This is the first of a three part post on Neoconservatives, democracy, and war.
Neoconservatives have gotten our country into unprecedented trouble, and seem intent on expanding the scope of their errors and crimes still further.
In their vision of American foreign policy they suffer from three fatal flaws: bad theory, bad judgment, and bad motives.
Neoconservatives’ fundamental theoretical error is their complete failure to appreciate the tensions between democratic government and an imperial foreign policy under a strong executive. Sometimes they like to point to Rome as our role model for the years ahead, but their pointing would carry a different message if they knew much about Roman history. The Roman Empire destroyed the Roman Republic, and it did so through requiring a Caesar to oversee its military policies. A powerful independent executive and an aggressive foreign policy is incompatible with the long term survival of a free society.

In the elite foreign policy journal Foreign Affairs William Kristol and Robert Kagan described the problem, although careful reading is necessary. They argue the role of America should be maintaining “Benevolent global hegemony. Having defeated the ‘evil empire,’ the United States enjoys strategic and ideological predominance. The first objective of U.S. foreign policy should be to preserve and enhance that predominance by strengthening America’s security, supporting its friends, advancing its interests, and standing up for its principles around the world.
“The aspiration to benevolent hegemony might strike some as either hubristic or morally suspect. But a hegemon is nothing more or less than a leader with preponderant influence and authority over all others in its domain. ”
Superficially, views such as these are difficult to criticize. But what do they really mean by “hegemony.” For these men hegemony is much more than simply keeping our country strong. Even though in 1996, as today, our military budget dwarfed any others in the world, Kristol and Kagan demanded a substantial increase in military spending. For what? Later in their article they criticize “the admonition of John Quincy Adams that America ought not go ‘abroad in search of monsters to destroy.’ But why not? The alternative is to leave monsters on the loose, ravaging and pillaging to their hearts’ content, as Americans stand by and watch. . . . Because America has the capacity to contain or destroy many of the world’s monsters, most of which can be found without much searching, and because the responsibility for the peace and security of the international order rests so heavily on America’s shoulders, a policy of sitting atop a hill and leading by example becomes in practice a policy of cowardice and dishonor.”
In short, in 1996 Kristol and his allies were already advocating a policy of sending American troops abroad to make the world safe for ambitious intellectuals such as themselves. Kristol had the effrontery to call a policy such as the “National greatness conservatism.”
War and the Constitution

Unlike Kristol and Kagan, our Founders were well aware of the incompatibility of free government and a country waging frequent war. In Federalist No. 8 Alexander Hamilton, whom no one has ever accused of being soft on executive power, wrote that when war is frequent popular governments are “necessitated to strengthen the executive arm of government, in doing which their constitutions would acquire a progressive direction towards monarchy. It is of the nature of war to increase the executive at the expense of the legislative authority.” If these conditions were prolonged “we should, in a little time, see established in every part of this country the same engines of despotism which have been the scourge of the old world.” For Hamilton, a peaceful union of the thirteen states was the solution to this threat.
Neoconservatives and their allies seem intent in proving Hamilton’s warning right, for they are busy developing an argument for an American Caesar.
John Yoo, who served in his capacity as Bush’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General as a major counsel for allowing torture, tells us in a Sunday New York Times editorial:
“A reinvigorated presidency enrages President Bush’s critics, who seem to believe that the Constitution created a system of judicial or congressional supremacy. Perhaps this is to be expected of the generation of legislators that views the presidency through the lens of Vietnam and Watergate. But the founders intended that wrongheaded or obsolete legislation and judicial decisions would be checked by presidential action, just as executive overreaching is to be checked by the courts and Congress.”
An argument like this coming from a college freshman who did not bother to do the reading might make sense, but it is astounding coming from a man once charged with enforcing our laws and now teaching at one of America’s most prestigious Law Schools. Every sentence is wrong. Nor is the rest of his column any better.
Whether the Constitution created a system of Judicial or Congressional supremacy is not a question of belief, it is a question of fact. The Founders regarded the courts as our weakest branch of government, but, to quote Madison from Federalist No. 51:”In republican government the legislative authority necessarily predominates.” Further, he and the Constitution opposed giving the President any power to check “wrong headed or obsolete legislation.” As Madison put it, such a power “might perfidiously be abused.”
Our Constitution is quite clear on the matter: Article I states that “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” Article II says the President “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” It is neither his nor John Yoo’s business to determine which laws to enforce and which to ignore, regardless of the reason. In a democratic republic as with any government there are plenty of bad laws, and the way to improve them democratically is through the legislature and the courts, not the executive. Yoo received the Bator Award for excellence in legal scholarship and teaching from the right wing and badly misnamed Federalist Society. The Society’s bankruptcy as a defender of American constitutional principles could not be more clearly demonstrated.
In war time our Constitution provides that the government to alter one peace time limitation on governmental power – government may suspend the right of habeas corpus. Nothing else is changed.
The Founders did consider how constitutional government could be safely changed by the exigencies of war, and suspending habeas corpus in time of war was the only feature they thought necessary.
The issue here is so clear cut that one can only wonder whether John Yoo is a conservative affirmative action hire by the University of California, for he clearly is unqualified to teach the constitution, let alone serve in the Department of Justice.
The next post in this series explores why democracy cannot be exported to others against their will.
But what of the Neocon’s vision of creating democracy abroad by overthrowing other governments? What of their policy of “regime change”?

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