Posted on May 13, 2002 in Washington Watch

Despite the fact that Jean-Marie Le Pen was soundly defeated in France’s recent presidential elections, that he made the run-off and gained almost one-fifth of the vote set off alarm bells throughout Europe. Across the continent, grave public concern was expressed about the emergence of a dangerous far-right political current. Articles appearing in most of Europe’s major papers compared the relative strength of similar movements in each of the European Union’s countries.

It was in this context that a number of Arab friends have written asking me to describe the situation of the far right in the U.S. And since I have recently raised the issue of the role of what I have called the neo-conservative movement and the religious right wing of the Republican party, questions have been asked about how those two currents compare with Europe’s far right political parties.

Since I have often referred to these two U.S. currents as far-right and extremist, I felt that it would be important to better describe them and, in so doing, to shed more light on contemporary politics in the U.S.

It is important from the outset to note that neither the religious right nor the neo-conservative movement represents the extreme chauvinism or xenophobia of the Le Pen current. There are such tendencies in U.S. politics but they are on the fringes of the political spectrum and have no home, at this time, in either of the two major American parties. There are, for example, hundreds of small white supremacist organizations and even militia groups in the U.S. They are loosely connected, but remain a threat and are closely watched by law enforcement. These groups, however, continue to exist, in part, because of the persistence of racism in many parts of the U.S.

On only a few of these occasions have these racist tendencies coalesced into an electoral force. David Duke, a former Nazi sympathizer and Ku Klux Klan leader, has run for office as a Republican in his home state of Louisiana capturing, at one point, about one-third of the vote. He was quickly denounced by the national party and has, therefore, remained a marginal figure in national politics.
Similarly, when Pat Buchanan left the Republican party to run for president on the Reform party ticket in 2000, he moved to the far right on immigration and race issues, paralleling much of Le Pen’s message. His effort, however, failed to garner any significant support.

The neo-conservatives and the religious right were not identified, in the main, with any of these efforts, because neither racism nor anti-immigrant xenophobia are a part of their thinking. Let me describe what they are.

The neo-conservative movement is best characterized as an intellectual current espoused by a small but extremely influential group of writers, media commentators, political operatives and academics. It is not a mass-based movement, but because of the influence wielded by its advocates, it has been able to shape the policy debate within the Republican party. The editorial pages of today’s newspapers and the talkshows on U.S. television are dominated by neo-conservatives. They also hold some key policy posts within the Bush Administration.

The neo-conservative movement began in the 1960’s and 1970’s as a reaction by some Democrats to the policies of the Soviet Union. Some of the early founders of this current had even been Socialists, but were driven by anti-Communism, especially the USSR’s attitude to Israel and its own Jewish citizens, to seek more extreme ways of confronting that regime. As they became increasingly disenchanted with what they described as the Democrats’ “soft” attitude toward fighting the cold war, many drifted to the Republican party. When they were welcomed into the Reagan campaign in the late 1970’s, their transformation was complete.

Interestingly enough it was at this same time that the U.S. neo-conservatives developed a relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. Netanyahu had invited many of those influential writers and commentators to a working conference in Jerusalem to discuss how to end the Democrats’ “fixation on human rights” and replace it with a campaign against “terror” as the dominant theme in U.S. foreign policy.

Though they embraced Ronald Reagan’s presidency and his no-holds-barred war against the “evil empire” and were, in turn, embraced by Reagan, the neo-conservatives never fully embraced the entirety of the conservative agenda. They were not social conservatives, nor were they, strictly speaking, economic conservatives. For example, they did not share the social conservatives’ abhorrence of abortion, and some neo-conservatives remained liberal in their economic policy and broader social policy. What brought them into the Republican party was their aversion to the Soviet Union and, of course, their support for Israel.

This movement did not support the first George Bush presidency as enthusiastically as they had supported Reagan. Bush was a traditional conservative, more moderate in his foreign and domestic policies than his predecessor. And so for Bush’s four years in office and Clinton’s eight years, the neo-conservatives were out in the cold.

Today, however, they are back in key government posts and with their continuing influential roles in the print and electronic media, they are playing a powerful role in national politics.

The administration of George W. Bush is not as ideologically-based as that of Ronald Reagan. Many currents of thought are represented within its ranks. While these diverse views are sometimes at loggerheads, what helped to tip the scales, at least for a time, in the direction of the neo-conservatives, were the September 11 terrorist attacks. The almost adolescent simplicity of neo-conservative thought formed a useful framework to mobilize public attitudes in favor of a war on “terrorism”.

Neo-conservatism essentially sees the world in absolutist terms–good versus evil. It sees no possibility for compromise, since, they believe, any agreement with evil, in the end, only weakens the forces representing good. Therefore, neo-conservatism projects, as both desirable and inevitable, permanent confrontation between good and evil, until evil is defeated.

The rhetoric of this current can clearly be found in President Bush’s description of terrorists as “evil doers”, or his characterization of an “axis of evil”, or his warning to other nations “you are either with us or you are against us”.

The danger, of course, is that despite the fervent desire of the adolescent ideologues of the neo-conservative movement, the world is not so black and white. The more mature recognition of the world’s complexity is what has created diplomacy–that is, the need to create structures of international relationships to protect interests in a complex world.

If the neo-conservatives were to win, all of the structures of diplomacy erected over the past several decades would be torn down in favor of a unilateral U.S. confrontation with “evil”. One can see the internal debate within the Administration play out as it moves between the politics of confrontation and the withdrawal from international conventions, treaties and conferences, then back to the pursuit of negotiations and diplomatic initiatives.

In this context, it is interesting to note the role played by the neo-conservatives in the media. At times, when their counterparts within the Administration are losing the internal battle for the ear of the President, neo-conservatives commentators will launch what appears to be a concerted campaign in public, in an effort to sway policy. They did so early on, for example, on the issue of Iraq, advocating a unilateral attack immediately following what they called the “victory” in Afghanistan. More recently, the neo-conservatives ganged up in a public assault against President Bush’s April 4th speech pressuring Sharon to end his incursion into the West Bank. In both cases, they appeared to have some, though not complete, success in effecting Administration policy.

In short, the neo-conservatives are a potent, thought not always decisive force in shaping the policy of the Bush Administration. The President may use their rhetoric, but does not always follow their strict policy of confrontation.

In a future article, I will discuss the other major current that impacts the thinking of the modern Republican party: the religious right.

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