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Return of the Undead: The Neocons are Back

Obama's foreign policy blunders give neocons their opening.

The author is editor of The National Interest.  This article originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Financial Times

For almost a decade, the neoconservatives who championed the 2003 invasion of Iraq have been widely regarded as a spent force. But with the Republicans’ sweeping victory in the American midterm elections, they may be about to stage a comeback.

The result is that the Republican party is resurrecting the unilateral foreign policy doctrines that first took hold under President George W Bush and his vice-president Dick Cheney.

Unlike the Democrats of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, who later came to express regret over their role in the Vietnam war, leading Republican figures such as Mr Cheney and former deputy secretary of defence Paul Wolfowitz have never admitted to making missteps in Iraq or Afghanistan.

On the contrary, they have argued that it is President Barack Obama who has erred by failing to prosecute combat in Iraq and Afghanistan vigorously enough.

Until recently they did not get much of a hearing. But recent events have blown fresh wind into the sails of the neocons.

As Mr Obama’s handling of foreign policy comes under fire, they are claiming vindication. The president’s refusal to accept that America is an exceptional nation with a mission to promote democracy is, they say, imperilling national security.

Consider Russia’s revanchism in Ukraine, which for many neocons illustrates the dangers of appeasing foreign leaders. They also contend that Mr Obama’s passivity in Syria makes him culpable for the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the jihadi group known as Isis, and that it is imperative to send tens of thousands of advisers and special forces to Iraq to combat it. They argue that he is dangerously feckless when it comes to dealing with Iran. Instead of attempting to reach a nuclear deal with Tehran, we are told, Washington should stop criticising Israel and focus on regime change.

Such arguments served as a powerful ideological battering ram during the midterm elections. Republican candidates seized on turbulence abroad to depict Democrats as soft on national security and to defend the Iraq war. Perhaps no one has been more impassioned in their support of the foreign policy of George W Bush than Tom Cotton, a 37-year-old Iraq war veteran who has won election as senator in Arkansas. Mr Cotton has called the Iraq war a “just and noble” cause and said that victory in Afghanistan is simply a matter of finding enough willpower. In Iowa incoming Republican senator Joni Ernst, another Iraq veteran, also lauded the war. Based on her service in Iraq, she said: “I do have reason to believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”

The influx of such politicians will allow Senator John McCain, the incoming head of the armed services committee, to attempt to implement the neocon wishlist. In January, Mr McCain will move to stop planned cuts to military budgets, block any nuclear agreement with Iran, send weapons to Ukraine and send troops back to the Middle East.

These stands are also being embraced by likely Republican presidential candidates such as New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Senator Marco Rubio. In an echo of Mr Obama’s predecessor, Mr Christie declared in May that a failure of American leadership means that the world “is almost always filled by evil”.

Whether a Republican president would result in wholesale reversion to Bush-era policies is an open question. But the fact that the neocons are driving the debate in the Republican party and putting Mr Obama on the defensive is itself a remarkable tribute to their resilience. Indeed, to say that they are back may be something of a mistake. They never went away in the first place. The difference is that the Republican party is listening to them once again.

The writer is editor of The National Interest


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