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Published on July 19th, 2008 | by Jim Lobe

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McCain as Neo-Con, Obama as Neo-Con

I’m not a big fan of The New Republic, but there are two articles in the July 30 edition that are well worth a read.

The first essay is by the always-insightful John Judis, who two years ago wrote the best account to date of McCain’s evolution from realist to neo-conservative in the late 1990s. Now Judis revisits the issue to determine McCain’s likely trajectory, focusing in particular on the candidate’s Manicheanism, especially with regard to Russia. Money lines are found right up front:

“Two years ago, I wrote a profile arguing that there were reasons to believe that McCain was more pragmatic than his support for the Iraq debacle suggested (“Neo-McCain,” October 16, 2006). In the interviews I conducted with him in 2006, he repeatedly distanced himself from neoconservatism, reminding me that he talked regularly to realists like Brent Scowcroft. I thought there was a good chance that there was a peacemaker lurking beneath McCain’s warrior exterior–that a President McCain might be able use his hawkish reputation to, say, bring Iraq’s warring parties together or to lure Iran to the bargaining table.

“I wasn’t the only one. Since McCain secured the Republican nomination, I’ve heard echoes of my ambivalence from foreign policy experts, including some who plan to vote for Obama. “McCain has Nixon-goes-to-China credentials,” one told me. But, based on McCain’s actions over the last two years and conversations I’ve had with those close to him, I have concluded that this is wishful thinking. McCain continues to rely on the same neoconservative advisers; he still thinks U.S. foreign policy should focus on transforming rogue states and autocracies into democracies that live under the shadow of American power; and he no longer tells credulous reporters that he consults Scowcroft.”

The second article is the cover story by Eli Lake — yes, the Eli Lake who writes for the ultra-Likudist New York Sun — entitled “Contra Expectations: Obama isn’t Jimmy Carter — He’s Ronald Reagan.” Based in his understanding of and interaction with two Obama advisers, Richard Clarke and Rand Beers, Lake concludes that Obama may turn out to be a neo-con more in the tradition of Jeane Kirkpatrick, who came to prominence as a result of her attacks in Commentary on Carter’s human rights policy and its alleged subversion of “friendly authoritarians”, than in that of Bill Kristol and Bob Kagan who summoned the country via the Project for the New American Century, among other avenues, to “national greatness” and neo-imperialism, something that made Kirkpatrick uneasy. Lake argues that Obama may turn out to be much less “naive” and reluctant to use force than McCain or today’s neo-cons believe.

I have a number of serious problems with the essay, not the least of which is the fact that Israel, which has been central to both the older and younger (now middle-aged) generations of neo-cons, goes entirely unmentioned by Lake. He also fails to distinguish between Kirkpatrick’s neo-conservatism and a classic realist position which, I think, defines more where Clarke and Beers are coming from. Finally, Clarke and Beers are no doubt advising the Obama campaign, but their voices are two of many that also include classic liberal internationalists, who were and, for that matter, still are, quite comfortable with Carter’s human-rights policy and took strong objection to both the old and new neo-conservative critique of it. (Steve Clemons just posted an interesting take on the relationship between Obama and his foreign policy advisers on his blog, thewashingtonnote.com.)

But Lake’s basic point — that Obama’s likely approach to the “global war on terrorism” is likely to be much more “realist” in orientation than McCain, neo-cons, and other Republicans have tried to depict — is, I think, on point, as is his comparison of that approach to the strategy pursued by Gen. David Petraeus’ in Iraq (“collaboration with security forces, militias, and tribal leaders who don’t conform to our highest ideals”, “finding proxies to fight the enemy,” and a strategy designed to “isolate and shrink the pool of irreconcilable insurgents” after buying off the rest). Of course, Petraeus, who has been hailed by the neo-cons as the great Caesar of Mesopotamia, has, in reality, pursued policies — particularly the recruitment of former Sunni insurgents, and especially former Baathists within it, to fight al Qaeda in Iraq — that the neo-cons had long abhorred.

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About the Author

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Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



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  • Named after veteran journalist Jim Lobe, LobeLog provides daily expert perspectives on US foreign policy toward the Middle East through investigative reports and analyses from Washington to Tehran and beyond. It became the first weblog to receive the Arthur Ross Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs from the American Academy of Diplomacy in 2015.

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