The Neocon War Against Robert Zoellick

August 9, 2012 Topic: The Presidency Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn

The Neocon War Against Robert Zoellick

Romney's selection of a realist as a foreign-policy adviser has many in the GOP up in arms.


Jennifer Rubin is the Tiger Mom of the neocon movement. She exhorts her charges forward and reacts ferociously to anyone who threatens her brood. A few years ago, she was in the forefront of the chorus decrying President Obama's selection of Charles Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, to head the National Intelligence Council. Freeman had made some sloppy statements about Israel and was vulnerable. A kind of wilding took place in which Freeman was depicted as an implacable anti-Semite. After the Obama administration remained silent, Freeman withdrew, and the neocons had claimed a fresh scalp.

Now Rubin and other conservatives have a new and more formidable target in their sights, one they can denounce but not dislodge. It is Robert Zoellick, the former head of the World Bank whom Mitt Romney has deputed to head his presidential campaign's foreign-affairs unit, the somewhat portentously named "Project Readiness." It seems, however, that neocons are not ready for Zoellick. Instead, he is being accused of delinquency on a number of foreign-affairs issues, including Israel. He is seen as a realist, a reincarnation of the old-establishment GOP that believes in diplomacy first.


In her Washington Post blog "Right Turn," Rubin says that "for foreign policy hawks, Zoellick is an anathema." So she proceeds to anathematize him. Rubin declares,

As the right hand man in the State Department and Treasury Department of James A, Baker, who was infamous for his anti-Israel stance, Zoellick acquired a reputation as ”soft” on China, weak on pressuring the Soviet Union at the close of the Cold War, opposed to the first Gulf War and unsupportive of the Jewish state. His stint as U.S. Trade Representative, and Deputy Secretary of State, in the George W. Bush administration did nothing too alter his image with foreign policy hardliners. That tenure will no doubt complicate Romney’s efforts to distance himself from his predecessor. And in 2011, Zoellick shocked foreign policy gurus by delivering a speech praising China, suggesting that it was a “responsible stakeholder” in Asia, at a time human rights abuses and aggressive conduct in Asia were bedeviling the Obama administration.

It's not easy to know where to begin here. Was Baker really "infamous" for his allegedly "anti-Israel stance"? Or was he simply trying to promote the peace process with the Palestinians by discouraging Israel from building further settlements in the West Bank? Then there are Rubin's canards about the Soviet Union. The notion that Zoellick was "weak on pressuring" the Soviet Union defies logic. The Kremlin essentially capitulated at the end of the Cold War, surrendering its entire East European empire as well as the Baltic States. Germany was reunited and remained a member of NATO. Zoellick was the point person negotiating the 2 + 4 agreement with the Soviet Union that led to the peaceful unification of Germany. Eventually, NATO even expanded eastward, to the discomfiture of the Kremlin. Would Rubin have demanded that Zoellick insist upon official stationing rights for an American antiballistic missile system around Moscow's perimeter?  And when it comes to China, Zoellick's sentiments are understandable. China has dialed down what Rubin deems its "aggressive conduct" in the past year. Whether it will prove friend or foe is an open question. But it makes no sense to antagonize it cavalierly. Zoellick is a friend of prudence, not adventurism.

But Rubin's complains are not isolated ones. As Foreign Policy's assiduous Josh Rogin reports, the Zoellick affair is creating convulsions in conservative circles. In his new post, Zoellick will be vetting the possible national-security members of a new Romney administration. The campaign says that he will not be determining policy. But of course Zoellick, a former deputy secretary of state in the George H. W. Bush administration, is no stranger to bare-knuckles political combat. He is surely aiming for a top position—secretary of state or defense secretary—and would most likely get it. And why shouldn't he? Zoellick has been a remarkably effective official, someone with political savvy and a keen understanding of international politics.

It is precisely Zoellick's negotiating prowess, however, that has some neocons worried. Rogin notes that neocons complain that,

"Bob Zoellick couldn't be more conservative in the branch of the GOP he represents," said Danielle Pletka, vice president at the American Enterprise Institute. "He's pro-China to the point of mania, he's an establishment guy, he's a trade-first guy. He's basically a George H.W. Bush, old-school Republican."

Well, yes. No Republican president—no prudent one, that is—would rely solely on the neocons for foreign-policy advice. Presidents tend to have different camps in their administrations. Ronald Reagan had both neocons and realists, and to the vexation of the neocons he reached out to Mikhail Gorbachev to sign sweeping arms-control treaties—treaties that they denounced as tantamount to appeasement. What's more, George H. W. Bush's reputation keeps rising. He wound down the Iraq War before America could get enmeshed in Baghdad. He ended the Cold War without firing a shot. As he mulls over his foreign-policy course, Mitt Romney could do worse than to consider his example. His selection of Zoellick suggests that he is. Good for Romney.