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Dislodging the Neocons, Difficult But Necessary

Last week I discussed the ironic role that America’s dominant Neocons may have played in shaping recent world events, perhaps inadvertently producing a beneficial outcome exactly contrary to their aggressive intent.

Over the last decade, prominent political scientists such as Graham Allison of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago had argued that a centuries-long pattern suggested that the world was locked into a “Thucydides Trap,” the likelihood of a looming clash between the reigning global power of America and the rising global power of China. This political and potentially military conflict had nothing to do with the ideological or social characteristics of those two enormous countries nor their leadership, but was simply the inevitable consequence of China’s size and growing power, which threatened to displace America from its position of world dominance. The term referred to the analogous rivalry between Athens and Sparta that had unleashed the long Peloponnesian War, devastating Classical Greece.

Meanwhile, on totally different grounds the ideologically-driven foreign policy of America’s dominant Neocons also threatened global warfare against all countries that refused to accept American hegemony, with Russia and Iran being the leading targets of their intense hostility. During the Obama Administration, these individuals had orchestrated a 2014 coup that overthrew Ukraine’s democratically-elected pro-Russian government. Seven years of military buildup and anti-Russian provocations had eventually led to the outbreak of the Ukraine war in early 2022, with the first year of the fighting having already cost many tens of thousands of lives while raising the risk of World War III.

So the world faced two entirely different geopolitical perils, one ideologically-driven and one not.

However, I then argued that these two separate threats to world peace may have very fortuitously canceled each other out. The extreme over-reaction by the West against Russia over the last year had driven that enormous, resource-rich country into China’s arms, and the resulting China-Russia alliance was now so strong that it probably outweighed the geopolitical power of America and its allies. Furthermore, outrageous anti-Russian measures taken by America’s reckless leadership—the seizure of $300 billion in Russian financial reserves, the destruction of Germany’s Nord Stream energy pipelines—had deeply alienated many other major world powers, which naturally gravitated towards the China-Russia bloc as a consequence, notably including Saudi Arabia, Iran, India, and Brazil. Even some of our own most important vassal-states such as France and Japan seem to have recently become a little shaky in their allegiance.

Thus, over the last twelve months, the global coalition aligned with China had quickly grown so overwhelmingly powerful that the likelihood of any conflict with America was greatly diminished. The aggressive arrogance and incompetence of the Neocons may have allowed the world to escape the Thucydides Trap, increasing the chances that China could replace America as the world’s leading power without bloodshed or bitter conflict.

But even if this analysis is correct and the disastrous failure of the Neocon geopolitical strategy has inadvertently yielded a positive outcome, such behavior can hardly be excused. An elite political leadership class so incompetent that it avoids war by unintentionally wrecking its own country’s strategic alliances must obviously be removed lest future blunders have less fortunate consequences.

Furthermore, the same sort of blindness to reality that produced these American strategic disasters might still lead to a deadly crisis. Perhaps the Neocons will fail to recognize the enormous advantages now enjoyed by the China-Russia bloc that America faces and arrogantly continue their military provocations, eventually triggering a wider war. As an example of such strikingly unrealistic beliefs, the WSJ last year carried a column by an editor at the arch-Neocon New York Sun who argued that China and Russia could be successfully contained by the U.S. together with a handful of “Rimland” powers such as Israel, the UAE, and Australia, although the former outweigh the latter perhaps 50-to-1 in population and industrial base.


Can the ‘Rimland’ Contain China and Russia? by Michel Garfinkel

However, removing the Neocons from authority may be difficult to achieve since they have become so deeply embedded within DC political circles and the broader Atlanticist community.

After first gaining influence in the Reagan Administration during the 1980s and keeping much of it under his successor George H.W. Bush, they soon began to heavily dominate the foreign policy of Bill Clinton. Because they backed Sen. John McCain in the 2000 Republican primaries, they were seemingly excluded from power under George W. Bush, receiving not a single Cabinet appointment; yet in the wake of the 9/11 Attacks, they still managed to gain control of the entire government. Barack Obama was elected partly because he seemed to represent the total repudiation of his unpopular predecessor, but in his administration Bush Neocons were merely replaced by Obama Neocons. Then in 2016, massive popular revulsion against both political parties unexpectedly propelled Donald Trump into the White House, but he soon placed his foreign policy in the hands of particularly hard-line Neocons such as Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, and more recently the Democratic Neocons have regained that same role under Biden. So Neocon control has now endured for more than thirty years, stretching across Democratic, Republican, and Trumpist administrations alike.

A perfect illustration of this remarkable situation is the fact that Robert Kagan, a leading Neocon architect of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, is the husband of Victoria Nuland, who subsequently played the same role for Barack Obama and now Joe Biden. A political elite so unsuccessful and unsatisfactory must be driven from power, yet apparently this is easier said than done.

One difficulty is that the very term “Neocon” used here has actually become much less meaningful than it once was. After having controlled American foreign policy for more than three decades, promoting their allies and protégés and purging their opponents, the adherents of that world view now constitute nearly the entire political establishment, including control of the leading thinktanks and publications. By now, I doubt there are many prominent figures in either party who follow a sharply different line. Furthermore, over the last two decades, the national security-focused Neocons have largely merged with the economically-focused neoliberals, forming a unified ideological block that represents the political worldview of the elites running both American parties.

Back in 2012 I had already noted the emergence of what amounted to a one party American state:

Consider the pattern of the last decade. With two ruinous wars and a financial collapse to his record, George W. Bush was widely regarded as one of the most disastrous presidents in American history, and at times his public approval numbers sank to the lowest levels ever measured. The sweeping victory of his successor, Barack Obama, represented more a repudiation of Bush and his policies than anything else, and leading political activists, left and right alike, characterized Obama as Bush’s absolute antithesis, both in background and in ideology. This sentiment was certainly shared abroad, with Obama being selected for the Nobel Peace Prize just months after entering office, based on the widespread assumption that he was certain to reverse most of the policies of his detested predecessor and restore America to sanity.

Yet almost none of these reversals took place. Instead, the continuity of administration policy has been so complete and so obvious that many critics now routinely speak of the Bush/Obama administration.

The harsh violations of constitutional principles and civil liberties which Bush pioneered following the 9/11 attacks have only further intensified under Obama, the heralded Harvard constitutional scholar and ardent civil libertarian, and this has occurred without the excuse of any major new terrorist attacks. During his Democratic primary campaign, Obama promised that he would move to end Bush’s futile Iraq War immediately upon taking office, but instead large American forces remained in place for years until heavy pressure from the Iraqi government finally forced their removal; meanwhile, America’s occupation army in Afghanistan actually tripled in size. The government bailout of the hated financial manipulators of Wall Street, begun under Bush, continued apace under Obama, with no serious attempts at either government prosecution or drastic reform. Americans are still mostly suffering through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, but Wall Street profits and multimillion-dollar bonuses soon returned to record levels.

In particular, the continuity of top officials has been remarkable. As Bush’s second defense secretary, Robert Gates had been responsible for the ongoing management of America’s foreign wars and military occupations since 2006; Obama kept him on, and he continued to play the same role in the new administration. Similarly, Timothy Geithner had been one of Bush’s most senior financial appointments, playing a crucial role in the widely unpopular financial bailout of Wall Street; Obama promoted him to Treasury secretary and authorized continuation of those same policies. Ben Bernanke had been appointed chairman of the Federal Reserve by Bush and was reappointed by Obama. Bush wars and bailouts became Obama wars and bailouts. The American public voted for an anti-Bush, but got Bush’s third term instead.

During the Cold War, Soviet propagandists routinely characterized our democracy as a sham, with the American public merely selecting which of the two intertwined branches of their single political party should alternate in office, while the actual underlying policies remained essentially unchanged, being decided and implemented by the same corrupt ruling class. This accusation may have been mostly false at the time it was made but seems disturbingly accurate today.

By 2016 public dissatisfaction with the obvious policy failures of this bipartisan political consensus had become so widespread that it provided an opening for an angry outsider such as Donald Trump, a candidate whose campaign was enabled by the new power of Twitter and other social media outlets.

Trump had been considered a joke candidate when he first entered the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, a popular reality television star who had no serious chance against such established political heavyweights as Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. At one of his early debates, he denounced President George W. Bush for having lied America into the disastrous Iraq War, a shocking declaration that seemed sure to doom his candidacy with the conservative Republican base. But oddly enough it failed to dent his enthusiastic, right-wing support, suggesting that our hawkish foreign policy actually resonated much more deeply with Republican donors, DC thinktankers, and Beltway lobbyists than with conservative primary voters.

Trump’s unexpected primary triumph against his establishmentarian Republican opponents was mostly due to domestic issues, especially his powerful focus on the hot-button conservative topics of illegal immigration and free trade agreements. As a consequence, he was regarded as an extreme underdog against Hillary Clinton’s Democratic campaign, with the latter backed by an overwhelming advantage in money and media support.

Clinton’s positions represented the bipartisan elite consensus on foreign policy, and in one of her last debates with Trump she stated that she would immediately declare a “No Fly Zone” in Syria against Russia’s expeditionary force in support of President Assad’s government, with the American air force presumably shooting down any Russian planes that continued to attack the anti-government rebels. A presidential candidate promising war with nuclear-armed Russia should have raised a few eyebrows, but America’s media and political establishments apparently regarded her positions as solid and sensible ones in contrast to Trump’s outrageous proposals to reestablish good relations with the Russians.

Trump’s narrow victory in the 2016 race stunned both political parties. The national security establishments of the Democrats and the Republicans reacted viscerally to the possibility that his contrary ideas might now set Washington policy, and the DC political organism displayed a fierce immune-reaction, trying to reject the alien ideology that had suddenly been grafted onto the top of the American government.

The mainstream media was quickly enlisted in the effort to delegitimize Trump’s election and frustrate his foreign policy plans. Although the bizarre claims that Russian interference had tilted the election towards Trump—or even stolen it outright—probably originated with Clinton’s embarrassed excuses to explain away her shocking defeat against all odds, the cry was quickly taken up by the media echo-chamber and the Russiagate scandal soon dogged the new Trump Administration. Faced with an avalanche of media accusations that Trump was a Russian agent and Putin’s puppet, neither the President nor his top officials could afford the risk of attempting to repair our relations with that country.

Meanwhile, a wide range of dissenting websites—right-wing, left-wing, racialist, and libertarian—were immediately labeled Russian disinformation sources, and although most of the accusations were utterly risible—Ron Paul a Russian agent?—some of these publications were intimidated by those wild charges while our social media gatekeepers were urged to restrict the circulation of any such material.

All of these external pressures on the new administration to toe the establishment line on foreign policy were coupled with internal pressures as well, especially after Trump was persuaded to elevate Mike Pompeo from CIA Director to Secretary of State in late March 2018 and bring in John Bolton as his new National Security Advisor around the same time. Bolton had been known as one of the most extremely hawkish figures in the Bush Administration, a leading advocate of the Iraq War, and Pompeo was regarded as supportive of those same policies. Although Trump’s own views may not have changed, the top figures running his foreign policy were now solidly within the Beltway’s Neocon consensus, even situated at its more extreme end.

Bolton in particular seemed eager and willing to sabotage the policy initiatives of his inattentive new superior.

For example, Trump had made considerable progress on persuading North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to abandon his nuclear weapons development program in exchange for American security guarantees, inspiring South Korean leaders to suggest that the American President deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for his successful diplomatic breakthrough. However, soon after his appointment, Bolton declared that the agreement would be modeled after the one with Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, who had similarly renounced his nuclear weapons efforts in 2004, only to be overthrown and killed in a 2011 NATO-backed military uprising, ending his life sodomized by a bayonet. This torpedoed any possibility of a pact with Kim and Trump later declared that those remarks had been a “disaster” with regard to the negotiations.

That same year Trump was finalizing his crucial trade agreement with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a private dinner when Bolton secretly ordered the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, one of China’s highest-profile tech executives as she was changing planes in Canada, an act that blindsided and outraged the Chinese leadership. According to a WSJ account, Trump had been completely unaware of what was happening and later asked Bolton “Why did you arrest Meng? Don’t you know she’s the Ivanka Trump of China?”

Leading journalists even reported that Trump’s own senior aides would sometimes hide the executive orders he planned to issue, preventing him from signing them into law and correctly believing that our disengaged Chief Executive would forget about them.

Trump’s original hopes of improving our relationship with Russia had been immediately stymied by the Russiagate Hoax, orchestrated by his Deep State opponents and their mainstream media allies. But his policy towards China followed a different trajectory, and I think Kevin Rudd’s 2022 book The Avoidable War provides a good overview of these developments.

As the former prime minister of Australia, Rudd had relocated to the U.S. in 2014 after leaving office and later served as president of The Asia Society based in New York City. He was obviously a very well-connected individual, even lobbying for nomination as U.N. Secretary-General in 2016, and was already intensely focusing on relations between China and America, which became the subject of his subsequent book. His account explains the sharp break that eventually occurred.

As Rudd tells the story, Trump was overwhelmingly focused on trade issues with China and although he was willing to take tough negotiating positions, he also emphasized the importance of his personal relationship with his “very, very good friend” Xi. He believed that forming such bonds represented a crucial element of his skills as a deal-maker, and he was extremely pleased with the successful trade agreement the two countries had finalized, with Rudd invited to the January 15, 2020 signing ceremony at the White House.

Around this same time, the first news of the Covid outbreak in Wuhan was starting to reach America, but Trump paid no attention to the matter. Even weeks after the virus had begun to spread worldwide, Trump continued praising the successful efforts of China’s leaders in controlling the disease in their own country while disregarding any risk it might pose to the U.S. Only after the burgeoning global epidemic triggered a stock market crash amid indications of widespread American outbreaks did Trump begin blaming the China for the catastrophe, sharply criticizing that country in late March and suggesting that the virus might have escaped from a Chinese virology lab. This shift seemed to have reflected the growing influence of Pompeo, one of the leading anti-China figures in Trump’s administration, and indeed our CIA-affiliated Radio Free Asia propaganda outlet had already begun claiming that Covid was an escaped Chinese bioweapon months earlier on January 9th, before even the first death had yet occurred.

By Rudd’s account, the political impact of the Covid epidemic was enormous, being entirely responsible for the complete reversal of Trump’s China policy, which was transformed from tough negotiations on trade but otherwise amicable strategic cooperation into intense international hostility. And that momentous shift in America’s China stance even remained after Biden replaced Trump in January 2021.

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