Beating up on neocons used to be a specialize sport without wide appeal. With all due false modesty I offer myself as an early practitioner. Back in the mid-to-late-1970s, when I had a weekly column in the Village Voice, I used to have rich sport with that apex neocon, Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary. I nicknamed him Norman the Frother and freighted him with so many gibes that he made the mistake of publicly denouncing me in his magazine, exclaiming that “Cockburn’s weekly pieces have set a new standard of gutter journalism in this country,” a testimonial I still proudly feature on the back of my books.
The neocons’ political hero in those days was Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, much venerated in Israel and the corporate offices of Boeing for his ardor and constancy in sluicing US taxpayers’ money into their treasuries. But instead they got Jimmy Carter, who, on a couple of occasions, was downright rude to Menachem Begin. So the neocons abandoned the Democrats and threw in their lot with Ronald Reagan.
Now here we are on the downslope of 2003 and George Bush is learning, way too late for his own good, that the neocons have been matchlessly wrong about everything. The neocons told Bush that eviction of Saddam would rearrange the chairs in the Middle East, to America’s advantage. Wrong. They (I’m talking about Wolfowitz’s team of mad Straussians at DoD) told him that there was irrefutable proof of the existence of weapons of mass destruction inside Iraq. Wrong. They told him it would unlock the door to a peaceful settlement in Israel. Wrong. They told him that Ahmed Chalabi had street cred in Iraq. Wrong. They told him it would be easy to install a US regime in Baghdad and make the place hum quietly along, like Lebanon in the 1950s. Wrong.
And of course the neocons, who have never forgiven the UN for Resolutions 242 and 338 (bad for Israel), told Bush that he should tell the UN to take its charter and shove it. Bush, who appreciates simple words and simple thoughts, took their advice, and on Sunday night had it served up to him by his speechwriters as crow, which he methodically ate in his eighteen-minute speech, saying the UN has an important role in Iraq.
Now many are gloating at the neocons’ discomfiture and waiting for their downfall. Click go Madame Defarge’s knitting needles as she waits beside the guillotine. Here come the tumbrels, inching their way slowly through the rotting cabbages and vulgar ribaldry of Republican isolationists. Here’s a palefaced Douglas Feith. Up goes the fatal blade, and down it flashes. Behold, the head of a neocon! The next tumbrel carries a weightier cargo: Richard Perle and Elliott Abrams. Still not enough. Madame Defarge knits on, and her patience is soon rewarded. Here come Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, the latter defiantly jotting a coda to Rumsfeld’s Rules. They are swiftly dispatched and the crowd moves off to torch The Weekly Standard and string up its editor, Bill Kristol.
Maybe not all of them, but some neocon will surely pay the price for dropping Bush’s approval rating into the mid-50s. But will the basic neocon line, dominant for so long in Washington, suffer a dent? Not in any fundamental way. To appreciate this, one has only to look at the current posture of prominent Democrats. Are they glorying in Bush’s embarrassment and the humiliating and costly disaster for the United States consequent upon its attack on Iraq? Take Senator Joe Biden. His immediate reaction to Bush’s speech on Sunday was to insist that the President would need, and should get, more money than the $87 billion requested by the White House.
Then Biden gave the neocons a lesson in how to pay lip service to internationalism and “our allies”: “What we need isn’t the death of internationalism or the denial of our stark national interest. What I want to talk about today is a more enlightened nationalism that understands the value of international institutions but supports the use of military force–without apology or hesitation–when we must.”
Study the zigzag rhetoric of Howard Dean and you find the same essential approach, though Dean has just outraged the neocons by calling for an “evenhanded” US role in any resolution of the Palestinian issue (a posture he arrived at, please note, after taking fire from the left for being a whore for AIPAC). On February 20, Katha Pollitt’s antiwar candidate told Salon that “if the U.N. in the end chooses not to enforce its own resolutions, then the United States should give Saddam thirty to sixty days to disarm, and if he doesn’t, unilateral action is a regrettable, but unavoidable, choice.” The next day he said the UN had to do it. In June, at the Council on Foreign Relations, Dean said, “I would add at least 50,000 foreign troops to the force in Iraq. It is imperative that we bring the international community in to help stabilize Iraq. If I were President, I would reach out to NATO, to Arab and Islamic countries, to other friends to share the burden and the risks.” Dean has made trenchant criticisms of Bush’s rationale for the attack and of how it has been conducted, but he still proclaims, “Failure in Iraq is not an option.”
With the exception of Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun, no Democratic candidate is calling for anything other than that the United States “stay the course” in Iraq, with more money, more troops and, if possible, the political cover of the UN. Senator Kerry, who favored the US attack last spring, won’t commit himself to supporting the request for $87 billion but adds carefully, “I believe we must do what we need to do” to bring peace to Iraq. Edwards still justifies his support for Bush’s war. Don’t even ask about Lieberman. A few neocon heads may roll, but the policy won’t change. It’s fun to demonize the neocons and rejoice in their discomfiture, but don’t make the mistake of thinking US foreign policy was set by Norman Podhoretz or William Kristol. They’re the clowns capering about in front of the donkey and the elephant. The donkey says the UN should maybe clean up after them, and the elephant now says the donkey may have a point. Somebody has to come out with a dustpan and broom.