The Republican Battle Between Neoconservatism And America First

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by Tyler Durden
Tuesday, Nov 28, 2023 - 02:00 AM

Authored by Nathan Worcester via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),

Vivek Ramaswamy has a favorite term for his enemies on foreign policy: "neocon," short for neoconservative.

“I want to be careful to avoid making the mistakes from the neocon establishment of the past,” he told moderator Lester Holt during the third Republican presidential debate on Nov. 8 in Miami.

“Corrupt politicians in both parties spent trillions, killed millions, made billions for themselves in places like Iraq and Afghanistan fighting wars that sent thousands of our sons and daughters, people my age, to die in wars,” the millennial businessman continued, rattling off criticisms of pre-Trump foreign policy.

Do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels?” Mr. Ramaswamy asked. "Because we have two of them on this stage tonight,” taking a swing at Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Ms. Haley later hit back on social media: “I wear heels. They’re not for a fashion statement. They’re for ammunition.

As Ms. Haley pushes past 10 percent in the polls, she is drawing attention from influential donors amid the Israel–Hamas war and the ongoing Russia–Ukraine conflict. In Miami, she indicated she was willing to bomb Iran in response to proxy attacks against Israel and the United States.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley puts her hand up to Vivek Ramaswamy as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (C) listens during a Republican presidential primary debate in Miami, on Nov. 8, 2023. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Alongside foreign policy assumptions from the George H.W. Bush administration, neoconservatism has helped set the tone for foreign policy views that still dominate the GOP establishment, according to both Col. Douglas MacGregor, a senior defense adviser under President Trump, and Steve Bannon, who served as the White House’s chief strategist early in the Trump presidency, and host of the “Bannon’s War Room” podcast.

They spoke with The Epoch Times, along with several others, about the neoconservative streak in American politics and what it means for 2024.

Rise of the Neocons

The word “neocon” conjures up some familiar faces from the last several decades of American politics.

Aside from Mr. Cheney, there’s John Bolton, U.N. ambassador under President George W. Bush and a national security adviser for President Trump. Mr. Bolton has since repudiated the 45th president.

In the Senate, there’s the late John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the living Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). On the other side of the aisle, there’s former Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and, from the Cold War era, the late Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.).

But behind the names that get quoted in mass media, is a tight network of intellectuals.

In 2004, Francis Fukuyama, a one-time fellow traveler of the movement, wrote about “the neoconservative moment” for The National Interest.

Mr. Fukuyama, then a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), linked the thinking that guided defense policy in the Bush administration to highly exclusive Washington dinners held during the 1990s. Attendees ranged from columnist Charles Krauthammer to political scientist Samuel Huntington to the “godfather of neoconservatism,” Irving Kristol, and his son, future "Never Trumper" Bill Kristol.

The Kristol family tradition continues today in various influential institutions, including the Washington Free Beacon. Selected by the Republican National Committee (RNC) as a co-host of the upcoming fourth presidential debate in Alabama, the periodical was co-founded by Bill Kristol’s son-in-law.

Like many other first-generation neoconservatives, Irving Kristol began as a follower of communist Leon Trotsky before falling out with the Left during the Cold War. In place of internationalist socialism, Mr. Kristol and his friends pursued a different kind of internationalism—one that relied on the powerful military during and, in Mr. Fukuyama’s reflections, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It was at one of those dinners that Charles Krauthammer first articulated the idea of American unipolarity,” Mr. Fukuyama wrote.

The Soviet Union had fallen—though communist China remained standing—and the United States was the lone superpower. In the decade before 9/11, that mostly meant peace, at least for the American people.

Joshua Muravchik, an influential neoconservative whose pedigree includes service with Mr. Jackson and work at Hopkins’ SAIS, told The Epoch Times that his movement emerged against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.

While he and a few other liberals still supported the containment doctrine advanced by diplomat George Kennan during the Truman administration, the unpopular conflict in Southeast Asia brought anti-communism into disrepute among American liberals.

The term “neoconservative” was, he said, “meant as an insult because we still regarded ourselves as liberals back in the '70s.”

Soon afterward—sooner than many thought possible—the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War was over.

I think we neoconservatives were vindicated,” Mr. Muravchik said.

West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall early Nov. 11, 1989, as they watch East German border guards demolishing a section of the wall. (Gerard Malie/AFP via Getty Images)

From the Soviet Union to the Middle East

In narrating the history of neoconservatism, Mr. Muravchik moved quickly from the post-Cold War “unipolar moment” to 9/11 and, in short order, the Iraq War.

The people who had kind of advocated an aggressive international approach, which came to be called the Global War on Terror, were largely from the old group of neoconservatives,” he said.

But history didn’t quite stop between the two periods. In 1996, for example, neoconservative strategist Richard Perle, another “Scoop” Jackson veteran, wrote the “Clean Break” memo for Mr. Netanyahu, who was then about to become Israel’s prime minister. The front page of the report states it drew on a conversation with Douglas Feith, Charles Fairbanks, Jr., and David Wurmser, among others in the movement.

Mr. Perle, who later advised Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during the Bush administration, argued that Israel should be “weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria.”

This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq,” it continued.

Alongside policies under the second Bush administration, the “Clean Break” memo has led critics of neoconservatism to link the movement to strong U.S. support for Israel, or even a blurring of the lines between the two countries’ respective interests.

Indeed, in “The Neoconservative Moment,” Mr. Fukuyama suggested that Mr. Krauthammer conflated the two countries’ strategic realities during a speech to the American Enterprise Institute.

But very pro-Israel politicians don’t always enjoy the favor of neoconservatives. Notably, many neoconservatives have vocally opposed one of the most pro-Israel presidents in American history, Donald Trump. This placed them in an uneasy alliance with President Joe Biden, one of a small and dwindling number of living lawmakers from the Mr. Jackson era of the Senate.

Saurabh Sharma, a man in his 20s who leads the American Moment networking organization for young conservatives, pointed out that the neoconservative commentator Max Boot had argued for Israel to send weapons to Ukraine.

According to Mr. Sharma, if Israel had done what Mr. Boot suggested “they would have been woefully unprepared when this conflict began.”

Mr. Muravchik, the influential neoconservative, noted the apparent discrepancy between President Trump’s support for Israel and neoconservatives’ views in a 2020 article for American Purpose.

In his interview with The Epoch Times, he elaborated on his objections to President Trump’s approach to foreign affairs.

“He’s been nothing but a suck-up to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. He said he fell in love with [North Korean leader] Kim-Jong Un. He said he thought [Chinese leader Xi Jinping] was a great guy,” he told The Epoch Times.

President Trump’s allies might counter that his maneuvers on the world stage actually put America first by defusing tension while also showing strength. But to Mr. Muravchik and other neoconservatives, Trump’s statecraft looks less like crafty realism and more like appeasement of anti-democratic leaders.

“A hallmark of neoconservatism was the idea, not just having military strength, but trying to make the world an easier place to deal with by making it more democratic,” Mr. Muravchik said.

“If we can encourage the world to become more democratic—if we can encourage more countries to turn away from dictatorship to democracy—it will make the world a more peaceful place and a more pro-American place,” he added.

He said “democracy” hasn’t spread as broadly this century as it did at the end of the 20th century.

“It’s stopped,” he said before correcting himself: “It’s stalled.”

Mr. Sharma suggested President Trump made enemies of the neocons early in his candidacy when he criticized the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“[The neoconservatives] made egregious mistakes in the Global War on Terror, and they want to get away with it,” he said, adding that a reorientation of the GOP against wars in the Middle East “means they’re all out of a job.”

Some America First critics of neoconservatism suggest the movement is only part of the story. Understanding why President Trump’s “America First” message provoked such fury requires a broader perspective.

“Control of the [RNC] rests in the hands of the same people that took us into the Middle East—Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, and so forth—under Bush Sr.,” said Col. MacGregor, referring to President George H.W. Bush.

According to Mr. Bannon, President Trump’s apparent rejection of the global order that emerged after World War II—“the postwar, international, rules-based order”—united the establishment against him.

“You're in this situation where the postwar international rules-based order, which has been underwritten financially by American taxpayers and paid for by their sons’ and daughters’ sacrifice and blood, has done nothing but gut jobs and ship every high-value manufacturing job out of the United States into China and other places in the Eurasian landmass," Mr. Bannon said. "At the same time, our capital all financed it—our private equity capital, all the pension funds. ... That order is the order that America First is against.”

Both men rejected the isolationist label often applied to America Firsters.

Col. MacGregor outlined the limited circumstances in which force might be justified.

“Unless we ourselves are attacked, or what we deem to be interests that are vitally strategic to us, we should not attack anyone,” Col. MacGregor said.

“It's not that we don't understand how the world is interconnected," Mr. Bannon said. "It's obviously interconnected. But the difference in Trump and the American First movement was, you will put America's interest first—and, particularly, we will not support an international order that allows the Chinese Communist Party to rise from basically a destitute, third world country into an economic superpower on the backs of the American taxpayer.”

Mr. Muravchik argued that Trump-style rhetoric against the Chinese regime is ultimately insincere.

“They’re not worried about China. When it comes time to face up to China, they’re not going to do that,” he said.

The Next Generation

In Col. MacGregor’s view, the RNC hasn't shifted on foreign policy in decades.

“I don't think anything, anything has fundamentally changed with the institutional Republican Party," he said. "And the institutional Republican Party does not represent most of the American citizens who refer to themselves as traditional conservatives.”

Mr. Ramaswamy has targeted neoconservatism with more zeal than anyone gunning for the White House, President Trump possibly excepted.

Before the debate at which he unleashed his “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels” line, he circulated a “No to Neocons” pledge.

Mr. Ramaswamy also called on RNC Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel to resign, while on stage in Miami. According to reporting from Timcast, she then loudly insulted him from the audience, pledging that he wouldn’t get “a cent” from the RNC.

“It’s not her money. It’s the Republican voters’ money,” Ramaswamy senior adviser Tricia McLaughlin told The Epoch Times.

Mr. Ramaswamy has since filed a petition to oust Ms. McDaniel as RNC chair.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Muravchik, the neoconservative intellectual, is no fan of Mr. Ramaswamy.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (R) and King Hussein of Jordan review the honor guard upon Hussein's arrival for the Arab cooperation council meeting in Amman, Jordan, on Feb. 24, 1990. (MIKE NELSON/AFP via Getty Images)