“We’re going to push and push until some larger force makes us stop.”
David Addington, the legal adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, made that declaration to Jack Goldsmith of the Office of Legal Counsel in the months after September 11, 2001. Goldsmith would later recall that Cheney and Addington were the first people he had ever met of a certain kind: “Cheney is not subtle, and he has never hidden the ball. The amazing thing is that he does what he says. Relentlessness is a quality I saw in him and Addington that I never saw before in my life.”
Goldsmith did not consider himself an adversary of Cheney and Addington. He probably shared many of their political views. What shocked him was their confidence in a set of secret laws and violent policies that could destroy innocent lives and warp the Constitution. The neoconservatives—the opinion-makers and legislative pedagogues who since 2001 have justified the Cheney-Bush policies—fit the same description. They are relentless, they push until they are stopped, and thus far they have never been stopped for long.
The campaign for the Iraq war of 2003, the purest example of their handiwork, began with a strategy memorandum in 1996, so it is fair to say that they have been pitching to break up the Middle East for a full two decades. But fortune played them a nasty trick with the signing of the nuclear agreement between the P5+1 powers and Iran. War and the prospect of war have been the source of their undeniable importance. If the Iran nuclear deal attains legitimacy, much of their power will slip through their fingers. The imperialist idealism that drives their ventures from day to day will be cheated of the enemy it cannot live without.
Iran might then become just one more unlucky country—authoritarian and cruelly oppressive but an object of persuasion and not the focus of a never-ending threat of force. The neoconservatives are enraged and their response has been feverish: if they were an individual, you would say that he was a danger to himself and others. They still get plenty of attention and airtime, but the main difference between 2003 and 2015 is the absence of a president who obeys them—something that has only served to sharpen their anger.
President Obama defended the nuclear deal vigorously in a recent speech at American University. This was the first such extended explanation of a foreign policy decision in his presidency, and it lacked even an ounce of inspirational fluff. It was, in fact, the first of his utterances not likely to be remembered for its “eloquence,” because it merits the higher praise of good sense. It has been predictably denounced in some quarters as stiff, unkind, ungenerous, and “over the top.”