Neoconservative pundit William Kristol. (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)
The decisive defeat of Mitt Romney in the presidential race and the forced resignation of ex-Gen. David Petraeus as CIA director have marginalized America's neoconservatives more than at any time in the past several decades, confining them mostly to Washington think tanks and media opinion circles.
The neocons bet heavily on a Romney victory as they envisioned a return to power, like what they enjoyed under President George W. Bush when they paved the way for the U.S. invasion of Iraq and dreamed of forcing "regime change" in Iran and Syria. During the campaign, Romney largely delegated his foreign policy to a cast of neocon retreads from the Bush era.
This reversal of fortune has led some key neocons to send out what amount to peace feelers to the Obama administration. The Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and Washington Post columnist (and Brookings Institution senior fellow) Robert Kagan have joined in urging Republicans to show more flexibility regarding their opposition to tax hikes on the wealthy.
Kristol made his views known on weekend talk shows, declaring on Fox News: "It won't kill the country if we raise taxes a little bit on millionaires." Kagan penned an op-ed column for the Washington Post that stated: "It seems pretty obvious that a compromise will require both tax reform, including if necessary some tax increases, and entitlement reform, since those programs are the biggest driver of the fiscal crisis."
Some on the Left have cited the tax flexibility of Kristol, in particular, as an indication of Republican willingness to compromise seriously with President Obama in a second term. However, the truth is that neocons have never been economic conservatives. Instead, they have favored lavishing money on military programs and financing warfare to implement their imperial strategy of imposing political change by force. The budget has never been a high priority.
A Split on the Right
Over the past three-plus decades, the neocons have joined with cultural and economic conservatives more as a marriage of convenience than as a sign of true affection and shared values. Now, as the Religious Right and the Ayn Rand ideologues face harder times politically, the neocons are pondering a trial separation, if not an outright divorce.
The signs of a split among conservatives may be welcome news for President Obama who has been contemplating a number of controversial foreign policy moves in the post-election environment, including reaching an accommodation with Iran over its nuclear program. Harsh economic sanctions on Iran appear to have made Iranian leaders more serious about striking a deal and Obama is expected to seek a resolution in the weeks ahead.
However, the neocons have remained hostile to any concessions toward Iran. If Mitt Romney had won the presidency, the neocons likely would have hijacked the sanctions from their stated goal of achieving Iranian concessions on nuclear issues and transformed them into an economic club to bludgeon "regime change." That could have set the stage for another Middle East war.
The significance of Petraeus's resignation as CIA director is that the ex-four-star general was one of the neocons' last insiders who could be counted on to frustrate Obama's negotiations with Iran. Last year, Petraeus complicated U.S.-Iranian ties by pushing a dubious story about Iran planning a terrorist attack in Washington.
The White House and the Justice Department doubted that Iranian leaders were implicated in the harebrained scheme to assassinate the Saudi ambassador by blowing up a Washington restaurant. But Petraeus's CIA embraced the suspicions and won over the Washington press corps, which largely swallowed the story whole.
It has since turned out that the central figure in the plot, an Iranian-American car dealer Mansour Arbabsiar, was diagnosed by doctors from his own defense team as suffering a bipolar disorder. In other words, his lawyers say he has a severe psychiatric ailment that affected his grasp of reality.
Nevertheless, the blaring news of the terror plot -- echoing across U.S. front pages and American TV screens -- strained the delicate negotiations between the Obama administration and the Iranian leadership. So, Obama's inner circle saw a silver lining in Petraeus's sudden departure: this neocon ally will not be around to sabotage talks again.
The Accommodating Obama
After winning the presidency in 2008, Obama extended an olive branch to the Republicans, the neocons and much of the Washington Establishment by retaining President George W. Bush's last Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Bush's military high command, including Petraeus who was then head of Central Command and thus overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Amid media applause for this "team of rivals," Obama also picked Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State. As a New York senator, Clinton had developed close ties to the neocons and generally supported their hawkish positions on Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama's generosity, which included a decision not to seek any accountability for war crimes committed by the Bush administration, won him little reciprocity, however. Secretary Gates and Gen. Petraeus, with the tacit support of Secretary Clinton, blocked Obama's interest in hearing less aggressive options on Afghanistan. They essentially steered him into support of a major troop "surge."