A Tragedy of Errors

A Tragedy of Errors

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.


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.

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.'”


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.”

According to Brooks, “To hear these people [the alleged conspiracy theorists] describe it, PNAC is sort of a Yiddish Trilateral Commission, the nexus of the sprawling neocon tentacles.” He writes that “con is short for ‘conservative’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish.'” With this vicious slur, Brooks has now joined Jonah Goldberg, Joshua Muravchik, Joel Mowbray, Robert J. Lieber and other neoconservative writers in accusing all critics of Israel’s Likud government and its neoconservative supporters of treating “neoconservative” as a synonym for “Jew.” Among those smeared by neocons in this way in the past year are Chris Matthews, William Pfaff, Eric Alterman, Joshua Micah Marshall, Gen. Anthony Zinni and yours truly. When I, the descendant, in part, of Jewish immigrants, exposed Pat Robertson’s anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in 1995, Norman Podhoretz denounced me, not Robertson, reasoning that while Robertson was objectively anti-Semitic he could be forgiven because of his Christian Zionist support for Israel, on the analogy of the rabbinical rule of batel beshishim, which governs impurities in kosher bread. The most loathsome libel in this loathsome campaign was written by Mowbray: “Discussing the Iraq war with the Washington Post last week, former General Anthony Zinni took the path chosen by so many anti-Semites: he blamed it on the Jews…. Technically, the former head of the Central Command in the Middle East didn’t say ‘Jews.’ He instead used a term that has become a new favorite for anti-Semites: ‘neoconservatives.'” In An End to Evil, Perle and Frum–spontaneously, one can only suppose, as neocons “don’t actually have much contact with one another”–repeat the new party line: “Most important, the neoconservative myth offers Europeans and liberals a useful euphemism for expressing their hostility to Israel.”

It is true, and unfortunate, that some journalists tend to use “neoconservative” to refer only to Jewish neoconservatives, a practice that forces them to invent categories like “nationalist conservative” or “Western conservative” for Rumsfeld and Cheney. But neoconservatism is an ideology, like paleoconservatism and libertarianism, and Rumsfeld and Dick and Lynne Cheney are full-fledged neocons, as distinct from paleocons or libertarians, even though they are not Jewish and were never liberals or leftists. What is more, Jewish neocons do not speak for the majority of American Jews. According to the 2003 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion by the American Jewish Committee, 54 percent of American Jews surveyed disapproved of the war on Iraq, compared with only 43 percent who approved, and American Jews disapproved of the way Bush is handling the campaign against terrorism by a margin of 54-41.

Neoconservatism–the term was Michael Harrington’s–originated in the 1970s as a movement of anti-Soviet liberals and social democrats in the tradition of Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Humphrey and Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson, many of whom preferred to call themselves “paleoliberals.” While there was a pro-Israel wing, the movement’s focus was on confrontation with the Soviet bloc abroad and on the defense of New Deal liberalism and color-blind liberal integrationism against rivals on the left at home. With the end of the cold war and the ascendancy of the Democratic Leadership Council, many “paleoliberals” drifted back to the Democratic center. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once spoken of as a possible neoconservative presidential candidate, broke with the movement in the 1980s over its growing contempt for international law and its exaggeration of the Soviet threat. Today’s neocons are a shrunken remnant of the original broad neocon coalition.

Nevertheless, the origins of their ideology on the left are still apparent. The fact that most of the younger neocons were never on the left is irrelevant; they are the intellectual (and, in the case of William Kristol and John Podhoretz, the literal) heirs of older ex-leftists. The idea that the United States and similar societies are dominated by a decadent, postbourgeois “new class” was developed by thinkers in the Trotskyist tradition like James Burnham and Max Schachtman, who influenced an older generation of neocons. The concept of the “global democratic revolution” has its origins in the Trotskyist Fourth International’s vision of permanent revolution. The economic determinist idea that liberal democracy is an epiphenomenon of capitalism, promoted by neocons like Michael Novak, is simply Marxism with entrepreneurs substituted for proletarians as the heroic subjects of history.

The organization as well as the ideology of the neoconservative movement has left-liberal origins. PNAC is modeled on the Committee on the Present Danger, which in turn was modeled on the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a CIA-funded network of the anti-Communist center-left that sought to counter Stalin’s international cultural front groups between the 1940s and the 1960s. Many of the older neocons are veterans of the CCF, including Irving Kristol, who with Stephen Spender co-edited Encounter, the CIA-bankrolled magazine of the movement. European social democratic models inspired the quintessential neocon institution, the National Endowment for Democracy.

Along with other traditions that have emerged from the anti-Stalinist left, neoconservatism has appealed to many Jewish intellectuals and activists, but it is not, for that reason, a Jewish movement. Like other schools on the left, neoconservatism recruited from diverse “farm teams,” including liberal Catholics (William Bennett and Michael Novak began on the Catholic left) and populists, socialists and New Deal liberals in the South and Southwest (the pool from which Jeane Kirkpatrick, James Woolsey and I were drawn). There were, and are, very few Northeastern WASP mandarins in the neoconservative movement, for the same reason that there were few on the older American left, which tended to mirror the New Deal coalition of ethnic and regional outsiders.

With the exception of its Middle East strategy–a subject to which I will return–there is nothing particularly “Jewish” about neoconservative views on foreign policy. While the example of Israel has inspired American neocons to embrace tactics like preventive war and “targeted assassination,” the global strategy of today’s neocons is shaped chiefly by the heritage of cold war anti-Communism. Neocon hostility to the UN, too often explained solely in terms of UN condemnations of Israel, is a relic of the 1970s and ’80s, when the General Assembly was dominated by an anti-American alliance of the Soviet bloc and Third World autocracies. The claim that we are waging “World War IV”–made by Elliot Cohen, James Woolsey and Norman Podhoretz–is a reflex of superannuated cold warriors, as are parallels between militant Islam and secular totalitarianism and the attempt to inflate China or post-Communist Russia into threats comparable to the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Not only America’s cold war history but the British experience in the twentieth century has shaped neocon perceptions. This is not as strange as it seems. Britain was the leading world power until a few generations ago; many neoconservatives are adult immigrants from the British Commonwealth, like the former Canadian subjects of Her Majesty Charles Krauthammer and David Frum; and many neocon thinkers follow Lionel Trilling (whom Irving Kristol has cited, along with Leo Strauss, as one of the greatest influences on his thought) in looking to British culture to explicate American society. The first modern industrial society, Britain reached its peak, neocons believe, as a result of the combination of imperial ruthlessness, bourgeois (not managerial) capitalism and Victorian virtue. Tragically, however, British strength was sapped from within by the postbourgeois elitists of Bloomsbury, who mocked Victorian values even as the work ethic was eroded by the welfare state. As a result, Britain was morally and materially unprepared to fight fascist totalitarianism. The greatest man of the twentieth century, to judge from the number of times he is cited by neocons, was not Franklin Roosevelt but Winston Churchill, the upholder of Victorian values.

In neocon ideology, the United States is reliving the experience of Britain three-quarters of a century ago. Osama bin Laden (or Saddam or the Chinese leadership or Yasir Arafat) is the new Hitler. Bush is the new Churchill, as Reagan was earlier. Moderate Republicans and conservative realists, as well as liberal Democrats, are the new Neville Chamberlains. The working-class Protestant fundamentalists of the rural and suburban American South are equated with the bourgeois dissenting Protestants of Victorian England. The American university is the new Bloomsbury, full of decadent liberals and leftists sapping the morale of young Americans, who many neoconservatives think should be drafted and sent to fight a series of wars abroad to promote democracy. Four years ago, Donald Kagan and Frederick Kagan (Robert Kagan’s father and brother, respectively) published a book called While America Sleeps, comparing the United States to Britain in the late 1930s. For the neocons, America is the Britain of Churchill and Chamberlain, and it is always 1939.

Something like what Vivian De Sola Pinto wrote of Kipling in Crisis in English Poetry (1968) could be said today of Kipling’s admirer Max Boot and most of today’s neoconservative imperialists: “There was no Irish or South African problem, only rebels and traitors; there was no aesthetic problem, only wasters and rotters like Sir Anthony Gloster’s son who was educated at ‘Harrer an’ Trinity College’ and ‘muddled with books and pictures,’ and Tomlinson whose sins were entirely literary; there was no problem of war and peace, only foolish liberals and sentimental or knavish pacifists. All the world needed was more discipline, obedience and loyalty, and above all a paternal British Empire with its unselfish and efficient administrators and admirable army licked into shape by perfect N.C.O.s.”

Despite its eccentricities, like its un-American nostalgia for British imperialism, neoconservatism, as paleocons and libertarians never tire of insisting, is a movement that shares some of the same values as the center-left. When Richard Perle calls for women’s rights in Muslim countries, when David Brooks writes in support of gay marriage, and when The Weekly Standard denounces neo-Confederate racism, there is no reason to question their sincerity. Nor is Irving Kristol being disingenuous when he says that the welfare state is here to stay. Straussian elitism does not disqualify the leftist credentials of the neocons. Many liberal and democratic movements have had doubts about the ability of the majority to govern themselves, and have put their hopes in some sort of enlightened elite–Jefferson’s natural aristocracy, the technocrats favored by American Progressives, the vanguard intelligentsia of the Marxist-Leninists. Imperialism, too, has been compatible with a certain liberal messianism. Until the rise of Third World national liberation movements, some of empire’s staunchest advocates were liberals, among them British Fabians and American Progressives. Even Marx was willing to acknowledge that underdeveloped countries like India could benefit from imperial tutelage.

The influence of Marxism is particularly evident in neoconservative conceptions of patriotism. In The Weekly Standard of last August 25, Kristol published an essay titled “The Neoconservative Persuasion” (evidently someone had neglected to inform Kristol, “the godfather of neoconservatism,” about the new party line that neoconservatism does not exist). Among what Kristol calls “the following ‘theses’ (as a Marxist would say)” is his claim that “large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns. Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal.” Therefore the United States should “defend Israel today…no complicated geopolitical calculations of national interest are necessary” (an odd sentiment from the former publisher of a magazine called The National Interest, of which I was executive editor from 1991 to 1994). Let us set the question of Israel aside for now, and note that very few Americans think of their country as a version of the USSR with liberal democracy instead of Marxism-Leninism as the official ideology–probably as few as think of American foreign policy in terms of “‘theses’ (as a Marxist would say).”

A few years earlier in the Wall Street Journal, Irving’s son William and David Brooks co-authored a similar call for a “national greatness conservatism” in which American patriotism is emptied of all content except for military crusades on behalf of democracy abroad. As far as empire is concerned, William Kristol and Max Boot embrace the “e-word” while Frum and Perle disavow it. But if the nation has value only as the host or carrier of a potentially universal ideology, which must be spread abroad by force of arms and subversion, then the distinction between “national greatness” and “imperialism” disappears–in the case of American neoconservatism no less than in the comparable cases of Soviet Communism and Napoleonic liberalism. This kind of crusading secular messianism has nothing at all to do with conventional patriotism and nationalism, even in their liberal forms. Many Americans have thought of our country as a model for other liberal democracies, but hardly any view our nation as a mere staging platform for a “global democratic revolution,” to be promoted by invading foreign countries and arming foreign insurrections where no “calculations of national interest are necessary.”

The distant influence of the Trotskyist Fourth International is apparent, even though the neocons ransack American history in order to provide their movement with a usable past. Max Boot calls himself a “hard Wilsonian,” but in his celebration of Kipling-style imperialism it’s hard to see much of Wilson, who viewed international law and international organization as the alternative to the militarization of American society that he dreaded, and who is forever identified with national self-determination of the kind claimed by the Palestinians. William Kristol and David Brooks invoke the name of Theodore Roosevelt. But unlike TR’s imperial Progressivism, which supported conservation and prolabor reforms, the domestic side of “national greatness conservatism” is vacuous, consisting chiefly of the suggestion by Brooks and Kristol that the United States build more war memorials, perhaps in response to the body count they anticipate from their wars of democracy promotion.

Like Paul Berman, the maître penseur of the liberal hawks, many neocons try to enlist Lincoln for their cause. But Lincoln opposed the Mexican War and rejected the idea that the United States had a duty to spread democracy by force. In 1859 Lincoln ridiculed “Young America,” who “is a great friend of humanity; and his desire for land is not selfish, but merely an impulse to extend the area of freedom. He is very anxious to fight for the liberation of enslaved nations and colonies, provided, always, they have land, and have not any liking for his interference.”

The redefinition of American patriotism as zealotry on behalf of a crusading, messianic ideology is compatible with a disrespect for actual American institutions, which, if it were expressed by leftists or liberals, would be denounced as un-American by neocon arbiters of American patriotism like Frum, a Canadian who bothered to become a US citizen only after he’d served in the Bush White House. Most of the career professionals in the national security agencies–the military, the intelligence community and the Foreign Service–oppose the grand strategy of Bush and his neocon political appointees. Logically, therefore, Perle and Frum want to replace lifelong public servants with presidential spoilsmen. Of the intelligence community they write, “It may be time to bring all of these secret warriors into a single paramilitary structure ultimately answerable to the secretary of defense”–not to mention Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz and Under Secretary of Defense Feith. If the intelligence agencies had already been subordinated to civilians in the Pentagon, then Wolfowitz and Feith would not have needed to do an end run around the CIA and the State Department by creating a new intelligence agency, the Office of Special Plans, which tortured data until it supported the policies advocated by the neocons. While neocon appointees in the Pentagon bring the intelligence community to heel, others will colonize the diplomatic service. Perle and Frum, two former political appointees, write, “Next, we should increase sharply the number of political appointees in the State Department and expand their role.”

The ideological Gleichschaltung will extend to the US military. The neocons, few of whom ever served in the military, can scarcely conceal their contempt for America’s soldiers; Frum and Perle write of “the dead hand of military tradition.” (Lieut. Gen. William Boykin, a Christian fundamentalist like so many of Ariel Sharon’s American supporters, is acceptable, and has been brought into the Office of the Secretary of Defense to work with civilian appointees Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith.) The career military, so often an obstacle to grandiose neocon schemes, must be transformed into an instrument of preventive wars, argue Perle and Frum: “Will we need to go after a terrorist camp in some remote village in Indonesia? Or raid Syria to retrieve or destroy weapons of mass destruction that may have been sent there by Saddam Hussein for safekeeping? Or strike a decisive blow against a North Korean facility about to produce nuclear weapons for a terrorist customer?”–actions justified, we have reason to fear, on the basis of data doctored by neocon political appointees in the US intelligence community.

The new American armed forces will be busy, if Perle and Frum get their way. In the course of An End to Evil they call for deposing the governments of Iran and Syria, treating Saudi Arabia as an enemy, blockading North Korea–oh, and let’s not forget, France is an adversary, along with “France’s pilot fish, Belgium.”Down with Belgium, France’s Pilot Fish!–this is a new addition to the litany of neoconservatism.

If Frum and Perle are to be believed, a great number of US invasions and US-supported revolutions will be necessary to bring democracy to countries that now lack it: “Kofi Annan complained in July 2003 that democracy cannot be imposed by force. Really?” Annan is a better historian than Perle and Frum. The record is clear–most of the democratic transitions that have taken place in the world in the past two centuries have had nothing to do with foreign military intervention or military pressure, while most US military interventions abroad have left dictatorship, not democracy, in their wake. The two cases that neocons constantly return to, Germany and Japan, are among the few cases where democracy has been restored (not created ex nihilo) as the result of a US invasion. The Soviet bloc democratized itself from within in the 1990s, even though the United States did not bomb Moscow, impose a martial-law governor on the Poles or imprison former Hungarian Communist officials without charges in barbed-wire camps. In Latin America, Mexico became a multiparty democracy instead of a one-party dictatorship without US Marines posing for photos in the presidential mansion in Mexico City, and it was not necessary for American soldiers to kill tens of thousands of Argentines, Chileans and Brazilians for democracy to take root in those countries.

One must hope that American soldiers leave behind a functioning democracy in Iraq–rather than the dysfunctional autocracies and kleptocracies that were the legacy of US military occupations in the Philippines, Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Mexico. But it is likely that, if and when liberal democracy comes to the Muslim world in general and to the Arab world in particular, the gradual, largely bloodless transition will resemble those in Soviet Europe and Latin America and will not be the result of US military action or intimidation. The neocons–and the humanitarian hawks on the left–are simply wrong about how best to spread democracy.

The global strategy of the neocons, then, is not ethnic but ideological, a crusade in the name of democracy. But the neoconservatives who support Israel’s illiberal Likud Party, and Likud’s American allies, the Protestant Christian Zionists of the Southern religious right, contradict their own professed principles.

In theory, neoconservative ideology is more compatible with Israeli post-Zionism than with either the Labour Zionist or Revisionist Zionist forms of Israeli ethnic nationalism. The neocons are always denouncing American “paleoconservatives” for claiming that US nationality must be founded on race (Caucasian) or religion (Christianity)–and yet they defend Israeli politicians and thinkers whose blood-and-soil nationalism is even less liberal than the “Buchananism” the neocons denounce in the US context.

In the pages of The Weekly Standard, David Brooks made the astonishing argument that the United States, a Lockean liberal democracy, must defend Israel, another Lockean liberal democracy, against illiberal Palestinian nationalism. The idea that Israeli identity has nothing to do with blood-and-soil nationalism might hearten post-Zionist proponents of Israel as “a state of all its citizens” (not to mention Israel’s 1 million Palestinian citizens) but will come as news to Labour Zionists as well as to the Likud, National Religious and Shas parties in Sharon’s governing coalition.

Unlike Brooks, Douglas Feith does not lie about the nature of Israeli nationalism. In an address he delivered in Jerusalem in 1997 titled “Reflections on Liberalism, Democracy and Zionism,” written before he became the third-most-powerful official in the Pentagon, Feith denounced “those Israelis” who “contend that Israel like America should not be an ethnic state–a Jewish state–but rather a ‘state of its citizens.'” Feith argued that “there is a place in the world for non-ethnic nations and there is a place for ethnic nations.” Feith’s theory, unlike that of Brooks, permits pro-Likud neocons to preach postethnic universalism for the United States and blood-and-soil nationalism for Israel. While solving one problem for the neoconservative movement, Feith creates others. He legitimizes identity politics, which the neocons despise–how can one justify Israel-centered Jewish ethnoracial nationalism while denouncing Afrocentrism or the sinister neo-Nazi idea of an “Aryan-German” or “Nordic” diaspora in the United States? Even worse, Feith’s theory seems to endorse the false claim of anti-Semites that Jews are essentially foreigners in the nations in which they are born or reside. Indeed, according to the Jabotinskyite ideology shared by Sharon, Netanyahu and many (not all) of their neocon allies, there are only two kinds of Jews in the world: Israelis and potential Israelis. For generations, many if not most Jewish Americans have rejected this illiberal conception.

A related contradiction is the ever-deepening alliance of the neocons with the Likud’s major supporters in the American electorate, the Protestant ayatollahs of the Bible Belt, which inspired Irving Kristol, William Kristol and Norman Podhoretz to open their magazines to religious-right tirades against abortion rights, gay rights, gun control and–my personal favorite–“Darwinism.” This apertura to Southern Christian fundamentalism–the opposite of everything that neoconservatism defined as “paleoliberalism” once stood for–led to my departure and that of several other former neoconservatives. We thought we had joined an antitotalitarian liberal movement, not an alliance of American Likudniks and born-again Baptist creationists brought together to support the colonization of “Samaria” and “Judea” by right-wing Jewish settlers.

Neoconservatism–that is, hawkish paleoliberalism–was hijacked by elite American supporters of the Likud, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and their Christian allies, long before the neocons, temporarily, perhaps, hijacked US foreign policy under the second Bush. I can attest that there are neoconservatives, including Jewish neoconservatives, who don’t share a love affair with the Likud, but if they said so in public their careers in the movement would end.

The warping of an ideological movement by the ethnic, religious or regional biases of its leaders is not uncommon. For example, there was nothing innately Catholic or even Christian about William F. Buckley Jr.’s “movement conservatism,” which attracted many Protestants, Jews and secularists. Nevertheless, the Buckley circle was heavily Catholic and included his brother-in-law Brent Bozell, an American follower of Spanish Carlism (the Carlists were the Catholic answer to the American Likudniks). In the same way that criticizing the Likud Party is a bad career move if you are a contemporary Jewish or non-Jewish neoconservative who doesn’t see why Israel shouldn’t be a “state of all its citizens” like the United States, so it was not a good idea in the 1950s and ’60s to criticize General Franco’s Spain if you were a National Review conservative.

The cynical way in which the Bush Administration lied to Congress and the American people to justify an invasion of Iraq planned years before September 11, 2001, by Wolfowitz and many of his PNAC allies came as no surprise to me, a former neocon. In an anthology titled The Fettered Presidency published by the American Enterprise Institute in 1989, Irving Kristol wrote that “if the president goes to the American people and wraps himself in the American flag and lets Congress wrap itself in the white flag of surrender, the president will win…. The American people had never heard of Grenada. There was no reason why they should have. The reason we gave for the intervention–the risk to American medical students there–was phony but the reaction of the American people was absolutely and overwhelmingly favorable. They had no idea what was going on, but they backed the president. They always will.”

But too much can be made of the mendacity of the neocons. The influence of Leo Strauss’s teachings about the need for the “philosophers” to conceal the truth from the masses can be exaggerated. The conviction on the part of neocons of their own rectitude may be sufficient, in their minds, to justify deception of the public in matters like Iraq’s nonexistent threat to the United States. After all, they are waging World War IV against–well, against whomever–a revived Russia this year, China the next, and the next year a vague “Islamist” threat that somehow contains anti-Islamist Baathists and secular Palestinians along with Osama bin Laden. In their own minds, the neocons are Churchillian figures, a heroic minority who, as they battle a generic “totalitarianism” of which radical Islam is the latest manifestation, are handicapped by cowardly establishment “appeasers” and purveyors of a decadent “adversary culture” among the “new class” in the academy and the media. I don’t doubt that many leading neocons sincerely wanted to believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that the Iraqi masses would embrace Ahmad Chalabi as their de Gaulle, that there would be a democratic domino effect in the Middle East, bringing pro-Israel and pro-American secularists to power. Now that they have been proven wrong, at enormous cost in American and Iraqi life, they are disoriented. Instead of acknowledging and taking responsibility for their catastrophic failure, they are desperately trying to avoid blame.

Unfortunately for them, a political ideology can fail in the real world only so many times before being completely discredited. For at least two decades, in foreign policy the neocons have been wrong about everything. When the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, the hawks of Team B and the Committee on the Present Danger declared that it was on the verge of world domination. In the 1990s they exaggerated the power and threat of China, once again putting ideology ahead of the sober analysis of career military and intelligence experts. The neocons were so obsessed with Saddam Hussein and Yasir Arafat that they missed the growing threat of Al Qaeda. After 9/11 they pushed the irrelevant panaceas of preventive war and missile defense as solutions to the problems of hijackers and suicide bombers.

They said Saddam had WMDs. He didn’t. They said he was in league with Osama bin Laden. He wasn’t. They predicted that no major postwar insurgency in Iraq would occur. It did. They said there would be a wave of pro-Americanism in the Middle East and the world if the United States acted boldly and unilaterally. Instead, there was a regional and global wave of anti-Americanism.

David Brooks and his colleagues in the neocon press are half right. There is no neocon network of scheming masterminds–only a network of scheming blunderers. As a result of their own amateurism and incompetence, the neoconservatives have humiliated themselves. If they now claim that they never existed–well, you can hardly blame them, can you?

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