For Neocons, the Irony of Iraq

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

In the beginning, neoconservatism was a movement of onetime liberals enraged at the wave of violence and disorder that overtook the cities in the 1960s. Riots convulsed urban America in that stormy decade, crime rates soared, student radicals seized campuses. How could anyone see all this, the first generation of neocons inquired, and still remain a liberal?

For it was all the liberals' fault. Wafted along by their vaporous good intentions, indifferent to any unintended consequences those intentions might engender, wrapped up in their dizzy notions of the perfectibility of humankind, the liberals (at least, as the neos caricatured them) crafted criminal codes devoid of punishment, welfare programs requiring no work. In the world the liberals made, civic order took a back seat to individual rights, and as order vanished, the urban middle class vanished with it, abandoning once-vibrant neighborhoods for the safety of the suburbs. A neoconservative, the movement's founding father, Irving Kristol, famously observed, was a liberal who'd been mugged by reality. While liberals dithered, neoconservatives argued first and foremost for more cops.

Fast-forward four decades and we've come full circle. The neocons have refocused their attention on foreign policy and, in championing the Iraq war, have come to embody everything they once mocked and despised in '60s liberals.

Bolsheviks in the cause of their vaporous intentions, so bent on ignoring reality that they dismissed and suppressed all intelligence that prophesied the bloody complexities of the post-Hussein landscape, they conjured from nowhere and guaranteed the world an idealized postwar Iraq.

The sharpest irony was their stunning indifference to the need for civic order. When the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, said that the occupation would require many hundreds of thousands of troops to establish and maintain the peace, he was publicly rebuked by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the administration's foremost neocon, and quickly put out to pasture. When the first U.S. official to take charge in post-invasion-Iraq, Jay Garner, called for a massive effort to train Iraq's police and restore order, he was summarily dismissed. When looting far more widespread than anything the United States had ever known swept Iraq's cities after Hussein's fall, Don Rumsfeld shrugged and said, "Stuff happens" -- a two-word death sentence for the possibility of a livable Iraq.

And now, just as middle-class Americans fled the cities in the wake of urban disorder, so middle-class Iraqis are fleeing, too -- not just the cities but the nation. In a signally important and devastating dispatch from Baghdad that ran in last Friday's New York Times, correspondent Sabrina Tavernise reports that fully 7 percent of the country's population, and an estimated quarter of the nation's middle class, has been issued passports in the past 10 months alone. Tavernise documents the sectarian savagery that is directed at the world of Iraqi professionals -- the murders in their offices, their neighborhood stores, their children's schools, their homes -- and that has already turned a number of Baghdad's once-thriving upscale neighborhoods into ghost towns.

Slaughter is the order of the day, and the police are nowhere to be found. "I have no protection from my government," Monkath Abdul Razzaq, a middle-class Sunni who has decided to emigrate, told Tavernise. "Anyone can come into my house, take me, kill me, and throw me into the trash."

Irving Kristol initiated neoconservatism at least partly in revulsion at the disorder of John Lindsay's New York. Now his son William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and the single leading proponent (going back to the mid-1990s) of invading Iraq, has helped convert neoconservatism into a source of a disorder infinitely more violent than anything that once disquieted his dad. To do so, he and his fellow war proponents ignored all credible information on the actual Iraq and promised an Eden more improbable than anything that '60s liberals ever imagined. "There's been a certain amount of pop sociology in America," he told National Public Radio listeners in the war's opening weeks, "that the Shia can't get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There's been almost no evidence of that at all," he continued. "Iraq's always been very secular."

He wasn't entirely wrong. Iraqi professionals were disproportionately secular. Now they are packing up their secularism and taking it to other lands. The war, and the failure to establish order that led to the barbarism that's driving Iraqis away, can't be laid solely on the neocons' doorstep, of course. These second-generation neos needed a trio of arrogant, onetime CEOs -- Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld -- to actualize their vision. But actualize it they did, and the ideologues whose forebears once argued that the drugged-out Bronx was a monument to liberal folly have now made blood-drenched and depopulating Baghdad the monument to their own neocon obsessions.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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