In the three months since the GOP's trouncing in the 2012 presidential election, the Republican Party has shown numerous signs that it's willing to change course to improve its future fortunes. First, the House GOP crumpled in the fiscal cliff standoff. Then it refused to engage in yet another game of chicken over the debt ceiling. And now Republicans in both houses of Congress appear ready to pursue a bipartisan deal on immigration. Those who care about the future of the party should applaud these developments. But that doesn't mean they'll be sufficient to solve the GOP's problems. On the contrary, Republicans will continue to find themselves at an electoral disadvantage until they break free from the grip of neoconservatism.
Since the term neocon is so often deployed for polemical purposes these days, let's be very precise about what it means. Back in the late 1960s and early '70s, the original neoconservatives — Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and their colleagues at The Public Interest and Commentary — had two main aims: In domestic affairs, to expose the defects of Great Society social programs and propose more effective (read: less ambitious) alternatives; and in foreign affairs, to counter McGovernite isolationism with hawkish realism, which meant adopting a more confrontational stance vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.
The domestic side of neoconservatism reached its apex of influence in the 1990s, with New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's crime-fighting policies and, at the federal level, the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. Today, domestic neoconservatism is largely extinct, a victim of its own success at changing the public policy conversation.
As for the neocons' foreign policy agenda, it, too, became irrelevant once the Soviet Union collapsed and the Democrats showed (under Bill Clinton) that they were no longer averse to using military force.
Yet some of the neocons — or rather, some of their children — were unwilling to accept their fate. By the mid-1990s, Irving Kristol's son William had teamed up with Norman Podhoretz's son John to found The Weekly Standard, a magazine that would reorient neoconservatism entirely toward foreign policy — and toward a very different and far more reckless style of foreign policy thinking than the one their parents championed.
Neoconservatism 2.0 is the apotheosis of hawkishness. A latter-day neocon isn't just convinced that force is often necessary in specific cases, which is what hawks have always maintained. Rather, he's convinced that force is invariably good any time and any place it is used by the United States. As Kristol put it in a seminal 1996 essay co-authored with Robert Kagan, a foreign policy in which the United States started and fought wars around the globe would be, axiomatically, "good for conservatives, good for America, and good for the world."
"My country — always right, never wrong": It's the least thoughtful and most primitive form of patriotism. And yet, since September 11, 2001, the Republican Party has adopted and repeatedly reaffirmed the outlook as its guiding ideology in foreign affairs. Why? First, because it perfectly fit the angry, wounded mood of the country (and within the Bush administration) after 9/11. Second, because it perfectly fit the angry, wounded mood of the GOP base after the White House was captured by a man many Republicans consider an anti-American Kenyan socialist.
Fortunately, the country as a whole seems to have moved beyond its post-9/11 collective PTSD, aided by the passage of time as well as by the sobering experience of having to clean up the mess that followed the neocon-inspired invasion of Iraq in 2003. It's a very good sign for the nation — and for Democrats — that the American people prefer President Obama's more measured style of conducting foreign policy to the one-size-fits-all bellicosity favored by the neocon-infatuated GOP.
Obama has managed to lead the U.S. through a period of considerable global volatility with only minor missteps — and he's been able to do so because his approach to foreign policymaking is shaped by a clear-eyed assessment of the emerging post-Cold War world order. For a time, the implosion of the Soviet Union left what appeared to be a "unipolar" world ruled by the one remaining superpower. But unipolarity was always an illusion — and it's revealed to be less and less accurate with each passing year.
Yes, American power is formidable in many areas. But there's an awful lot we cannot do — and at the top of the list is bending whole peoples and regions of the world to our will. In the multi-polar world we now inhabit, the U.S. will remain the single most powerful nation, but not by orders of magnitude. We will defend the nation's borders and its interests. We will offer support to allies in those selective cases (NATO in Libya, France in Mali) when we judge that doing so really will be "good for America and good for the world." But we will not be leading any crusades to transform (and liberalize) entire civilizations at the barrel of a gun. Why? Because the effort would fail — and failure is bad for America and bad for the world.
The president deserves our support in his attempt to adjust American expectations to fit the reality of a complicated, recalcitrant world — just as the GOP deserves our disdain for denying that same reality. Which is precisely what leading Republicans are doing in their efforts to block Obama's choice to head the department of defense. What is it about Chuck Hagel that so rankles the right? Some cry anti-Semitism, but the charge is so groundless that Hagel's critics have yet to produce a single shred of evidence to substantiate it. What is it, then, that supposedly disqualifies him from serving as secretary of defense? The answer: Hagel is a Republican who dares to believe that the use of American military force is only sometimes (as opposed to always) a good thing. That's all it takes to provoke denunciations in today's GOP.
Until that changes, the Republican Party will continue to be punished — and to earn its punishment — at the ballot box.
Damon Linker is a senior writing fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Theoconsand The Religious Test. You can follow him on Twitter: @DamonLinker.