Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Robert Satloff a Neocon?

The term "neocon" has become a term of abuse. It's supposed to signify that the recipient of the opprobrious term is a warmonger, beyond redemption.  The wrath that neocons engender among their detractors sometimes reminds me of Macaulay's description of Machiavelli--"out of his surname they have coined an epithet for a knave, and out of his Christian name a synonyme for the devil."

Is Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, such a person? According to Prince Turki al-Faisal he, Satloff, is an exponent of the "neoconservative philosophy." In a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, His Royal Highness apparently, as the Washington Post puts it, "dissected in detail a recent article on Foreign Policy magazine's Web site" by Satloff. Here is the offending article that Turki vivisected.

Turki has a point when he notes that "this recent election will give more fodder for these warmongers to pursue their favorite exercise, war-making." The pressure on President Obama to stop pressuring Israel over settlement expansion will increase. So will demands that he adopt immediate military action to terminate Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

But to go from that to depicting Satloff as an eminence grise of neoconservatism goes too far. A look at Satloff's essay suggests that, by and large, he's offering sensible advice to the Obama administration, whose pursuit of a Middle East peace seems to have run aground. It was probably predictable that it would do so.

Satloff's essay seeks to offer Obama counsel about how to restore American crediblity. One of his recommendations is to make more than token threats against Iran. According to Satloff,

few experts believe that sanctions, as creatively designed as they may be, will bite hard enough to compel Iran to suspend its march toward a military nuclear capability. That leaves U.S. military power as the last repository of credibility for the claim, stated frequently by the president and his advisors, that the United States is committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Satloff's point is that by projecting what he calls "strength and resolution" on the Iran question, Obama can shore up his bona fides to pursue peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Now Satloff is rather vague about what would actually constitute strength and resolution--but then again, does anyone really have a solution to the Iran conundrum, given that even the hawks acknowledge that a preemptive military strikes would injure but not mortally wound Iranian nuclear ambitions?--but his statement hardly seems to be beyond the pale.

What Turki is offering, in effect, is a bunch of rodomontade. Obama has already bent over backwards to try and cajole Israel into making concessions. He paid a political price for his efforts. Meanwhile, His Royal Highness is huffing and puffing that Saudi Arabia will not "directly or indirectly engage Israel" absent full retreat from any land won during the 1967 Arab-Israel war. It would take a bold move to break the impasse--like the Saudis meeting publicly with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It won't happen. Instead, the Saudis are luxuriating in condemnations of moderate American analysts such as Satloff, while the peace process goes nowhere. That is its own recipe for renewed warfare in the Middle East.