Good Bye Neoconservatives. Hello to Their Liberal Brethren?

The media and the Washington foreign policy elite breathed a sigh of relief when Barack Obama thumped John McCain in the election. Had John McCain won, there was always the chance that the neoconservatives would have beaten out the Republican realists for his foreign policy soul. With a victory by the liberal Obama, however, the stake would finally be driven into the heart of the "jingoistic" neoconservative vampire.

Yet even after Obama takes power, an evil foreign policy ghoul will still hover over the White House – this time wearing the benign clothes of a compassionate angel. Obama’s top foreign policy advisors include Susan Rice, a member of the "muscular liberal" crowd – you know, the same crew that includes the bombing progressives Madeleine Albright and Richard Holbrooke. In a National Public Radio interview during the campaign, Rice decried President George W. Bush’s invasion and nation-building adventure in Iraq, while at the same time advocating U.S. intervention and nation-building in Darfur, Sudan.

Muscular liberals and neoconservatives hate each other only because they are so much alike. Although neoconservatives feel less favorable toward any U.N. or other multilateral veneer for the mailed U.S. fist than muscular liberals, they still love to invade other nations for righteous reasons – that is, to save the world or make it more like us.

But I should not criticize a president – whether Democratic or Republican – before he even takes office and actually does something. Perhaps Obama will directly address the foreign policy demons in his own party. He originally had good instincts about a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, but over the course of the campaign, tempered his position as the U.S. surge seemed to "work." No doubt, behind the scenes, his foreign policy "experts" have warned him of all the alleged pitfalls of such an expedited exit.

By paying off, arming, and training the Sunni militias in Iraq (the U.S. had previously done the same thing with the Iraqi forces, which had been infiltrated by Kurdish and Shi’a militias), the Bush administration has tamed down the violence until it is safely out of office, but this also likely will make a future civil war among the groups even more intense. Obama should pay attention to his instincts – not his advisers – and take advantage of the lull in violence to get out while the gettin’s good.

Also, Obama should avoid a confrontation with Russia over deploying a U.S. missile defense in Europe. The ham-handed Russians have not made it easy. Without even first publicly congratulating Obama on his election victory, the Russians threatened to deploy short-range missiles that have the range to hit the defense facilities in Poland. This response from Russia seems to fulfill Vice President-elect Joe Biden’s prediction that the young, inexperienced president would be rapidly tested in an international crisis.

Although Russia’s reaction to the proposed deployment of missile defense is somewhat understandable given its suffering from repeated U.S.-led expansions of the historically hostile NATO alliance right up to its borders, the blustering Russia has now made it hard for the neophyte president to abandon the system without fulfilling John McCain’s prediction of his foreign policy weakness. Instead, the Russians should have quietly waited to see what the new president would do about such defenses; Obama previously had expressed some skepticism about the need for rapid U.S. deployment of the costly and questionable system. Publicly calling out Obama on the issue before he even took office made it hard for the new president to wisely terminate deployment plans without seeming to have backed down. Nevertheless, Obama has many legitimate excuses to abandon the expensive and unneeded system without referring to Russian opposition.

The cutback of this unnecessary weapon system should be just one of many. At minimum, the Defense Department should also cut the Army’s Future Combat Systems, the Navy’s new destroyer, and the Air Force’s Joint Strike Fighter. Barney Frank, the Democratic Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, is on the right track by advocating a 25 percent reduction in the defense budget.

More generally, two endless foreign quagmires and the U.S. financial and economic crisis have brought home, like a cold slap in the face, the fact that U.S. imperial and interventionist foreign and defense policies, advocated by both neoconservatives and muscular liberals, have brought strategic overextension that is unaffordable in times of yawning budget deficits and economic frailty. Obama should fight off the ghosts of foreign policy past, even within the Democratic Party, and opt for "change." More restrained and affordable foreign and defense policies would be politically saleable to the nation in times of economic peril. "Yes, we can" (retract the empire).

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.