Is the Neoconservative Moment Over?
The salad days of the neoconservatives, which began with the president’s Axis-of-Evil address in January 2002 and lasted until the fall of Baghdad may be
coming to an end. Indeed, it is likely the neoconservatives will never again enjoy the celebrity and cachet in which they reveled in their romp to war on Iraq.
While this is, admittedly, a prediction, it rests on reasonable assumptions. But why should neoconservatism, at the apparent apex of its influence, be on the edge of eclipse?
Answer: the high tide of neoconservatism may have passed because the high tide of American empire may have passed. “World War IV,” the empire project, the great cause of the neocons, seems to have been suspended by the President of the United States.
While we still hear talk of “regime change” in Iran and North Korea, U.S. forces not tied down in occupation duties by the anarchy and chaos in Iraq, are returning home.
The first signal that the apogee of American hegemony in the Middle East has been reached came as U.S. soldiers and marines were completing their triumphant march into Baghdad. Suddenly, all the bellicosity toward Syria from neoconservatives and the Pentagon, stopped, apparently on the orders of the Commander in Chief.
Secretary of State Powell announced he would go to Damascus to talk with President Assad. U.S. ground forces halted at the Syrian border. Our carriers began to sail home from the Gulf. All the talk of Iraqi war criminals hiding out in Syria and Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction being transferred there suddenly ceased. “Mission Accomplished” read the huge banner on the Abraham Lincoln, as the president landed on the carrier deck to address the nation.
When Newt Gingrich, before an audience at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), launched his tirade against Powell and the Department of State, accusing them of appeasing Syria, no echo came out of the Pentagon. Reportedly, Karl Rove gave Newt an earful, and the president himself was prepared to blast Newt, for he saw the attack on Powell as an attack on his own policy. A few editorials and columns praised Newt, but the neocons could sense that they were no longer in step with the White House. So, too, did every other Kremlinologist in this city.
Why did Bush order an end to the threats to Syria? The answer is obvious. He is not prepared to carry them out. With the heavy fighting over in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American people have had enough of invasions and occupations for one presidential term. The United States is now deep into nation building in both countries.
Moreover, Syria is not under any UN sanctions. Its leader did not try to assassinate the president’s father. There is no evidence Damascus is working on nuclear weapons. Assad has not threatened us. A war on Syria would have no Security Council endorsement, no NATO allies, no authorization from Congress. Such a pre-emptive war would be unconstitutional and be seen abroad as the imperial war of a rogue superpower. For all the talk of unilateralism and of our “unipolar moment” President Bush clearly feels a need for allies, foreign and domestic, before launching such a war.
Finally, having assumed paternity of 23 million Iraqis, few Americans are anxious to adopt 17 million Syrians. Damascus is a bridge too far for Bush and Rove, and with two wars and two victories in two years, why press their luck? The re-election that the president’s father did not win—and not an empire—appears to be what they are about.
Therefore, for the foreseeable future, the glory days—of Special Forces galloping on horseback in the Afghan hills, of Abrams tanks dashing like Custer’s cavalry across the Iraqi desert, of statues of Saddam toppling into the streets of Baghdad, and presidents landing on carrier flight decks in fighter-pilot garb —are over, behind us, gone.
And ahead? Like all empires, once they cease to expand, they go over onto the defensive. Like the Brits before us, we must now secure, consolidate, protect, manage, and rule what we have in the tedious aftermath of our imperial wars. And as we have seen in the terror attacks in Casablanca and Riyadh, al-Qaeda and its allies, not Tommy Franks, now decide the time and place of attack in the War on Terror.
With 25 U.S. soldiers dead and counting since Baghdad fell, what the empire now entails is a steady stream of caskets coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq and tens of billions of American tax dollars going the other way to pay the cost of reconstruction of countries we have defeated and occupied.
Victory has brought unanticipated headaches. Having smashed the forces that held Iraq together—Saddam’s regime, the Ba’ath Party, the Republican Guard, the army—we must now build new forces to police the country, hold it together, and protect it from its predatory neighbors. And there are Islamic and Arab elements in and outside of Iraq determined that we should fail.
Where Tehran and the mullahs colluded in our smashing of a Taliban they hated, and of their old enemy Saddam, they no longer welcome America’s massive military presence in their region.
Most important, it appears the president has shifted roles from war leader to peacemaker. While the neocons are adamant in rejecting the road map to peace, drafted by the “quartet”—the U.S., the EU, the UN, and Russia—as a threat to Israel’s survival, Bush has endorsed it and evidently means to pursue it. The neocons are already carping at him for pressuring Sharon to “negotiate with terrorists” and “creating a new terrorist state in the Middle East.” Where White House and neoconservative agendas coincided precisely in the invasion of Iraq, they are now clearly in conflict.
While it has not happened yet, there is the possibility that our effort at nation building in Iraq will falter and fail, that Americans will tire of pouring men and money into the project, and will demand that the president bring the troops home and turn Iraq over to the allies, the Arabs, or the UN. As one looks at Afghanistan, Iraq, and a Middle East where al-Qaeda is avidly seeking soft targets, it may be that all the good news is behind us and that only bad news lies ahead.
If we have hit the tar baby in Baghdad, the president may be seeking to extricate us before we go to the polls 17 months from now. And should the fruits of victory start to rot, Americans will begin to ask questions of the principal propagandists for war.
It was, after all, the neocons who sold the country on the notion that Iraq had a huge arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, that Iraq was behind 9/11, that Saddam had ties to al-Qaeda, that the war would be a “cakewalk,” that we would be welcomed as liberators, that victory would bring democratic revolution in the Middle East. Should the cream go sour, the neocons will face the charge that they “lied us into war.”
Moreover, for a movement that is small in number and utterly dependent on its proximity to power, the neocons have made major mistakes. They have insulted too many U.S. allies, boasted too much of their connections and influence, attracted too much attention to themselves, and antagonized too many adversaries. In this snake pit of a city, their over-developed penchant for self-promotion is not necessarily an asset. By now, all their columnists and house organs—Commentary, National Review, the New Republic, the Weekly Standard—are known. Their front groups—AEI, JINSA—have all been identified and bracketed. Their agents of influence—Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith, Libby, Bolton, Wurmser, Abrams, et alia—have all been outed. Neoconservatives are now seen as separate and apart from the Bush loyalists, with loyalties and an agenda all their own.
If Americans decide they were lied to, that the Iraqi war was not fought for America’s interests, that its propagandists harbored a hidden agenda—as they decided after World War I and exposure of the “merchants of death”—they will know exactly whom to blame and whom to hold accountable.
The weakness of the neocons is that, politically speaking, they are parasites. They achieve influence only by attaching themselves to powerful hosts, be it “Scoop” Jackson, Ronald Reagan, or Rupert Murdoch. When the host dies or retires, they must scramble to find a new one. Thus, they have blundered in isolating themselves from and alienating almost every other once-friendly group on the Right.
Consider the lurid charges laid against all three founding editors of this magazine and four of our writers—Sam Francis, Bob Novak, Justin Raimondo, and Eric Margolis—by National Review in its cover story, “Unpatriotic Conservatives.” Of us, NR writes,
They … excuse terror. They espouse … defeatism. … And some of them explicitly yearn for the victory of their nation’s enemies. …
Only the boldest of them … acknowledge their wish to see the United States defeated in the War on Terror. But they are thinking about defeat, and wishing for it, and they will take pleasure in it should it happen.
They began by hating the neoconservatives. They came to hate their party and their president. They have finished by hating their country.
This screed does not come out of the National Review of Kirk, Burnham, and Meyer we grew up with. It is the language of the radical Left and Trotskyism, the spawning pools of neoconservatism. And rather than confirm the neocons as leaders of the Right, such bile betrays their origins and repels most of the Right. One wonders if the neocons even know how many are waiting in hopeful anticipation of their unhorsing and humiliation.
“There is no telling how far a man can go, as long as he is willing to let someone else get the credit,” read a plaque Ronald Reagan kept in his desk. The neocons’ problem is that they claim more credit than they deserve for Bush’s War and have set themselves up as scapegoats if we lose the peace. Having enjoyed the prerogative of the courtesan, influence without accountability, the neocons may find themselves with that worst of all worlds, responsibility without power.
June 16, 2003 issue
Copyright © 2003 The American Conservative