Trump v. Clinton: What’s a Good Neocon to Do?

by Jim Lobe

There have been some reports—most recently, in The Intercept—that neoconservatives, most of whom have indeed expressed a strong dislike for Donald Trump, are now moving to support Hillary Clinton. This assessment is based primarily (and exclusively in the case of the above-cited article) on Bob Kagan’s speech at a fundraiser for Clinton earlier this month. Of course, for some time now Kagan has made little secret of his support for her—and of his comfort in being called a “liberal internationalist.”

In my opinion, the notion that neoconservatives are moving en masse into the Hillary camp is premature. True, Kagan supports Hillary. But the co-founder with Bill Kristol of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and its successor, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), has been an outlier, if not a renegade, in the movement in recent years. The Intercept’s author could also have added a couple of influential younger neocons to the list, including the Wall Street Journal’s “Global View” columnist Bret Stephens and FPI fellow Jamie Kirchick, although their backing for Hillary is driven virtually entirely by their unvarnished loathing of Trump. Stephens actually titled his endorsement “Hillary: The Conservative Hope,” while Kirchick laid out the case in his opening sentence: “It’s come to this: Hillary Clinton is the one person standing between America and the abyss.” (I agree, albeit for different reasons.)

Stated that way, it’s actually surprising that more neocons haven’t rallied behind Hillary. And indeed, we may yet see a majority of them flocking to her banner. Max Boot has said that she would be “vastly preferable to Trump,” a position echoed by Eliot Cohen, among others. Although Boot’s declaration falls somewhat short of an actual endorsement, he reportedly permitted the DNC to use one of his televised denunciations of Trump in a video. In fact, many influential neocons—like Kristol, Danielle Pletka, and Elliott Abrams—have thus far indicated a preference for a third-party candidate or a write-in or have maintained a discreet silence beyond ruling out their voting for the New York real estate baron. Given constant neoconservative exhortations over the decades for “moral clarity,” this waffling is somewhat surprising. After all, if Trump poses the kind of threat that Kirchick imagines, then a throw-away vote in November could be a moral disaster, something akin to liberals Democrats in Florida voting for Nader in 2000.

The latest Wikileaks dump—and the evidence that Russia was behind it—could by itself persuade a number of neocons to endorse Hillary. Along with isolationism and “the left,” Moscow has long been an arch-nemesis for neocons. The movement gained a lot of momentum within the Jewish community here in the early 1970s and into the 1980s with efforts to win the right of Soviet Jewry to emigrate. Recall that the office of Democratic Sen. Scoop Jackson, co-author of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, served as the hatchery for many of Washington’s most networked and effective neocons – Richard Perle, Abrams, Frank Gaffney, Kristol, even Douglas Feith – before they swam downstream into the Reagan administration and the dark waters of the Republican right. The “bromance,” as the Journal has described it, between Trump and Putin is just the kind of thing that could drive wavering neocons to distraction…and toward the Democratic choice. Of course It helps with neocons that Hillary is clearly more of an interventionist than Trump appears to be (although who really knows what he would do if he thought some foreign power was not giving him the respect he was due.)

At the same time, however, neocons have good reasons to either hold their noses and endorse Trump as the “lesser evil” or, more likely, to avoid endorsing Hillary and stay on the sidelines, at least publicly. Since at least 1980 and the Reagan campaign, they’ve invested heavily in the Republican Party, notably its Jacksonian and religious right components. Indeed, their often over-heated rhetoric—including their never-ending denunciation of “elites,” especially of the “liberal” and “European” varieties—their constant attacks on “the left” and “political correctness,” their more-than-occasional hysteria over impending global chaos and civilizational collapse resulting from alleged American “retreat,” their obsession with military power, and the Islamophobia of leaders like Norman Podhoretz have all contributed to the rise of what Boot now calls a “fascist demagogue.” Publicly supporting Hillary could be regarded as treason, even by those Republican lawmakers and future candidates who are uncomfortable with—or even try to distance themselves from—Trump during the campaign. If so, the chances of many neocon would-be Hillary endorsers of gaining positions in any future Republican administration would be substantially reduced, and that has to be a major consideration for a group that prioritizes the acquisition of power. Of course, any of the 121 signatories of Eliot Cohen’s “Open Letter on Donald Trump from GOP National Security Leaders”—and they include quite a few aspiring policymakers—are most unlikely to get anything in a Trump administration unless they perform a public recantation and kiss the ring.

Another obstacle to endorsing Hillary is that neocons have not had a good experience with the Clintons. Remember that a small but not insignificant number of them, repelled by George H.W. Bush’s realpolitik, and more specifically his Middle East policy and pressure on then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to join the Madrid peace conference after the first Gulf War, deserted the party in 1992 and publicly endorsed Bill Clinton. Richard Schifter, Morris Amitay of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, Angier Biddle Duke, Rita Freedman of the Social Democrats USA, neocon union leaders John Joyce and Al Shanker, Penn Kemble of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, James Woolsey, Marty Peretz of The New Republic, and Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute all signed a much-noted ad in The New York Times in August 1992 endorsing Clinton’s candidacy. Their hopes of thus being rewarded with top positions in a Clinton administration were crushed. Of all the signers, Woolsey, a Navy secretary under Reagan, got the most influential post—CIA director—which he held for just short of two years during which he never had a one-on-one meeting with the president. Kemble received the deputy directorship of the US Information Agency while Schifter, who had served Reagan and Bush as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, was given a senior staff position on the National Security Council. Apart from that, the signers got virtually nothing. By 1996, most of them were working on the Dole campaign in one way or another. This shabby treatment by Bill Clinton remains deeply ingrained in the collective neoconservative memory.

Yet another obstacle to endorsing Hillary is money. Multi-billionaire philanthropists Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, who are major funders of such neocon/Likudist outfits as the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), and the Religious Right’s Christians United for Israel (CUFI), appear to have cast their lot (if not yet their promised $100 million) with Trump. Cutting themselves off from such a generous (and vengeful) donor could do serious damage to an aspiring neocon career. On the other hand, thus far no other major donor closely associated with neoconservatives or the RJC has announced his or her support for Trump, and several, most notably Paul Singer, have come out in active opposition. At the same time, none of the latter has endorsed Hillary either.

So what is a good neoconservative who craves “moral clarity” to do in this election?

Photo: Robert Kagan

Jim Lobe

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.



  1. This is a very informative article. As always Jim is an astute observer of the necon tribe. I have no problem with the main points mentioned here, my inquiry is on a point which is mentioned in passing. Why is it that we assume that the 2000 win for George W in Florida due to Nader was necessarily a bad thing in terms of foreign policy? I am not being provocative or rhetorical here. I am genuinely curious to know if anyone has studied what Al Gore presidency would have been like if 9/11 happened under his watch? Are you sure that he would not have invaded Iraq or lashed out at some other country in the Middle East? I don’t like G.W. Bush, at all, but assuming that democrats are less hawkish in foreign policy than Republicans is not backed by history. I know people like Al Gore and I do too, but Al Gore as a person is different from Al Gore the President. Are you sure that he would not have been swayed by the neoconservatives? Neocons had an outsize influence at that time, not just in Washington, but in the media.

  2. Jim Lobe remains the dean of neocon-watchers. This judicious assessment of the neocon conundrum in Election 2016 tells us why.

  3. I have been an admirer of Jim Lobe since the pre-Iraq invasion days, when he was one of the first (and one of the few) to notice neocon support for the invasion. However, I’m surprised to hear that neocons felt slighted by the Clinton administration. That list of signers of the 1992 NYT ad is not all that impressive. What were they expecting?

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