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The Victory of the Neoconservatives

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In politics, final victory occurs not when you gain power but when your opponents adopt your policies as their own. Let us make no mistake; the new defense budget unveiled earlier this month marks the final victory of the neoconservative worldview.

Despite electoral outcomes that seemed a rebuke to the neoconservative foreign policy agenda of the Bush Administration, President Obama working with Secretary Gates has chosen to embrace a military posture and as a consequence likely a foreign policy orientation that is designed not to reverse the Bush Administration, but rather to implement Bush's policies more effectively.

This exchange from Gates' press conference makes the key point:

Q Can you tell us a little bit more, Mr. Secretary, about the analysis that went into these decisions? Even over the weekend there was some criticism that such bold decisions before the QDR, before this top-to-bottom review, perhaps don't have the analytical framework that would be required. Can you give us sort of the 1-2 about how this all was put together?

SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I think that there is a very sound analytical basis for these decisions because they emanate directly from the National Defense Strategy, which involved a great deal of analysis on the part of both the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff and the Joint Chiefs. So there is a strong analytical base.

The National Defense Strategy Gates is referring to was issued in 2008. It was drafted by Bush appointees and approved by the Bush White House. It is easy to miss the forest for the tree with all the discussion of counter-insurgency and unconventional warfare. But in the big picture, the Obama Administration clearly envisages a world in which the United States indefinitely into the future embarks on foreign interventions, leading to long-term military occupations, with a goal of building nations that will embraces values that make them friends and partners of the United States. This is the essential core of neoconservatism.

Obama's defense policy suggests an imperial agenda. Obama's personal style makes it seem less coarse and selfish than under Bush. But beyond the cowboy style, Bush's approach to international politics was profoundly idealistic. Bush's strutting about and Cheney's Machiavellian machinations tended to make talk of democratization and human rights appear as cynical cover for aggressive imperial ambitions -- hence bizarre fixation by many on the left with the notion that the Iraq War was fought over access to oil. But in the end, Bush's focus on democracy in his second inaugural address was likely sincere.

Obama's apparent diagnosis of Bush's foreign policy is not that it was wrongheaded -- imperialistic and unachievable -- but rather that it was implemented incompetently. Now with better public diplomacy and a retooled military, the policy of remaking the world in our own image -- at the point of a gun if necessary -- can proceed apace.

It is a fascinating transformation to witness. In retrospect, it is likely that we will judge that the issue was settled shortly after 9/11. The dominance of the neoconservative worldview -- fundamentally the notion that American power should be used to transform the domestic politics of potential enemies -- arose because of all the competing strategic frameworks, it was the only one that contained a "theory of victory." The alternative approaches all assumed implicitly that the problem of terrorism is fundamentally intractable; sociopathic fanatics will always find some way to target and wound an open democracy, and the key is to mitigate the consequences and harden key targets in order to turn the terrorist threat into a nuisance rather than eliminating it altogether. The neoconservatives, by contrast, argued that it was possible to drain the swamp and eliminate the ideology that supported anti-American terror as well as deny terrorists access to safe havens from which to launch attacks. The neoconservatives offered a cure for the disease, others offered medication for the symptoms. No wonder the neoconservatives won.

In 2004, John Kerry mounted a rearguard campaign to try to revive the alternative to this neoconservative consensus. His defeat, rather than the Democratic victories of 2006 and 2008, seems to have settled the issue. And as a consequence, we now have the opportunity to witness the spectacle of a liberal Democratic president, working hand-in-hand with a Republican holdover Secretary of Defense, to enshrine into institutions and budgets the neoconservative view that it is indeed in America's interests to plan for the long-term occupation of foreign countries in order to transform them into something resembling stable allies.