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More On Decoding Neocons For Obama

John Schwenkler replies to my post yesterday and he's got a good point: Bill Kristol's weaseliness doesn't bear on the truth of his claim that John McCain and Barack Obama have no significant foreign policy disputes except for Iraq — … Read More

By / June 6, 2008

John Schwenkler replies to my post yesterday and he's got a good point: Bill Kristol's weaseliness doesn't bear on the truth of his claim that John McCain and Barack Obama have no significant foreign policy disputes except for Iraq — though taking Iraq as a discountable exception is a strong token of Kristol's weaseliness. John provides a number of reasons to think Kristol might be right. Some of them don't strike me as all that revealing. Obama's campaigning for Joe Lieberman in the '06 Connecticut Democratic primary was almost certainly party, senate, and incumbency hackery rather than an endorsement of Lieberman's views; Obama did, after all, endorse Ned Lamont in the general election, and who among us can't cheer Obama literally putting Lieberman in a corner and giving him a time-out as the greatest thing to happen on Capitol Hill since the Gingrich-Clinton government shutdown?

But John's general point is well-taken. Obama has indeed been shading one way, then the other, sending disparate signals to disparate constituencies, with national security and foreign policy issues as much as with everything else. So somebody is bound to be disappointed by an Obama administration and it could well be me.

Still, there are reasons for anti-warriors to have the audacity of hope. If you look at Obama's rhetorically bellicose speech to AIPAC, for example, you get a clear sense of his overall political goals: first and foremost, given the venue, placating Jews who fear he might be insufficiently pro-Israeli. As Bernard Avishai notes here at Jewcy, coming out for an "undivided Jerusalem" sounds like Israeli maximalism to an American ear, but in Israel is code for the moderate peacenik position of the Labor party, whereas Likudniks speak of "united Jerusalem" (that's pretty sly if deliberate, though it doesn't get around the downside of pissing off Arabs). And his immediate climb-down with its clarification of 'undivided' should allay worries that he thinks the American government has any right or duty to intervene against the Israelis and Palestinians coming to peace on whatever terms they agree upon. But more broadly, he was trying to invert the Republicans' Bitch-Slap Theory of Electoral Politics (to use the technical term); specifically, his attack on McCain and the Republicans' obstinate refusal to engage adversarial powers diplomatically was a proxy for attacking their manhood as well as their intelligence — overly cerebral Democrats tend to do the latter and allow the former to be done to them, which is why they keep losing. That's the point, also, of comparing the scale of the Iranian threat to the Soviet Union; the implicit message is, "what are you bed-wetters afraid of?" (it's easier to get behind this sort of thing when it has truth on its side).

There's one other reason I don't share Daniel Larison and Brendan O'Neill's pessimism about Obama's foreign policy views, namely that I don't uniformly share Daniel, Brendan, and (I suspect) John's foreign policy views. Which highlights the significance of John's last example of Obama disappointing anti-warriors, albeit not for the reason (I think) John cited it. Robert Kagan claims Obama as an ideological comrade in this op-ed. And Kagan, unlike Kristol, is an honest man; but let us not forget that Kagan claims everyone in American history who doesn't see eye-to-eye with Pat Buchanan as an ideological comrade. While Kagan identifies Obama as a kindred spirit in the Washington Post, Eric Trager of Commentary pens this woeful op-ed in the New York Post rubbishing Obama as an "isolationist" (Trager's "beg the question" error is only the fourth or fifth most embarrassing, which tells you something). To be sure, the term 'isolationism', as used in contemporary neoconservative journalism, is strictly and literally meaningless, but we have a clear enough sense of what meaning the neocons who employ it are gesturing at, i.e., finding an all-purpose epithet with which to pronounce anathema anyone who dissents from their foreign policy views, however diverse those dissents. Which is exactly what's going on with Kagan, only mean-spirited where Kagan is empathetic.

The bottom line is that the Zoroastrianism that marks all the other particulars of neoconservative thought (at least, the thoughts of actually existing neoconservatives) also marks their assessments of who is and isn't playing for their team. If you're not a neocon, you're an isolationist, and vice versa. There is no greyscale, no nuance, no universe of ideas at all more plentiful than two equal and opposite spheres in a void, just unsolicited, smothering camaraderie, or else execration. That's what animated George Bush's counterproductive "with us or against us" nonsense; and because these people take it as a point of intellectual sophistication as well as pride never to learn anything from their mistakes (or at all), it animates John McCain's platform of giving everyone on earth a choice of a black hat or a white hat, fatally undermining any international institution that won't submit to blunt force, throwing Russia and China out of the G-8, and inaugurating a new cold war.

Such reductive, binary dogmatism pervades neoconservative thinking at every level. Here's Eli Lake, "one of the reasonable ones," ditching 'Islamofascism' in favor of 'Islamic supremacism', because there simply has to be some singular common concept binding all politically-engaged Muslim fundamentalists, regardless of insuperable doctrinal and ethnic discrepancies and antipathies. What would neoconservatives who aren't as reasonable as Eli — the ones who go apoplectic over what they think is taught in a madrassa (Perso-Arabic: 'school') — make of the fact that Iraqi schoolchildren of the early 80s, i.e. the young Iraqi adults of today, were taught that Persians are "animals…created in the shape of humans," whom, like Jews and flies, God should not have created? To those of us outside the cocoon with a broad view of the historical and strategic picture, claims of an axis running through al Qaeda from Pyongyang to Tehran and thither to Baghdad look patently absurd, and attempts to prove its existence at this late stage laughable. But if you're as certain of The Connection as you are that you have two hands, any instance, real or imagined, of diverse actors with diverse views cooperating tactically on any scale no matter how small, no matter how briefly, no matter how many degrees separate them, no matter whether they resume fighting immediately thereafter, is bound to strike you as impressive confirmation of the pre-theoretical beliefs you can scarcely bring yourself to doubt.

The point, to make a long story short, is that what we're dealing with is not so much an ideology as an epistemic pathology whose varieties are a range of more and less virulent strains. And though there are reasons to doubt the depth and sincerity of Barack Obama's commitment not to instigate any new wars of imperialism — including the political pressures he'll experience regardless of his sincerity; though if the career-minded pragmatic calculus doesn't favor anti-warriors now, it never will — what Kristol and Kagan have to say isn't one of those reasons. The fact that a neoconservative asserts that anyone agrees or disagrees with his views should affect your credence exactly as much as the fact that a neoconservative asserts anything at all.

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