Why the Neo-Con Turn?

Despite Rick Santorum’s successes this week in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, the Republican establishment should still be able to get its way, notwithstanding Sheldon Adelson’s money and spirited resistance from the party’s base.  The only contender for the Republican nomination whom they deem fit to do their bidding, Mitt Romney, will still, in all likelihood, become the Republican nominee.

Too bad for them, though, that they will then be saddled with such an unappealing standard bearer, and that their party will be divided against itself.  Therefore, even in this post-Citizens’ United world, where corporations and plutocrats are free to spend all they want, Obama – who is no slouch at raising malefactor money in his own right — can hardly lose.  That should be OK with Romney’s backers; they like Mitt better, but they win either way.

And they can still hope: the Israel lobby, with Congress in tow, could force Obama to stumble into a devastating war with Iran – spreading death and destruction and economic catastrophe.  (Could installing a Republican in the White House be among Israel’s reasons for pushing so hard for a war with Iran?)  Or the Bush-Obama wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could come back to bite him.  Or the economy could go south again, thanks to austerity in Europe and at home or to another financial meltdown.  Nevertheless, the smart money has to be on Obama.  This is good for those of us who can’t stomach the prospect of having Mitt Romney in our lives for the next four or eight years.  The chameleon is sure to flip back to his governor of Massachusetts persona just as soon as he no longer needs to pander to his party’s base, but it is still a
horrifying thought.  If only on aesthetic grounds, we dislike Obama less, but this too hardly matters; we lose either way.

But we too can also hope: with what remains of organized labor finally beginning to fight back, and with the Occupy movements of last fall getting ready to burst forth again, American politics is no longer just an electoral circus in which two semi-established parties huckster their offerings to “moderate” voters.  Because Democrats and Republicans are beholden to the same interests and because there are few differences between them that are not merely stylistic or cosmetic, our electoral politics has long been mainly of sociological or even clinical interest; what called for an explanation was why two such likeminded parties became so polarized, why they couldn’t “all just get along.”  Now we have more important things to concern us; real politics is back.

But Obama is still relevant, especially in an election year, when our media can be counted on to work overtime covering every facet of the horse race, while ignoring matters of graver consequence.  It is therefore timely to reflect on the trajectory of Obama’s governance to this point, and on one rather startling development in the Obama story that has emerged in recent weeks – his newfound willingness to trumpet neoconservative ideas.

Obama, or at least the Obama of term one, will be remembered, above all, for disappointing the hopes of the constituencies that put him in office.  He will also be remembered not just for having raised the level of ambient hypocrisy, but for the audacity with which he talks the talk, while walking a very different walk.  The more Obama waxes ‘populist,’ the better the rich do, and the more corporate criminality flourishes.   The more he speaks of peace, the more the drones fly, and the more his very own Murder Incorporated (Navy Seals and the rest) spread murder and mayhem.

He gets away with it, in large part, because he’s good at fooling some of the people all of the time – not all liberals, but a sizeable number of them.  Once it becomes clear to all that the Republicans will nominate their least scary contender, expect those liberals to make fools of themselves big time.  No longer can they make a case for Obama by playing up the absurdity of a Trump or Cain or Bachmann presidency.  Soon, they won’t have Newt Gingrich to kick around any more either.  Expect Rick Santorum too to go the way of what Google says he is — unless, as in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, Romney again miscalculates and underspends.  And since, from their point of view, the less said about Ron Paul the better, the Democratic Party cheerleaders on MSNBC and Current TV will soon find themselves with nothing to talk about except Romney’s latest blunder — unless they scratch their heads and come up with some accomplishments of Obama’s presidency that they can plausibly defend.

The Nation is already on the job: witness Bernard Avishai’s sneering rebuke of all us “f..ing retards,” as Rahm Emanuel calls us, who fault Obama’s (Romney-inspired) health care reforms.  Avishai’s piece is a review of Paul Starr’s Remedy and Reaction.  Yes, Starr is still at it, arguing that Democrats, since even before the Clinton era, have bravely given progress on health care reform its best shot.  Expect to hear more along those lines in the months ahead.  If you can’t scare them into voting for Obama, then tell them how, in the face of powerful entrenched interests and Republican obstinacy, he has been the best of all possible presidents.  It is a nauseating prospect.

And it is happening just when, for the first time since before he ordered Guantanamo closed within a year, Obama actually is putting his words and his deeds in line.

The problem is that this small victory for honesty isn’t happening in the way that Obamamaniacal voters four years ago assumed it would.  In taking up where Bush and Cheney left off, Obama has always conducted a neoconservative foreign and military policy.  Now he seems to be moving towards talking up a neoconservative line as well.  It isn’t clear why; one would think that there would be as little percentage in talking that talk now as there was four years ago.  But it is happening, and whatever Obama’s reasons are, it is a disturbing development.

* * *

The Obama administration’s Original Sin was “looking forward” – not holding George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and other high-ranking Bush era war criminals accountable.  This was disappointing, but predictable.  So too was Obama’s continuation of the wars they started and lost, and his rebranding of their Global War on Terror.  That he would show so little regard for Constitutional protections and other longstanding legal norms while continuing Bush era policies was more surprising; no one expected   someone credentialed in Constitutional law who had never before deviated from mainstream jurisprudence to be so awful in this regard.  But even Obama’s offenses against the rule of law, though disappointing and surprising, hardly rise to the level of the truly amazing, at least not for anyone who had been paying attention all along.

Obama’s economic and social policies fall out along similar lines; they have been disappointing and surprising, even to those of us who never expected anything approximating the “change” Obama promised (without ever quite saying what he meant).  But, in this department too, nothing that has happened has been so unpredictable as to genuinely amaze.

But Obama’s readiness of late to signal approval for neoconservative ideology marks a new departure.  What makes it all the more astonishing is how unnecessary it is.  It is not as if anything is changing at the policy level.  In deeds, not words, Obama has always been a practicing neocon; from Day One he could justifiably have declared “we are all neoconservatives now.” But he had too much sense to do anything of the sort — then.

By 2008, perhaps even by 2006, after so many neocon-inspired debacles in the Middle East, even Republicans were reluctant to talk that talk.  They still are. In their debates, the Republican contenders endorse the vilest and most foolish nostrums, but none of them has a kind word to say about the principal neocon enablers, George Bush and Dick Cheney, much less about the foreign policy doctrines of the neocons themselves.  It is astonishing that Obama is not similarly discreet.

Instead, in recent weeks he has conspicuously paraded about with Robert Kagan’s latest book-length neocon apologia, The World America Made.  How far we have come from those halcyon days when it was just the anodyne pop history of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals upon which the Presidential blessing was conferred.

These days, Kagan is an advisor to Mitt Romney.  Along with others in the neocon cabal, he is plainly itching to move out of the think tank world, back into offices where he can ply his trade more directly.  How amazing that the change President is helping him along, doing product placement in his behalf.

Unless we have all been wrong about how smart Obama is, it could hardly be because he finds neocon musings intellectually engaging.  And we can only hope that he isn’t testing the waters, seeing how much liberals of the Obama-is-the-best-of-all-possible-presidents school will accept.  The most likely explanation is that, with an election coming, this is a calculated move on Obama’s part to close what space there is that separates him from Romney, the better to capture the rightward veering center.

Whatever the cause, there are indications of late that Obama has taken on board Kagan’s main contention – that American power is not in decline; that, quite the contrary, we are on the threshold of another glorious American century.  The plain implication is that there is no hard crash in the offing, and therefore no need for the empire to change course.  American world dominance isn’t over yet, and won’t be for the foreseeable future.  And for this, the argument goes, the world can only be grateful.

This conceit was especially evident in Obama’s State of the Union address, where it was directly proclaimed.  And it is implicit in Obama’s increasingly frequent harping on military themes.

In recent decades, liberals have erected a taboo – not to say anything derogatory about “the troops” and, by extension, the military generally.  Their rationale has nothing to do with seeking justice for economic conscripts.  It is based on urban legends about returning Vietnam veterans being spat upon by unruly anti-war protestors, and on the conventional wisdom that it can never hurt a politician to praise the armed forces.  But Obama’s words, in the State of the Union and other venues, are above and beyond the now customary norm; increasingly, he sounds more like an ardent militarist than a Nobel laureate burdened with tragic choices.

Along with unflinching obeisance towards the government of Israel, the idea that military power is indispensable for American world supremacy, and that it should and will remain so, is neoconservatism’s core principle: overwhelming might, combined with “American exceptionalism” makes right.  Forget the Wilsonian nonsense we heard so much about after 9/11, when the neocons were all the rage; it’s not about spreading democracy.  Forget too the prattle back then about Leo Strauss, a political philosopher of modest gifts who, though forty years gone, remains influential in a few political science departments.  In the minds of some prominent neocons, students of his at the University of Chicago, Strauss was a Master Thinker.  That is, to put it mildly, an exaggeration.  But no matter: the connections between Strauss’s philosophical views and their policy positions are attenuated at best.

Strauss was smitten by Plato’s idea that “philosopher kings” should keep their less enlightened subjects in line by telling them “golden lies.”  Neoconservatives, who see themselves as philosopher kings graced with the esoteric wisdom of Strauss’s favorite philosophers, agree.  But it is not clear what, if anything, this conviction amounts to in practice.

And apart from it, there is nothing even remotely philosophical in neoconservative ideology.  Nor is there anything that connects Strauss with the anti-Muslim, “clash of civilizations” doctrines that neoconservatives effectively accept.  Neoconservatism is a geopolitical doctrine about how to keep the American empire going.  Its principal contention is that the way to do so is through war and preparation for war, and that the point of America’s wars should be  “regime change” undertaken to make the world safe for American domination, neoliberal globalization, and Israel – not necessarily in that order.  There isn’t much more to it than that.

Obama has been walking the neocon walk since Day One.  Despite mighty America’s (unacknowledged) differences with tiny Israel, he hasn’t even pushed back against Benjamin Netanyahu’s bullying; he doesn’t dare with Congress in AIPAC’s pocket.  And he could hardly be more subservient to the Pentagon brass.  But until now he has at least tried to be discreet about it; he was just a closet neocon.  Now that is changing.  Is it because he feels that the pressure to go to war against Iran is becoming irresistible, and that the wisest course for him, in an election year, is: if you can’t beat them, to join them?  All that is clear for now is that the neocon con is back, and that it is happening not just in the Romney campaign – and, for what difference it makes, also in Gingrich’s and Santorum’s — but also, blatantly, at Obama’s instigation.

Why is impossible to say because while Obama’s governing style and his willingness to be pushed around by the powers that be are there for all to see, his deepest wishes remain obscure.  As term one winds down with term two in the offing, the deepest mystery about this President remains unsolved: what is he up to with his countless capitulations and his vain efforts to strike “bipartisan” compromises?  What does he really want?

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).