for military action later.

Following the neocon lead, says Walt, the Obama administration’s insistence “that Iran give up its enrichment capability is simply a non-starter, and keeps us on the same road as Bush’s policy did.”

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Benjamin Balint, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right, says that even despite their overly rosy predictions surrounding Iraq, neoconservatives have remained steadfast.

They’ve offered “not a heart-searching mea culpa, not a re-examination of first principles, but very nearly the opposite,” Balint says.

In part, Brooking’s Vaisse suggests, the continued influence of the neocons has to do with the organizing principles of the movement and the persistent concerns of U.S. foreign policymakers even under the Obama administration.

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Among issues of importance during the Bush administration that have not subsided in the Obama years include: the role the U.S. plays in the world; the U.S. as the sole superpower; a tendency toward unilateralism (whether intentional or by default); the question of militarism; and the exportation of democracy. These issues provide an opening for neocons to assert their leverage.

The three generations of currently-operating neoconservatives show “their substantial presence and political dynamism in Washington,” making it “difficult to imagine that they will not play a significant role in the future of American foreign policy,” according to Vaisse.

Numerous prominent neocons still active

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The report indicates that there is still an active and influential older generation of neoconservatives, such as Norman Podhoretz, Elliott Abrams, Joshua Muravchik, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and James Woolsey. The middle generation includes The Weekly Standard publisher Bill Kristol, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar Robert Kagan, New York Times columnist David Brooks and AEI scholars Danielle Pletka, and Tom Donnelly. Former AEI scholar David Frum is also counted among their ranks.

Vaisse says that there is also a younger group in their 40s, 30s and 20s “whose formative experience is not the Cold War, but the 1990s and, more to the point, 9/11 and the Bush administration’s response.” They include Max Boot, Dan Senor, Jamie Fly, Rachel Hoff, Abe Greenwald and Daniel Halper.

“In this sense, neoconservatism is regenerating itself and keeping a balanced age pyramid,” writes Vaisse. “After all, its idealistic, moralistic and patriotic appeal may be better suited to attract young thinkers than the prudent and reasonable calculations of realism.”

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But Vaisse argues that it’s not just the individuals who make the neoconservative movement. Just as important — perhaps more so — are the “institutions that support them and the publications that relay their views and shape the public debate,” and Vaisse offers the assessment that in this respect, “neoconservatives are well positioned.”

Citing the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, Project for a New American Century, Commentary, and The Weekly Standard, Vaisse writes “These younger neoconservatives have generally received their first internships and jobs, and published their first articles in the old network of friendly think tanks and publications built by the older generation of neoconservatives.”

One of the more recent and robust institutions, according to the report, is the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), created in the spring of 2009. Operating under the direction of Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan and Dan Senor, FPI is “animated by young operatives” and according to Vaisse “is already making its mark on the Afghanistan and human rights debates, notably by sending public letters signed by neocons and non-neocons alike,” a technique that is a hallmark of neocon action.

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Financial support for these institutions, which comes from various conservative donors and foundations, such as the Scaife family, Bradley, Earhart, Castle Rock, and Smith Richardson foundations, “shows no sign of abating,” according to Vaisse.

Sustained financial, institutional and publication support has provided the platform necessary for neoconservatives to have influence long after they were broadly thought to have been run out of the White House.

The report refers to the 2007 Iraq troop surge as a specific, significant, recent development where neocons have had tremendous influence. It was partly devised by Fred Kagan, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who is also an influential voice on the current counterinsurgency debates. He was, for example, part of the team of civilian experts who advised General McChrystal on his Afghanistan review in July 2009.

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Perhaps more important than the institutions and financial support is the modus operandi of the neoconservatives, according to Janine Wedel, professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University and author of Shadow Elite. In particular, a small subset of neocons, a “neocon core,” has been working together for more than 30 years “to remake American foreign policy according to their own vision.”

According to Wedel, this is done through the neocons’ creation of alternative versions of official information and their ability to market those accounts as the more credible ones to audiences in the media, government and other political circles.

The neocons are able to achieve their goals, according to Wedel, “by undermining the rules and standard processes of the government they supposedly serve and supplanting them with their own, all the while making public decisions backed by the power and resources of the state.” Because their undermining of these processes often goes undetected, it is likely many remain in place under the Obama administration.

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While the report points out that Obama’s foreign policy team is composed of liberals and realists “whose positions are far from the neocons,” Vaisse also recognizes that “opposition is not total.” On occasion, neoconservatives coordinate with liberal groups on human rights issues, or engage in conversations with senior administration officials, but they “lined up behind the administration” on the war effort in Afghanistan — this time against the liberal left and some realists in both parties, according to the report.

Earlier this month, when Egypt announced it was renewing its long-standing emergency law, which has been used as the basis for many of its human rights violations, a letter was sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by the Carnegie Endowment’s Working Group on Egypt. This group was composed of think tank scholars of various colors but was heavily populated with neoconservatives like Elliott Abrams, Robert Kagan and Ellen Bork. The letter called on Clinton to use U.S. leverage as Egypt’s major donor to “encourage them along a path toward reform.” The same day, the State Department released a statement from Secretary Clinton echoing the letter’s sentiments.

Vaisse also points out that just as important as the neocons’ persistence and coordination with non-neocons is the fact that American foreign policy is cyclical and that frustration with the Obama administration’s “realist and pragmatic” approach will “inevitably create a more congenial environment for the neocons.”

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Allen McDuffee is a New York-based journalist and has recently launched a blog called Think Tanked.

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