Hillary Clinton and the “neocons”

Jacob Heilbrunn is an expert on “neocons.” He should be. He helped invent the species, which differs from “neoconservatives,” about whom he lacks much understanding.

Heilbrunn warns readers of the New York Times that the “neocons are getting ready to ally with Hillary Clinton.” He writes:

Even as they castigate Mr. Obama, the neocons may be preparing a more brazen feat: aligning themselves with Hillary Rodham Clinton and her nascent presidential campaign, in a bid to return to the driver’s seat of American foreign policy.

It was once said of certain cold warriors that they “saw a communist under every bed.” Heilbrunn suffers from a similar paranoia when it comes to “neocons.”

Let’s try to make sense out of what Heilbrunn thinks he sees.

He thinks he sees an intellectual affinity between Hillary Clinton and the “neocons.” He cites her vote for the Iraq war; her support for sending arms to Syrian rebels; some of her rhetoric about Putin; her alleged “wholehearted” support for Israel; and her alleged stress on the importance of promoting democracy.

The Iraq vote is easily dismissed, unless one imagines that John Kerry also has an intellectual affinity with “neocons.” Every Democratic Senator with presidential ambitions voted for the Iraq war.

As for Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, there was little to please neoconservatives. The main features of that tenure — the Russian “reset,” the “pivot” to Asia, and the browbeating of Israel over settlements — all gave most neoconservatives heartburn.

Nor are neoconservatives inclined to forgive Clinton for Benghazi. Her attempt to blame the attack on an anti-Islam video is particularly galling. It reflects the kind of dangerous, intellectually feeble blame-shifting neoconservatives have denounced all the way back to Jeanne Kirkpatrick in the 1980s.

So what is it that Heilbrunn sees that he mistakes for intellectual affinity between Clinton and the “neocons”? Two things.

First, he sees that Clinton holds somewhat more mainstream foreign policy views than President Obama, and that neoconservatives are glad. Supporting rebels in a strategically important country who oppose not one, but two sets of America’s serious enemies isn’t a distinctively neoconservative thing to do. It is keeping with what until fairly recently was bipartisan American foreign policy. So is strongly supporting Israel. So is pro-democracy rhetoric.

To the extent that these positions make Heilbrunn uncomfortable, his quarrel is with traditional American policies and values, and with a quite substantial portion of public opinion even today.

Barack Obama has a less comfortable relationship with these traditions of American foreign policy than Hillary Clinton does. Neoconservatives, like a great many other Americans, regard this as a good thing, albeit insufficient to make her anything approaching a soul mate.

Second, Heilbrunn sees that a few neoconservatives have said a few nice things about Clinton. That’s a politic thing for some of them to do. Clinton may become our next president. Not all neoconservatives should be expected to burn all bridges to her.

At the beginning of his article, Heilbrunn asserts that “the careers and reputations of the older generation of neocons. . .are permanently buried in the sands of Iraq.” Perhaps. But the real news these days is that the careers and reputations of Obama’s foreign policy team are in serious jeopardy of being buried, both in the Iraq sands and elsewhere.

That’s why Hillary Clinton is distancing herself from Team Obama. And that, not just “neocon” paranoia, may explain why Heilbrunn is frightened.

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