Republicans may have gotten “a thumpin’,” but the neocons appear to be suffering a full-fledged rout. The intellectual faction that had its origins in City College’s storied Alcove No.1 during the 1930s (home of the “anti-Stalinist” socialists) has become a household word, and not in a good way. Apolitical grandmothers write their children e-mails deriding “the neocons and their war.” Intellectuals who have logged years on the payroll of well-funded neoconservative institutions forward little ditties through cyberspace: (to the tune of “Thanks for the Memories”)
But thanks to the neocons,
For every war a shill,
We’re driven from the Hill
But their mission was accomplished
Since our troops are dying still.
A cakewalk it was.
Thanks for the neocons
Those late-night shows on Fox
We watched while drinking shots
Sure Cheney lied and soldiers died
But ain’t Ann Coulter hot?
A kegger, it was.
If disrespecting the neoconservatives is emerging as a minor national sport, it should be enjoyed, and tempered, with realism. The last few years have been difficult for the faction, the years to come perhaps more challenging still. But they are as aware of their own vulnerabilities as anyone—much more so than the Bush-Rove Republicans with whom they have been allied. Neoconservatives have faced the political wilderness before and survived. They have other political options.
Moreover, whatever one might feel about “the neocons and their war” it is difficult not to experience some twinges of remorse over the movement’s decline. For decades, The Public Interest was a penetrating and groundbreaking journal. Commentary in the 1970s—when it turned hard against the countercultural ’60s—was brave and forceful. Nathan Glazer may never have written anything void of wisdom. To see the movement that spawned this grow into something bloated, stupid, and ultimately dangerous to America is to see the terminus of a vital part of our intellectual history.
The neoconservative lines were first broken two years ago when Iraq War architects Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz were ushered out of the Pentagon—a virtual decapitation of the cadre that planned the war. Scooter Libby’s indictment and subsequent departure from Dick Cheney’s side was a further blow. By last summer, George Will, the dean of establishment conservative journalism in Washington, had turned openly against the group. Noting Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol’s call for the U.S. to use the Lebanon war as a pretext to bomb Iran, Will remarked, “The most magnificently misnamed neoconservatives are the most radical people in this town.” Kristol received more of the same medicine when he appeared on National Public Radio with Gen. William Odom, director of the National Security Agency under Ronald Reagan: “Mr. Kristol certainly wants to make [Lebanon] our war. He’s the man with remarkable moral clarity. He tends to forget the clarity he had on getting us into the mess in Mesopotamia. I think if you look at his record, you’d wonder why anybody would allow him to speak publicly anymore.” Thus moral clarity—that robust quality the neoconservatives had long ascribed to themselves—is returned as mockery.
A main dilemma for the neoconservatives is their relationship to Bush’s lame-duck presidency. Neocon doubts that Bush will stay true to the course they have helped set for him are widespread. Addressing these fears, this summer Norman Podhoretz argued that the president was still their man. Quoting Bush speeches at length, Podhoretz insisted the evidence showed Bush still believed in the “Bush Doctrine.” But it is not clear that neoconservatives will be rallied by such hallucinatory observations as
I must confess to being puzzled by the amazing spread of the idea that the Bush Doctrine has indeed failed the test of Iraq. After all, Iraq has been liberated from one of the worst tyrants in the Middle East; three elections have been held; a decent constitution has been written; a government is in place; and previously unimaginable liberties are being enjoyed.
Veteran pamphleteer Joshua Muravchik recognized the larger problem, that the current neocon brand—now defined by Bush, the Iraq War, and American global hegemony—has become broadly unpopular. Writing in Foreign Policy, Muravchik observed, “some among us, wearying of these attacks, are sidling away from the neocon label.” He raised a bugle to stem the retreat. Neoconservative ideas are “as valid today as when we first began.” George Bush “has embraced so much of what we believe that it would be silly to begrudge his deviations.” Neoconservatives, he mused, should acknowledge mistakes, if necessary—“We were glib about how Iraqis would greet liberation.” And they should concentrate on their greatest strength—“political ideas.” While Muravchik unsurprisingly called for renewed agitation to bomb Iran, his most amusing recommendation may have been that neocons should “volunteer” to train U.S. Foreign Service officers in the “war of ideas”—and make sure their trainees were assigned to every overseas post.
Podhoretz (writing this past August) and Muravchik (published in late October) may have been anticipating the remarkable neocon self-immolation that would appear in early November on Vanity Fair’s website, in the form of David Rose’s interview notes for a forthcoming article. Rose quotes neoconservatives who had played major roles in the formulation and selling of the Bush administration’s foreign policy all lamenting that Bush has proved himself unworthy of the sound advice they gave him. Eliot Cohen, whose pre-Iraq War book stiffened the Bush team to ignore the reservations of America’s top generals, fears America will need “another big hit” to spur it to the warpath again. Michael Ledeen, a confidant of Vice President Cheney, laments that the most powerful people in the White House are the women who are in love with George W. Bush—Condi, Karen, Harriet, and Laura. In the neocons’ heyday, he formulated what Jonah Goldberg admiringly called the “Ledeen Doctrine”: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”
Unlike Norman Podhoretz, these neoconservatives were realistic about what a charnel house Iraq has become, but this was Bush’s fault, not theirs. Richard Perle, who left his chairmanship of Bush’s Defense Policy Board in 2004, acknowledged that had he “seen where we are today,” he would not have advocated the invasion of Iraq. But he attributes the current failure to Bush’s bumbling: “[Decisions] did not get made in a timely fashion … you have to hold the president responsible. … Huge mistakes were made, and I want to be very clear on this: they were not made by neoconservatives who had almost no voice in what happened … and certainly no voice in what happened after [Saddam’s] downfall. … I’m getting damn tired of being described as an architect of the war.”
Perle chose not to dwell on his associate of more than 20 years, Douglas Feith—the man he recommended to Donald Rumsfeld for the number-three slot at the Pentagon, the same Douglas Feith that Rumsfeld entrusted with planning for post-Saddam Iraq.
David Frum’s complaint is more interesting. Frum was a principal author of Bush’s “axis of evil” designation, which placed Iran on Washington’s enemies list, put a damper on Iranian co-operation in rolling up al-Qaeda, and helped cut the legs from under moderate reformist elements in Iranian politics. Says Frum, “I always believed as a speechwriter that if you could persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel himself committed to the ideas that underlay those words. And the big shock to me has been that although the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas.”
But Bush’s lack of ideological aptitude was predictable, a bone neocons had chewed over for a long time. As Bush advisers, both Frum and Perle had a difficulty: they felt themselves to be far more intelligent than Bush (as surely they were) and yet needed Bush to sell their global political ideas to the American people. Perle never proved able to mask his condescension. Years before, he had commented, “The first time I met Bush, two things became clear. One, he didn’t know very much. The other was that he had the confidence to ask questions that revealed he didn’t know very much.”
Frum made a real effort to finesse the matter. After leaving his White House speechwriter job, Frum wrote a memoir depicting Bush as “The Right Man”—one who was “nothing short of superb as a wartime leader.” Bush, he said, combined moderation, persistence, and boldness in just the right measure. Temperament, it appeared, could trump the ability to “absorb the ideas.” Frum’s book would set the standard for hagiography of the one-time master of Baghdad. The genre was later supplemented by John Podhoretz’s Bush Country: How Dubya Became a Great President While Driving Liberals Insane and Fred Barnes’s amazingly sycophantic Rebel-in-Chief. The neocons may not have believed all they wrote in these courtier volumes, but they certainly believed it should be published. Extricating themselves from the Bush embrace will be awkward and risks burning the faction’s bridges to more conventional Republicans.
But I predict that they will manage it. Despite the obituaries now being written, neoconservatism will not soon be over with and certainly won’t disappear in the way that American communism or segregation have. The group has always been resilient and tactically flexible.
Recall the state of neoconservatism in the early 1990s. The neocons could point with pride to their role in the Reagan presidency—though America’s Cold War success owes as much to the times when Reagan ignored their advice as when he took it. George H.W. Bush granted a presidential pardon to Iran-Contra figure Elliott Abrams, allowing him to continue his career. But that was all Bush 41 did for the group. When the elder Bush, after evicting Saddam from Kuwait in 1991, tried to put America’s weight behind settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, many neoconservatives suddenly remembered their Democratic Party roots and bolted. In 1992, a significant group of neocons signed on as advisers to Bill Clinton, and the Democratic standard-bearer, eager to shed the McGovernite label neoconservative publicists typically draped around his party, entertained their counsel during the campaign.
But appointing them to strategic foreign-policy posts in his administration was another matter. Soon enough, press coverage of the Clinton transition was filled with neoconservative grumbles of being shut out. In one noteworthy example, Beltway neocons strongly backed Joshua Muravchik’s aspiration to be assistant secretary of state for human rights. But like many neoconservatives, Muravchik had a long paper trail, and his job search did not survive Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory’s illumination of it. “Plainly if the president-elect is looking for a human rights director who thinks Mrs. Clinton is a post- Cold War Communist dupe, the search is over,” wrote McGrory.
What is basically a group of intellectuals interested in foreign policy has not always found it easy to acquire powerful political sponsors. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson was the archetype, a “labor” Cold War Democrat and the man who originally brought Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz to Capitol Hill. A force in the Senate, Jackson could delay or even thwart policies he opposed, and he (and aide Richard Perle) did a brilliant job of tying Henry Kissinger’s détente policy in knots in the mid-1970s. But that was the power to negate, not create. Jackson induced sleep on the stump, as his two presidential bids revealed. Replacing him as the great hope for the neocons was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York-born Harvard professor who was, in the 1960s and ‘70s, a flamboyant and often brilliant intellectual. But once elected to the Senate in 1976, Moynihan proved a disappointment, turning out to be not remotely as hawkish as neoconservatives expected.
For the older neocons, with backgrounds as Democrats and even socialists, embracing the Republican Party always seemed a date on the wild side. But not so for those now under 60, who came of political age under Reagan. Republican ties were natural. And as the experience with the Clinton transition demonstrated, crossing the floor to the Democrats will not be easy.
But if Bush has failed them, what options remain? Joe Lieberman has less national appeal than Henry Jackson did, and once you have been embedded in the Pentagon and the vice president’s office, forays from the Senate will seem a weak brew. John McCain is another matter, and if Americans can be persuaded that the solution to their Middle East, terrorism, and other diplomatic dilemmas lies in more troops and invasions, neoconservatism will have springtime all over again.
In the short run at least, neoconservatism is wounded and is likely to present a different public face. The soaring language about how it is America’s destiny to spread democracy throughout the globe, the efforts to define an American global empire as something greatly to be desired—this will dropped, a casualty of the Iraq fiasco. But it’s not clear that the neocons will miss the democracy baggage. Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards”—the one that landed her the post of Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, was published in Commentary and considered a primary example of “neo” conservative thinking of the period. But recall that her argument was that “authoritarian” regimes could be reliable American allies in the Cold War, and Washington was destabilizing them by hectoring about human rights and democracy. Kirkpatrick was wrong in the end about how durable communist “totalitarian” regimes turned out to be (compared to the authoritarian dictatorships she favored), but the dominant perspective of the essay was undeniably realist—an attempt to take the world with its myriad political cultures as it was rather than imposing upon it a pre-fabricated American model.
What won’t be dropped is the neoconservatives’ attachment to Israel and the tendency to conflate the Jewish state’s interests (as defined in right-wing Israeli terms) with America’s. So one can look forward to neoconservative agitation on two fronts: a powerful campaign to draw the United States into a war to eliminate Iran’s nuclear potential and an equally loud effort in support of maintaining Israeli dominance over the West Bank and denying the Palestinians meaningful statehood. Those who argue effectively for a more even-handed American policy towards Israel and Palestine will risk the full measure of smears linking them to historical anti-Semitism. The archetypical neoconservative argument will no longer be Bob Kagan and Bill Kristol’s call for American “benevolent global hegemony,” but Gabriel Schoenfeld’s attack on John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in Commentary, an essay that sought to connect the pair’s work to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
This election season ends with neoconservatism widely mocked and openly contemptuous of the president who took its counsels. The key policy it has lobbied for since the mid-1990s—the invasion of Iraq—is an almost universally acknowledged disaster. So one can see why the movement’s obituaries are being written. But the group was powerful and influential well before its alliance with George W. Bush. In its wake it leaves behind crises—Iraq first among them—that will not be easy to resolve, and neocons will not be shy about criticizing whatever imperfect solutions are found to the mess they have created. Perhaps most importantly, neoconservatism still commands more salaries—able people who can pursue ideological politics as fulltime work in think tanks and periodicals—than any of its rivals. The millionaires who fund AEI and the New York Sun will not abandon neoconservatism because Iraq didn’t work out. The reports of the movement’s demise are thus very much exaggerated.