The Resiliency of the Neoconservatives: General Petraeus and the Kagans

The neocons’ influence has far exceeded just the lingering effects from their past policy decisions in the George W. Bush administration; rather they continue to energetically work to influence American policy with more than a little impact. For example, the neocons surrounding Romney, in conjunction with heavy campaign funding from ultra-Israel Firster Sheldon Adelson, pushed the Republican presidential nominee to a more aggressive stance on the Middle East, which in turn pressured President Obama to likewise tilt in that direction writes Stephen Sniegoski.


by Stephen Sniegoski


The neocons seem difficult for many commentators to observe.  For example, some neocons themselves, such as David Brooks and Richard Perle, have claimed that no such thing exists.    

Others, such as the two antiwar luminaries of the Left, Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, grant their existence, but claim they have never had any power in shaping overall American Middle East policy.  And there are many who admit the neocons did shape American foreign policy during George W. Bush’s first term, but regard this as something of a short-lived aberration and that they have since been powerless, especially in this age of Obama.

See: Abuse of Power: 9/11, War and the Neocons

One might be tempted to think that, given the policy disaster that was the neocon-led war on Iraq, the neocons would be thoroughly discredited and could not possibly return to power.   But the fact of the matter is that the neocons have demonstrated an amazing resilience. Fundamentally, while in the Bush administration they set a Middle East (and South Asia) war agenda for the United States from which President Obama, although lacking any direct connection with neoconservatives, has been unable to extricate the country.  He only recently removed American troops from Iraq, leaving a fragmented country on the verge of internecine war, and has yet to pull out completely from Afghanistan.  Under his aegis, the United States became involved in removing Gaddafi from Libya and in aiding the rebels in Syria, quite in line with the neocon agenda of eliminating Middle East dictatorships.  The US is now sending some American troops to Turkey to operate its US-built Patriot missile defense batteries to allegedly protect that country from a possible spill-over from the civil war in neighboring Syria.   All of this has exacerbated turmoil in the region portending all-out Sunni-Shiite regional warfare.   Moreover, Obama, with his repeated warnings to Iran, has painted himself in a corner over Iran, so that he might be forced by circumstances in 2013 to opt for a military strike to prevent the Islamic Republic from achieving a real, or imagined, nuclear weapons breakout capacity.

And the neocons’ influence has far exceeded just the lingering effects from their past policy decisions in the George W. Bush administration; rather they continue to energetically work to influence American policy with more than a little impact. For example, the neocons surrounding Romney, in conjunction with heavy campaign funding from ultra-Israel Firster Sheldon Adelson, pushed the Republican presidential nominee to a more aggressive stance on the Middle East, which in turn pressured President Obama to likewise tilt in that direction.  Moreover, neocons have been in the vanguard in the effort to prevent Chuck Hagel, whom they consider too moderate in his views on Middle East policy and an enemy of Israel, from becoming Secretary of Defense in Obama’s second term.  As the writer who is perhaps the pre-eminent historian of the neoconservatives, Paul Gottfried, describes it: “Leading the charge against Hagel has been the neocon press, with the Weekly Standard out in front of the pack.”

Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, Civilian analysts gained Petraeus’s ear while he was commander in Afghanistan

But the greatest evidence of direct neocon input in US policy during the Obama administration comes from their connection to General Petraeus.

On December 18, not long after Petraeus resigned as Director of the CIA as a result of the his extramarital affair with Paula Broadwell, a bombshell article by Rajiv Chandrasekaran appeared in the Washington Post indicating that a neocon couple, Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, had been shaping Petraeus’ military policy from the Summer of 2010 to the Summer of 2011 when the general had been commander of US troops in Afghanistan.

Although the twosome were only private citizens, they served as Petraeus’ de facto senior advisors in that war zone.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Civilian analysts gained Petraeus’s ear while he was commander in Afghanistan,” December 18, 2012

Frederick Kagan, who had been a major architect of the militant surge strategy for Iraq, which Petraeus implemented in 2007, is a member of the staff of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI); Kimberly Kagan is the founder and president of the Institute for the Study of War. The couple is part of a neocon family, with both Frederick’s father, Donald, and brother, Robert, being significant members of the neocon network. Robert Kagan serves on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board, so it would seem that neocon influence is not completely shut out from top foreign policy levels of the Obama administration.

Robert Kagan is a senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in Foreign Policy at Brookings. His most recent book isThe World America Made. Dr. Kagan also serves as a member of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board and is co-chairman of the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt. He writes a monthly column on world affairs for the Washington Post, and is a contributing editor at both the Weekly Standard and The New Republic.

With Bill Kristol in 2009, Robert established the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), a neocon organization that is considered a successor to the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), likewise founded by Kagan and Kristol, which had played a significant role in the build-up for the war on Iraq.  FPI’s first event was a conference titled “Afghanistan: Planning For Success,” which sought to implement a “surge” in that country.


At Petraeus’ behest, Frederick and Kimberly Kagan were granted top-level security clearances, desks in Petraeus’ headquarters and access to classified intelligence reports.

Former CIA director and top US commander in Iraq and Afghanistan David Petraeus used right-wing civilian analysts tied to the nation’s arms industry as top military advisors.


They participated in senior-level strategy sessions, traveled throughout the war zone, and queried field officers in order to advise Petraeus how to improve the conduct of the war.  In line with collective neocon thinking on the subject, the Kagans held that the US should shift to a militant offensive strategy against the Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan, which would be similar to the surge in Iraq.  The aggressive stance they vociferously promoted differed substantially from the more moderate approaches sought by many officers in the field. But the Kagans were in a better position to influence Petraeus than any of his military advisors since they, in the words of Chandrasekaran, “were not bound by stringent rules that apply to military personnel and private contractors. They could raise concerns directly with Petraeus, instead of going through subordinate officers, and were free to speak their minds without repercussion.”

Chandrasekaran went on to report that on August 8, 2011, a month after leaving his Afghan command to become head of the CIA, Petraeus spoke at Kimberly Kagan’s Institute for the Study of War’s first “President’s Circle” dinner, where he received an award.  There he said: “What the Kagans do is they grade my work on a daily basis.” And he jested: “There’s some suspicion that there’s a hand up my back, and it makes my lips talk, and it’s operated by one of the Doctors Kagan.” Though obviously exaggerating, Petraeus was acknowledging that the Kagans were providing him information and that their relationship was close enough so that he could make such a jest.

Why would Petraeus be so favorably disposed to these two civilians?  Basically it was a case of symbiosis.  He allowed them to have a large measure of access and even a significant degree of power, while they, along with their confreres in the neocon network, presented him in a very favorable light in the media, which certainly helped to establish and solidify his once-stellar reputation, which was not tarnished until recently.

The neocons did everything possible to forge a close relationship with Petraeus.  For example, in 2010, AEI conferred upon him its highest honor, the Irving Kristol Award.  (The deceased Irving Kristol is considered one of the “godfathers” of neoconservatism along with Norman Podhoretz.)   This award is presented at the Institute’s annual gala dinner, which was attended by 2,000 guests, including leading neocon figures and financial supporters. In his acceptance speech, Petraeus would praise the institute effusively:  “In the fall of 2006, AEI scholars helped develop the concept for what came to be known as ‘the surge.’ Fred and Kim Kagan and their team, which included retired General Jack Keane, prepared a report that made the case for additional troops in Iraq. As all here know, it became one of those rare think-tank products that had a truly strategic impact.”

“President Petraeus?,” by Kelley B. Vlahos, May 18, 2010

It should be noted that Kimberly Kagan had done much to promote Petraeus, writing periodic reports from Iraq in 2007 on the progress of the surge for the neocon flagship publication, The Weekly Standard.   In a September 2009 article “The Two Faces of Kimberly Kagan,” journalist Kelley Vlahos observed that, despite Kagan’s obvious conflict of interest regarding a policy developed by her own husband, “her reports were largely passed off as research, even journalism, rather than political ammunition, and she wrote a book about it last year [2008], ‘The Surge: A Military History,’ another encomium to Petraeus and Co. and the altar of COIN [counterinsurgency].”

Kimberly Kagan would advocate a comparable “surge” in Afghanistan.  As Vlahos writes:  “Kimberly Kagan has increasingly become a spear point for advancing the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. And why not? She is young, attractive in that wonky, austere Washingtonian way, and seemingly unflappable as she discharges fusillades of talking points like a machine gun. One look at her March 2007 performance on Washington Journal circa Surge I and it’s clear why Kagan has replaced the old neoconservative guard as a primary surrogate for the cause.”

“The Two Faces of Kimberly Kagan,” by Kelley B. Vlahos, September 29, 2009

Considering the prior relationship between Petraeus and the Kagans, and especially the lavish praise that Kimberly heaped upon the general, it becomes quite understandable why he would treat them in such a favorable fashion to the extent of even allowing them a role in shaping policy.  What makes this especially understandable is Petraeus’ obvious relish for popular acclaim, as illustrated by the Paula Broadwell affair.  Broadwell initially became close to Petraeus when doing research for what became her hagiographic biography of him. Of course, the Kagans, along with the other neocons, seek far more from their connection to the general  than personal fame and advancement–the apparent principal motive for Broadwell–but seek to use him as a vehicle to advance their group’s foreign policy goals.

Another neocon who has a close connection to Petraeus is author and commentator Max Boot, who happens to be the Jean J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations and is described as a military historian because of his books, though he apparently lacks a Ph.D. in any field.  Petraeus took Boot on numerous Department of Defense-funded trips to Iraq and Afghanistan.  Like the Kagans, Boot became a fawning supporter of Petraeus.   He co-authored an  op-ed piece, “How to Surge the Taliban,” with Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, appearing in the New York Times (March 12, 2009), that advocated a “surge” in Afghanistan.

An inside view of the Petraeus-Boot personal relationship came to light when email correspondence from March 2010 between the two was made public later that year.  It revealed that the general had relied upon Boot to maintain a cozy relationship with pro-Israeli Jewish Americans. Petraeus’ email correspondence with Boot was attached (presumably accidentally) in an email response to the indefatigable Israel lobby sleuth and critic, James Morris, which the latter later provided to Philip Weiss of the noted Mondoweiss blog.

“Petraeus emails show general scheming with journalist to get out pro-Israel storyline,” July 6, 2010,

The background for this episode was the publication, initially in the alternative media,  of part of a  prepared statement presented  by Petraeus to the Senate Armed Services Committee that focused on the negative impact of the Israel-Palestine conflict on US forces in the Middle East—a fact which should be self-evident to any objective observer. Once this information started to gain traction in the mainstream media, Petraeus sought to forestall any negative reaction from the Israel lobby by professing that his presentation had been distorted and that it did not imply that Israel was any type of liability for the United States, and he asked Boot to help him remain in the good graces of pro-Israel American Jewry.  He queried Boot: “Does it help if folks know that I hosted Elie Wiesel and his wife at our quarters last Sun night?  And that I will be the speaker at the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps.”  Boot, acting as if he understood the collective mind of the pro-Zionist American Jewish community, assured Petraeus that publicizing this additional  obeisance was unnecessary, and that he would take care of any misconceptions.  Petraeus responded with a “Roger” and a smiley-face.

Very shortly thereafter, Max Boot posted an article on the neocon Commentary Magazine blog, titled, “A Lie: David Petraeus, Anti-Israel.” (March 18, 2010) In it, Boot lambasted the “misleading commentary that continues to emerge, attributing anti-Israeli sentiment to Gen. David Petraeus.” He  dismissed the prepared statements depicting Israel’s actions as harmful to US military policy as the work of “Petraeus’s staff,” not Petraeus himself. In an effort to show that Petraeus personally held a contrary view, Boot selected some of Petraeus’ oral testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in which the general  downplayed the Israel-Palestine conflict as a cause of hostility to U.S. forces in the Middle East.

It must be stressed that this correspondence indicated not only Petraeus’ close, personal tie to and political dependence on a neocon journalist, whom he referred to familiarly as “Max,” but also  that he had political aspirations and perceived the pro-Israel American Jewish community to be very powerful politically.

When Petraeus departed from the government in November 2012, Boot’s panegyrics for the general would soar to astronomical heights in a Los Angeles Times op-ed (November 13) entitled “Petraeus: the necessary man.” It began: “ ‘The graveyards are full of indispensable men,’ it’s often said, meaning that few are genuinely indispensable. David H. Petraeus was one of the few, which is why his loss for the U.S. government, after his admission of adultery, is so tragic.”

Petraeus was forced out of the CIA in part because his mistress read sensitive documents. Now it is alleged he granted two friends astonishing access to top secret files as he ran the Afghan surge. In a painstaking investigation, Rajiv Chandrasekaran reveals how the volunteers won big donations from defence firms – and how they pushed the army towards a far more aggressive strategy

The obvious significance here is that Petraeus realized that the neocons were a group with significant power.  That Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney surrounded himself with neocon advisors also illustrates the fact that their power is recognized by those in, or seeking,  the highest levels of the political arena.

And Obama, despite receiving no direct political advice from any neocon advisors, still continues a militant agenda in the Middle East and South Asia that, as indicated earlier, has the stamp of neocon thinking.

While the neocons do not possess the degree of power to shape policy that they held during the George W. Bush administration, especially during his first term, they remain major players in shaping US Middle East policy.

In short, the neocons, because of the power resulting from their interconnected and extensive network, which Janine Wedel describes at length in her book The Shadow Elite (2010), are a perennial power.  Even when outside of government, they still exert influence with those who possess political power and shape government policy.

And should the optimal situation arise in the future, they are well-prepared to once again grasp the reins of government power.


Dr. Stephen J. Sniegoski, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in American history,with a focus on American foreign policy, at the University of Maryland. His focus on the neoconservative involvement in American foreign policy antedates September 11, 2001. Read more

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