It’s not so complicated.
On September 11, 2018, I was participating in a Twitter discussion about the purported research website Bellingcat.com. I asserted that “Bellingcat is an integral part of the #Neocon apparatus.” I received a response from Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat (and, as it turns out, a fellow at the arch-neocon Atlantic Council). He asked me to define “neoconservatism.” Here is my response:
Mr. Higgins immediately blocked me. Why do you suppose he did that?
Forget the textbook definitions of neoconservatism. Yes, there were right-wing bellicose Democrats back in the 60s who didn’t like the protests against the Vietnam War. Yes, there were Republicans in the George W. Bush administration who were enamored of Leo Strauss. But these are merely pseudopods of a larger organism which can best be studied by what it does strategically, not by the narratives it weaves about itself.
What are the invariant qualities of the neocons? Well, first and foremost, they like war. War is always the best solution to any problem. And not defensive war; they like wars that are waged against some impertinent nation to show them who is boss. Wars are a glorious and lucrative means for establishing which power is the Alpha Dog.
In 1990, Charles Krauthammer published an essay in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Unipolar Moment.” The concept of “unipolarity” was simple: with the fall of the Soviet Union, there is only one empire, and no prospective challengers will be permitted to emerge. Any nation that attempts to steer a course that is not dictated by the unipolar empire will be smacked into line using military force, or other forms of #RegimeChange.
Neocons also like to talk about Democracy and Human Rights a lot, in fact, incessantly. But in practice, they want nothing to do with those things beyond using them as a pretext to go to war.
Their absolute fave casus belli, the “Blair Doctrine”, was proclaimed in a speech delivered by British Prime Minister Tony Blair on April 24th, 1999 at the Economic Club of Chicago. It overturned the principle of Non-Intervention embodied in the UN Charter, i.e. the prohibition of the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state. Blair argued that it was not only permissible, but morally imperative to use military force when human rights were being violated. This also became known as the doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” or #R2P.
This was not a particularly original tactic. When the Hitler government moved to annex the Sudetenland in 1938, they insisted that it was necessary because they had a responsibility to protect ethnic Germans from alleged human rights abuses by the government of Czechoslovakia. This approach, crocodile tears followed by naked aggression, has been wholly embraced by the Foreign Office and the Department of State.
It’s easy to demonstrate that there is no real commitment by neocons to either democracy or human rights. One need simply look at the double standards which are applied to client states, on the one hand, and uppity independent states on the other. With regard to the latter, the neocons typically spread democracy by orchestrating violent coups against democratically elected governments, as they did most notably in the case of Ukraine and are presently attempting to do in Venezuela, Iran and Nicaragua.
These ironies seem to be utterly lost on the English-speaking news media. For example:
“The U.S. has a long history of meddling in Latin American countries to promote democracy, often siding with brutal dictators in Chile, Nicaragua, and elsewhere to achieve its ends. “— New York Magazine, September 8, 2018. (The magazine subsequently edited this sentence after numerous commentators called attention to it.)
On the other hand, client states such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, who routinely flaunt their contempt for both democracy and human rights, are treated with great respect by both diplomats and journalists.
Is neoconservatism a uniquely American phenomenon? Well, no. Although the use of the term became popular in the U.S., the template for the “unipolar world” may be found in the British Empire, back when the Sun Never Set and Britannia Ruled The Waves. Although neocons and their admirers are fond of fussy definitions and dividing the faithful into various subphyla, there is one individual who everyone agrees is the true prophet of the movement: Sir Winston Churchill.
On February 27, 2005, Jacob Heilbrunn wrote an essay in the New York Times Sunday Book Review entitled, “Winston Churchill, Neocon?”
On the American right… Churchill idolatry has reached its finest hour. George W. Bush, who has said “I loved Churchill’s stand on principle,” installed a bronze bust of him in the Oval Office after becoming president… The Weekly Standard named Churchill “Man of the Century.” So did columnist Charles Krauthammer, who in December 2002 delivered the third annual Churchill Dinner speech sponsored by conservative Hillsdale College… William J. Luti, a leading neoconservative in the Pentagon, recently told me, “Churchill was the first neocon.”
Following the end of the Second World War, Churchill kept himself occupied as Prime Minister with the task of brutally suppressing independence movements in many British colonies. Dr. Shashi Tharoor, an Indian parliamentarian and a former Under-Secretary General of the United Nations, holds Sir Winston Churchill personally responsible for the deaths of 4.3 million of the 35 million Indians killed by the British during their long rule in that nation. Ironically, Churchill was fond of making grand proclamations about human rights, much like contemporary neocons.
Recognizing that at the end of WWII Britain no longer possessed the military capability to dominate the world, Churchill made it a priority to cultivate a “special relationship” with the one nation that did have that capability. Franklin Roosevelt regarded Churchill’s imperialism with distaste, but as soon as FDR died, Churchill was all over Harry Truman like white on rice. Since that time, the US and British intelligence services are joined at the hip; relations between US and British academia, think tanks and news media go beyond “fraternal” to the point of “incestuous.”
One of the most cherished neocon projects has been the nurturing of Wahabist fundamentalism in the Islamic world as an instrument of Regime Change. The British pioneered this tactic, using the Muslim Brotherhood against Egypt’s nationalist president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. In 1974 a leading British intelligence operative, Professor Bernard Lewis, arrived in the U.S. to take up joint positions at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Studies. He began to promote the idea that the spread of Islamic fundamentalism could create a zone of instability (later called the Arc of Crisis by neocon think-tankers) along the southern flanks of Russia and China (this was a further elaboration of what 19th century Empire strategists called the “Great Game”.) The U.S. promotion of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan became the seed-crystal for what later became al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Is neoconservatism a right-wing phenomenon? Well, maybe, depending on how you define “right” nowadays. There is certainly no shortage of putative liberals who are full-on neocons, but they don’t normally use that term to describe themselves. For Democrats in the U.S., there is the convenient euphemism, “centrists,” whereas in the U.K., they are called “New Labour.” Another popular and very descriptive term is “Liberal Imperialists” or LIMPs. Although the Obama presidency was claimed as a victory by many liberals, Obama took the baton from Dick Cheney and continued the neocon foreign policy with a vengeance. His administration was bristling with LIMPs such as the Oxford-educated Susan Rice, Victoria Nuland, and Samantha Power. And Hillary.
There is also the very peculiar phenomenon of the Left-Neocons, whom I discuss in another article.
We have spoken of foreign policy; do neocons have a domestic policy? They do, but it generally goes by the term “neoliberalism,” which causes confusion among people who think that politics is an eternal Super Bowl of “liberals” versus “conservatives.” So let’s make it simple: neoliberalism is the economic policy of the British Empire. There is a certain amount of sloganeering about free markets, etc. which may best be ignored. In practice, there is a corporate oligarchy which interlocks with government. The government should make more rules which help the oligarchy, and fewer rules which inhibit it. Capiche?
Applying neoliberalism to other nations, the policy is to keep the client states backward and dependent, and prohibit them from developing modern infrastructure and a manufacturing base which could enable them to become self-sufficient and economically sovereign. Typically, this means letting the London/Wall Street financial cartels do as they please, and then justifying their behavior with whatever ideological pronouncements may be convenient. And then, if necessary, we send in the NGOs, the mercenaries, and the drones.
Both neoconservatism and neoliberalism share a close relationship with the doctrine of geopolitics, which views the world as a “zero-sum game.” That means that your country may only become stronger and more successful by making other countries weaker and less successful. Whatever rules you claim to embrace do not apply to you in the same way that they apply to others.
But at this moment in history, neocons are facing a dilemma. Despite their best efforts, they failed to sabotage China, and China does not subscribe to the zero-sum geopolitical game. Developing nations which had been forced to do the bidding of the Anglo-Americans because they lacked the strength to defy them now have the option of opening relations with China. China actually wants those countries to develop, assuming that as they modernize, they can deepen a mutually beneficial trade relationship. In other words, China has adopted the foreign policy that once was associated with the U.S. under Lincoln or FDR.
Hence, the neocons must resort to more extreme forms of intimidation if they hope to rein in all of the smaller nations that yearn for development. The “Atlantic” economies are being suffocated in debt as they attempt to sustain an unsustainable bubble of financial speculation. It will become more and more difficult to finance the NGOs and mercenary armies required for Regime Change operations. At a certain point, the only option left for the neocons will be to convince the world that they are just crazy enough to engage Russia or China in a nuclear confrontation, and hope that a terrified community of nations will fall back into line. How soon will that moment come, if we continue to allow the neocons to dominate our political process?
Nota Bene: the author of this article was subsequently suspended from Twitter without explanation. Contact @TwitterSupport and ask them why.