A review of Maria Ryan's "Neoconservatism and the New American Century"

By Stephen J. Sniegoski

Yet another book on the neocons from a mainstream publisher has recently appeared that – like the works of Danny Cooper and Justin Vaïsse – acknowledges the neoconservatives' influence, especially in regard to Bush administration policy, while avoiding the obvious fact that the neocons' policy in the Middle East rested on their ethnic identification with the Jewish state of Israel. That study is Neoconservatism and the New American Century, by Maria Ryan, a lecturer in American history at the University of Nottingham in England. Palgrave MacMillan published the book in 2010.

In eschewing the obvious, Ryan engages, even more than the other two authors, in contorted and spurious arguments, including some where the evidence she provides actually refutes her own arguments and instead gives credence to the neocons' ethnic bias.

While failing to discuss the palpable ethnic motive for the neocons' Middle East policy, Ryan's work must be credited for refuting the popular argument that the neocons were motivated by a desire to export democracy – that they were "Jacobins" or "Wilsonians." She writes:

"The central focus of this book is to demonstrate that the purported neoconservative preoccupation with moral ideals and especially 'exporting democracy' … was almost entirely abstract and rhetorical, if it was present at all. Where neocons did invoke idealistic rhetoric (and it is usually in the abstract rather than the practical), the caveats and conditions that they added to it all but ruled out military intervention in the service of democracy or any other moral ideals, although … some of them acknowledge that the rhetoric is useful for the galvanizing effect it has on the public."(p. 5)

Instead, she maintains, the "neocons have always prioritized interests over ideals." (p. 6) She provides a number of telling examples to show that
democratic idealism was far from being the cynosure of neoconservative foreign-policy thinking.

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In contrast to the theory of democracy promotion, Ryan writes that "a central argument of this book is that neoconservatism should be evaluated on the basis that it was a strategy dedicated to preserving and extending America's supposed position as the single pole of world power." (p. 6) That effort to "ensure that the United States remained the single pole of power in every region of the world," Ryan terms "unipolarism," holding that "unipolarism thus constituted the new defining strategic and ideological touchstone for neoconservatism in the post-Cold War period – and, indeed, the two terms 'neoconservatism' and 'unipolarism' would become almost … synonymous." (p 2)

Ryan is not alone in describing the neocons as "unipolarist." Gary Dorrien, in his Imperial Designs: Neoconservatism and the New Pax Americana [*], characterizes the neocons as fundamentally unipolarist; and, in fact, the neocons themselves actually used the term. As Dorrien writes at the very beginning of Imperial Designs: "In the waning months of the cold war, shortly before an expiring Soviet Union finally disintegrated, a group of neoconservative policymakers and intellectuals began to argue that the moment had come to create an American-dominated world order. Some of them called it 'the unipolarist imperative.'" (p. 1) Ryan cites Dorrien's work but fails to mention his discussion of unipolarism," only classifying him as one of those scholars who hold that "neoconservatism is characterized by the desire to 'export democracy.'" (pp. 4, 192) (I discuss Dorrien's "unipolarist" argument in The Transparent Cabal, on pp. 368, where I use arguments that would be equally applicable to Ryan.)

Ryan questions the idea that there was anything particularly unique about neocon foreign-policy views, maintaining that "the neocons merely accentuated existing trends in U.S. foreign policy; they did not overturn them." For example, she holds that their differences with the foreign policy of the Clinton administration were only in terms of degree. (p.9)

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If unipolarism defines neoconservatism, and if unipolarism essentially means American military pre-eminence on a global scale, then it would be reasonable to say that the neoconservatives fit into the dominant mode of American foreign-policy thinking along with most realists and liberal internationalists. But that typological classification is too broad, failing to specify what particular interventionist policies are to be pursued. Most of those who could be classified as unipolarists would part company with the
neocons in regard to the laters' policy of unconditional support for Israel, war on Iraq, and an overall Middle East war agenda, which the former held would have deleterious effects on America's overall global stature.

As illustrated in The Transparent Cabal, the neocon-inspired war on Iraq provoked extensive resistance from elite foreign-policy opinion outside the administration, the State Department bureaucracy, the CIA, and the military brass. In large part, that opposition reflected the fact that the neocon goal of destabilizing the Middle East flew in the face of the traditional U.S. policy of maintaining regional stability in order to facilitate the flow of oil, which was crucial for the economic strength of the United States and its allies. Moreover, Saddam's Iraq seemed to pose no serious threat to the United States, a fact that later became clear when no evidence could be found to substantiate the claims about Saddam's lethal WMDs.

Ryan applies her non-uniqueness argument to the neocons' unconditional support for Israel. "A special attachment to Israel was nothing new in post-1945, and especially post-1967 U.S. foreign policy," Ryan asserts. She does acknowledge that "the neoconservative attachment to Israel appeared to be even stronger than [the] usual [support from other elements of the foreign-policy mainstream] because of the amount of time and resources [the neocons] dedicated to supporting it … even though it was no longer needed as a bulwark against communism in the Middle East." (p. 32-33)

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Some commentators, Ryan observes, argue that the neocons were motivated by their Jewish ethnicity or special identification with Israel to the extent that they put Israeli interests equal to or above those of the United States. She simply responds that "there may be some truth to these arguments, but it is virtually impossible to discern private religious or ethnic motivations." (p. 33)

Here Ryan just makes an assertion without going over, much less refuting, the specific evidence used to substantiate the ethnic bias/Israel argument. I devote a substantial part of The Transparent Cabal to documenting that very thesis. Ryan definitely should have been aware of the evidence for the argument, because the indefatigable James Morris had maintained correspondence with her and sent her a copy of my book. Beyond acknowledging to Morris that she had received the book, she ceased further correspondence with him despite his efforts to contact her. Nowhere in her book does she
refer to The Transparent Cabal.

It is possible, though unlikely, that her book, published in November 2010, was too far along the publication route for her to use or even cite mine, which was published in August 2008. However, it would seem incumbent upon any scholar to deal with the information from already published sources that illustrated the neocons' ethnic orientation.