Neoconservativism Is Down But Not Out of the 2016 Race

The two frontrunners in the 2016 presidential campaign—Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton—both have ties to neoconservatism.

Paul Wolfowitz, scholar at American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) and former president of World Bank Group, speaks at the Bloomberg global markets summit in New York, U.S., on Thursday, Jan 17, 2013.

Photographer: Jin Lee

Ahead of his foreign policy speech in Chicago on Wednesday, Jeb Bush released a list of 21 familiar foreign policy advisers joining his staff. Nineteen of the names would have been familiar to foreign policy wonks (they’d served under one of more of the last Republican presidents) but only one brought back memories of the neoconservative movement that led the U.S. into Iraq: Paul Wolfowitz.

As several people, especially liberals, have pointed out, by including Wolfowitz—whose brief, scandal-plagued tenure as president of the World Bank is overshadowed by his key role in America’s unpopular invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush—the former Florida governor did little to distinguish himself from his brother’s foreign policy.  

But while Jeb Bush is adding neoconservative Iraq War baggage to his 2016 presidential campaign, expected Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has spent years dealing with her own. One of Clinton’s biggest weaknesses with the Democratic base has been her perceived hawkishness—Barack Obama used her vote for the Iraq War against her in 2008, and Democrats criticized her critique of President Obama’s foreign policy in the Atlantic last year, when she argued that the U.S. should have armed moderate Syrian rebels to prevent the rise of groups like the Islamic State.   

In July of last year, the New York Times ran two pieces tying Clinton to the neoconservative movement. In “The Next Act of the Neocons,” Jacob Heilbrunn argued that neocons like historian Robert Kagan are putting their lot in with Clinton in an effort to stay relevant while the GOP shies away from its past interventionism and embraces politicians like Senator Rand Paul:

Other neocons have followed Mr. Kagan’s careful centrism and respect for Mrs. Clinton. Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted in the New Republic this year that “it is clear that in administration councils she was a principled voice for a strong stand on controversial issues, whether supporting the Afghan surge or the intervention in Libya.”

And the thing is, these neocons have a point. Mrs. Clinton voted for the Iraq war; supported sending arms to Syrian rebels; likened Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, to Adolf Hitler; wholeheartedly backs Israel; and stresses the importance of promoting democracy.

It’s easy to imagine Mrs. Clinton’s making room for the neocons in her administration. No one could charge her with being weak on national security with the likes of Robert Kagan on board.


(The story also notes, prematurely, that the careers of older neocons like Wolfowitz are “permanently buried in the sands of Iraq.") 

Kagan served on Clinton’s bipartisan foreign policy advisory board when she was Secretary of State, has deep neocon roots. He was part of the Project for a New American Century, a now-defunct think tank that spanned much of the second Bush presidency and supported a “Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity.” PNAC counted Kagan, Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, William Kristol, and Jeb Bush among its members. In 1998, some of its members—including Wolfowitz, Kagan, and Rumsfeld—signed an open letter to President Bill Clinton asking him to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

A month before the Heilbrunn piece, the Times profiled Kagan, who was critical of Obama’s foreign policy, but supported Clinton. “I feel comfortable with her on foreign policy,” Kagan told the Times. “If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue … it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that.”

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