Realists Rout Neocons

As a playground for foreign policy intellectuals of the right, The National Interest has always been safely ensconced in the neoconservative orbit: perhaps that $200,000 per year from Conrad Black had something to do with it. Founded by neocon godfather Irving Kristol in 1985, and having published the screeds of such harbingers of interventionist wisdom as Richard Perle, Midge Decter, and FrancisThe End of HistoryFukuyama, the magazine has now undergone something of a transformation – what with the decline and fall of the Hollinger publishing empire, of which Lord Black was the fountainhead. This has led to a contretemps that even the New York Times (which is usually deaf, dumb, and blind to differences in conservative ranks) has recently taken notice of:

“A philosophical disagreement within its editorial board has put its future in turmoil. On Friday, 10 well-known board members, including the conservatives Midge Decter, Samuel P. Huntington, and Francis Fukuyama, announced their resignations, saying they disagreed with the narrowly realist foreign policy of its new owner, the Nixon Center.

“At issue is the perspective laid out in the most recent issue by Robert F. Ellsworth, vice chairman of the Nixon Center, a ‘realist’ foreign policy research group that acquired sole control of the journal last year, and Dimitri K. Simes, president of the center and co-publisher of the journal. In an editorial headlined ‘Realism’s Shining Morality,’ they wrote: ‘Overzealousness in the cause of democracy (along with a corresponding underestimation of the costs and dangers) has led to a dangerous overstretch in Iraq,’ arguing that United States interests may sometimes require cooperation with undemocratic regimes.”

The foreign policy debate on the right has long been reserved for bitch-fights between neocons – as in the battle between Fukuyama and Charles Krauthammer, with the latter implicitly accusing the former of anti-Semitism for daring to question the key role deference to Israel plays in policymaking. But in the wake of a failed policy in Iraq – with an insurgency that seems to grow with each passing day and a regime that hardly seems conducive to the sort of “democracy” touted by the neocons as the end-all and be-all of American policy objectives – the revolt of the realists is showing plenty of momentum, and the Ellsworth-Simes tag-team comes out swinging:

“We are pleased that President George W. Bush achieved an impressive victory over Senator John Kerry – but we do not believe that the president received a clear mandate for conducting foreign policy. Indeed, it was unfortunate that there was no real foreign policy debate during the campaign – and this at a time when the United States must make fateful choices.

“The president, understandably, was unwilling to acknowledge serious errors of judgment in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Yet Senator Kerry failed to offer a credible alternative. His attacks on administration policy, especially vis-à-vis Iraq, were more nitpicking than a serious evaluation of what went wrong and what lessons the United States should learn.”

Here is a sentiment with which the editors of can heartily agree: indeed, it was our main mantra in this space during the 2004 election. Kerry was a me-tooer when it came to the Bushian policy of imperial preemption: he never contested the radical interventionist position staked out by the president and his neoconservative advisors. Indeed, he often sought to sound more interventionist than his opponent – on the question of how to deal with Saudi Arabia, for example. While it may have been too much to expect a real foreign policy debate between the two “major” parties, it now seems that a spirited discussion over this vital question is taking place among conservatives. To which we can only respond: Hurrah!

After paying obeisance to the idea of “encouraging” democracy, Ellsworth and Simes go on to differentiate this commonsense approach from the rigidly ideological doctrine of the neocons, which seeks to impose democracy on the Middle East at gunpoint. They explicitly reject the messianic vision promoted in the president’s recent fulminations and take direct aim at the neocons:

“The neoconservative vision for conducting American foreign policy is fraught with risks. And continuing to follow the prescriptions of the neoconservative faction in the Republican party may damage President Bush’s legacy, imperil the country’s fiscal stability, and complicate America’s ability to exercise global leadership.”

Aside from excoriating the neocons on the most obvious points – their arrogance and hubris – the authors take the opportunity to make a number of digs at their opponents, and this one must really have stuck in the neocons’ craw:

“It required an inordinate degree of naivety and, frankly, ignorance about the real conditions in Iraq and in the Middle East in general to believe that this overly ambitious scheme could work – especially when pursued without any visible effort to promote the Arab-Israeli settlement and from the position of being the sole sponsor of the Sharon government.”

Ouch! How long before Krauthammer – who was outraged when Fukuyama brought up the foreign policy interest group that dares not speak its name – accuses The National Interest of having been taken over by a gang of anti-Semitic skinheads? And remember, to even use the word “neocon” is to betray one’s inner anti-Semitism, because it’s only a “code word” for “Jew,” as Jonah Goldberg once explained with a straight face.

The Ellsworth-Simes piece tackles practically all the main shibboleths of neoconservatism – the golden calf of “democracy,” the alleged need for regime-change in much of the Middle East, the targeting of Vladimir Putin – which is no mean feat for a short editorial statement. What makes it particularly enjoyable to read, however, is that it is replete with zingers that hit the neocons where they really hurt. For example, in urging “a modicum of humility” in the style and substance of American foreign policy, the authors aver: “That is something that does not come naturally to neoconservative polemicists,” echoing the more pointed critique of paleoconservatives such as Professor Claes Ryn, who characterizes them as “neo-Jacobins”(pdf) bloated with an unbearable “conceit.”

Ellsworth and Simes explicitly reject the militant universalism inherent in the call to carry democracy far and wide on the wings of U.S. military power: “We should abandon the demonstrably false pretense that all nations and cultures share essentially the same values.”

They also dig deeper into the Israel-centrism that lives at the core of the neoconservative dispensation:

“One key passion in the Middle East is the rights of the Palestinians. This passion may seem exaggerated to us and manipulated by undemocratic Arab leaders. But the fact remains that it is strongly felt among the Muslim elites and masses alike. If we want our good intentions to be trusted in the Islamic world, and if we want to be able to encourage moderation and positive attitudes toward Western civilization among Muslims, a sympathetic attention to the Palestinian problem, obviously without abandoning the security of Israel, is a must. Yasser Arafat’s departure may provide an important opening in that regard.”

No wonder the neocons – who are rejectionists when it comes to Israeli concessions in the West Bank and Gaza, and who side with the far-right wing of the Likud party on this question – walked out in a huff.

It has to be particularly grating on the neocons to hear themselves paired with their true comrades and brothers-in-spirit, the Left:

“It has become an article of faith for the increasingly influential alliance of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives that the United States, as the world’s democratic hegemonic power, is both entitled and even morally bound to use whatever tools are necessary to save the world from brutality and oppression and to promote democratization around the globe.”

Grating because the neocons’ themselves are the runaway children of the Left, “liberals who have been mugged,” as Irving Kristol famously put it. My favorite part of the National Interest editorial makes further reference to their leftist origins, utilizing a meme first unleashed right here in this space:

“For President Bush to use his second term to enhance his legacy and to build – as he clearly wants – a lasting Republican majority, the United States needs to pursue a foreign policy based on thoughtful evaluation, dealing with the world as it is, rather than embracing polemical clichés passed off as ideas. And such a policy needs as its moral lodestone the traditional American value of prudence, not a neo-Trotskyite belief in a permanent revolution (even if it is a democratic rather than proletarian one).”

That neoconservatism owes more to the legacy and spirit of the founder of the Red Army than it does to the canons of a recognizable conservatism is a point to which the neocons are especially sensitive. This underscores their status as outsiders in a movement they’ve essentially corrupted and perverted into a parody of its former self. The Bushian-neocon dogma that only the implantation of “democracy” on a global scale can ensure the safety and security of U.S. citizens owes nothing to the traditional conservative commitment to prudence and antipathy to revolutionism, and everything to the Trotskyist critique of Stalinism.

Socialism in one country, the Trotsky-cultists averred, could only lead to the isolation and eventual defeat of the world commie revolution. Communism is nothing if not a militant internationalism, and the Trotsky fan club had a point in arguing that, in order to be good commies, it was the Soviet Union’s obligation to invade the rest of the world – or it would fall. But it is more than a little odd for American conservatives to heed a similar exhortation, and the neocons’ oddness – as “conservative” Jacobins – is nicely spotlighted with this devastating reference to their origins in the Church of Trotsky.

Red-baiting in the service of peace and a noninterventionist foreign policy – now that’s one tradition we paleoconservatives are quite eager to see revived.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN Editorial Director Justin Raimondo will be speaking at Whittier Law School tomorrow, Tuesday, March 15 from 12-2 p.m. His topic will be the media’s responsibility to report the truth. The speech will be free and open to the public.

Directions: Whittier Law School is located at 3333 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, CA 92626. Justin is speaking in Room 1 of the Main Building (which houses the classrooms and library). For more information about the location, contact Whittier at 714-444-4141, ext. 0 during business hours.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].