Note to Conspiracy Theorists: The Neo-Conservatives Aren't Zionists
The betting markets on the American primary elections show an 87% probability that Hillary Clinton will head the Democratic ticket and a 76% probability that Donald Trump will lead the Republicans. Between the two, Trump is the pro-Israel candidate. First, his daughter Ivanka is an observant Orthodox Jew after her conversion and marriage to Jared Kushner, the scion of a prominent family of Jewisih philanthropists. Second, and most decisive, Trump feels no obligation to win favor among Muslims, proposing a temporary ban against any Muslim entering the United States. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, surrounded herself with advisers openly hostile to Israel and pondered covert funding for Palestinian civil disobedience to pressure the Israeli government.
Rarely have Americans had such a clear choice between pro-Israel and not-so-pro-Israel candidates. Remarkably, the neo-conservatives prefer Hillary Clinton. That should confuse the conspiracy theorists. A Google search produces 400,000 hits for the search terms "neoconservative" and "Zionist." Yet the leading neoconservatives say they won't vote for Trump under any circumstances, and one prominent neocon, Robert Kagan, has already declared for Hillary against Trump. Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard and head of the Emergency Committee for Israel, has declared that he would never vote for Trump under any circumstances, and so has long-time Republican official Peter Wehner. Kristol has said that he won't support Hillary, but threatens to mount a third-party effort if Trump is nominated--which would draw Republican votes away from Trump and help Clinton.
Remarkably, Kristol's Emergency Committee for Israel is running a TV ad denouncing Trump for "kissing up to anti-American dictators"--an unusual use of funds by an organization founded to support Israel rather than support particular candidates, and especially unusual when it is directed against a pro-Israel candidate. Trump notoriously has said that America could work with Russia's Vladimir Putin against terrorists, and argued that toppling Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi benefited the terrorists. One cannot quite say that Trump paints with a broad brush; rather, he throws the bucket of paint against the wall. But the neo-conservatives' defining dogma is to undermine dictators and promote democracy. Trump's view is closer to that of the Israeli consensus. Israel is pragmatic, generally preferring the Arab dictatorships to the chaos that replaced them. Israel's relations with Russia are complex but generally good, especially in operational matters in Syria.
For the most part, Trump is exactly correct. The Libyan adventure, backed vociferously by the neo-conservatives as well as the Obama administration, turned Libya into a Petri dish for terrorists. Imposing Shia majority rule in Iraq under the Bush administration turned Iraq into an Iranian satrapy. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein as such was not the problem; marginalizing Iraq's Sunnis prepared the ground for ISIS. Russia has far more to worry about from Islamic terrorism than the United States, and in theory might cooperate with Washington even while opposing U.S. interests in other spheres.
At the peak of their influence in 2004, Bill Kristol and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer helped draft George W. Bush's Second Inaugural address, with its vision of global democracy under American tutelage. Since then, everything has gone pear-shaped. The prominence of Donald Trump as well as Sen. Ted Cruz in part reflects the Republican Party's disgust with the neo-conservatives' ideologically driven adventures. The Republican Party has rejected the neo-conservatives, whose candidate, Marco Rubio, at the time of this writing had a 15% chance of getting the nomination according to the Iowa Futures Market vs. 76% for Trump. In return, the neo-conservatives have rejected the Republican Party.
Asian observers try to understand American politics in rational terms. When the chips are down, the neo-conservative movement has nothing to do with American power, or with Mideast oil, or with Israel. It is a cult that believes that democratic institutions as such are the solution to the world's problems, and will continue to believe this no matter how much evidence accumulates to the contrary. It is a well-defined cult, with a network of academic gurus and a standard literature, including (but not limited) to the late Prof. Leo Strauss. Like all cults, it bands together to defend its illusions against its enemies, even if those enemies are friends of Israel. One might call the neo-conservatives the Cult of Rationalism. That is, they are obsessed by an irrational faith in rationalism, and will do manifestly irrational things to defend their obsession from the cruel depradations of the real world. They are also willing to throw Israel's interests under the bus.
Full disclosure: I have made no secret of my dislike for Donald Trump. I object to his demogoguery about immigration. My dislike for the man doesn't prevent me from conceding that he is right about some things, for example, the blunders of the neo-conservatives.
If Clinton runs against Trump, I will vote for Trump, without a second's hesitation, and for two reasons. First, as Peter Schweizer reported in his book Clinton Cash, the Clintons are a criminal enterprise, selling America favor to benefit Third World kleptocrats and their comprador cronies in return for 8-figure donations to the Clinton Foundation and fat payoffs in speaking fees and other forms. Trump is a sharp-elbowed businessman who knows how to work the system for political favors, but he's not a criminal. Second, Trump is more pro-Israel, and that's a key issue for me. Israel is not only America's key ally in a dodgy part of the world, but the cornerstone on which the edifice of the American republic was founded in the first place. In a July 2015 essay for the Jewish media, I asked, "Will Israel Save America?" The destiny of Americans--the "almost chosen people" in Lincoln's words--is bound up with the destiny of Israel.
Asian observers should try to understand that we Americans can be crazy. We are a nation founded on ideas rather than common language and ethnicity, and when we get the wrong idea, we go right off the rails. The decline of American power under the Bush and Obama administrations is not the result of grand historical forces or sociological trends. It's the result of ideological silliness on a grand scale.