The neoconservatives are not riding high these days. The Iraq War–their number-one cause–is a failure, and the public has turned on the war, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, their top man in the Administration. Meanwhile, the so-called foreign policy realists appear to have the upper hand against the Administration’s dwindling neocon cell in many internal policy squabbles. But the neocons are faring rather well when it comes to the presidential race. The leading GOP contenders are all die-hard fans of the war. And the newest star in the show–Fred Thompson, the former Republican senator from Tennessee, onetime lobbyist and TV actor who has all but officially announced his candidacy–might be the most neoconnish of all.
With gusto, Thompson embraced the second-favorite crusade of the neocons: Scooter Libby. For them, Libby has been a martyr of near-religious significance. Thompson, a prominent member of the Libby defense fund, called for Bush to pardon the former Cheney chief of staff. While doing so, Thompson repeatedly misstated core facts of the CIA leak case. Deriding special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, Thompson, who played a prosecutor on Law & Order, insisted that Valerie Plame Wilson was not covered by the Intelligence Identities Protection Act–though indeed she was. Following the neocon tradition of accusing the CIA of betraying national security interests, Thompson essentially charged that the agency and the Justice Department had conspired to set Libby up. He claimed that the CIA sent a known Democratic partisan–former Ambassador Joseph Wilson–to Niger and that upon his return Wilson “blasted” the Bush Administration. (Wilson, a career diplomat, was no partisan at the time of his 2002 trip, and he did not “blast” the Administration until nearly a year and a half after his mission.) No other GOP candidate was as true to the Libby cause as Thompson, who heartily applauded Bush’s commutation of Libby’s prison sentence.
In spirit, Thompson was a member of the Libby Lobby before it even existed–as a fierce advocate for a US invasion of Iraq. In October 2002, during his last months as a senator, Thompson voted for the measure authorizing the use of force. At the time, he was pitching the familiar argument: Saddam Hussein was packing WMDs, about to get nukes and in cahoots with Al Qaeda. He declared on CNN, “I don’t want to get in too deeply, in terms of what the CIA has told the intelligence community, but…Director Tenet pointed out in great detail the extent to which Saddam had moved toward cooperation with Al Qaeda.” Actually, Tenet had not done that. The CIA chief had publicly referred to “reporting of senior level contacts” between Al Qaeda and Baghdad without providing details (the CIA’s analysts determined there was no definitive evidence linking Saddam and Osama bin Laden operationally). But for the neocons, the purported Al Qaeda connection was an article of faith, and Thompson was pushing this holy writ, hinting that he (as an intelligence committee member) knew more than he could openly say. Weeks ago, Thompson said that before the invasion the Administration had merely claimed that “there was clearly contact and a relationship [between Al Qaeda and Saddam’s regime], but no one knew exactly what it meant.” That was not how he depicted it in 2002.
After leaving the Senate in early 2003, Thompson did his bit for the war effort. He filmed an ad for a conservative group that supported the coming invasion. In it he stood before an American flag and drawled, “When people ask, What has Saddam done to us? I ask, What had the 9/11 hijackers done to us before 9/11?” When UN inspectors found no evidence that Saddam was developing nuclear weapons, Thompson pooh-poohed their work. He argued, like a neocon, that the United States, as the lone superpower, had to be willing to use force beyond immediate self-defense to protect itself and its interests.
Thompson has other neocon tics. Earlier this year, after the bipartisan Iraq Study Group had recommended a diplomatic initiative that would include attempts to negotiate with Iran and Syria, he cheered Bush for not doing so. He has blasted the UN and bashed France. (“We’re…hopeful that, eventually, our ostrich-headed allies will realize there’s a world war going on out there, and they need to pick a side.”) He has hailed progress in Iraq. (“In Iraq, the healthcare and education statistics are even better. There are, of course, still many areas of life that need to improve…but we’re moving in the right direction.”)
Thompson has mostly been a loyal conservative, though as a senator he peeved right-wingers by supporting campaign finance reform and by voting for only one of the two impeachment counts against Bill Clinton. These days, he wants to extend Bush’s tax cuts for the well-to-do. He calls for tort “reform.” He favors the death penalty. He says he’s opposed to abortion rights (although in 1991 he helped lobby for an abortion rights outfit and declared in 1994 he was opposed to criminalizing abortion), and he recently mocked those concerned about global warming.
Neocons have many good choices among GOP presidential wannabes. Senator John McCain has hung tight on the war. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has outdone Cheney by calling for doubling the size of the Guantánamo prison. And former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has loaded his campaign with pro-Israel hawks, including godfather of the neocons Norman Podhoretz, who advocates attacking Iran. But Thompson has a strong claim on the neoconservative heart. If he ends up in the White House, the neocons will rise again.