By Jacob Heilbrunn
Sunday, February 10, 2008
As the Bush administration winds down, neoconservatism has become the most feared and reviled intellectual movement in American history. The neoconservatives have become the subject of numerous myths, mostly spread by their numerous detractors. They're seen as dangerous heretics by livid liberals as well as by traditional conservatives such as William F. Buckley Jr. and Patrick Buchanan.
So "neocon" has become a handy term of condemnation, routinely deployed to try to silence liberal hawks such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut or right-wing interventionists such as former deputy secretary of defense Paul D. Wolfowitz and the former Pentagon official Richard N. Perle, who's been nicknamed the "Prince of Darkness." That moniker aside, the neocons insist that there's nothing sinister about them; they simply believed that after 9/11, the United States should use its power to spread democracy throughout the Arab world, just as it had done in Eastern Europe and Central America during the Cold War. Their critics aren't so sure -- and the misconceptions grow.
1 The neocons are chastened liberals who turned right.
This is the self-mythologizing version that the neocons themselves like to spread. Don't believe a word of it. They weren't ever really liberals.
The one thing the movement's founders carried away from the sectarian ideological wars of the 1930s in New York was a prophetic temperament. Back then, Irving Kristol and a host of other future neocons were Trotskyist intellectuals who loathed their rivals, the vulgar Stalinists. Kristol and his comrades believed in creating a worker's paradise that would reject the totalitarianism of Stalin's Soviet Union in favor of a true Marxist utopia. After World War II convinced them that the United States wasn't an imperialist power but one fighting for freedom, Kristol and his fellow travelers briefly embraced liberalism in the late 1940s. But as the convulsions of the 1960s reenergized the radical left, the future neocons kept moving right. All along, they retained the penchant for abusive invective and zest for combat that they had first honed as Trotskyists, wielding magazine articles and op-eds as weapons to discredit their foes and champion their ideas.
2 The neocons are Israeli lackeys.
Bunk. The neocon saga couldn't be more American. It's a tempestuous drama of Jewish assimilation, from immigrant obscurity on the Lower East Side to the rise of a new foreign policy establishment that sees the United States as the avatar of democracy and foe of genocide. What truly animates the neocons is what they see as the lesson of the Holocaust: that it could have been avoided if the Western democracies had found the courage to stop Hitler in the late 1930s. This helps explain Perle's and former undersecretary of defense Douglas J. Feith's antipathy toward the State Department, which tried to stymie U.S. recognition of Israel at its founding in 1948. Neocons such as Norman Podhoretz scorn the State Department as filled with WASPs who seek to cozy up to the Arab states instead of recognizing Israel's strategic value and moral importance as a bastion of democracy in a sea of tyranny.
What's more, the neocons are often to the right of Israel's government. Feith and National Security Council aide Elliott Abrams scoffed at the idea of land-for-peace talks with the Palestinians, for instance, and Wolfowitz pushed for an invasion of Iraq for which even Ariel Sharon demonstrated no particular enthusiasm. The neocons aren't Israel's best advocates, either: The Iraq war has emboldened Iran, fanned the flames of jihadism and made Israel less, not more, secure. Contrary to Wolfowitz's arguments, the road to peace in Israel turned out not to run through Baghdad.
3 The neocons had too much power and took over Bush's brain.
In fact, President Bush used the neocons for his own purposes and then dumped many of them overboard. (Of course, many liberals think Bush doesn't have a brain to take over in the first place, but leave that aside.) On the campaign trail in 2000, Bush was a realist in the mold of his father. But under the appalling pressure of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Bush became the leading neocon in his own administration -- which is why he didn't need them around anymore once they had done their job as lightning rods. What's more, he never gave any of them Cabinet-level positions.
Neither Vice President Cheney nor former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- the men who made the real decisions with Bush in the Oval Office -- has ever been a neocon. They are Republican unilateralists who believe in deploying U.S. power whenever and wherever the executive branch sees fit, regardless of what U.S. allies want. Cheney and Rumsfeld used Wolfowitz and other neocons to provide an intellectual patina of justification for war against Iraq, much as Cheney has been trying to do with Iran today. (One reason there was no serious postwar plan for Iraq was that no one in Cheney's office could ever decide whether the administration should have one.)
Lacking a real base in the Republican Party, the neocons got picked off as soon as Bush's handling of the war seemed to falter. They didn't have too much power; ultimately, they had too little to implement their schemes. The result has been finger-pointing and self-exculpatory memoirs from the likes of Feith. Meanwhile, the CIA (which the neocons loathe) has outflanked them on Iran by declaring that it isn't building nuclear weapons. And one of the most prominent surviving neocons, the NSC's Abrams, has proved unable to stop Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's efforts to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
4 The neocons are bloodthirsty ideologues, trying to impose a militant Wilsonianism on the United States that is alien to our foreign policy traditions.
Militant? Sure. But alien? Baloney. In fact, the neocons' worldview melds both of the major strands of traditional U.S. foreign policy thinking -- realism and idealism -- in a highly opportunistic fashion. This is why liberal hawks such as author Paul Berman, Washington Post columnist Peter Beinart and the editors of the New Republic signed on to the neocon crusade at the outset of the Iraq war, while the true realists, such as former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, blanched in horror.
5 The Iraq debacle has discredited the neocons.
This could be the biggest whopper of them all. Now that the "surge" in Iraq has brought levels of violence down somewhat, the neocons are already claiming vindication. As Iraq fades from the front pages, the neocons' hero, Arizona Sen. John McCain, is poised to become the Republican standard-bearer in 2008. (The neocons also would have happily flocked around Rudolph W. Giuliani, who recruited Norman "World War IV" Podhoretz as a senior adviser.)
The truth is that the neocons have been repeatedly declared dead before -- and, to the chagrin of their enemies on the left and the right, bounced back. At the end of the Cold War, the arch-realist George H.W. Bush relegated them to the sidelines; then the triangulating Bill Clinton seemed to deprive them of their biggest foreign and domestic policy issues. If they came back from that, they can come back from anything. Now that Robert Kagan, William Kristol (who seems not to be discredited in the eyes of the New York Times, which just made him a columnist) and a host of other neocons have hitched their fortunes to McCain, the neocons are poised for a fresh comeback. If they make a hash of foreign policy by 2011, perhaps the familiar cycle of public scorn and rebirth might even start all over again.
Jacob Heilbrunn, a senior editor at the National Interest, is the author of "They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons."