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Diary of an Ex-Neocon

I am an inveterate reader of ex-communist memoirs—from Benjamin Gitlow’s The Whole of Their Lives to the more well-known Witness by Whittaker Chambers—for reasons that are uncomfortably akin to voyeurism. The prospect of entering a subterranean world known only to its inhabitants, with its obscure rituals and secret handshakes, is inherently thrilling to those of us with a taste for ideological hegiras told in the first person. And so I approached Scott McConnell’s Ex-Neocon [1] anticipating a juicy morsel indeed. After all, the neocons, unlike the communists, have left an indelible imprint on our contemporary world, as even a casual glance at the smoking ruins of the Middle East will confirm. And yet I found something quite different—and far more satisfying.

Not that there isn’t any inside gossip on the Secret Life of Neocons: we are told of a privately circulated purge letter by Irwin Stelzer, the Bronx-born economist and Weekly Standard contributing editor, who is described as “the ideological gendarme for Rupert Murdoch’s American media properties.” In 1995, offended by National Review’s failure to toe the neocon open-borders America-is-an-idea immigration policy, Stelzer announced he was canceling his subscription. The magazine, under then-editor John O’Sullivan, was engaging in “a not-very-subtle form of anti-Semitism”—because wanting to have borders that don’t resemble walls made of Swiss cheese is apparently the equivalent of promoting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Bill Buckley, initially refusing to be bullied, eventually succumbed to this hectoring campaign, and by the late ’90s, O’Sullivan was out, Rich Lowry was in, and the neocon Central Committee was appeased. Next on the firing line—Scott McConnell himself.

As editorial page editor of the New York Post—the neocons’ mass-circulation Pravda—McConnell was all too familiar with the the ideological nuances of that infamous sect, and the irritability of its leaders. But even he didn’t anticipate being sacked in 1997 for an editorial opposing statehood for Puerto Rico. Who knew that subsidizing a free-spending welfare state was a neocon article of faith? But his deviationism wasn’t limited to this: his unnamed boss pointed to a piece by soft-core immigration restrictionist Mark Krikorian and complained “You keep putting things in the paper like that.”

For all the neocons’ ostensible devotion to the canons of political correctness, however, it seems that in private it’s quite a different story: “It may not prove much of anything,” McConnell confides [2], “but a dinner with [paleoconservative-cum-white nationalist] Sam Francis (or virtually any other ‘paleocon’) is less tinged with snickers and winks about the behavior of people of color than a dinner in the New York neocon world.” Well, it does indeed prove that they’re hypocrites of the first order, but then again this comports perfectly with their Straussian esotericism.

McConnell’s wit, especially sharp when cutting up his former comrades, had me laughing out loud. Describing Fred Barnes’s Rebel in Chief, a hagiography of George W. Bush, he writes [3]: “For readers who might wonder what it is like to be a North Korean and required to read formulaic biographies of great helmsman Kim Il Sung and his son, an afternoon spent with Rebel in Chief should provide a proximate answer.”

If the New York Post is their Pravda, then The Weekly Standard is the neocons’ Iskra, where the ideological twists and turns of the Party Line are explicated at some length, and not without some elegance, as McConnell notes. The weekly’s key role in diverting the Bush administration into Iraq after the 9/11 attacks is here laid out in all its Machiavellian sinuosity. And the distinctly Soviet air of the Kristolian style is illustrated quite nicely by McConnell’s description [4] of the magazine’s covers, a typical one being “George W. Bush, gesticulating before an audience of troops, arm extended in a Caesarian pose. ‘The Liberator,’ the Standard headline proclaimed. Flatter the leader who will do your bidding.”

Yet there is a bit more to the literature of the courtier than appears on the surface. Flatter the king, get close enough to whisper in his ear—and then, if necessary, bury the knife deep in his back. Barnes depicts Bush as the bold leader who defied “the crabbed views of experts. And lest we forget, it is Bush alone who has done this, not his advisors. The cynical might suspect that this last is a form of neoconservative special pleading, designed to spirit the war party intellectuals away from the scene when the Bush policy goes down in flames.” Which is precisely what happened, as McConnell chronicles in detail.

The damage this political cult has done to the American polity, and to the Middle East, cannot even be calculated: how much, after all, is a human life worth? What about hundreds of thousands of lives? Yet they never seem to be finally defeated: as McConnell puts it [5], “if disrespecting the neoconservatives is emerging as a minor national sport, it should be enjoyed and tempered with realism.” Sure, “the last few years have been difficult for the faction,” but “they have other options.” As they stream back into the Democratic Party after being steamrollered by Donald Trump—Robert Kagan and Max Boot are shilling for Hillary, with more of their comrades soon to follow—the former Scoop Jackson Democrats have come full circle, their survival skills fully intact.

They “certainly won’t disappear in the way that American communism or segregation have,” says McConnell [5], and one big reason is because “Perhaps most importantly neoconservatism still commands more salaries—able people who can pursue ideological politics as fulltime work in think tanks and periodicals—than its rivals.” Which means “the reports of the movement’s demise”—and I’ve authored a few of those—“are thus very much exaggerated.”

Well, yes, that’s unfortunately true. We’ve heard of the neocons’ demise so many times that the prospect has now become somewhat hopeless: they just keep reincarnating themselves in another form. But that shouldn’t stop us from hoping against hope.

In spite of this book’s title, there is much more to it than the storied history of the neocons as seen from inside the tent. There are sections on Israel, the run up to the Iraq war, President Obama, reflections on history, Russia and NATO, racial politics, and more. McConnell is at his best when he writes in the first person: a trip through Syria and Palestine, detailed in “Divided and Conquered [6],” reveals a perception honed to the finest detail, and a sensitivity and compassion that invariably breaks through a reserved WASP-y persona. McConnell isn’t just an observer, with a keen eye for detail: he projects himself into these geopolitical conundrums, imbued with the sort of empathy that connects both himself and the reader to real human suffering, a quality that makes him a trenchant critic of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

That critique is laid out in a long essay, “The Special Relationship With Israel: Is It Worth the Cost? [7]” in which the history and consequences of our protracted and expensive patronage of the Jewish state is analyzed and detailed in ways you haven’t seen or read before. McConnell likes the Israelis, supports their right to nationhood, and yet insists that we treat them as a normal country, not a pampered child who throws tantrums to get what it wants. He is measured, rational, compassionate, and, most of all, very well informed. We find out many things along the way, such as the real nature of the “good deal” that Yasser Arafat rejected, and rightly so.

At the end of a long “Open Letter to David Horowitz on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict [8],” in which the author takes apart the irascible pro-Israel fanatic’s argument that the Palestinians aren’t really a people and should just get lost, he writes; “David, I hope you know this letter is written in a spirit of friendly, even comradely, disagreement and that it comes from someone who has plenty of appreciation for everything you have done since you came out as a ‘Lefty for Reagan’ seventeen years ago, and who was an avid Ramparts reader a dozen years before that.”

For my part, he gives Horowitz far too much credit, but that’s an essential part of the author of Ex-Neocon: a gentleness that allows him to appreciate the talent and achievements of his ideological opposite numbers, even as he tears their arguments to shreds. His personality comes through in a way that is understated and yet strong. Here he is in Virginia Beach [9], canvassing for Obama during the 2012 election, riding around with a bunch of female volunteers, two black and one white:

It was a curiously moving experience. … I have led most of my life not caring very much whether the poor voted, and indeed have sometimes been aware my interests aligned with them not voting at all. But that has changed. And so one knocks on one door after another in tiny houses and apartments in Chesapeake and Newport News, some of them nicely kept and clearly striving to make the best of a modest lot, others as close to the developing world as one gets in America. And at moments one feels a kind of calling—and then laughs at the Alinskian presumption of it all. Yes, we are all connected.

So what was this ex-neocon, former campaign manager for Pat Buchanan’s last presidential run, and former editor of The American Conservative doing canvassing for Barack Obama? You really have to read this book [1] to find out.

Justin Raimondo is editorial director of Antiwar.com and the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [10].

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Diary of an Ex-Neocon"

#1 Comment By jk On August 15, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

I always thought it was odd how neocons hate big government and central planning in their backyard but completely trust the US military to do whatever it wants overseas with no constraints or budgets.

Also interesting to see all this new focus on respecting allies and treaties when they were only hindrances during GWB’s reign of jingoism and freedom fries. Maybe if the US listened to its allies (Germany and France) in 2003 would the US have spared itself of this mess its currently in.

#2 Comment By Judith Sylvester On August 15, 2016 @ 12:41 pm

This is a very interesting topic. The author’s self consciously adroit writing style makes it hard to follow for someone who is not an insider to the history.

#3 Comment By Colm J On August 15, 2016 @ 3:54 pm

If we want an explanation for why the Neocons continue to thrive after all the disasters their policies have inflicted, maybe the fact that their opponents, including the likes of McConnell, and even Buchanan, took such a crazily rose-tinted view of the Obama Presidency holds the key. Obama has been every bit as much of a warmonger as Bush, if not more so. The Paleocons’ great failure as a movement is that in their entirely justified disapproval of Republican Neocons, they gave the foreign policy of Liberal Democrats way too much credit. Their weird belief that Liberal interventionism and Neo-conservatism differ significantly was and is abject wishful thinking. Liberal interventionists are actually worse if anything, if only because the culture is more sympathetic to their cause, and they get much less flak for their adventurism than Republican militarists do.

#4 Comment By Three Parantheses On August 15, 2016 @ 4:42 pm

David Horowitz is quite the numbskull, but McConnell’s Israel/Palestine bits are far from being an accurate depiction. In 2006, the time when McConnell penned his sightseeing piece, Palestinians were busy in a rabid civil war which included public executions/assassination, people thrown out of office buildings and all that. The result: Hamas takeover in the newly Judenrein Gaza Strip and elimination of all opposition (including other ultra groups that happen to be secular, such as PFLP). McConnell also includes some blatant disinfo sources, such as the $36bn support for Israel, which factors in expense clauses that under different circumstances would be counted under trade or tech coop (the hallucinatory number thrown by Stauffer doesn’t even merit attention). I appreciate a lot of the stuff McConnell writes and I think Buchanaism has a place on the American right (I support its right to nationhood, so to speak), but I think the grossly skewed ME policy is one of the think that discredits it as a movement.

#5 Comment By Joe F On August 15, 2016 @ 8:59 pm

I always thought it was odd how neocons hate big government and central planning in their backyard but completely trust the US military to do whatever it wants overseas with no constraints or budgets.

JK, I am convinced that the neocons have no ideology beyond conquest.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 15, 2016 @ 11:45 pm

What was he doing helping Obama? The shimmer of the hope and change chimera, which never came to anything more than deceptive campaign promises. Manufacturing renaissance in Detroit, with good jobs, not tied to weapons making? Not even chump change. That’s why our last worst hope is now Trump change.

#7 Comment By damage assessment On August 16, 2016 @ 1:41 pm

“our protracted and expensive patronage of the Jewish state”

Expensive? I’ll say.

We’ve spent more money on Israel than any country in the history of the world has spent on another country. Not per capita. In absolute terms.

But there are other costs. After Bill Clinton – with full approval of Congress, of course – made the stupid, fatal mistake of ending our traditional role as “honest broker” in the Middle East, we got hit on 9/11, which was followed by the longest wars in our history. Bin Laden said repeatedly that a chief reason he hit us was because of Clinton siding with Israel against the Palestinians.

When the American decline of the 21st century is properly anatomized, perhaps by some dispassionate Chinese scholar centuries from now, a major theme will be the role played by Israel and Israel’s American agents of influence in distorting America’s foreign policy, dragging it into endless Middle Eastern wars, draining its economy, and undermining its traditional liberties.

So yes, Israel has been “expensive”. We spent lavishly on it. But it has cost us even more – far, far, more – than we spent on it.

#8 Comment By kalendjay On August 16, 2016 @ 7:12 pm

Neocons, drifting back to the Democratic Party? This would be an amazing spectacle to behold, not for lack of trying.

The fact is, Ms. Clinton would be such a disarrayed president, that the aftermath of Nixon’s resignation will look like another midterm.

The neocons, if they actually reveal themselves as such (no indication that the Boots or the Kagans will publicly seek promotion to higher roles), will have no credibility with either party. The name Neocon is now synonymous with war mongering, though I know a bit better, having followed Irving Kristol and Commentary quite closely. Hillary herself, a Kardashianesque ‘hawk’ who mooted the possibility of joining the marines, and gloated ostentatiously in a Sanders debate about Israel’s right to defend herself (Bernie was actually making a modest statement about disproportionate use of force in a Gaza conflict) has no latitude to move.

Even the GOP will wash its hands in the ensuing Foggy Bottom blood. No Congressman will ever utter the phrase “work with the President. Every one of her appointees will have to be vetted against the Clinton Foundation. Every one who can actually pass muster will have no utility to foreign lobbying interests, and therefore, will be an adversary to the Clintons.

Oh, get down and pray with me, Henry.

This will still leave Hillary with the pastime of mounting screaming fits against Israel and gun owners (some link here between the two) and offensive pseudo populism against big business — Aren’t the Ags essentially poor, white, and systemically opposed to common sense reform?

I can’t imagine why Scott McConnell ever supported Obama. Maybe it was ignorance about the future.

#9 Comment By S. Baxxerley On August 18, 2016 @ 4:17 pm

Neocons are believers in big government, military intervention, and minority subjugation as long as the big government is Israel, the fighters are not them, and the population to be subjugated does not have a real estate agent as their god.

#10 Comment By Myguy On August 18, 2016 @ 10:42 pm

Some may think that, it its social liberalism, TAC itself has quite a bit of Neo-con in it.

#11 Comment By tyler kent On August 19, 2016 @ 10:17 am

I’m tired of ignoramuses referring to Sam Francis as a “white nationalist” Raimondo should know better.

#12 Comment By tyler kent On August 19, 2016 @ 11:02 am

Francis was not a white nationalist. Defining white nationalism is itself problematic, since there is no particular political party or existing political movement with a statement of principles that explains just what exactly white nationalists advocate. Do they want a return to segregation? Do they intend to expel all non-whites from the U.S.? Do they want to break up the U.S. into racially-defined regions, or do they want some as yet undefined territory somewhere as their own exclusive white enclave? No one knows, because there is no acknowledged leader of white nationalists, nor any leading organization that claims to speak for them. In any case, Francis advocated none of those things.
Far from being a white nationalist, Francis was a radically conservative-leaning “man of the right” who believed that racial differences are real, genetically determined, and culturally significant. He never advocated an exclusive white nation, but only white racial consciousness.
In “Prospects for Racial and Cultural Survival,” Francis said racial consciousness for whites was needed for three reasons: The first reason is for whites to recognize that “their own racial endowments [are] essential to the continuing existence of Euro-American civilization.” This consciousness “does not mean that whites should think of themselves only as whites to the exclusion of ethnic, national, religious, regional, class, or other identities…. Racial consciousness means that we add recognition of biological and racial factors to our traditional concepts of human nature….”
The second reason for whites to develop racial consciousness is to “counter the demographic threat they face from immigration and non-white fertility….” Francis was referring to Census Bureau projections that whites will become a minority in the U.S. by 2050.
The third reason for white racial consciousness is “to correct the political and legal order…. This political effort would involve a radical dismantling of all affirmative action and civil right legislation as well as a good part of the federal governmental superstructure that entrenches minority power. It would also require recovering an understanding of constitutional law that permits local and state governments to govern and private institutions to function independently of government.”
Those are not the arguments of a white nationalist, but of a conservative for whom race matters.

#13 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On August 19, 2016 @ 7:24 pm

“They “certainly won’t disappear in the way that American communism or segregation have,” says McConnell, and one big reason is because “Perhaps most importantly neoconservatism still commands more salaries—able people who can pursue ideological politics as fulltime work in think tanks and periodicals—than its rivals.” Which means “the reports of the movement’s demise”—and I’ve authored a few of those—“are thus very much exaggerated.” ”

Conservatives just can’t seem to get it through their heads that there is no such thing as a political movement without solid funding from sources expecting their interests to be served. Who has ever been willing to bankroll conservative institutions except on a philanthropic basis?

The GOP establishment and the neocons command actual moneyed backers. Until we actual conservatives find economic players with in interest in our success we will be silly little voices in the wilderness. Trump’s success as a player in the real world is a big part of the establishments horror. What if people who play the game of life with their own money started a well funded movement that hung together? Now that is a liberal and neocon nightmare.