Neoconservatism as Brood Parasitism
By Clint Ehrlich · 31 January 2024
A Brief History of Neoconservatism and How to Fight it
Throughout Eurasia, there resides a lovely, large blue butterfly, phengaris arion, whose caterpillars are carnivorous. They feast on the larvae of ants. Those larvae are ensconced deep inside ant colonies, guarded by hundreds of thousands of worker ants, any one of which could easily bisect a meek, helpless caterpillar. Yet the ants step aside and allow their young to be devoured, because the caterpillar impersonates their queen. It releases imitation pheromones and mimics her calls of distress, convincing the ants to pull the royal impostor deep into the bowels of their underground fortress, where “she” will be safe. Once embedded in the brood chamber, the caterpillar spends months gorging itself on larvae. It will swell to one hundred times its original size, effectively annihilating the ant colony in the process.
There is, in this example from the micro-macabre world of insects, a certain resemblance to the last half century of American foreign policy. The critical point is that the instincts that lead the worker ants to rescue the caterpillar are, under normal circumstances, entirely healthy. The workers have evolved to heed the cries of their queen precisely because safeguarding her is ordinarily critical to the health of their colony. Yet in the presence of a certain special class of predator — a carnivorous brood parasite — these otherwise essential impulses become maladaptive liabilities. It is the ants’ urge to protect their colony that leads to its destruction.
Like the ants, the American people have an instinctive readiness to protect their homeland. This appetite for the use of military force is critical to the survival of any polity in the anarchic arena of world affairs; it embodies tribal virtues whose origins predate our divergence from panins. In normal times, those militaristic instincts served the American public well, enabling them to cast off the rule of Great Britain and seize the Southwest from Mexico. Yet, in recent history, the same impulses have been subverted to marshal support for a series of overseas interventions that have left Americans poorer and less secure.
There is a faction within the American political elite who have learned to employ the muscular rhetoric of national defense to champion policies that are antithetical to the well-being of American voters. The so-called ‘Neoconservatives’ have sacrificed the lives of young Americans and the wealth of our country to advance the interests of a corrupt alliance between foreign powers and the domestic military-industrial complex. Any attempt to reclaim our country must begin with a strategy for stopping them, and any strategy for stopping them must begin with an understanding of how they rose to power.
The rise of the Neoconservatives is a story best divided into several epochs. The first began in the 1930s, when the future founders of the movement met at the City College of New York. One of those students, Irving Kristol, famously quipped that “neoconservatives were liberals who had been mugged by reality.” It would be more accurate to call them “Trotskyists who were seduced by capitalism.” Kristol and his cohort were part of a pro-Trotsky cell that gathered in Alcove 1 of the City College cafeteria, while their Stalinist rivals met in Alcove 2.
This devotion to the internationalist wing of communism presaged the central goal of neoconservatism: the betterment not of a single country but the entire world. That was the core fissure that had separated the Trotskyists, who believed in the uncompromising promotion of socialism around the world, from the Stalinists, who favored its initial perfection within the confines of a single country, the Soviet Union.
The globalist ambition of Trotskyism remained at the heart of the neoconservative project three decades later when, in the mid-1960s, Kristol and his associates began to publicly distance themselves from the radical wing of the Democratic party, on the grounds that it was, among other vices, overly accommodationist towards the USSR. Their attitude towards communism had entirely reversed; they now regarded its abolition as humanity’s central imperative. What remained unchanged was the internationalist lens that animated their thinking. Their motive for combating communism was not the threat that it posed to the United States but rather the danger it posed to liberal democracy writ large.
In this incipient stage of neoconservatism, the proposed remedy to Soviet communism was not direct military force. Writers in the pages of the movement’s two principal publications, The Public Interest and Commentary magazine, focused on the need for America to be a beacon that would inspire the rest of the world. Much of their criticism of the New Left centered on the irresponsible grandiosity of its quest to remake American society. Neoconservatism did not, at the time, resemble an ideology that aimed to transform the world through raw kinetic power. That shift occurred in two stages, as the movement became increasingly aligned with a military-industrial complex that required intellectual rationalizations for ever-rising defense budgets.
In the mid-1970s, Kristol was recruited by the American Enterprise Institute, and the think tank rapidly became the nexus between neoconservative theorists and defense contractors. Inside the beltway, neoconservatives aligned themselves with the hawkish wing of the Democratic party led by Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, whose Manichean view of human affairs required evil to be confronted with force both at home and abroad. He imparted that philosophy to his aides — including Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle — who would go on to champion it in the Reagan administration.
There were hints of manic neoconservative foreign policy under Reagan, such as the CIA operation to arm the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, which would ultimately spawn Al Qaeda. Yet the ability of the neocons to pursue a truly unhinged agenda was constrained both by the presence of traditional conservatives like Pat Buchanan in the administration and the ongoing existence of the USSR as a rival superpower. The Soviet menace was invoked to justify costly weapons procurement, but there was no appetite for actually going to war with the Russians.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, it became urgent for the American arms industry to fabricate a new raison d’etre so that it would continue being subsidized by US taxpayers. And the neoconservatives dutifully obliged. They pivoted towards a new theory of international relations: that, in the absence of a hostile global rival, the United States enjoyed unprecedented freedom of action, and it should seize the opportunity to remake the world in its image through military force.
Irving Kristol at his desk (1976)
In 1997, Kristol’s son, Bill (himself another former Jackson aide), and Robert Kagan co-founded a think tank dedicated to this unipolar vision, the Project for the New American Century. The neoconservatives had limited success in persuading the Clinton administration to pursue their plan of invading and toppling America’s enemies, and George W. Bush campaigned on a noninterventionist foreign policy. Yet once the American homeland was attacked on 9/11, Bush turned to the neocons to mold his agenda as a wartime president.
We are all familiar with the disastrous results of the ensuing wars against the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Those were not, however, the only wars that the neoconservatives had hoped to launch. There is evidence, such as the testimony of General Wesley Clark, that the Bush administration formalized a five-year plan to follow up the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq with regime-change operations in Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran. And it seems likely that the neocons also hoped to topple the government of North Korea, given hints to that effect in Perle’s 2004 book An End to Evil, whose eschatological title perfectly captures the depth of the movement’s hubris at the height of its power.
The fallout from its first two wars was so damaging that the neocons were forced not only to abandon their subsequent invasion plans but to jettison their brand altogether. In a sane world, they would have been banished from the corridors of power in Washington, since the gulf between their pollyannish expectations and blood-soaked reality had been brutally exposed. Instead, they have remained influential behind the scenes, molding American foreign policy outside the peering eyes of voters.
When the electorate chose “hope and change” with President Obama, they thought they were rejecting the foreign policy of the Bush administration. Yet US support for proxy wars against the governments of Syria and Libya was merely a “lite” version of the neoconservative playbook. Kagan, the co-founder of the PNAC, conferred with Obama at the White House, and his wife, Victoria Nuland, was one of the central figures in the Obama State Department — a post from which she helped architect the 2014 color revolution in Ukraine.
Even after Donald Trump won the Presidency by campaigning against the neocons, they retained enough power to install one of their own, John Bolton, as Trump’s national security advisor. Bolton and his neocon allies in the Trump administration then repeatedly attempted to provoke a full-scale war with Iran: first with a series of air strikes inside Iran that the President canceled ten minutes before impact, then with the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani inside Iraq, which Trump approved. It was only the President’s restraint in the face of the inevitable Iranian retaliation that thwarted a regional war.
The transition to the Biden administration has not meant the end of neoconservative influence. The Democratic party will never officially adopt the neoconservative label, but it is hard to claim that there is no role for neocons in an administration that has promoted Kagan’s wife, Nuland, to Deputy Secretary of State. The revolution that she supported in 2014 has now claimed hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian lives. A war that Russia was ready to end in exchange for a promise that NATO would not expand further into the Soviet Union has instead been willfully escalated, triggering combat in Europe on a scale that had not been seen since the Second World War.
As all of this has unfolded, the younger Kristol, Kagan, and the usual neocons have all cheered. Their loss of influence in the Republican party has created the illusion that they are out of power. But in reality, the fact that the political coalition they built for their latest proxy war is rooted in the Left rather than the Right does not suggest that neoconservatism is dead: it simply means that the neocons have come full circle and rejoined the Democratic party, at least for the time being.
This brief history of neoconservatism varies from conventional accounts in one important respect — namely, that many have argued neoconservatism is an essentially “Jewish movement.” Scholars such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have connected it to what they describe as “the Israel Lobby.” Whether this is accurate or not is almost beside the point. By framing the argument in those terms, realists and nationalists have for decades done nothing but damage their own reputations, making it easy to be smeared as antisemites. The vileness of modern neoconservatism does not depend on the ethnicity of the ideology’s progenitors, and emphasizing that aspect of the movement’s history will only inhibit our chances of vanquishing it.
The New Right needs a new, comprehensive strategy for combatting the neocons. The first pillar of effective resistance is rebranding opposition to mindless foreign interventionism as a fundamentally masculine trait. This is an area where we have already made great strides. For the first time in almost a quarter century, the principal obstacle to overseas adventurism by the American government is right-wing nationalism rather than left-wing pacifism. Our country is awash with men who are ready to bear arms for their families and communities, but who refuse to die on foreign soil.
Nationalism presents a far greater threat to the neoconservative project than the traditional “live and let live” rhetoric of the anti-war movement, because it taps into the very primitive urges that the neocons have hijacked. There is much to be said for prudence and caution as virtues of statecraft, but they are feeble tools for moving the human heart. The longer that a great power goes without war, the stronger the desire for martial triumph that accumulates innately within the demos. This is natural and healthy: in the absence of war, the most sacred rituals of civic religion cannot be consummated.
A nation that has ceased to crave the solemnity of an executive address or the catharsis of a victory parade has lost part of its vital essence. The inability to satisfy those innate desires is why conventional anti-war messaging has never been an effective tool for preventing the initiation of new conflicts. There is always a faction of pacifists who preemptively decry pointless bloodshed, but those sentiments gain critical mass in domestic politics only after a new generation has discovered its own aversion to casualties. The anti-war movement may have ended the war in Vietnam, but it was helpless to stop the US from deploying troops in the first instance.
When opponents of the US invasion of Iraq attempted to recycle that same Leftist anti-war rhetoric three decades later, they ceded the rhetorical high ground to the neocons. Even realists who spoke out against the war as “unnecessary,” such as Mearsheimer and Walt, presented a technocratic message that could not compete with the jingoism and pathos of the second Bush administration. The only openly nationalist opposition to the invasion came from paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan, who were pushed out of mainstream television and print precisely because it was opposition from the Right that the neocons most feared.
The neocons were forced to confront actual right-wing opposition only when Donald Trump entered the Republican primary in 2016 and launched the modern “America First” movement. His accusation — that the Washington elites weren’t putting the interests of their own people first — has been a sort of kryptonite for neocons. When their preferred candidates have tried to directly challenge this message in the 2016 and 2024 GOP primaries, they have been crushed.
Their new strategy it seems, rather than opposing the America First movement, is to infiltrate it. Their goal is to define America’s interests so broadly that being “America First” can mean supporting the same forever wars that Trump campaigned against when he won the election. For that reason, the second and most urgent step for countering the neocons is to formalize the true principles of modern American nationalism, so that they cannot be inverted using rhetorical trickery.
If it is to mean anything, a call to put America first must mean elevating the immediate interests of the American citizenry above those of the world as a whole. This focus on America as a people rather than an idea is the litmus test for distinguishing authentic patriotism from its ersatz neoconservative counterpart. America is not an abstract concept or dream that needs to be exported to the rest of the world. It is a nation of actual human beings, whose safety and wealth must be the overriding objects of US grand strategy.
U.S. Army paratrooper during an airborne operation in Aviano, Italy, February 12, 2020 (Photography: Ryan Lucas Henderson)
The current military strategy that the United States employs — in which 190,000 American troops are deployed to 140 countries — bears no relation to those goals. Instead of simply defending the American homeland, today there are active-duty American soldiers present in almost three-quarters of the countries on Earth. Forty percent of the world hosts one or more US military bases. Americans are paying for a global empire while reaping none of the rewards from hegemony at home.
It has become cliched to point out that US troops guard foreign borders while our own borders are left porous. Yet the obviousness of the comparison does nothing to diminish the absurdity of our government’s misplaced priorities. In the last five years, more than a quarter-million Americans have been killed by fentanyl; that’s four times the total deaths our country suffered in the Vietnam War. If the current acceleration in the rate of fentanyl overdoses continues, then in the next five years America is on pace to lose more citizens to this synthetic opioid than perished in WWII. Yet there has been no national mobilization to secure the US-Mexico border or to destroy the cartels that are willfully massacring Americans with a drug fifty times more potent than heroin.
What America requires is a 21st-century reinvigoration of the Monroe Doctrine: the principle that the US will regard the Western hemisphere as its exclusive sphere of influence. In this formulation, the word “exclusive” carries a dual connotation; it indicates both that no other great powers will be tolerated in the Americas, and that the US does not claim the same unfettered power in the remainder of the world.
A military that serves the true interests of the American people will require fundamentally different capabilities than our present force. This is not simply a matter of downsizing the military or cutting its budget. Many systems that are essential to defending the homeland and the Western hemisphere have been chronically neglected in favor of budget items with greater offensive potential.
Programs like the B-21 Raider — an intercontinental stealth bomber — should be cut in favor of “A2/AD” systems, whose purpose is to defend against an attacker. Russia and China have already leapfrogged the US in that arena, because they have prioritized winning in their backyards over striking enemies on the other side of the globe. The United States should follow suit; it should not even consider building another aircraft carrier until it has matched the capabilities of Russia’s S-400 SAM system or its Zircon hypersonic anti-ship missile.
Instead of waging “AirSea Battle” against China or Iran, our military needs to focus on its ability to interdict migrant caravans and neutralize cartels in Mexico, Central, and South America. The success of President Nayib Bukele’s hardline crackdown against the criminal gangs of El Salvador provides a template that can be replicated throughout the hemisphere with training from US advisors. Conventional infantry and armored divisions will serve almost no conceivable purpose in this long-term campaign to stabilize the Americas. For that reason, those portions of the Army should be downsized, while growing the number of Green Berets and other special-forces units.
Decreasing the total end strength of the military while growing the portion devoted to unconventional warfare will also help to lower the danger of a future civil war in America. The Democratic party’s plan to force DEI policies on the Department of Defense is a not-so-secret attempt at expanding the fraction of servicemembers who are apparatchiks of the radical Left. In contrast, loyalty to traditional constitutional order is highest in special-forces units, whose mission profiles make them inherently resistant to non-merit-based quotas. A restructuring that makes those units a larger fraction of the total force will enhance unquestioned control of the military by the duly elected commander-in-chief.
Those are, however, changes that will not be readily obvious to the average American. To permanently vanquish neoconservatism from public life, we must harness a “peace dividend” to transform the day-to-day experience of our country’s citizens. That is the third component of the strategy and, in the long run, the most important pillar.
If the United States were to peg its military spending to equal that of Russia and China combined, there would be roughly half a trillion additional dollars per year available in the federal budget for bettering the American homeland. This is, to be clear, a decrease in military spending so massive that it would be laughable within the current Overton window. Yet it retains a sum that is self-evidently sufficient to deter any foreign invasion. We believe we need to spend more only because we have fundamentally misconceived US grand strategy.
The upside of remaking the American military as a force that only needs to enforce the Monroe Doctrine is suddenly having enough money to implement a federal “employer of last resort” system, under which the US government would guarantee a job to anyone willing to work. Specifically, a National Renewal Corps should be created, modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the 1930s and 1940s, which put three million young men to work performing worthwhile manual labor in camps run by the Army. This was the most beloved program of the New Deal, and there has never been a better time for reviving it.
A modern implementation would allow adult men and women of any age to join single-sex camps, where they would receive free housing and food from the Army in exchange for working full-time to restore America’s dilapidated cities. Participants would perform low-skill tasks like scrubbing graffiti, picking up trash, and dismantling homeless encampments. Their compensation would be set below the federal minimum wage, ensuring that positions in the National Renewal Corps are filled only by Americans who would otherwise be unemployed or unhoused.
Proposals for reviving the CCC have not received enough attention on the Right because they have normally come from left-wing advocates of “modern monetary theory,” who claim that the government can create an unlimited quantity of money. Fortunately, rightsizing the military would allow for such a program to be funded without increasing the deficit or raising taxes. And creating a National Renewal Corps would help cushion the economic impact of reduced federal spending on military jobs and contracts, by preventing what would otherwise be an immediate drop in aggregate demand for goods and services.
If these reforms are implemented, it is hard to overstate how quickly and dramatically the blight overtaking our once-great metropolises will be reversed. The standard left-wing refrain against dismantling the tent cities in our parks and sidewalks — i.e. that the homeless have “nowhere to go” — will become untenable overnight. Like all Americans, the homeless will be eligible to join the National Renewal Corps, where they can have a direct hand in revitalizing our country.
A few years into a program of national renewal, the American public will begin to question how they ever allowed themselves to be manipulated into supporting any other agenda. They will admire their pristine urban centers and puzzle over why their government ever sent money for overseas wars while its downtowns were decrepit. A few will think back and remember a term — neoconservatism — that had something to do with it. But it will be little more than a distant memory.