Recently, my father suggested that it might be helpful if I explained what the term "neoconservative" means. "A lot of people don't know," he said. As usual, dad was right. I mentally filed away my father's suggestion, agreeing that an explanation of "neoconservative" might be helpful when the time was right. And now — as the American intervention in Libya has drawn a clearer line between neoconservatives and conventional Republicans than any event in recent memory — the time is right.
The "neocons" believe that American greatness is measured by our willingness to be a great power and that we accomplish that through a virtually unlimited global military involvement. As a result, the problems that other nations are experiencing become our own.
Critics say the U.S. cannot afford to be the "world's policeman." Neoconservatives not only say that we can, but we must — and that we will cease to be America if we don't.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) champions the neoconservative view. While virtually every other recognizably Tea Party congressman or senator opposes the Libyan intervention, Rubio believes the world's top cop should be flashing its badge in Libya and pretty much everywhere else. According to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, "Rubio is the great neoconservative hope, the champion of a foreign policy that boldly goes abroad in search of monsters to destroy ... His maiden Senate speech was a paean to national greatness, whose peroration invoked John F. Kennedy and insisted that America remain the 'watchman on the wall of world freedom.' "
Rubio's flowery rhetoric is worth noting because neoconservatism has always been sold through the narrative of America's "greatness" or "exceptionalism." This is essentially the Republican Party's version of the old liberal notion promoted by President Woodrow Wilson that it is America's mission to "make the world safe for democracy." Douthat describes Rubio as the "great neoconservative hope" because the freshman senator is seen by the neocon intelligentsia as one of the few reliable Tea Party-oriented spokesmen still willing to promote this ideology to the GOP base. I say "still" because many Republicans have begun to question the neocon foreign-policy consensus that dominated Bush's GOP. "Among conservatism's foreign policy elite, Rubio's worldview commands more support. But in the grassroots, it's a different story," Douthat writes. "A recent Pew poll found that the share of conservative Republicans agreeing that the U.S. should 'pay less attention to problems overseas' has risen."
He adds, "In the debate over Libya, Tea Party icons like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin have sounded more like [Rand] Paul than Rubio, and a large group of House Republican backbenchers recently voted for a resolution that would have brought the intervention screeching to a halt."
As one of only a handful of Republicans to oppose the Iraq War, Republican Congressman Jimmy Duncan (R-Tenn.) said in 2003, "It is a traditional conservative position not to want the United States to be the policeman of the world." At the time, Duncan's party strongly disagreed with him. But this is because most Republicans didn't think of the Iraq War as "policing the world" but as a legitimate matter of national defense. We now know that war had absolutely nothing to do with America's defense. But this has always been the neocon ruse: The neoconservatives will always try to convince the masses that entering or starting a war is essential to defending America, and they will stretch any logic necessary to do so.
Neoconservatives rarely show any reflection — much less regret — when it comes to our nation's foreign-policy mistakes, because for them there are no foreign-policy mistakes. America's wars are valid because they are America's wars; America's "mission" is its missions. Los Angeles Times columnist and Weekly Standard editor Max Boot writes, "Why should America take on the thankless task of policing the globe? ... As long as evil exists, someone will have to protect peaceful people from predators."
Needless to say, a perpetual war to rid the world of evil is about as far as one can get from traditional conservatism, but that didn't stop Bush-era Republicans from adopting it as a mantra. Boot now snidely asks the current GOP if they want to be known as the "anti-military, weak-on-defense, pro-dictator party" due to their opposition to the Libyan intervention. This argument might sound strange yet familiar to Republicans; it was exactly what they said about Democrats who opposed the Iraq War.
The Libyan War clarifies what the Iraq War made confusing. There is a difference between conservatives who believe in a strong national defense and neoconservatives who believe in policing the world under the guise of national defense. The neoconservatives will remain successful as long as they can blur this distinction.
Jack Hunter co-wrote Rand Paul's The Tea Party Goes to Washington. Hunter's commentaries can be heard every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on The Morning Buzz with Richard Todd on 1250 AM WTMA.