This article is © 2011 by Stephen J. Sniegoski. All rights reserved
by author. Page published August 1, 2011 by WTM Enterprises.


More contortions on the neocons

A review of Maria Ryan's Neoconservatism and the New American Century


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Yet another book on the neocons from a mainstream publisher has recently appeared that — like the works of Danny Cooper and Justin Vaïsse — acknowledges the neoconservatives' influence, especially in regard to Bush administration policy, while avoiding the obvious fact that the neocons' policy in the Middle East rested on their ethnic identification with the Jewish state of Israel. That study is Neoconservatism and the New American Century, by Maria Ryan, a lecturer in American history at the University of Nottingham in England. Palgrave MacMillan published the book in 2010.

In eschewing the obvious, Ryan engages, even more than the other two authors, in contorted and spurious arguments, including some where the evidence she provides actually refutes her own arguments and instead gives credence to the neocons' ethnic bias.

While failing to discuss the palpable ethnic motive for the neocons' Middle East policy, Ryan's work must be credited for refuting the popular argument that the neocons were motivated by a desire to export democracy — that they were "Jacobins" or "Wilsonians." She writes:

The central focus of this book is to demonstrate that the purported neoconservative preoccupation with moral ideals and especially 'exporting democracy' ... was almost entirely abstract and rhetorical, if it was present at all. Where neocons did invoke idealistic rhetoric (and it is usually in the abstract rather than the practical), the caveats and conditions that they added to it all but ruled out military intervention in the service of democracy or any other moral ideals, although ... some of them acknowledge that the rhetoric is useful for the galvanizing effect it has on the public. (p. 5)
Instead, she maintains, the "neocons have always prioritized interests over ideals." (p. 6) She provides a number of telling examples to show that democratic idealism was far from being the cynosure of neoconservative foreign-policy thinking.

In contrast to the theory of democracy promotion, Ryan writes that "a central argument of this book is that neoconservatism should be evaluated on the basis that it was a strategy dedicated to preserving and extending America's supposed position as the single pole of world power." (p. 6) That effort to "ensure that the United States remained the single pole of power in every region of the world," Ryan terms "unipolarism," holding that "unipolarism thus constituted the new defining strategic and ideological touchstone for neoconservatism in the post-Cold War period — and, indeed, the two terms 'neoconservatism' and 'unipolarism' would become almost ... synonymous." (p 2)

Ryan is not alone in describing the neocons as "unipolarist." Gary Dorrien, in his Imperial Designs: Neoconservatism and the New Pax Americana [*], characterizes the neocons as fundamentally unipolarist; and, in fact, the neocons themselves actually used the term. As Dorrien writes at the very beginning of Imperial Designs: "In the waning months of the cold war, shortly before an expiring Soviet Union finally disintegrated, a group of neoconservative policymakers and intellectuals began to argue that the moment had come to create an American-dominated world order. Some of them called it 'the unipolarist imperative.'" (p. 1) Ryan cites Dorrien's work but fails to mention his discussion of "unipolarism," only classifying him as one of those scholars who hold that "neoconservatism is characterized by the desire to 'export democracy.'" (pp. 4, 192) (I discuss Dorrien's "unipolarist" argument in The Transparent Cabal, on pp. 368, where I use arguments that would be equally applicable to Ryan.)

Ryan questions the idea that there was anything particularly unique about neocon foreign-policy views, maintaining that "the neocons merely accentuated existing trends in U.S. foreign policy; they did not overturn them." For example, she holds that their differences with the foreign policy of the Clinton administration were only in terms of degree. (p.9)

If unipolarism defines neoconservatism, and if unipolarism essentially means American military pre-eminence on a global scale, then it would be reasonable to say that the neoconservatives fit into the dominant mode of American foreign-policy thinking along with most realists and liberal internationalists. But that typological classification is too broad, failing to specify what particular interventionist policies are to be pursued. Most of those who could be classified as unipolarists would part company with the neocons in regard to the latters' policy of unconditional support for Israel, war on Iraq, and an overall Middle East war agenda, which the former held would have deleterious effects on America's overall global stature.

As illustrated in The Transparent Cabal, the neocon-inspired war on Iraq provoked extensive resistance from elite foreign-policy opinion outside the administration, the State Department bureaucracy, the CIA, and the military brass. In large part, that opposition reflected the fact that the neocon goal of destabilizing the Middle East flew in the face of the traditional U.S. policy of maintaining regional stability in order to facilitate the flow of oil, which was crucial for the economic strength of the United States and its allies. Moreover, Saddam's Iraq seemed to pose no serious threat to the United States, a fact that later became clear when no evidence could be found to substantiate the claims about Saddam's lethal WMDs.

Ryan applies her non-uniqueness argument to the neocons' unconditional support for Israel. "A special attachment to Israel was nothing new in post-1945, and especially post-1967 U.S. foreign policy," Ryan asserts. She does acknowledge that "the neoconservative attachment to Israel appeared to be even stronger than [the] usual [support from other elements of the foreign-policy mainstream] because of the amount of time and resources [the neocons] dedicated to supporting it ... even though it was no longer needed as a bulwark against communism in the Middle East." (p. 32-33)

Some commentators, Ryan observes, argue that the neocons were motivated by their Jewish ethnicity or special identification with Israel to the extent that they put Israeli interests equal to or above those of the United States. She simply responds that "there may be some truth to these arguments, but it is virtually impossible to discern private religious or ethnic motivations." (p. 33)

Here Ryan just makes an assertion without going over, much less refuting, the specific evidence used to substantiate the ethnic bias/Israel argument. I devote a substantial part of The Transparent Cabal to documenting that very thesis. Ryan definitely should have been aware of the evidence for the argument, because the indefatigable James Morris had maintained correspondence with her and sent her a copy of my book. Beyond acknowledging to Morris that she had received the book, she ceased further correspondence with him despite his efforts to contact her. Nowhere in her book does she refer to The Transparent Cabal.

It is possible, though unlikely, that her book, published in November 2010, was too far along the publication route for her to use or even cite mine, which was published in August 2008. However, it would seem incumbent upon any scholar to deal with the information from already published sources that illustrated the neocons' ethnic orientation.

To Ryan, the neocons' support for Israel was based solely on how it related to American interests. She claims that there was a

strategic explanation for their unflinching support for Israel that coheres with neoconservative regional and global objectives, which were supported by non-Jews too, such as [Zalmay] Khalilzad [U.S. envoy to Kabul], a Muslim, and [Vice President] Cheney. Quite simply, they believed that the United States should remain the dominant outside power in the Mid East region, and this included maintaining its commitment to Israel.... For decades America had staked its credibility on support for Israel, making unparalleled financial, military, and political investments. Israel was the most pro-American country in a region largely hostile to the American presence. If Washington reneged on its commitments or if its patrons retreated, this would invite challenges and call American credibility and commitment everywhere into question. (p. 33)
In that paragraph, Ryan makes a significant number of untenable claims. First, it is simply ridiculous to imply that the existence of a couple of non-Jews who back neocon positions undercuts the argument that neoconservatism is a predominantly Jewish movement reflecting Jewish interests. No critic claims that only Jews hold neocon positions, any more than anyone would claim that only Polish-Americans have been concerned about Polish interests. But it is quite obvious that Polish-Americans have been more likely to support Polish interests than non-Poles and that they do so because they are ethnically Polish. Authors on American foreign policy are quite willing to openly state the same thing as it applies to various other ethnic groups in the United States — Greeks, Germans, Irish, Cubans, Arabs.

However, according to Ryan, the neocons possess a foreign-policy outlook resting totally on a detached, purely intellectual assessment of American interests, despite their close relationship to Jewish interest groups such as the American Jewish Committee, and despite their explicit statements about working for Jewish interests — take, for example, the well-known February 1972 article in Commentary by neocon godfather Norman Podhoretz, "Is It Good for the Jews?" (TC, p. 27, 386) That the neocons are predominantly Jewish is, from Ryan's perspective, strictly coincidental; presumably they could be blacks, Anglo-Americans, or even Islamic Arabs, unless members of those groups do act according to an ethnic bias that is somehow alien to the mindset of Jewish neocons.

Moreover, Ryan presents the claim that U.S. dominance in the Middle East depended on Washington's support of Israel not as if it were simply as a neocon view but as something objectively true. She maintains that "for decades America had staked its credibility on support for Israel, making unparalleled financial, military, and political investments." (p. 33) But support, especially unconditional support, for Israel causes animosity to the United States throughout the Middle East region, which would seem to be contrary to America's strategic national interest. That was recognized by State and Defense department officials at the time of Israel's creation in 1948, and they thus opposed U.S. support for a Jewish state. In short, U.S. support for Israel has from its very inception been driven by domestic political considerations and tempered by geostrategic ones. Ryan makes little effort to show otherwise.

She goes on to make an even more extreme allegation regarding the close U.S. relationship to Israel: "If Washington reneged on its commitments [to Israel] or if its patrons retreated, this would invite challenges and call American credibility and commitment everywhere into question." (p. 33, emphasis in original) That American worldwide credibility somehow depends upon unconditional support for Israel is a proposition that very few foreign-policy experts would accept. It would imply that if the United States pursued a more even-handed approach on the Israel-Palestine issue — pressuring Israel to abandon its West Bank settlements, or refraining from vetoing virtually all UN Security Council measures that Israel opposed — America's credibility with other countries, including those in the Arab world, would be harmed. That outlandish allegation actually goes far beyond anything that the neocons themselves have ever come up with.

Ryan even claims that the neocons' notorious "Clean Break" report in 1996, which advised incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to use military force to destabilize the Middle East, was based solely on their concern for American national interests. "Once again," she writes, "the rationale held that what was in the interests of Israel was also in the interest of the United States because an Israeli retreat meant, by extension, a U.S. retreat." (p. 87) Ryan contends that this was not a view held only by the neocons but that it reflected mainstream foreign-policy thinking, despite the fact that the proposed "break" advocated by the report entailed breaking with the Middle East policies of the Clinton administration, especially the "peace process" between Israel and Palestine.

To illustrate her allegation that the neocons' view of the identity of U.S. and Israeli interests reflected mainstream thinking, Ryan reports that the geostrategic ideas expressed in "A Clean Break" were paralleled by a report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) Presidential Study Group, which "for the first time ... claimed a link between regime change in Iraq and broader regional objectives." (p. 84) That report, however, hardly represented the mainstream, since WINEP was a spin-off of Israel's major political lobby in the United States, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — WINEP having been started by the former deputy research director of AIPAC, Martin Indyk.

According to Ryan, however, the study group that developed the report represented a "cross-section of mainstream political opinion." (p. 84) She makes no effort to prove that point, and the roster of the study group's Steering Committee consists solely of individuals noted for being staunch supporters of Israel, if not outright neocons: Jeane Kirkpatrick, James Woolsey, Max Kampelman, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gen. Alexander Haig, Rep. Howard Berman, and Rep. Benjamin Gilman. (pp. 84, 217)

Furthermore, the authors of "A Clean Break" provide clear evidence that they did not believe that what was good for Israeli interests was acceptable to the U.S. government. They emphasized the need to couch the belligerent measures prescribed for Israel — the purpose of which was solely to advance Israeli interests — in terms of American ideals, in order to prevent opposition from the United States. Also, one stated purpose of the prescribed militant destabilizing policy in the Middle East was to free Israel from U.S. pressure.

If the neocons really believed that what was good for Israel was also good for the United States, they must also have believed that the policies of the Likud party would better serve American interests in the Middle East than those of the U.S. government. That would lead, logically, to the preposterous conclusion that it would be in the interest of the United States to outsource its foreign-policy decision-making, at least on the Middle East, to the Israeli Likud Party. But such preposterous conclusions are almost inevitable when one feels obliged to engage in manifold mental gyrations to avoid the obvious truth. Unfortunately, when it comes to the issue of neocon motivation, the truth-avoidance approach seems to be necessary in order to be accepted in the mainstream.

Nevertheless, it is only through taking into account the neocons' fundamentally ethnic motivation for their policy in the Middle East that their Israelocentric policy directed against Israel's enemies becomes understandable. The neocons' policies utterly failed to achieve their stated goals but instead seriously harmed the United States; and the fact that this has not done irreparable harm to the neocons' role and reputation as U.S. policy intellectuals strongly suggests that their wealthy backers, staunchly pro-Zionist, approve of their achievements.

Now largely outside the halls of executive power, the neocons are in a more quiescent stage, though the policies initiated by them have not disappeared, and they could reemerge once more in positions of power to do even more harm to real American interests. More insidious, there are many individuals who advocate policies similar to those of the neocons, if usually somewhat attenuated, and who do continue to influence U.S. Middle East policy. They are not "unipolarists" but rather members of the Israel lobby. Without a clear understanding of the history of this enterprise, countering it will be virtually impossible.  Ω

August 1, 2011

© 2011 by Stephen J. Sniegoski. All rights reserved by author.
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* New York: Routledge, 2004. (Amazon.com page.)

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