VIDEO: George W. Bush: A Neo-Conservative?

George W. Bush

What is Neo-Conservatism and how did this Influence American Foreign Policy during the Presidency of George W. Bush?

The neo-conservative movement has been one of the most controversial in the modern post-Cold War era of International Relations (Leffler 2005 395; Williams 2005: 307). Its adherents are principally American intellectuals, writers and public servants.

Despite this, much confusion still exists as to the nature of the movement and its ideas. The movement came about in the latter part of the 1960s and garnered considerable influence since that time (Boot 2004: 21; Williams 2005: 309; Singh 2009: 34).

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This influence, however, remained on the fringes of policy-making until the administration of George W. Bush adopted some policies and strategies that could loosely be described as neo-conservative tenets. This paper has two distinct aims.

First, to explore what neo-conservatism entails in the modern post-Cold War era and, secondly, to explore the degree to which neo-conservatives were able to influence the Bush administration. In doing so, this paper hopes to refute commonly held misconceptions about the movement and more importantly, the degree to which it was able to influence, or as some would assert, ‘hijack’ United States (US) foreign policy under President Bush (Austin 2005: 53).

This supposedly occurred, in dreadfully ironic fashion, in the wake of September 11th 2001, when the US was infamously attacked by the terror group Al-Qaeda.

This paper will proceed with a detailed discussion on the neo-conservative movement, outlining its key ideas and introducing its pre-eminent thinkers. It will then move on to the issue of discussing how influential neo-conservatism was as a set of ideas and a movement in the foreign policy of George W. Bush.


This paper agrees with the majority of the academic literature in the debate around influence, that neo-conservatism did not drive foreign policy and arguing otherwise remains unconvincing. Rather, there are similarities between Bush as an ‘assertive’ or ‘conservative nationalist’ and neo-conservative ideas, however, there are key differences in areas, such as democracy promotion.

As Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay have noted, it represented more of a ‘marriage of convenience’ between the Bush administration and some neo-conservative principles, in the face of a catastrophe and the need for action (Daalder and Lindsay 2003: 16).

The Bush doctrine, as it later became known, does not represent neo-conservatism, nor does it mean that the Bush administration is neo-conservative itself. (Ibid.: 13-14). In its stead, are principles that remain overtly nationalist in nature, ultimately showing neo-conservatism was a ‘marginal influence.’ (Hurst 2005: 75)

The Neo-Conservative Movement & Their Ideas

The Neo-Conservative individual and the larger movement are characterized by a distinct lack of ubiquity in their ideas (Fukuyama quoted in Kampmark 2011: 1888). There is such a diverse set of individual viewpoints that this paper cannot possibly attempt to address all with sufficient detail or attention. One would hard-pressed to understand any element of neo-conservatism as a whole without bearing this in mind. In fact, according to Robert Singh, “[o]ne of the few features of neo-conservatism o which its supporters and critics concur is its historical provenance.” (Singh 2009: 34)

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The movement began in the late 1960s and early 1970s among ‘Democrats and recovering Marxists’ who, according to neoconservatism’s ‘intellectual godfather’ Irving Kristol, had been ‘mugged by reality’ (Boot 2004: 21; Williams 2005: 309; Singh 2009: 34) in the face of ‘humiliation in Vietnam’ rejecting the ‘Liberal idealism of the Democratic Party’ on the one hand and ‘Nixon-Kissinger Realism’ on the other (Singh 2009: 34).

Original members of the movement included Kristol and Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson who “…were driven rightwards by the excesses of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when crime was increasing in the United States, the Soviet Union was gaining ground in the Cold War, and the dominant wing of the Democratic Party was unwilling to get tough on either problem.” (Boot: 2004: 21). Michael Harrington agrees, noting that that the movement was “grounded…in its opposition to the welfare state and the emergence of a bureaucratic New Class.” (Quoted in Kampmark 2011: 1888).

So, what actually is neo-conservatism? This question is difficult to answer precisely because there is no ubiquity in the movement and, as Stephen Halper and Jonathan Clarke put it, there is “…no curia, no politburo, no…figure presiding sternly over doctrinal rectitude…[and] canonical texts are in short supply.”

(Halper and Clarke 2004: 10). Thus, a distinct feature of neo-conservatism is that it can be seen as an abstraction that only lives in the minds of current propagators and adherents continuously arguing its merits as a set of political ideas. Furthermore, numerous attempts have been made to find key principles that would characterize a neo-conservative with varying results.

Complicating the definitional issue further is the belief that there are two distinct generations of neo-conservative, as Maria Ryan has asserted (Ryan 2010: 492). There is the Cold War generation, including the likes of Irving Kristol, Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson etc., and the post-Cold War generation, including the likes of Robert Kagan, William Kristol, and Charles Krauthammer.

In order to mitigate this issue, this paper will focus on the post-Cold War generation due this paper’s essay question’s specific referral to the Bush foreign policy. Still, there is but some direct cross-over between definitions offered by the post-Cold War generation as many are individualistic in their opinions.

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Thus, in the view of this paper, it may be necessary to put forward an all-encompassing view of neo-conservatism’s core tenets to avoid over-simplification of the nature of the neoconservative narrative. One such tenet, is the adherence to the philosophical writings of Leo Strauss, according to Thomas Kane. Especially, neo-conservatives subscribe to the view that America must only “strengthen its ties to ‘democratic allies,’ and it needs to “promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad.” (Kane 2006: 137)

This is a recurring theme that forms one of the bedrocks of neo-conservatism. This paper finds six key principles that most academics have agreed upon. The ideas put forward, it has widely been argued, were critical elements driving foreign policy during the Bush presidency (Ruiz 2010). Neo-conservatives themselves may disagree with some elements, however, as aforementioned this paper is not designed to take into account each individual neo-conservative. Rather, it encompasses the entire movement in order to assess a degree of influence they garnered in the United States’ foreign policy. In the view of this paper, the core principles were been found to be:

  1. “US retention of its primary leadership position in the international system…[necessitating an]increase [in] defence spending…” (Norman 1999 in Hurst 2005:78)”
  2. “[A] state’s foreign policy reflects liberal and democratic values…US power should be placed at the disposal of moral objectives.” (Fukuyama in Kampmark 2011: 1889)
  3. “The necessity of developing a national missile defense system to counter the threat of rogue states armed with weapons of mass destruction.” (Norman 1999 in Hurst 2005:78)
  4. “An incurable skepticism about the legitimacy of international law and institutions.” “Rejection of the notion that the US should always resolve problems multilaterally.”(Ibid.:78; Fukuyama in Kampmark 2011: 1889)
  5. “A primary focus on the Middle East and global Islam as the principal theatre for American overseas interests. (Halper and Clarke 2004: 10)
  6. “[S]ocial engineering projects (the Great Society programmes of the 1960s, for instance) are to be regarded with suspicion.” (Fukuyama in Kampmark 2011: 1889)

Neo-Conservative Influence in the Foreign Policy of George W. Bush

With these principles in mind it is possible to determine the level and type of influence these ideas, and their advocates had on the foreign policy of President Bush.

Before this can be done, however, it is imperative to outline in what sense they apparently influenced foreign policy in the United States, when this occurred, and finally, who the prominent actors were in these situations. From this position, it will become increasingly apparent that the Bush White House was not influenced by an ostensibly neo-conservative line of thought.

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Primary among all debates about the Bush presidency is the Iraq War and the sheer size of literature on the conflict necessitates this paper to engage with it. There is a popular belief that the Iraq War was driven solely by the neo-conservative elements in the administration (Halper and Clarke 2004). Jean-Marie Ruiz even calls it ‘common knowledge.’ (Ruiz 2006: 36) Further, there is a belief that the even the highest levels of the US government were either neo-conservatives or, at least, used their theoretical underpinnings to ‘hijack’ the foreign policy of the United States (Austin 2004: 53). As will be shown below, the neo-conservative influence in the administration and its foreign policy was minimalistic in reality.

(Ruiz 2006: 36) Further, there is a belief that the even the highest levels of the US government were either neo-conservatives or, at least, used their theoretical underpinnings to ‘hijack’ the foreign policy of the United States (Austin 2004: 53). As will be shown below, the neo-conservative influence in the administration and its foreign policy was minimalistic in reality.

The Post-Cold War Neo-Conservative

To begin, the supposed ‘common knowledge’ that Bush’s foreign policy, in his first term, “was guided by a neo-conservative agenda” is quite problematic (Ruiz 2006: 36). There is no convincing evidence that the neo-conservative movement had any influence in the Bush White House prior to the event of September 11, 2001 (Dueck 2010: 266).

Though Caroline Kennedy-Pipe would dispute this on the basis that the inner workings of the Bush White House were already underpinned by neo-conservative elements including Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz (Kennedy-Pipe 2012: 378-379).

It is only after 9/11 that a dramatic shift in foreign policy-making occurs, culminating in the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States (Austin 2005: 48). The void left in the wake of 9/11 prompted the immediate need for action, and this included fighting abroad if necessary. In effect, the domestically-orientated presidency of the first months became internationalized due to 9/11.

In fact, “prior to the terrorist attacks of September 2001, Bush was skeptical toward arguments for military intervention overseas.” (Dueck 2010: 266) Instead, during these first months of office he “…pursued strategies of hardened containment in relations to North Korea and Iran.” (Ibid.: 271) After 9/11, the foreign policy takes the central stage and principles like expanding US primacy and, regime change, democratization, and unilateral action take hold for the first time.

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