In hindsight are the neo-cons of the 80's & 90's as foolish & ignorant as they looked a decade ago?

When the ascendent neo-cons finally got their turn at governing during the Bush Presidency and the Iraq War it appeared the governing equivalent of the Keystone Cops had been let loose. The 2006 book Fiascoby Thomas Ricks had chapter after chapter of naive, clueless, ignorant and arrogant behavior that was so profound it boggled the imagination.

It’s now 2014, has anything changed in the last 10+ years that would modify this perspective and shed a more kindly light on the neo-cons and their positions and policies at the time?

Not that I can see. Their whole premise of spreading democracy and capitalism by any means necessary was fundamentally flawed in the first place.

To judge “neo-cons” by the performance of the partisan hacks who destroyed Iraq is somewhat unfair. (Similarly, it is unfair to judge “fiscal conservatism” by the actions of the Tea Party, or to judge the efficacy of “Austrian economics” by Ron Paul or goldbug rants on YouTube.) Richard N. Haass is a very intelligent “neo-con” who never drank the Bush-Cheney-Rove Kool-Aid.

Given the callowness, hypocrisy, and ideological blinders of most of those who sail on the ship of “neo-conservatism”, its policies should certainly be rejected out of hand for the foreseeable future. Perhaps America has some “Peter Principle” that policy directions, no matter how wise they may be in theory, are likely to be dominated by their stupidest or most hypocritical proponents.

Democracy and capitalism are good ideas. The neo-cons’ mistake was thinking you could impose these ideas on other people and their benefits would be so immediately obvious, these people would embrace them and thank you for imposing them.

The neo-cons should have studied history. In the west, it took generations for democracy and capitalism to be fully embraced and this was in societies that were making the changes on their own initiative.

Beyond that, several of the prominent neo-cons were the same people who’d advocated - thirty years prior - to Viet Nam (at least the one I knew well was). I view the Iraq adventure as them not learning from history.

It’s like they’ve never learned the value of soft power. Having the most powerful military in the world - if you can afford it - is nice, but true change comes about through persuasion and not through force of arms. The neo con expansion of democracy theory is an EASY solution to a hard problem and therefore must be held to be suspect from the start.

The title of this post is “In hindsight are the neo-cons of the 80’s & 90’s as foolish & ignorant as they looked a decade ago?”

Reagan was President from 1981 to 1989 and Bush Senior from 1989 to 1993. These years saw the defeat of communism, the split-up of the Soviet Union and the first Iraq War (where Iraq had invaded Kuwait and the U.S. and its allies liberated Kuwait).

So why is the OP referring in the body of his post to a book about Bush Junior?

Well, I’ve never seen the “neocon” label applied to Reagan or Bush Sr. The neocons were mostly just writers and think-tankers back then; they didn’t get close to power until the W Admin.

Agreed. Oh, sure, Rumsfeld and Cheney and some others were there in both time periods, but the dominant vision in the Reagan and GHWB years was that of regular old Cold-War conservatism.

Yes. Possibly even more foolish & ignorant with hindsight.


I don’t really see neo-conservatives being too different than the mainstream, which is still about pushing neo-liberal economic policies wherever possible. Neo-cons wanted to do the same thing, just in a really stupid and ineffective way.

Ensuring America remains unchallenged after the Cold War was their thing too I guess. That might be unique to them now. I can’t tell if elite consensus is that it’s impossible to resist a multi-polar world so it’s foolish to try, that it doesn’t matter because the other countries are eating our scraps and aren’t a threat, or that it just won’t matter, e.g. the British empire collapsed, but the UK is richer than it ever has been, so who cares?

I don’t think the neocons were trying to ensure America remained unchallenged. Their goal was more to change every other country into a mirror image of the United States. And then we’d all be friends because we’d all be the same and there would never be another war. The United States might still be Number One but only because everyone would agree we deserved it because we were the most United-States-like country in the world.

It was an idealistic vision but I don’t condemn the neocons for that. As visions go it wasn’t too bad. The problem was the neocons decided that because their goal was so great, they were justified in using some pretty extreme means to reach it. They were definitely of the “can’t make omelets without breaking some eggs” school. And the worst part was that after they had broken a lot of eggs, they found out nobody actually knew the recipe for an omelet.

I really don’t think the fall of some communist regimes (China and Cuba still claim to be communist, even if they’ve liberalized their economies a great deal in the past decade) or the break up of the Soviet Union (into the CIS, which Russia still dominates, as we see in the Ukraine now and in Georgia earlier) really had anything to do with the United States. I know conservatives love to take credit for it because they happened to be in power while it happened - don’t blame them, the liberals would have done it too - but really the United States had very little to do with the problems the soviets experienced at the beginning of the 90s.

As far as the Iraq War, I doubt I’d take that as a policy win since it was bungled after the fact just like the second Iraq War. Or you could say it was bungled in that it needed to happen in the first place. Sure, it was a military success, but then you have to argue that Bush Sr. deserves the credit for that. Pretty much any president in the last 50 years, possibly excluding Carter, could have had the same level of military success, if not more.

Define “richer”.

Technically GDP per capita in the UK peaked in 2008, but that’s what recessions will do. marshmallow is correct: per person income has been on an upwards trajectory: the same is true in the rest of the first world. (The US has an issue with the distribution of its income as much of the benefits of economic growth have gone to small sliver since the 1980s. But set that aside.)

Here’s the UK chart. I inputted the dates 1960-2014 here:

And produced the chart shown here:

It’s on an upward trend, setting aside cyclic problems.

IMHO it is a mistake to think that the neo-cons did what they did in order to promote Democracy and Capitalism. It seems to me that the motivation for their policies would put promoting Democracy and Capitalism around 4th or 5th on the list.

They went into Iraq because Saddam was a bad guy and, well, because they kinda like war as a business, and because we need a presence in the oil region.

They went into Afghanistan because Bin Laden was a bad guy.

If their policy was to promote Democracy and Capitalism, then why not go into (insert non-democratic non-capitalist country name)?

In some non-crazy quarters there is the view that the root motivations for much (though not all) of what the Neo-cons did with respect to their defense and foreign policy strategies and actions executed during George W Bush’s administration revolved primarily around concerns for the the defense and security of Israel with all other concerns arranging themselves around that core. How true that is I have no idea.

Everybody needs to bone up on the history of the neocon movement. It began with liberal Democrats, started to gather steam in the last half of the Clinton admin, was pushed beyond rational limits by Cheney and Rummy in the W years. Do not for a moment think people like Susan Rice, Hillary, Obama, Susan Powers, even John Kerry are anything but NeoCons, why do you think nothing has changed in our foreign policy?

They went into Afghanistan because it was politically necessary to Do Something, not because they cared. They conquered Afghanistan quick and dirty, with no long term plans about what to do there and sloppily enough that bin Laden was able to escape. And later they were so disinterested in bin Laden that Bush called off the hunt for him until Congress pressed him into re-instating it.