Although conservatism is an old feature in politics, neo-conservatism is a reltively new hybrid. Its prominence in today's Anglo-American policymaking means it affects all of us, so we need to know how to handle it in return.
CONSERVATIVE politics has lately become a subject of both academic scrutiny and social commentary. So has its variant of neo-conservatism.
Much of this has resulted from the onset of the George W. Bush White House in January 2001. Along with other earlier promises, Bush’s pledge of a kinder and gentler US foreign policy was overtaken by motives, interests and objectives that proved quite the opposite.
What critics regard as the grasping, self-interested and divisive policies of a right-wing Republican White House have been attributed to a crony group of neo-conservatives shaping US policy. Given their neo-colonial posture, the impact of their policies is both national and global.
This group of “neo-cons” that has surrounded Bush, calling itself the “cabal,” is said to include Vice-President Dick Cheney and his boys like Lewis Libby and Eric Edelman, as well as Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his prominently gung-ho deputy Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton.
Other influential neo-cons include Elliott Abrams, Robert Joseph, Wayne Downing and Zalmay Khalilzad. They are identifiable in their radically conservative leanings, with a propensity for the sentiments of neo-con academic Leo Strauss and neo-colonial projects like Richard Perle’s Project for a New American Century (PNAC).
Ideologically, they are more interested in destruction than development, and emotionally they are aligned more with Israel than anyone else. As former UN arms inspector Scott Ritter has noted, they have taken over the US government without representing the views of most Americans.
The BBC’s chief political correspondent Mark Mardell observes that neo-cons like Rumsfeld have long targeted Iraq along with Iran and Syria. They see these countries as key gateways to West Asian oil, Islamic politics, regional domination and global influence.
PNAC documents show how US control of these countries would serve its elite interests, and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq has predictably led to pressure on these remaining countries. Neo-cons pursue political dominance, display military belligerence and exhibit cultural arrogance.
Since President Bush is an avowed born-again Christian, he has perhaps been less impervious to the charms of the neo-conservatives. It is on the other side of the Atlantic that the neo-cons’ conquest has been more remarkable.
Former British Minister for International Development, Clare Short, last month called Prime Minister Tony Blair a complete convert to US neo-conservatism. It is unusual, even surprising, for a British Labour Party leader to be sold a cause of the right wing of a US Republican Party.
But Short’s observation has a point. It goes back to at least the first weeks of Blair’s premiership, as documented by British journalist John Pilger.
Pilger notes how, as a symbolic gesture, the new prime minister from a “new” Labour Party visited the neglected homes of poor Britons. But the visit was superficial, the beginnings of Blairean spin: it saw temporary air fresheners for the staircases, but no pledges of better housing.
Abroad, the superficiality remained. Blair expressed admiration for East Asia’s rapidly growing economies, but never really understood them.
Like Bush, he championed deregulation and economic liberalisation. Yet East Asia’s success stories were built on mercantilist practices with a major role for the state in directing industry.
The most vibrant East Asian economies are export-driven, aggressively nurturing industries while procuring markets abroad. But Blair and his predecessors, including conservative matriarch Margaret Thatcher, have instead presided over the decline of British industry in global markets.
The industrial landscape of Blair’s Britain has more in common with the economic doldrums of Bush’s America. Blair’s Thatcherite conservatism has been evident to observant Britons for years: soon upon ascending to the prime ministership, he was credited as a true guardian of Thatcherism.
Blair’s 1997 election campaign was endorsed by the conservative tabloid The Sun, while his 2001 re-election campaign was similarly endorsed by the conservative Times. But while Blair’s slogan was “new Labour,” his political reality was new (neo-) conservatism.
Anglo-American neo-conservatives remain distinct from true-blue conservatives. While conservatives typically uphold traditional values and are unwavering in their convictions, neo-conservatives are restless go-getters for whom the ends justify the means, with an inclination for warlike neo-colonial expeditions.
Britain’s most prominent neo-conservative politician was Margaret Thatcher, with a petty bourgeoisie chip on the shoulder that became a prickly thorn to more self-assured Tories like Edward Heath and Jim Pryor. Today, Blair is the leading caretaker of that neo-conservatism.
American conservatives like Pat Buchanan are dismissive of neo-cons. For everyone else, conservatives are more predictable and consistent in their convictions than the neo-cons, and therefore seem more principled – particularly when they are also less interventionist abroad.
Buchanan recently analysed how the neo-con influence in the Bush White House may be on the wane. He details several instances where neo-conservative initiatives had been blocked or diluted.
But even when taken together, Buchanan’s examples do not amount to a clear indication of a neo-con decline beyond temporary setbacks or isolated dead-ends in inter-departmental feuds. It is still too early to make a definitive assessment of neo-con fortunes in the Bush White House.
What is clear is that neo-conservatives are still new kids on the ideological block in Washington and London. This has produced myriad interpretations, including the view that neo-cons had been “Trotskyists” in a previous political life.
Such an interpretation is a mirage. It confuses the kind of rightist social democrats such as Blair, who were never committed socialists even as they proclaim a “new socialism,” with two other strands in contemporary politics.
One of these is the Trotskyite socialism in modern Anglo-American political discourse, which is averse to what it sees as a more conservative or “Stalinist” strain. Trotskyites are not necessarily more right-wing or less committed, even if they often seem more liberally left in being more open.
They are also not less successful in their political campaigns. In Britain two decades ago, the Militant Tendency was more successful in attempting to transform the Liverpool Labour Party than the less flexible Stalinist CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain), in the process introducing “entryism” to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The other strand in right-leaning former socialists simply consists of nominal or non-socialists who decided to lean rightwards openly. This is more the territory of the Tony Blairs and his North American counterparts, of today’s neo-conservatives who had always been conservative.
They have their equivalents in all the Boris Yeltsins, post-expulsion from the Moscow Communist Party. To consider them socialists is as perverse as saying the same of Nazis (as national socialists), which conservative American columnist George Will tries to do.
As the communist Soviet Union dropped its socialist pretence to become Russia, the grey men of the CPSU suddenly became “right wing” while their liberal opponents became “leftists.” In China, “neo-conservatives” are those who support the status quo without being revolutionary.
Last month, four American political scientists completed a project analysing the conservative political mind. This drew instant protests from political conservatives, partly because they were conservatives and the political scientists were not.
It was also partly because the study by the professors from the Universities of California (Berkeley), Stanford and Maryland produced psychological profiles of conservatives that were unflattering. Thus, another feature of conservatism may be an easy recourse to denial.
The prominence of conservatism and neo-conservatism in Western society also indicates its age, whether or not that comes with a measure of maturity. For developing countries yearning to modernise and advance, any kind of conservatism would be regarded as outmoded and regressive.
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