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A Tragedy of Errors | The Nation

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A Tragedy of Errors

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About a decade ago, I invented a game with a colleague of mine who, like me, had once worked for Irving Kristol. We called it neoconservative bingo. The idea was that the clichés of neoconservative discourse would be arranged in various combinations on bingo cards: "The World's Only Superpower"; "The New Class"; "The China Threat"; "Decadent Europe"; "Against the UN"; "The Adversary Culture"; "The Global Democratic Revolution"; "Down With the Appeasers!"; "Be Firm Like Churchill." The free space in the center of the bingo card would be "The Palestinian People Do Not Exist" (nowadays it would be "No Palestinian State" or "All Palestinians Are Terrorists"). As you read an essay or a book by a neoconservative, you would check off each slogan on the card in the order in which it appeared.

About the Author

Michael Lind
Michael Lind, the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of The American Way of Strategy...

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We never printed our neocon bingo cards. But the neoconservative manifesto by David Frum and Richard Perle, An End to Evil, which is more a collection of talking points than a coherent argument, can serve just as well. The United Nations "has traduced and betrayed" the dream of world peace. The China Threat: "Eventual Korean unification will reinforce the power of the world's democracies against an aggressive and undemocratic China, should China so evolve." There are the Neville Chamberlain appeasers and the Decadent Europe theme: "To Americans, [Europe's doubts about the invasion of Iraq] looked like appeasement. But it would be a great mistake to attribute European appeasement to cowardice--or to cowardice alone." There are the obligatory Churchill references--a chapter is titled "End of the Beginning"--and there is this: "We will never cease to hope for the civilized world's support. But if it is lacking, as it may be, then we have to say, like the gallant lonely British soldier in David Low's famous cartoon of 1940: 'Very well, alone.'"

Bingo.

Paradoxically, Perle and Frum happened to publish their manifesto of neoconservative grand strategy at the very moment many of their colleagues were insisting in print that neoconservatism does not exist, and that the neocons have no influence on US foreign policy. Up until the summer of 2003, neo-conservatives proudly championed their movement against adversaries on the left and against factions on the right (realist, paleoconservative and libertarian) that questioned the wisdom of invading Iraq. That summer, however, the invasion of Iraq--planned for a decade and carried out chiefly by leading neoconservative foreign policy experts like the Bush Pentagon's Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith--went terribly wrong. As of this writing, more US soldiers have died in the unnecessary second war in Iraq than have been killed in any other US military venture since Vietnam, and several thousand Iraqis have died, with many more maimed (the Bush Pentagon does not bother to count Iraqi casualties). As the enormity of the debacle became apparent, neoconservatives abruptly began avowing their own nonexistence. Not since Stalin ordered the US Communist Party to go underground has an American political faction pretended to dissolve itself in public like this.

David Brooks recently claimed in the New York Times that only "full-mooners" believe that neoconservative institutions like the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) have any influence on Bush Administration policy because PNAC "has a staff of five and issues memos on foreign policy." But PNAC disseminates the views not of its paid staffers, receptionists and interns, but of powerful Administration insiders like Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, in the same way that the Committee on the Present Danger used to broadcast the views of Paul Nitze and Gene Rostow, who as government officials were guarded in their own public comments.

Brooks continued: "In truth, the people labeled neocons... travel in widely different circles and don't actually have much contact with one another." In truth--to use Brooks's phrase--among those who have signed PNAC letters are Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle and Robert Kagan. PNAC is run by William Kristol, who edits The Weekly Standard, for which Brooks writes, and is the son of Irving Kristol, founder of The Public Interest and former publisher of The National Interest, who wrote a book called Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, and is married to the neoconservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, William's mother. Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of Commentary, is the father of John Podhoretz, a neoconservative editor and columnist who has worked for the Reverend Moon's Washington Times and the New York Post, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns The Weekly Standard and Fox Television. Norman is the father-in-law of Elliott Abrams, the former Iran/contra figure and former head of the neocon Ethics and Public Policy Center and the director of Near Eastern affairs at the National Security Council. Elliott's mother-in-law and Norman's wife, Midge Decter, like many older neocons a veteran of the old Committee on the Present Danger, was recently given a National Humanities Medal after publishing a fawning biography of Rumsfeld, whose number-two and number-three deputies at the Pentagon, respectively, are Wolfowitz and Feith, veterans of the Committee on the Present Danger and Team B, the intelligence advisory group that grossly exaggerated Soviet military power in the 1970s and '80s. Perle, a member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board (and its former head), is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and sits on the board of Hollinger International, a right-wing media conglomerate (including the Jerusalem Post and the Daily Telegraph) controlled by Conrad Black, the chairman of the editorial board of The National Interest, which Black partly subsidizes through the Nixon Center. Perle and Feith--both PNAC allies--helped write a 1996 paper called "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," on behalf of Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Perle, Feith and the other US and Israeli authors called on Israel to abandon the Oslo process and to restore martial law in the Palestinian territories long before the second intifada began. Co-authorship is common among the neocons: Brooks and Kristol, Kristol and Kagan, Frum and Perle.

These are people who, according to David Brooks, "don't actually have much contact with one another."

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