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Obama & the Neocons: the Odd Alliance

Obama & the Neocons: the Odd Alliance

By David Paul Kuhn - August 6, 2010

Last September, the don of neconservatism was put to rest. Irving Kristol's funeral represented, to some, the end of not only the man but also his ideas.

The obituary for neoconservatism proved premature, however. A younger generation of neocons, and aligned hawks, wrote President Obama that same month. "We congratulate you on the [wartime] leadership" the letter read. They urged the president to ignore antiwar pressure. It was the most public statement of support–albeit qualified–for what was now Obama's war.

Obama has become neoconservatism’s ironic champion. In 2008, Obama’s election was considered the repudiation of neoconservatism. Today, the most vocal camp of support within the political establishment–perhaps the only enthusiastic camp of support–comes from Kristol's intellectual kin.

"On the Afghan issue, neoconservatives are not only the biggest supporters of Obama but they are also defending the president from other Republicans' attacks," said Justin Vaisse, author of "Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement."

It is an odd alliance. Neoconservatives are not merely invested in Obama's war. They are loosely invested in Obama's presidency. The weaker the presidential bully pulpit, the weaker this president's ability to wage a war without popular support.

The public is, after all, no longer clearly behind this war. The majority of Americans favor a timetable to remove troops from Afghanistan. Only 36 percent of Americans approve of Obama's management of the war. That marks a dozen-point dropoff since February, according to Gallup.

Obama must look rightward to retain popular support for the war. A plurality of Democrats, 41 percent, want troops home immediately. By contrast, about six in 10 Republicans and 56 percent of conservatives favor no timetable for withdrawal, according to Rasmussen polling of likely voters.

To neocon thinker Max Boot (like many neocons, he disfavors the designation), the neoconservative position is actually the broad GOP position. "There is an agreement between Obama and conservatives and Republicans on Afghanistan," Boot wrote in an email exchange. "I haven't seen many people," among conservatives that is, "rallying to Ron Paul or Michael Steele."

On the surface, that's true. Only seven House Republican lawmakers voted for a bill restricting war funding last month, compared to 93 Democrats. But Republican voters are not as unanimously behind this war as their representatives. In September, as Boot and others signed their names to the presidential letter, conservative and Republican opposition to a timetable was about 10 points higher.

It was Steele's incident, in fact, that revealed the emerging conservative fissures on the Afghan war. Steele caused a stir for questioning the war as well as Obama's leadership. Steele was defended by conservative figures from George Will to Ann Coulter to Pat Buchanan. Neoconservatives these are not.

Meanwhile, it was prominent neocons who took Steele most to task. Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney quickly called for Steele's resignation. Both were also signatories to the September letter.

"What Kristol, Bob Kagan, and Max Boot have done is shield the president from criticism from their fellow conservatives," Vaisse said.

It is an imperfect shield. The border between conservatives and neocons is hardly clear. And the odd alliance does not extend to other foreign policy fronts. But as Bob Kagan said, who is another influential neoconservative analyst, "The most vocal supporters are what you call neoconservatives, that's true. But they are not the most important supporters."

To Kagan, a more influential supporter is Sarah Palin. And yet Palin also represents a bridge between that base and neocons. Palin signed the September letter. But Palin’s support seems softer of late. She appeared to open the door to advocating for a pullout last week on "FOX News Sunday." Palin told host Chris Wallace that if we are not in it to win it then "we don't want to send our sons and daughters over there for some kind of futile effort." For now, Palin stops short of breaking with Obama and neocons.

The true test of the odd alliance is next summer. Obama pledges to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011. And recent headlines have not offered Obama a case to postpone that pullout. July was the deadliest month on record for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. June was the deadliest month before that. Over the summer, Afghanistan became the longest war in American history.

Obama saw this bad news coming. A surge in troops almost invariably causes a surge in the death toll. Yet this president still tripled the U.S. force in Afghanistan. He still invested in nation building. And in doing so, though he must distain the thought, Obama invested himself in the neoconservative vision.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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