Friday, March 25, 2016

Neoconservatism's death knell

A specter is haunting Washington's Republican establishment this election season. The specter of a deceased neoconservativism.

That blinding faith in American power as a force to promote democracy and capitalism and showcase American exceptionalism is surprisingly absent from the discourse of the current campaign, on both sides of the aisle.

Donald Trump bluntly castigates Bush the Younger's invasion of Iraq, at a Republican debate, and receives applause. The Republican front-runner has also gone on the record as supporting "neutrality" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (in stark contrast to neoconservative tradition of fawning adulation for the Jewish state, a stalwart ally and "lone democracy") and expressed praise for neocon pariah Vladimir Putin. None of this has managed to seriously dent Trump's bluster or popularity.

Ted Cruz, Trump's most viable rival, sounds lukewarm about efforts for democracy promotion (another pillar of traditional Republican foreign policy doctrine). He generally expresses the belief that American foreign policy should adhere to the country's national interest rather than to ideological crusades for free elections and markets.

Meanwhile, over on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is similarly presumed to adhere to the "Powell Doctrine", namely that the US should only use military force when it has clear objectives and knows what force can achieve. Such force, in Sanders' view, should be limited to "last resort" scenarios: in debates with Hillary, Sanders touts his vote against the Iraq War.

Only the drastic underperformer, Marco Rubio (who has already been booted off the stage), and stale perennial Hillary Clinton have expressed support for a greater projection of American power overseas.

The opinions of the most dynamic candidates in the race reflect upon widespread skepticism among the population writ large towards America's capacity to play "world police".

A Pew poll taken two-and-a-half years ago, when it appeared that Obama might use force against Syria to stop the Assad regime's use chemical weapons, showed record low levels of support  for such a hypothetical action, with high levels of opposition emanating from both liberal and conservative respondents.

A poll conducted by the Brookings Institute's Shibley Telhami in May 2015, by which point ISIS had spread its cringe-inducing reign of terror to the far reaches the Middle East (and had begun lone wolf attacks in the West), showed that a majority (57 percent) of Americans opposed sending US ground troops into Syria to defeat ISIS, even as more than 72 percent responded that ISIS was the "number one threat" in the Middle East (a second set of questions indicated that opponents of military action believed such action would fail to effectively stem the threat). Moreover, the poll showed that a supermajority (of 72 percent) opposed the use of force against Assad (a level of opposition no doubt aggrevated by the rise of a deadlier force in Syria).

And its not just the Middle East. Obama's promise to lift the embargo on Cuba, a position that would once have been considered untenable for any national political figure, now enjoys the support of nearly three-quarters of the American population, according to to a Pew poll from last July, including not only 83 percent of registered Democrats but 59 percent of registered Republicans (and 56 percent of self-identified conservative Republicans).

I've expressed (hopeful) alarm bells over neoconservatism's health before, but this time, the affliction appears genuinely fatal.

With the Robert Kagans and Max Boots of the world pledging to back Hillary in a general election against Trump, while the William Kristols vow to abstain from voting, the movement is in fragmented disarray with no projection on the national stage.

Regardless of who wins, the neoconservatives will face political exile for at least the next term or two (or more), stranded between a Democratic party with an antiwar bent and a Republican party marked by resurgent isolationism.

Such is the price of hubris.

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