How inscrutable the last remaining superpower must seem to the outside world! Only six months ago, informed Washington opinion held that neoconservatism was a spent force. New Republic senior editor Lawrence Kaplan, a shrewd observer of Capitol power flows and a neoconservative himself, announced a “springtime for realism” and a twilight of the neocons. He quoted the once again voguish realist totems George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, and John Mearsheimer on the futility of armed crusades for democracy and noted the creation of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy as a counterpoint to the already established neocon lobbies. Democrat presidential designee John Kerry was making clear that democracy promotion was less important than the quest for stability. Most troubling, in Kaplan’s view, were signs that the Bush administration itself was cooling on the neocons.

While the president “still often channels [Woodrow] Wilson” (neocons frequently style themselves as muscular Wilsonians), Kaplan saw wobbling everywhere. The White House signed off on a raid on Ahmad Chalabi’s headquarters—the neocon favorite who turned out to be an Iranian agent—without first informing Doug Feith or Paul Wolfowitz. Condoleezza Rice formed the Iraq Stabilization Group inside the National Security Council without consulting the Pentagon. Robert Blackwill, a former Henry Kissinger aide, was suddenly wearing the big hat inside Rice’s NSC. The neocons on Dick Cheney’s staff were “consumed” by the Valerie Plame investigation. Cheney himself was soliciting advice from Kissinger. Rice was talking to Brent Scowcroft, the most prominent Bush I official to oppose publicly the invasion of Iraq.

Kaplan was not alone in reading the tea leaves that way. A month before the election, the invariably well-informed Bob Novak forecast that Bush would withdraw from Iraq and “end the neoconservative dream of building democracy in the Arab world.” Pat Buchanan in these pages claimed that the Iraq mess had tempered any Bush lust for further imperial adventures. George Will, probably the most influential conservative columnist of all, began advertising his own disenchantment with neoconservative foreign policy in every other column, mocking the idea that Iraq would be democratic anytime soon (“Iraq is just three people away from democratic success. Unfortunately, the three are George Washington, James Madison, and John Marshall.”) and skewering the notion that democracy could be imposed by force from without. The neoconservative democracy crusaders, Will observed dryly, ought to remember an elemental principle of moral reasoning: “there can be no duty to do what cannot be done.”

That apparent right-around-the-corner return to realism heralded the restoration of a natural order. Around the country are thousands with lifetime Republican attachments who supported or even served in the administrations of Nixon, Reagan, and George Bush I for whom the neoconservative ascendancy was almost too bizarre to be believed. They thought that eventually reality would reassert itself. George W. Bush would talk to his father and mother or to Laura, and they would warn him that American foreign policy was running off the rails. Dick Cheney would understand. Donald Rumsfeld, who had begun to question whether we had a “metric” to know whether we were actually winning the War on Terror, would finally see the light. Yes, the United States went through a trauma on 9/11, and yes, Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith and David Wurmser happened to be right there to dust off and present a Mideast attack plan from a Benjamin Netanyahu/Project For the New American Century coven from the mid-1990s. While Washington was off guard, they saw their opportunity and took it. But Iraq had proved such a mess that the ship of state would right itself. Had to.

This was less wishful thinking than the natural human tendency to believe that the social patterns one has lived with for one’s entire adult life—those that one’s parents had lived with—would inevitably reassert themselves. It was a belief perhaps akin to the German Jewish bourgeoisie’s as they watched the rise of Hitler: No, things couldn’t get really bad, not in our Germany. In America, the phase is “it can’t happen here.”

One must be clear what “it” is. The Patriot Act is not a giant step towards domestic fascism, and we are not halfway to martial law. George W. Bush bears no hatred towards any minority group or even any domestic constituency.
For contemporary America, the “it” is the setting in full motion of an aggressive, reckless, militarized foreign policy, viewed as lawless by much of the world—one whose almost inevitable outcome is nuclear war. While Pinochet and Franco and for most of his reign Stalin kept within their own borders, Bush has ambitions of global scope. Of course they are idealistic ambitions, beautiful ambitions. The spread of democracy—especially if it springs up from a country’s indigenous institutions and populace—is a very good thing. But the Bushites now see democracy’s spread as necessary for America’s own survival. The world, particularly the Muslim world, must become democratic now, or we will perish. The neoconservatives in the administration believe that democracy will spread only if the president commits more and more troops to Iraq and topples the regimes in Tehran and Damascus. As alarming as the neoconservatism of Rumsfeld, Cheney, Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith, Danielle Pletka, and John Bolton is, more alarming is the spirit that has spread in its wake—a kind of neoconservativism without a graduate degree.

You see it on certain blogs and hear it in the rants of some of the most widely listened to right-wing talk-radio hosts. If the Arabs don’t want to be democratic, we should nuke them. We have no choice but to nuke them for our own safety. It’s a vulgarized neoconservatism —no one from the American Enterprise Institute speaks like this (in public). But this talk is around in the heartland and growing, and it is wind in the sails of the new administration.
At this writing, the staffing of a new foreign-policy apparatus is not complete. But the broad strokes are plain. At CIA, there is a new emphasis on loyalty to the president over readiness to provide objective analysis; Porter Goss will ensure that the agency provides information that the White House wants to hear. At the cabinet level, the direction is clear. Colin Powell is leaving, exhausted by his losing tussles with the Pentagon, semi-humiliated by the president. His crime was that he was right about war in Iraq, right that we needed allies and more forces for the invasion, right that postwar Iraq would be chaos and quagmire. His caution about the use of force —the Pottery Barn rule—must have irked the president every time he saw him, so better to banish him. Promoted instead are those who were consistently wrong. Rumsfeld remains, though his neocon aides “stovepiped” phony intelligence about Iraq’s WMD capacity, he botched the post invasion, and was responsible for the Abu Ghraib torture. Stephen Hadley, who “forgot” to remove the false claims about Iraq’s yellowcake purchases from the president’s 2003 State of the Union speech, is the new National Security Adviser. Condi Rice, whose TV musings about “mushroom clouds” helped frighten a nation into an unnecessary war, becomes the nation’s top diplomat.

What became of the realists? Like the neocons, they are only policy intellectuals and bureaucrats, dependent on the politicians who appoint them. Among educated Americans, they won the foreign-policy debate decisively. No one doubts it. There are scores of bright people from George Will to William F. Buckley to Kenneth Pollack who are born-again realists; no one has recently converted to neoconservatism. But the realists did not win the debate inside Bush’s brain—indeed, there is no sign at all that the president was aware that there was a foreign-policy debate going on. Instead a 51-48 percent victory, a pitiful margin for an incumbent during wartime, is treated as a landslide of Reaganesque proportions and a mandate for the president to promote those whose foreign-policy advice has proved egregiously wrong.

How has the country changed? Two years ago, when National Review editor Rich Lowry said that an appropriate response to a WMD attack on the United States might be to nuke Mecca, there was a fair amount of outrage. But Lowry, recall, was imagining how the United States might respond to a massive terrorist attack. Now the American airwaves and blogosphere are rife calls to nuke those whom military invasion couldn’t turn into democrats. “Could it happen here?” the old question goes. In one sense it already has.

December 20, 2004 issue

Copyright © 2004 The American Conservative