The Disastrous Neocon Mindset

The neocon mindset, which envisions U.S. military force remaking the Mideast at the point of a gun or the warhead of a drone, has confronted a string of disasters and faces a new challenge from President Obama’s successful diplomacy with Iran, but the mindset will likely survive, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

President Barack Obama’s speech at American University was a thorough enough review of the issues that have come to surround the agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program that any fair-minded listener who focuses on merits rather than politics would reach the conclusion, as Mr. Obama has, that completion of this agreement as being in U.S. interests was not a difficult decision or even close to being one.

But although the President’s main purpose in the speech was to review the reasons this is the case and to beat back ill-guided attempts to destroy the agreement in the U.S. Congress, he made some more general points about the attitudes and beliefs that underlie those attempts and also underlay the launching of a disastrous war in Iraq 12 years ago. Here is how the President put it:

A Predator drone firing a missile.

A Predator drone firing a missile.

“When I ran for President eight years ago as a candidate who had opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq, I said that America didn’t just have to end that war — we had to end the mindset that got us there in the first place. It was a mindset characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy; a mindset that put a premium on unilateral U.S. action over the painstaking work of building international consensus; a mindset that exaggerated threats beyond what the intelligence supported.

“Leaders did not level with the American people about the costs of war, insisting that we could easily impose our will on a part of the world with a profoundly different culture and history. And, of course, those calling for war labeled themselves strong and decisive, while dismissing those who disagreed as weak — even appeasers of a malevolent adversary.”

The comparison with the Iraq War is apt, and not only because some of the most enthusiastic promoters of that ill-fated expedition are today among the most vocal opponents of the Iran agreement. The same sort of thinking has led to each of those mistaken positions, and the President identified some of the elements of that thinking.

The preference for military action over diplomacy is indeed one of those elements, although the observation can be broadened a bit beyond a simple preference for one tool of statecraft over another. The attitude involves a preference for destroying things without thinking much about why people built whatever is being destroyed, or how people will react to the destruction. It involves a narrow focus on capabilities, and military force unquestionably is the instrument best able to destroy capabilities, and insufficient attention to intentions and motivations.

The preference for unilateral U.S. action and disdain for the judgments of most of the rest of the world is another of those elements, with the parallels extending even to some of the same major U.S. allies being the object of disdain. It was “old Europe” that became an object of contempt at the time of the Iraq War, a time when French fries became freedom fries.

Today the same old Europeans of France and Germany are being ignored by opponents of the Iran agreement even though they are among the parties who helped to negotiate the agreement. And the same is true of that very close U.S. ally, the United Kingdom; David Cameron is not John Boehner’s poodle (or Barack Obama’s), even if Tony Blair was George W. Bush’s.

What the President identified as the exaggeration of threats beyond what intelligence supports is another common element. The makers of the Iraq War launched their project despite judgments by the U.S. intelligence community that contradicted the war-makers’ mythical “alliance” between the Iraqi regime and al-Qa’ida, not to mention the community’s judgments about the mess likely to ensue in Iraq after Saddam was overthrown.

Today, opponents of the agreement speak endlessly about what an Iran that supposedly is salivating over the prospect of getting a nuclear weapon could do to cheat, despite the intelligence community’s repeatedly expressed public judgment that Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon and gave up whatever work it may have done on a weapon more than a decade ago.

This opposition attitude is remarkably similar to how the promoters of the Iraq War went on endlessly about what Saddam Hussein “could” do with unconventional weapons he was presumed to have, despite the intelligence community’s public judgment that he was unlikely to use such weapons against U.S. interests or to give them to terrorists unless we invaded his country and started to overthrow his regime.

The belief in the ability of the United States to impose its will in the Middle East is certainly another common thread in the thinking involved, and it is not only a matter of faith in the efficacy of military force. The belief that a liberal democracy would easily fall into place in Iraq once Saddam was gone and if the United States so willed is of a piece with the belief that a “better deal” could be obtained once the current nuclear agreement is destroyed and if the United States so wills.

In each case there is obtuseness about how real human beings react to real events, whether it is reaction to the “birth pangs of democracy” in Iraq or to attempts to coerce a proud Iran.

Another element of this thinking that could be mentioned, but that President Obama did not explicitly do so, is a black-and-white perspective that tends to see the Middle East as starkly divided between good-guy allies and bad-guy adversaries, with Iran currently occupying the most prominent place in the latter camp.

Although the President did speak of the wisdom of making deals with one’s adversaries, he did not fundamentally challenge this perspective, despite its incongruence with reality. That is probably understandable and forgivable, given the need for him to maintain enough political correctness about Iran (and about Israel) to get the nuclear agreement through the Congressional gauntlet and across the finish line.

“Mindset” is an appropriate term for the President to have used. That term implies persistence and difficulty in dispelling the thought patterns involved. If the nuclear agreement survives it will be a major blow against the kind of insalubrious thinking that the mindset represents. But the mindset itself will survive.

It is rooted primarily in certain parts of the politically active American elite, especially the part that usually carries the label neoconservatism. And those parts exploit some similar strains of thinking that are spread more widely in the American public. That exploitation helps the mindset to survive, despite even a disastrous collision with reality such as the Iraq War.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

16 comments for “The Disastrous Neocon Mindset

  1. Abbybwood
    August 8, 2015 at 00:07

    Very telling interview with ex-U.S. General regarding ISIS:

    • Joe Tedesky
      August 8, 2015 at 12:26

      This retired general should be interviewed on ‘Meet the Press’. I have come to the belief that ISIL, ISIS, Is, Daesh, others are nothing more than paid mercenaries. I also would keep an eye open to watch if the MEK posing as Iranian government attempts or accomplishes pulling off some dastardly capers. Ref., the 1954 Lavon Affair.

      • Mark
        August 8, 2015 at 18:54

        Ted, the Lavon Affair is an excellent example of Zionism’s overall character.

        Having birthed Israel by way of Zionist terror gangs in 1947-48, Israel did not stop their terrorist activities but instead recruited indigenous Jews in neighboring countries, for terrorist activities in those countries.

        The Zionists never admit guilt and when they were caught red handed, the neighboring Arab countries sent much of the Jewish population packing for Israel for betraying those countries. Zionists then falsely screamed and hollered ANTI-SEMITISM.

        Zionist are never wrong or commit crimes in their own minds. Anyone who points out their guilt is just another anti-Semite regardless of how guilty they are — as in the Lavon Affair.

        Here in the states we have the Anti-Defamation League that goes around “defaming people” that speak the truth about Israel by labeling them as anti-Semites for criticizing Israel’s decades of war crimes and slaughters while AIPAC essentially bribes and coerces politicians in the US and other Western countries to keep them from speaking the truth about Israel.

        Basically this all makes “God’s Chosen” Zionists, God’s Chosen murders, liars and land thieves. Now why would God want “his chosen” to be that way?

  2. Mortimer
    August 7, 2015 at 13:20

    a history of the neocon movement from the Institute for Policy Studies.

  3. alexander
    August 7, 2015 at 10:52

    Dear Mr Pillar,

    Lets face it, “enormous profits” were made by those who initiated the Iraq war fiasco. The overriding of restrictions on war profiteering combined with the deliberate neutering of accounting mechanisms after 9-11 made that possible ,lucrative and desirable for many who would otherwise have seen its fraud and folly for what is was.
    Money does talk, so does Fraud …and as the Neocons” talked”,… the money “walked”…. from our balance sheet into their pocket books.!…They are loaded…We are busted….

    I think given their continued belligerence, insatiable appetite for extermination of innocents and the grotesque nature of “actually” profiting from it….Our President should bring the hammer down on these clowns….as in ” Guantanamo Bay” ….All the way and without delay … Seize those assets…and make em pay!

    ” Uncle Sam “has a 19 trillion dollar debt hangover.. maybe its high time to take back a big chunk of it from these Neocon defrauders who created it !

  4. John B
    August 7, 2015 at 07:04

    The mindset described is that of the tyrant over a democracy, described by Aristotle in his Politics, who needs and creates a foreign enemy so as to demand domestic power as a “protector” and accuse his opponents of disloyalty. Those who go along with it are ignorant or fearful of the accusations of their own kind. Those who practice it are lowly manipulators, who need no intelligence to see what works in every group throughout the society. Most of them are clearly of below-average intelligence, immature and hypocritical. All of their claims of religious and moral principle are false; they are the traitors wrapped in the flag, the bible-thumping scoundrels working the villages of ignorance. It works wherever the population is kept ignorant of politics by control of public communications. It ascends as democracy dies under an oligarchy.

  5. John
    August 6, 2015 at 18:31

    What can we all expect ! The jews are going to rule this planet openly. And their greatest weapon is money and blackmail. This plan has been going on since president Andrew Jackson and not anyone except for Jack Kennedy has ever tried to stop the big money jews…..The Talmud is correct when it states the gentiles are stupid cattle bred for being slaves to the chosen. I speak to people about this and they say, God says we must bless the jews or god will curse us……Wake-up…..the jews invented this god !

  6. Mark
    August 6, 2015 at 16:10

    Writers that discuss the hubris and manipulating falsehoods employed by neocons rarely include the fact that neo-conservatism and Zionism are nearly synonymous in their goals while their operatives serve both ends.

    The 2003 Iraq invasion was a 1996 neocon/Zionist plan to reconfigure the Mid-East in which included overthrowing Syria and Iran, part of the same plan, that has yet to be achieved. 9/11 was a convenient and awaited excuse for Israel and their agents embedded in the US government to launch these 1996 war crime plans on countless millions of Middle Eastern Arabs and Persians while it has also affected innocent Christians and Jews in the M-E as well.

    Search: ((( PNAC, New Strategy for Securing the Realm ))) and also ((( the Yinon Plan ))) — an absolutely sinister plan for intentionally creating chaos in the M-E among Muslim nations for Israel’s benefit…

    To see the depth of Zionist infiltration in the “US” government search ((( the New Pentagon Papers ))).

    Search ((( Israel control US government )))

    Search ((( US media biased for Israel )))

    Why is everyone afraid to speak the truth about all of this? Search ((( US government terrified of Israel’s AIPAC lobby ))) and search ((( Anti-Defamation Leagues false accusations of anti-Semitism ))) with the Anti-Defamation League or ADL more than anything else is a branch of Israel that persecutes anyone who speaks truthfully about Israel to intimidate them and anyone else from speaking openly about Israel’s crimes, intentions, motives and methods.

    The overall history of official Israel is little more than an exercise mass deception, manipulative propaganda and war crimes — what has Israel ever done but attack people or have the US do it for them in order to continue with the land thefts that started with the 1947-48 massacres committed by Zionist terrorists against Palestinian Arab Muslims and Christians?

    • Mark
      August 6, 2015 at 16:16

      Israel deserves no less than half the credit for these illegal invasions as planned in 1996 by neocon/Zionists, dual citizen Zionists, and pro-Zionist Christians. These links are all Eye openers and when added together there are undeniable conclusions to be drawn:

      Depending on a few other undetermined details Israel may be closer to 90% than 50% responsible, but as it stands with all we know for facts — Israel deserves no less than 50% of the blame for these Illegal war crimes being committed by the US and the sycophant coalition. Just look how Netanyahu is over here recently telling us to bomb Iran and take out Assad on Israel’s behalf — and this is not in America’s best interests.

    • Abbybwood
      August 7, 2015 at 23:52

      The fact that Turkey, Israel and the United States are CLEARLY supporting ISIS should be the number one story on every cable news station in the United States:

      Until and unless the American people are told the TRUTH about what is happening right now in the Middle East with our tax dollars and troops, they will get away with this travesty of international justice.

  7. Abbybwood
    August 6, 2015 at 14:34

    It appears that Syria will be Iraq II including U.S. boots on the ground with the recurring body bags being sent back state side and more death, carnage and destruction against innocent civilians.

    Disgusting and shameful foreign policy run amok.

  8. Joe Tedesky
    August 6, 2015 at 14:31

    To develope a mindset one first needs a brain. While some are patting theirselves on the back, to get another nation such as Iran to allow IAEA inspections is a joke. A joke because Iran doesn’t and isn’t manufacturing any nuclear weapons. On top of all of that, the U.S. is escalating its own nuclear arsenal, and boy what an arsenal it is turning out to be… this;

    • F. G. Sanford
      August 6, 2015 at 20:33

      Joe, your first sentence cracked me up – I thought right away about “Young Frankenstein” sending Igor out for a brain. I certainly favor the agreement, but it rests upon multiple pillars of hypocrisy. That neocons are convinced Iran wants a bomb is sheer projection. Israel has several hundred, so who could blame Iran? Yet we still tap-dance around the real motivation for paranoia. There is an ingenious element of cunning behind the agreement. The REAL motivation it is NOT to stop Iran from getting a bomb. The REAL motivation is to cripple any legitimate excuse for Israel to USE one. Our government completely lacks the courage to address the real issue – Israel’s rogue status. Millions upon millions of Mideast citizens have seen children reduced to scattered body parts. They’ve had friends and relatives burned alive, maimed, mangled, crushed, tortured, displaced, and blown up. They know that American drone pilots refer to them as “bug-splat”. All this so some CEO in Houston or New York can get a $3 million annual bonus. Sooner or later, innocent Americans who may or may not have cheered the mayhem will pay a terrible price. It would have been a lot cheaper to just get a normal brain. Instead, we left the job to Igor.

      • Joe Tedesky
        August 6, 2015 at 22:48

        Somehow through your comment I began picturing John Kerry down in the laboratory looking for the darn ‘Abby Normal’ Brain specimen. I am not very good when in comes to reading through all the rhetoric, but Israel from what the Brooking Institues Path to Persia plan claims can’t do an Iranian attack without U.S. Air power. Not that we should be surprised, but all the while this diplomacy is going on there is a massive arms buildup going on….everywhere. At some point do we worry that it all really comes down to personality. The problem we may have is who is that special someone/someone’s who has the money and the drive to get their way? Will we be able to trust their decisions? BTW, now that this P5+1 agreement has passed, the world now has a model to use to oppose NPT sanctions on another Mid-East country? I have said this before that my worry is, is that Israel is the one with the bomb. After Gaza…..what???

        • Abbybwood
          August 7, 2015 at 23:47

          What if Israel decided to go it “alone” as they did against Egypt in the Six Day War?

          Representatives (according to the excellent BBC video “Dead in the Water”) of Israel went to The White House and were told that they were NOT to launch a pre-emptive strike against Egypt. That the Johnson administration would not have their backs if they did.

          Well, they did. And the U.S. stood down.

          Of course, had the USS Liberty sunk to the bottom of the sea (at the hands of the Israel military), then Johnson might have had his wet dream fulfilled to blame Egypt for the Liberty’s demise and then those U.S. jets that took off from the Sixth Fleet loaded with nuclear weapons headed toward Cairo might have unleashed their payloads.

          But the Liberty did NOT sink and the survivors lived to tell their stories to anyone who would listen.

          Imagine if Israel decided to go rogue against the LEGAL Iranian nuclear installations. Then imagine the United States and the other members of the Security Council standing down against Israel.

          Talk about an international pariah state. This is what Israel would become if it decided to take unilateral military strikes against Iran.

          But would Obama have the guts to stand down? Or would he join Israel which would leave Israel and the United States all alone on the world stage?

          You want to see the BDS movement on steroids? Watch what would happen to Israel and the United States if they jointly attacked Iran with the treaty in place (regardless of any Congressional vote in the U.S. Congress).

          • Joe Tedesky
            August 8, 2015 at 02:32

            I recently learned that a Russia destroyer (or some kind of Russian ship) tag behind the USS Liberty while she struggled back to friendly port. You are right that non-sink didn’t become quite the false flag it was or should have been.

            I also recently read in the 2009 Brooking Report ‘Which Path to Persia’ as a design of how to accomplish regime change in Iran. There is even a chapter about Netanyahu and Israel going it alone. What it states is Israel lack of American air power.


            Then I read this next link (below) which is all about U.S. air power, along with a beautiful mixture of bombs and stuff …. Hora we’re in business down. I don’t know, but could Italy be a good air base to aid any allies in that region. I’m not talking Europe. Italy’s first mission is to secure the Mediterranean Sea. Hmmm!


Comments are closed.