Though the word was actually never uttered, Fox News primetime host Tucker Carlson cemented himself this week as the Right’s most prominent critic of neoconservatism.
To be sure, Carlson rejects the term “neoconservatism,” and implicitly, its corollary on the Democratic side—liberal internationalism. In 2016, “the reigning Republican foreign-policy view—you can call it neoconservatism, or interventionism, or whatever you want to call it” was rejected, he explained in a wide-ranging interview with the National Interest Friday.
“But I don’t like the term ‘neoconservatism,’” he says, “because I don’t even know what it means. I think it describes the people rather than their ideas, which is what I’m interested in. And to be perfectly honest . . . I have a lot of friends who have been described as neocons, people I really love, sincerely. And they are offended by it. So I don’t use it,” Carlson said.
But Carlson’s recent segments on foreign policy conducted with Lt. Col. Ralph Peters and the prominent neoconservative journalist and author Max Boot were acrimonious even by Carlsonian standards. In a discussion on Syria, Russia and Iran, a visibly upset Boot accused Carlson of being “immoral” and taking foreign-policy positions to curry favor with the White House, keep up his ratings, and by proxy, benefit financially. Boot says that Carlson “basically parrots whatever the pro-Trump line is that Fox viewers want to see. If Trump came out strongly against Putin tomorrow, I imagine Tucker would echo this as faithfully as the pro-Russia arguments he echoes today.” But is this assessment fair?
Carlson’s record suggests that he has been in the camp skeptical of U.S. foreign-policy intervention for some time now and, indeed, that it predates Donald Trump’s rise to power. (Carlson has commented publicly that he was humiliated by his own public support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.) According to Carlson, “This is not about Trump. This is not about Trump. It’s the one thing in American life that has nothing to do with Trump. My views on this are totally unrelated to my views on Donald Trump. This has been going since September 11, 2001. And it’s a debate that we’ve never really had. And we need to have it.” He adds, “I don’t think the public has ever been for the ideas that undergird our policies.”
Even if Carlson doesn’t want to use the label neocon to describe some of those ideas, Boot is not so bashful. In 2005, Boot wrote an essay called “Neocons May Get the Last Laugh.” Carlson “has become a Trump acolyte in pursuit of ratings,” says Boot, also interviewed by the National Interest. “I bet if it were President Clinton accused of colluding with the Russians, Tucker would be outraged and calling for impeachment if not execution. But since it's Trump, then it’s all a big joke to him,” Boot says. Carlson vociferously dissents from such assessments: “This is what dumb people do. They can’t assess the merits of an argument. . . . I’m not talking about Syria, and Russia, and Iran because of ratings. That’s absurd. I can’t imagine those were anywhere near the most highly-rated segments that night. That’s not why I wanted to do it.”
But Carlson insists, “I have been saying the same thing for fifteen years. Now I have a T.V. show that people watch, so my views are better known. But it shouldn’t be a surprise. I supported Trump to the extent he articulated beliefs that I agree with. . . . And I don’t support Trump to the extent that his actions deviate from those beliefs,” Carlson said. Boot on Fox said that Carlson is “too smart” for this kind of argument. But Carlson has bucked the Trump line, notably on Trump’s April 7 strikes in Syria. “When the Trump administration threw a bunch of cruise missiles into Syria for no obvious reason, on the basis of a pretext that I question . . . I questioned [the decision] immediately. On T.V. I was on the air when that happened. I think, maybe seven minutes into my show. . . . I thought this was reckless.”
But the fight also seems to have a personal edge. Carlson says, “Max Boot is not impressive. . . . Max is a totally mediocre person.” Carlson added that he felt guilty about not having, in his assessment, a superior guest to Boot on the show to defend hawkishness. “I wish I had had someone clear-thinking and smart on to represent their views. And there are a lot of them. I would love to have that debate,” Carlson told me, periodically emphasizing that he is raring to go on this subject.
Boot objects to what he sees as a cavalier attitude on the part of Carlson and others toward allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and also toward the deaths of citizens of other countries. “You are laughing about the fact that Russia is interfering in our election process. That to me is immoral,” Boot told Carlson on his show.
“This is the level of dumbness and McCarthyism in Washington right now,” says Carlson. “I think it has the virtue of making Max Boot feel like a good person. Like he’s on God’s team, or something like that. But how does that serve the interest of the country? It doesn’t.” Carlson says that Donald Trump, Jr.’s emails aren’t nearly as important as who is going to lead Syria, which he says Boot and others have no plan for successfully occupying. Boot, by contrast, sees the U.S. administration as dangerously flirting with working with Russia, Iran and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. “For whatever reason, Trump is pro-Putin—no one knows why—and he's taken a good chunk of the GOP along with him,” Boot says.
On Fox last Wednesday, Boot reminded Carlson that he originally supported the 2003 Iraq decision. “You supported the invasion of Iraq,” Boot said, before repeating, “You supported the invasion of Iraq.” Carlson conceded that, but it seems the invasion was a bona fide turning point. It’s most important to parse whether Carlson has a long record of anti-interventionism, or if he’s merely sniffing the throne of the president (who, dubiously, may have opposed the 2003 invasion). “I think it’s a total nightmare and disaster, and I’m ashamed that I went against my own instincts in supporting it,” Carlson told the New York Observer in early 2004. “It’s something I’ll never do again. Never. I got convinced by a friend of mine who’s smarter than I am, and I shouldn’t have done that. . . . I’m enraged by it, actually.” Carlson told the National Interest that he’s felt this way since seeing Iraq for himself in December 2003.
The evidence points heavily toward a sincere conversion on Carlson’s part, or preexisting conviction that was briefly overcome by the beat of the war drums. Carlson did work for the Weekly Standard, perhaps the most prominent neoconservative magazine, in the 1990s and early 2000s. Carlson today speaks respectfully of William Kristol, its founding editor, but has concluded that he is all wet. On foreign policy, the people Carlson speaks most warmly about are genuine hard left-wingers: Glenn Greenwald, a vociferous critic of both economic neoliberalism and neoconservatism; the anti-establishment journalist Michael Tracey; Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation; and her husband, Stephen Cohen, the Russia expert and critic of U.S. foreign policy.
“The only people in American public life who are raising these questions are on the traditional left: not lifestyle liberals, not the Williamsburg (Brooklyn) group, not liberals in D.C.—not Nancy Pelosi.” He calls the expertise of establishment sources on matters like Syria “more shallow than I even imagined.” On his MSNBC show, which was canceled for poor ratings, he cavorted with noninterventionist stalwarts such as Ron Paul, the 2008 and 2012 antiwar GOP candidate, and Patrick J. Buchanan. “No one is smarter than Pat Buchanan,” he said last year of the man whose ideas many say laid the groundwork for Trump’s political success.
Carlson has risen to the pinnacle of cable news—succeeding Bill O’Reilly. It wasn’t always clear an antiwar take would vault someone to such prominence. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or Mitt Romney could be president (Boot has advised the latter two). But here he is, and it’s likely no coincidence that Carlson got a show after Trump’s election, starting at the 7 p.m. slot, before swiftly moving to the 9 p.m. slot to replace Trump antagonist Megyn Kelly, and just as quickly replacing O’Reilly at the top slot, 8 p.m. Boot, on the other hand, declared in 2016 that the Republican Party was dead, before it went on to hold Congress and most state houses, and of course take the presidency. He’s still at the Council on Foreign Relations and writes for the New York Times (this seems to clearly annoy Carlson: “It tells you everything about the low standards of the American foreign-policy establishment”).
Boot wrote in 2003 in the Weekly Standard that the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government “may turn out to be one of those hinge moments in history” comparable to “events like the storming of the Bastille or the fall of the Berlin Wall—after which everything is different.” He continued, “If the occupation goes well (admittedly a big if), it may mark the moment when the powerful antibiotic known as democracy was introduced into the diseased environment of the Middle East, and began to transform the region for the better.”
Though he eschews labels, Carlson sounds like a foreign-policy realist on steroids: “You can debate what’s in [the United States’] interest. That’s a subjective category. But what you can’t debate is that ought to be the basic question—the first, second and third question. Does it represent our interest? . . . I don’t think that enters into the calculations of a lot of the people who make these decisions.” Carlson’s interests extend beyond foreign policy, and he says “there’s a massive realignment going on ideologically that everybody is missing. It’s dramatic. And everyone is missing it. . . . Nobody is paying attention to it!”
Carlson seems intent on pressing the issue. The previous night, in his debate with Peters, the retired lieutenant colonel said that Carlson sounded like Charles Lindbergh, who opposed U.S. intervention against Nazi Germany before 1941. “This particular strain of Republican foreign policy has almost no constituency. Nobody agrees with it. I mean there’s not actually a large group of people outside of New York, Washington or L.A. who think any of this is a good idea,” Carlson says. “All I am is an asker of obvious questions. And that’s enough to reveal these people have no idea what they’re talking about. None.”
Curt Mills is a foreign-affairs reporter at the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @CurtMills.
Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.