Neo-Cons: Origin of the Species

ANGLO AMERICA, 20 May 2019

Michael Brenner – TRANSCEND Media Service

18 May 2019 – ‘Neo-conservative’ – or ‘neo-con’ – is nowadays the most common term of reference is the discourse about American foreign policy. So ubiquitous has it become that the casual reader understandably might be confused as to whether it isn’t in fact a pronoun with plural antecedent nouns. That is a common phenomenon in Washington where phrases like ‘neo-con’ are used neither for clear communication nor to obscure ulterior purpose – but rather as a device to avoid thinking altogether. Its calculated disuse, therefore, could serve a valuable public end. So drastic a response should be avoided, though, since the term’s origins, mutations and spread are revealing of how the United States’ views itself in relation to the world.

Before embarking on an etymological exploration, a few prefatory remarks are in order.  One, neo-conservativism is as much a state of feeling as it is a state-of-mind. Two, such logical thinking as occurs among its devotees is deductive – downplaying empirical data and encouraging ad hominem conclusions and pronouncements.  Finally, it is a highly adulterated species of doctrine. It has interbred with several other intellectual and ideological entities to produce a hybrid – a hybrid whose behavior reveals its mixed genetic inheritance. It is as if we homo sapiens had assimilated a large infusion of DNA from Neanderthal, Denisovian and other humanoid primates which makes us act rather differently from from the hairless ape that originated in Africa.

Origins of the Species

The first identifiable neo-conservatives recognized by political anthropologists appeared in the late 1960s in the asphalt jungles of East Coast cities. The Manhattan canyons were its Rift Valley. Their cranial capacity was exceptionally large – giving them at first a natural advantage in the competition to fill the evolutionary niche opened by the environmental traumas of the time. Those convention shattering developments registered across the entire country, thereby creating fertile conditions for the new creed’s success in moving rapidly beyond the asphalt jungle and its elitist denizens. Hence, it’s spread across the veldt of North America.

The most potent shock was administered by the great socio-cultural-political upheaval of the 1960s. The counter-culture movement was multi-dimensional. Its initial mobilizing themes were Civil Rights and resistance to the War in Vietnam.   At the time, America’s liberal elite were uniformly strong supporters of the former cause and opponents of the latter cause.  The second is easily forgotten. Liberal Democrats were uniformly anti-Communist, anti-Soviet and anti-PRC. This was a matter of conviction. The only Cold War issue on which their position diverged from that of the Republican mainstream was nuclear arms control. They supported Kennedy’s Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and rejected any idea of nuclear war-fighting (as well as roll-back in Eastern Europe). Otherwise, they were no less aggressive in their backing of an all-out, global campaign to prevent the spread of Communism (as was Kennedy).

Only one Democratic Senator (Ernest Gruening of Alaska) voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (the other being maverick independentWayne Morse). There was virtually no debate within the party or its intellectual wing about the premises underlying the open-ended American commitment to the war. That did not change until the TET offensive of February 1968, the fall-off in popular support (until then overwhelmingly in favor), Senator Gene McCarthy’s surprising success and then the blow dealt by Bobby Kennedy’s defection. Those who were coalescing into what became known as neo-cons numbered among the loyal guard who kept faith with the war effort. By the time that position became increasingly untenable in the 1970s, they were full-time warriors in a much wider campaign to save the Democratic Party and the United States from radicalism.

Mounting anxiety about the radical methods of the New Left exemplified by SDS, the Black Panthers and the violent Weathermen widened the gap between the neo-cons and those who rallied around George McGovern. People like Pat Moynihan, Nat Glazer, Norman Podhoretz, et al remained New Dealers on domestic issues (for the most part) but saw that legacy being undermined by the New Left and the phenomenon’s exploitation by Nixon to drain support from the Democratic Party. A concrete issue was affirmative action for minorities (blacks in those days) that was seen as discriminatory by many working class, ‘ethnic’ democratic voters.

This “Macedonia” of discontents was laced with resentment and distaste for the “cultural” dimension of the Cultural Revolution. On those matters, most of the neo-cons were adherents to the conventions of post-war America. 1950s society was experienced as a healthy crystallization of intrinsic American virtues with the New Deal corrective. In purely economic terms, they were right – insofar as wealth distribution, opportunity and stable expectations were far more enlightened than they are in today’s plutocratic America.  It’s aggressive challenge by a generation of young radicals made them recoil.

(Re)-Enter the USSR

With Vietnam on the way to becoming forgotten as just a smudge on America’s pageant of progress, neo-con attention focused on two issues: the restoration of national commitment to the country’s wide-ranging security engagements/interests; and standing up to a Soviet Union allegedly emboldened by the United States’ weakness. This is the period when the former Democratic liberals inter-bred with Republican hawks.

The matters then the object of intense debate have a moldy look from today’s perspective – except that their offspring and the passions aroused at the time are experiencing a belated lease on life in the Trump era. Most salient was the question of whether détente with Moscow was desirable or even possible. It shadowed debates on policy choices ranging from the terms of a nuclear arms race, Russia’s spreading influence in the Horn of Africa (Somalia) and West Africa (Angola – where Cubans were fighting to defend a self-declared Marxist warlord from a South African and Washington backed warlord), West Germany’s Ost-Politik, the Helsinki Accords, and Che’s threat to assorted Latin American oligarchs.

The contest was won by the hawks, on most issues – and certainly in regard to the overall frame-of-reference, thanks to the USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan and the unrelated Mullahs revolution in Iran that followed on its heels. American political elites were in consensus that the country was in danger, that the Soviet Union was a renewed threat to core American interests, that America had to shed the shroud of Vietnam (invade Grenada), and the military budget greatly expanded. Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory punctuated that turning-point.

Neo-Cons became strong backers of Reagan’s muscular foreign policy, adding their voices to the high-pitched anti-Communist rhetoric.  This was the era of the Sandinistas, the Contras, the insidious implantation of Communism just 500 miles from Tombstone, Arizona. Some took positions in his administrations. Some gathered on the staffs on ultra-hawkish Democratic Senators like Scoop Jackson of Washington State (Richard Perle). Others joined conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise institute and the Heritage Foundation. They also infiltrated what had been liberal think tanks – gradually transforming them from within to the point where today all are carbon copies of each other. In the process, they lost their identification as New Deal Democrats on the entire gamut of domestic issues. In this, they trail-blazed the trajectory of the Democratic Party as a whole which, for 25 years now, has become hawkish abroad and corporate-friendly at home. That phenomenon makes it difficult to singularize neo-cons today as inherently different from the Democratic mainstream or most Republicans on security issues – other than in the packaging. We’re all “Neanderthals” now.

For a decade, the neo-cons – and their partners – were in limbo. Not in the wilderness since the cohort, fellow-travelers and the like-minded occupied most positions of influence – in government, in the think tanks, in the MSM and even academia. As a collectivity, though, they were less identifiable – a victim of their own success, and of an America basking in its post-Cold triumphalism. We won because of our ideals, our economic robustness, our dedication – or mainly because of our might (although the neo-cons never stopped arguing that the Soviet Union collapsed because we outspent them on useless arms). If fact, the USSR collapsed because of Mikhail Gorbachev – the last utopian Leninist.

Attention was focused on neo-liberalism, not neo-conservatism. It was the global spread of finance-driven capitalism that was consolidating the hard-won peace – ushering in an age of prosperity based peace grounded on OUR values. That was the Clinton (and then Obama) perspective. How disconcerting for the neo-cons who wanted more direct, tangible control of the world’s affairs!

They did not share this vision of a brave new world. They weren’t content to ride the historic wave of liberal teleology – with just a nudge here and a kick there. These self-declared realists saw a unique opportunity to establish the United States’ dominance as the master-builder and overseer of a global order than would ensconce American paramountcy for the foreseeable future. Without rival, without countervailing force, they felt that we were free to shape the international system as a potter shapes clay. The leading figures in this campaign were not neo-cons in the historical sense – albeit some of them emerged from that milieu. They were a self-conscious elite cadre of hyper-nationalists (Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney), true believers in America’s Manifest Destiny, bureaucratic empire builders devoted to restoring the glory of the Pentagon and the Intelligence agencies, and those naïve souls who wanted the entire world to serve as their playground without adjusting any of their “Americanism.”  A powerful impetus was added by Israel sympathizers and the Zionist lobby.

The last included the Christian Right. Radical Evangelicals provided a fertile recruiting ground for warriors in the political battle to marshal American power to remake the world in its image.  That fit quite nicely into the Chino’s (Christians In Name Only) apocalyptic Revelation of a Divinely inspired victory of the Believers over the Infidels. So, they became stout backers of the Providential campaign against the forces of darkness who impeded the American-led march to fulfill the promise of destiny. Their joining forces with the Neo-Cons and, later, R2P crowd opened access to the devout of the Bible Belt – some of whom found it easy to redirect their latent anti-Semitism from Jews to Muslim Arabs. In a bizarre irony, Evangelicals became ardent backers of hard-line Israel politicos and policies. They even began to travel around the U.S. in order to march in pro-Israel rallies. In theological terms, of course, those Israelis (and other Jews) who would not accept Jesus at his Second Coming would perish as the Believers looked on from the right hand of Christ. That prospect, though, does not cause Bibi Netanyahu or Jared Kushner to lose any sleep.

The neo-con crusaders were well-organized, well-funded, experienced navigators in Washington’s corridors of power, and willful. Their aims and purposes were no secret. A declaration of faith was authored by Paul Wolfowitz in February 1992 from his post in the Pentagon. It took the form of a draft strategic blueprint for a New American Century. That phrase was adopted as the name for a foundation created the next year to propagate the creed during the Clinton interregnum. The paper leaked – causing embarrassment (temporary) for Bush the Elder’s administration where neither the President, Secretary James Baker, nor NSC Advisor Brent Scowcroft were prepared to sign on to so audacious a scheme. Wolfowitz’s plan, nonetheless, was inspired Gospel for its coterie of adherents whose proselytizing was pursued relentlessly – and effectively.

The Wolfowitz Grand Strategy was guided by these postulates:

  • The United States’ long-term national interest dictates that it prevent the emergence of any rival to its global supremacy, or any regional power who could challenge its friends (Israel) and interests
  • The United States’ should marshal all of its resources, including military forces, to enforce this strategy
  • The United States should be prepared to intervene in ‘failed’ or ‘rogue’ countries who harbor enemies of the United States
  • The United States should aggressively back friendly political forces (preferably but not necessarily democratic) abroad by helping to install and maintain them in office.
  • The United States should expand NATO eastwards to embrace most of the former Soviet Union so as to ensure that Russia could no regain the position of a great power


It is sobering to remind ourselves that these ideas were marginal to the mainstream discourse within the foreign affairs community during the early-mid 1990s. They lacked the “idealism’ essential to make a strategic “sell” to the American people; and there was no evil enemy to stir fear and anxiety as the prelude to making such drastic commitments.  Hence, Wolfowitz’s Gospel evoked only a modest echo in political circles.  There was nothing preordained by their ascendancy.  It was the fear and dread sown by the horrific experience of 9/11 allowed the plan’s authors to mobilize the public in support of actions that set it into motion.  At no time were ultimate objectives of world domination revealed to the country at large.  Only oblique remarks hinted at the dimensions of the project.  The convenient, all-justifying ‘war on terror’ was the ideal cover.

Then came al-Qaeda, Osama bin-Laden and 9/11. The world was transformed. So, too, was American politics. Islamo-Fascism was slotted perfectly and painlessly into the place previously occupied by Soviet-led Communism. Thanks to a handful of fanatics, and the ineptitude of America’s security services, the country was experiencing a new dawn of fear and dread. It was ready to reach out to grasp the firm hand of the neo-cons.

Enraged, vengeful Americans found satisfaction in the War on Terror imagery and initial actions. They grafted their passions onto the un-heroic person of George Bush.  Every great cause must have a chief, however improbable the beneficiary of this transference.  So it was.  It was an easy passage for a people who, victimized as never before in their collective lives, were stirred by righteous faith in a cause whose necessity was sanctified by truth and justice.  Moreover, America’s intrinsic virtue provided the assurance that none of its actions could be heinous.

When opportunity presented itself, the blueprint was in hand.  A pliable, indolent George Bush would be their instrument; 9/11 the God-given occasion.

In this environment, does the neo-con sub-species retain a distinct identity or are they just a variant of the species ‘hawk’ whose coloration is an adaptation to clime and terrain? At the level of ideology, they are distinct; at the level of behavior, most often not. The discrepancy can be explained by noting an independent variable: careerism. If you want to make it to the top in America’s foreign policy establishment, you have to be realist. You demonstrate our realism through actions – like a mafia recruit making his bones. Since American foreign policy is all about acting these days, it is well-nigh impossible to elude the test – unless you’re content to pass your days in a university classroom or padding your resume of publications as a marginal think tanker on the free sandwich seminar circuit. The ambitious no longer are content with the latter – especially in an age when the path into the corridors of power seems open to anyone with a purchasable EZ-Pass.

It helps to get a fix on the certifiable neo-cons by naming names: Samantha Power, Ann-Marie Slaughter, Susan Rice, Michael Ignatieff, ….Yes – many are women. Gender opens some doors, Hillary put Reserved signs on a plethora of State Department offices – as did Obama in the White House, its effective camouflage, and it plays well among the intelligentsia. Today’s Classic neo-cons are staunch interventionists – always in a just cause. Or so they proclaim. They stress human rights, democracy promotion, preventing abuses like ethnic cleansing, the four freedoms, etc. All these principles are deeply rooted in the idealist tradition of American thinking about the country’s foreign relations.

They fall under the rubric of R2P – Responsibility To Protect. That principle was first enunciated during the wars on the ex-Yugoslavia and the Ruanda genocide.**  It grew into a transnational movement whose promoters lobbied Western government and the United Nations to accept that there exists an obligation to come to the defense vulnerable populations exposed to organized violence. In this sense, it is an extension of the long-running debate about the scope and capabilities of muscular “peace-keeping.”

The practical as well as intellectual challenge is two-fold. First, to take account of varying circumstances without voiding the principle of credibility, e.g. differentiating Ruanda from human rights abuses in Tibet. Second, marshalling the requisite capabilities when most national governments are chary of putting their troops in harm’s way when they have no national interest at stake, e.g. Somalia circa 1993. Finally, how to prevent the purity of good intentions from selfish political calculation. The R2P crowd never have been able to give satisfactory answers to these questions. When individuals gain powers of power, their rhetoric and their actions both exude a distinctly hypocritical odor.

Case in point: Samantha Power at the United Nations. For her, and the Obama administration which she represented, Yemenis don’t count as legitimate objects of international assistance – nor do Rohingyas in Myanmar, nor do Palestinians. Realpolitik dictates otherwise. Moreover, charges of humanitarian abuses are magnified (and, at times, evidence twisted) when alleged victims are victimized by governments on Washington’s enemies list, e.g. Russia, Assad in Syria, Iran, etc. etc. Consequently, the difference in action between R4Ps (Classic neo-cons) and hawk realists (Wolfowitz-like, mislabeled neo-cons) on questions of intervention vanishes – however different might be the points of philosophical departure.

They share fealty to Netanyahu’s Israel, they share the currying of favor with Saudi Arabia, they share silent backing of Yemen’s Inferno, they share alignment with the al-Qaeda led opposition in Syria, they share in the castigation of Venezuela, etc.

What we are left with are tactical differences over when to use coercive military force and in what magnitude. The American foreign policy community is as one in stigmatizing the Islamic Republic of Iran as an aggressive, destabilizing regime actively contravening major American national interests. The main divergence is over the tightening of coercive economic sanctions in violation of the JPOA. Only a handful of mavericks, associated with no Washington faction, recommend engaging Tehran in an effort to reach a modus vivendi. One difference:  fewer Classic neo-cons are ready to abrogate the JPOA and some of those advocate military assault on Iran’s nuclear sites. In truth, three – if not four – successive American Presidents have preferred to see the regime actually toppled – and that is the unstated preference of the Classic neo-cons (aka R2P), too.

An even greater degree of uniformity prevails re. Russia. So-called progressive Democrats, R2Pers, neo-cons, old-line Communist bashers, ultra-nationalists – all denounce Russia as the paramount threat to American security interests. Putting, in particular, is depicted as bent on aggression in various forms designed to undermine the American position in Europe and the Middle East. In response, Washington has mobilized its NATO allies in in all-out display of muscle and bellicosity not seen since the berlin crises of the 1960s. All this based on a fabricated account of recent history, rampant fantasizing and studied ignorance of who Putin is and what he says.


The founding neo-cons were thoughtful people, for the most part. However, the Kristols, Podhoretzs, Jean Kirkpatricks, Eliot Abrams, Kagans et al soon took control of the movement – in the manner of the 2nd and 3rd century Christian Church centered in Rome.  The Responsibility To Protect upwelling in the late 1990s was a sort of Protestant Reformation that sought inspiration in the faith’s original idealism. At the doctrinal level, the idealism endured into the Obama years. Its encounter with the world of profane power opened a gap between doctrinal principle and the power political ethic which they conveniently misrepresented as the duty to advance American national interest. This is exactly the thinking laid out by Barack Obama in his Nobel address. Principle not only was lost; it was discredited. R2P today is just another tributary of the great jingoist wave that is pushing the United States beyond logic and reason in pursuit of a Great White Whale (global American hegemony) that exists only in its devotees’ deluded imagination.

The Wolfowitz Creed animates all: the Classic neo-cons,  the macho neo-cons, and the raw neo-imperialists. The few non-believers are irrelevant to America’s foreign policy discourse.  Those who have access to the Oval Office, and its deranged occupant, have been indoctrinated in the Creed.


Excerpts from Wolfowitz Memo

*Wolfowitz Doctrine is an unofficial name given to the initial version of the Defense Planning Guidance for the 1994–99 fiscal years (dated February 18, 1992) authored by Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz and his deputy Scooter Libby. Here’s a summary of the main points.

Superpower Status

The doctrine announces the U.S’s status as the world’s only remaining superpower following the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War and proclaims its main objective to be retaining that status.

Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defense strategy and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.”

U.S. Primacy

The doctrine establishes the U.S.’s leadership role within the new world order.

“The U.S. must show the leadership necessary to establish and protect a new order that holds the promise of convincing potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests. In non-defense areas, we must account sufficiently for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership or seeking to overturn the established political and economic order. We must maintain the mechanism for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.”


The doctrine downplays the value of international coalitions.

Like the coalition that opposed Iraqi aggression, we should expect future coalitions to be ad hoc assemblies, often not lasting beyond the crisis being confronted and in many cases carrying only general agreement over the objectives to be accomplished. Nevertheless, the sense that the world order is ultimately backed by the U.S. will be an important stabilizing factor.”

Preventative Intervention

The doctrine stated the U.S’s right to intervene when and where it believed necessary.

*While the U.S. cannot become the world’s policeman, by assuming responsibility for righting every wrong, we will retain the preeminent responsibility for addressing selectively those wrongs which threaten not only our interests, but those of our allies or friends, or which could seriously unsettle international relations.”

Russian Threat

The doctrine highlighted the possible threat posed by a resurgent Russia.

“We continue to recognize that collectively the conventional forces of the states formerly comprising the Soviet Union retain the most military potential in all of Eurasia; and we do not dismiss the risks to stability in Europe from a nationalist backlash in Russia or efforts to reincorporate into Russia the newly independent republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and possibly others… We must, however, be mindful that democratic change in Russia is not irreversible, and that despite its current travails, Russia will remain the strongest military power in Eurasia and the only power in the world with the capability of destroying the United States.”

Middle East and Southwest Asia

The doctrine clarified the overall objectives in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

“In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve U.S. and Western access to the region’s oil. We also seek to deter further aggression in the region, foster regional stability, protect U.S. nationals and property, and safeguard our access to international air and seaways. As demonstrated by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, it remains fundamentally important to prevent a hegemon or alignment of powers from dominating the region. This pertains especially to the Arabian peninsula. Therefore, we must continue to play a role through enhanced deterrence and improved cooperative security”

**R2P Credo

The democratization project should maximize its effectiveness by enlisting as many democratic countries as possible in a multifaceted campaign of suasion. This is a moral undertaking whose actions are justifiable, indeed validated in ethical terms.

The United States is uniquely endowed to lead such an enterprise. In addition to its material strength, it has the capacity to inspire – it remains the beacon of idealism for those yearning to be free of repression.

American efforts to impress its vision on other governments are not tainted by imperial ambition.  America’s rectitude and civic virtue validate its role as guide and prophet.

The United States, therefore, is not a ‘global Leviathan’ that advances its selfish interests at the expense of others.  It is, rather, the benign producer of public goods.

The privilege of partial exception from the international norms, including the right to act unilaterally, is earned by an historical record of selfless conduct.


Michael Brenner is professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh; a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS-Johns Hopkins (Washington, D.C.), contributor to research and consulting projects on Euro-American security and economic issues. Publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. mbren@pitt.eduMore

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 May 2019.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Neo-Cons: Origin of the Species, is included. Thank you.

If you enjoyed this article, please donate to TMS to join the growing list of TMS Supporters.

Share this article:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

Comments are closed.