The past year has been a difficult one for the leaders of the neocon right. First, their campaign to torpedo President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran came to naught. Then their preferred candidate for the Republican nomination, freshman Florida Senator Marco Rubio, ran a lazy and uninspiring campaign and was easily routed by Donald Trump. And now, with Trump about to be crowned king of the Republican castle in Cleveland, the neocons are experiencing something of an existential meltdown over the prospect of a future Trump administration.
Last week, a Politico piece surveyed the broken hearts among the neocon elite, in which they were described as being marooned on “The Lonely Island of Never Trump.” Just how lonely is that island, however, is open to question. If Politico is to be believed, nearly the entire GOP foreign-policy establishment is ready to bolt and join Team Hillary.
And some already have.
Prominent among this number is the neocon scholar Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, who took to the op-ed page of the Los Angeles Times on May 6 to inform readers that “the Republican party is dead…. it has been killed by Donald Trump.” For Boot, Hillary Clinton would be “far preferable” to Trump, since, according to Boot, Trump champions a foreign policy of “isolationism and protectionism.” That fact that Trump has repeatedly denigrated the Iraq war, for which Boot was among the most prominent cheerleaders, surely helps fuel Boot’s disillusionment.
And there is much disillusionment among the neocon ranks. Another neocon scholar, Eliot Cohen of John Hopkins (SAIS), published a piece in The New York Times on May 17 in which he reminded readers that Trump’s “America First” foreign policy was also the slogan of the “notorious movement before World War II that included not only traditional isolationists but also Nazi sympathizers.” Like Boot, Cohen believes that “on foreign policy, Hillary Clinton is far better.”
For Cohen, who served as an adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “Trumpism in foreign policy is dangerous because of its belligerent nationalism, self-absorption, disdain for allies and comfort with the authoritarian leaders of the day.” Yet this happens to be remarkably accurate précis of neoconservatism as practiced by the administration of George W. Bush, under which Cohen himself served. Belligerent nationalism? Check. Self-absorption? Check. Distain for allies? Check. Comfort with authoritarian leaders? Check!
While Cohen’s piece implies that the tenets of Trumpism and Nazism are, at a minimum, simpatico, a day later, on May 18, the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan took to the Washington Post op-ed page and one-upped Cohen, claiming that Trump himself is a “strongman” in the tradition of Il Duce and Der Führer. “This,” Kagan gloomily intoned, “is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac.”
Kagan, Cohen and Boot quite rightly denounce Trump’s promise to ban Muslim immigrants. Yet their newfound concern for the well-being of Muslims is striking, given that they were among the most vocal supporters of the Bush administration’s “Global War on Terror” and the Iraq debacle which, according to the Nobel Prize–winning organization International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, has “directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, i.e. a total of around 1.3 million.”
At least one of Clinton’s advisers realizes what most Americans seem to know instinctually: The neocons are poison. When asked by Politico if Team Clinton would consider bringing on any of the desert-island neocons in an official capacity, the adviser sarcastically responded: “Who is saying, ‘You know what we need to do is pick up the people who got us into the Iraq War! I mean, they’re geniuses!’ They’ve been wrong about everything!”
Indeed. Are we really supposed to rue the possibility that the armchair warriors who’ve done the yeoman’s work of constructing an intellectual framework for endless foreign interventions and an overweening surveillance state might be excluded from the next administration?
It is hard to escape the conclusion that it isn’t Trump’s policies that are really bothering the neocons. Rather, it is the possibility that, come January 20, 2017, they could be frozen out of the corridors of power for the next four years. But what must really sting is this: Republican voters, given a choice between a neocon revival or Donald J. Trump went resoundingly for the latter. Deep down, I suspect, they know that they have no one to blame for Trump but themselves.