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Did I ‘Define Neoconservatism Down’?

Rich Lowry has a provocative and well-argued post about my claim in both the New York Post this morning and on CONTENTIONS that the president last night delivered a “neoconservative” speech. “I’ve never known a neo-con to brag about how rapidly he’s drawn down U.S. troops in an ongoing conflict, unnecessarily putting at risk hard-won gains on the ground,” Rich points out, going on to say that “Obama went on to use the troops and their sacrifice as a reason that we should unite around his effort to spend us into the ground here at home. Unless you’re grading on a very sharp curve, this is shabby stuff.”

I was grading on a curve. I think that’s what you do when you respond to presidential addresses. What’s interesting about them is what’s new in them; that was always understood when I was writing speeches in the White House 22 years ago. Even in Oval Office addresses, half of what is said is there because it’s intended to suggest continuities with previous statements and offer reassurance to already existing constituencies. Thus, it’s entirely to be expected and entirely without interest that he said it is time to turn the page in Iraq so we can focus on problems at home — and spend the money we spent in Iraq on domestic programs.

It’s when speeches change things up, go in unexpected directions, that they make news and are interesting. In that respect, the neocon-like rhetoric used by Obama was entirely new, especially for him, and therefore very interesting. For Obama to claim, as he did, that our perseverance in Iraq offers us hope that we can turn around our domestic woes was a startling thing. He probably didn’t mean it, and in many ways he’s the polar opposite of a neocon. But he said it. What’s more telling, he said it because he thought it would be of value to him to say it.

And by saying it, he was indicating something even more interesting — again, without knowing it. And that is this: the core “neoconservative” position is that America is a force for good in the world and that when America acts, it benefits both the world and its own national soul. The fact that Obama has moved toward this view rhetorically indicates the degree to which it reflects a common and long-standing American consensus toward which even Obama, the first post-American president, finds himself moving by default.

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