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Why President Obama is a Neocon

Obama's remarks during this week's Summit on Countering Violent Extremism champion 'neocon' policies — which makes him no different than every other post–Cold War president.
Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP

This week, the Obama administration's attention has been focused on the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) — a swath of cops, foreign bigwigs, and imams convened in Washington to tell each other how very much they disapprove of decapitation, crucifixion, immolation, and whatnot.

And if there's one thing the summit has made clear, it's that President Barack Obama is a neocon.

In a Tuesday op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, the president wrote, "Efforts to counter violent extremism will only succeed if citizens can address legitimate grievances through the democratic process and express themselves through strong civil societies." At a speech at the summit on Wednesday, Obama said that "the essential ingredient to real and lasting stability and progress is not less democracy. It's more democracy. It's institutions that uphold the rule of law and apply justice equally." Finally, his Thursday speech at a Summit session hosted at the State Department reiterated the points made in his Wednesday speech, covering the importance of democratic institutions in CVE.


To be fair, the idea that the US should actively promote democracy and rule of law because it's in America's national interest is not unique to neoconservatism. It's also a core premise of the Wilsonian perspective on foreign policy (a.k.a. liberal internationalism or liberal interventionism). The difference is that neocons tend to have far less faith in the ability of squishy, fuzzy international drum circles like the United Nations — née League of Nations — to do anything useful on this front.

Regardless, Obama is keen on promoting the idea that democracy and the rule of law are key parts of CVE, which is the core tenet of the neocon foreign policy perspective. While he has been relatively restrained in his approval of intervention for the sake of democracy promotion, the general Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework, promoted by people like US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, legitimizes a much more forward-leaning stance on intervention. R2P is based, more or less, on the idea that the concept of sovereignty doesn't mean the rest of the world has to sit around and watch while a sovereign nation gets excessively genocidal with its own people.

The US has been dedicated to promoting democracy around the world — often at the point of a gun — since the end of the Cold War.

In the years following the Arab Spring, Obama has toned down a lot of his talk about democracy promotion in the Middle East and North Africa. But in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and a new focus on CVE throughout US government, democracy promotion has come back into vogue at the White House.


There will be plenty of folks — liberal, conservative, and otherwise — who launch clouds of spittle and venom at the suggestion that Obama and George W. Bush have anything in common with regard to foreign policy. That's partly because there's an immense amount of rumor, innuendo, and bullshit about what the term neocon does or does not embody — from pre-emptive invasions to social conservatism to Jewish agents infiltrating government — but at the end of the day, the first neocons were a bunch of liberal interventionists who left the Democratic party because they felt the left couldn't tell its ass from a hole in the ground on national security issues in general and the Soviet Union in particular.

Moving to the modern day, to be sure, there are significant differences between Obama and Bush policies: The fate of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, the role of nuclear weapons in national security, and the presence of US forces in Iraq are but a few examples of the many ways in which both men view the world differently. That said, there are a lot of areas in which they are in absolute lockstep agreement: the peril of terrorists with WMD, the value of drones in combating terrorist groups, and the geostrategic importance of engaging Africa.

This compare and contrast between the outlooks came to the fore again during this week's Summit on CVE. Both Bush and Obama have gone to great lengths to disavow the idea of a War Against Islam, and they have both promoted the idea that Islam is not an inherently violent religion while dedicating a fair amount of combat power to a region predominately populated by Muslims.


There are a few common features to pretty much any philosophical/theological/ideological worldview, whether it's Islam or liberal interventionism. Within any community of thought, there comes a time when people fall out of step intellectually and start fighting for the "heart and soul" of the movement. Often, one group will argue that everything has to be dialed up to 11, and doing anything less is the same as doing nothing at all. Other groups will push back about how the upstarts are rash or are betraying the true ideals of the cause.

Schisms and splinters ensue, harsh words are used, and a fight for legitimacy begins. Leadership of both the extremist and traditionalist sides claim that they are the true representatives of the entire body of adherents, and that their opponents are loons who aren't really part of the broader movement.

In logic, this is referred to as the No True Scotsman fallacy, which goes a little something like this:

Person A: "No Scotsman turns down a second helping of haggis."

Person B: "But Donald MacDougall, who is on a diet, turned down a second helping of haggis."

Person A: "Well, no true Scotsman turns down a second helping of haggis."

In the case of Obama and the neocons — or, really, the American political left and right — everyone will go to great lengths to find, manufacture, and advertise their differences on interventionism as part of their effort to establish their own particular brand identities. After all, political polarization is good campaign strategy.

But once you peel back that layer, it's pretty apparent that the US has been dedicated to promoting democracy around the world — often at the point of a gun — since the end of the Cold War. Sometimes it's been in the guise of humanitarian intervention, and other times it's been the result of  a more clear-cut case of national interest.

To be sure, isolationist sentiments periodically get traction in America; Senator Rand Paul is an example. However, the sheer inertia of the foreign policy and defense establishments in the US and throughout the West — particularly in the years since 9/11 — suggest any institutional deviations from the interventionist approach will be short lived. Insofar as there's any traction for the Western anti-war or anti-interventionist movements, the dramatic death of the anti-war movement following the inauguration of Obama indicates this is a partisan contest for control of Western interventionism rather than real opposition to the interventionist model. The US is a nation that has a relatively weak ethnic identity; it's a cultural and ideological construct. And so without a common belief in Western, liberal, democratic institutions, there's not a lot a whole lot left to bind Americans together.

That's one reason the US is fairly evangelical about spreading its political mores and values around the world. And this is part of what's fueling the broader conflict between the US and groups like al Qaeda; Western democracies and violent Islamists are carrying out a blood-soaked negotiation about whether "True democracy" and "True Islam" can coexist. It's a debate that has been going on since before 9/11, and we can only hope that things like this week's CVE confab prove to be a more productive form of negotiation than the decapitation-and-airstrikes mode of debate.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan