Bush’s ‘neocons’: far from the best and the brightest

A significant shift in American political history occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s when a group of “Cold War intellectuals,” a number of whom were Jewish, defected from the liberal mainstream of the Democratic Party.

Alienated by the anti-war movement and by what they saw as ambivalence on the Democratic left about Israel’s security, they first coalesced around the presidential candidacy of centrist Democrat Henry “Scoop” Jackson in 1972.

Most eventually moved over to the Republican Party under President Richard Nixon and his foreign policy alter ego, Henry Kissinger. Among them were Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and Ben Wattenberg. Some of today’s neocons, including Paul Wolfowitz, Eliot Abrams and Douglas Feith got their start with the Jackson team.

While they were small in number, their intellectual influence was substantial. Their defection from the Democrats helped stamp the post-Vietnam Democratic Party as “soft on defense” and added heft to Nixon’s administration. (This came despite Nixon’s known antipathy to Jews, so vividly revealed later in the White House tapes.) Nixon’s highly pragmatic foreign policy led to major agreements with the Soviet Union and a historic opening to the People’s Republic of China. He was supportive of Israel during the traumatic 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Cold War intellectuals felt vindicated.

Fast forward to 2007, and we see what has happened to this neoconservative movement. We find Bill Kristol, Irving Kristol’s son and editor of the Weekly Standard; Paul Wolfowitz, just ousted from the World Bank and safely landed at the American Enterprise Institute; Eliot Abrams, back in government after his deep involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal; and Douglas Feith, one of the architects of the Iraq war. Scooter Libby, just released from his prison destiny by an indulgent president, is a member in good standing. They have a friend and ally in Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Today’s neocons are far from the best and the brightest.

They are largely amateur armchair warriors given to cheap rhetoric and bombast. They toss around “regime change” as if governments will fall when they snap their fingers. While the Cold War intellectuals may have been arrogant, they were right about some important things. In particular, they championed the restoration of a bipartisan Cold War consensus that had fractured under the strain of the Vietnam War and challenged Democrats to avoid turning opposition to the war into opposition to a strong national defense. Today’s neocons, by contrast, have managed to be wrong about, basically, everything: that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that we would be greeted as liberators in Iraq, that the war would cost American taxpayers not a dime and that the struggle would be over in months.

Unlike the proudly realistic Cold War intellectuals, the neocons are idealists, scorning those who question their ideas as “reality based.” They see Israel as a key part of their global plan, both helping America in the Middle East (where, conveniently, oil is plentiful), and guaranteeing Israel’s security under an umbrella of unchecked, unilateral American power. They ignore Israel’s need to negotiate complex arrangements to survive in a very tough neighborhood, while leaning on its big brother in Washington.

Undeterred by the failure of the Iraq war they helped create, the neocons are now trying to drag the United States and Israel into a war with Iran, and potentially into a global war with much of the Islamic world. Sen. Lieberman says that Iran has already started the war with the United States by funding Hezbollah in Lebanon and by allegedly supporting insurgents in Iraq, all the while proclaiming — against all evidence — the success of the surge in Iraq. Lieberman is talking up the value of bombing Iran. The hallmarks of the contemporary neocons are an indifference to the facts on the ground combined with a belligerent and bellicose stance toward the world. How did it come to this?

The strength of the original neoconservative movement was pragmatism in contrast to what they perceived as the idealistic thinking of the peace movement. They called Democrats naive on foreign policy and charged that they neither appreciated the balance of power in world affairs nor understood the threat of force as an alternative to the use of force. They admired Nixon’s ability to play Russia against China and to project enough force to convince adversaries to negotiate. This was a lesson that Democratic president Bill Clinton applied successfully in stopping the genocide in Bosnia.

But while the Democrats moved back toward the center on foreign policy, the neocons became more radical. Even in the beginning, some were devoted to blocking d├ętente with the Soviet Union and ratcheting up the Soviet threat beyond what the facts warranted. Some joined the first Bush administration, where they argued that at the conclusion of the Gulf War, the president should have taken Baghdad and overthrown Saddam Hussein. Unlike the first President Bush, they refused to consider the impact on regional stability or the balance of power of the ouster of Saddam’s regime. It never mattered to them that the United States was using Saddam to contain Iran. On the outs with the president, who did not favor their aggressive views, they bided their time in conservative think tanks during the Clinton years. They became even more adept at exaggerating global threats, from Iraq to the Islamic world as a whole.

Their ideas grew more and more expansive, until their Project for a New American Century unveiled a grand vision of a dominant America astride a passive world, dictating terms to one and all, taking resources as it wished. All they needed was a president who would back their plan, despite its obvious and near-lunatic flaws. With the accession of George W. Bush, and more importantly, Dick Cheney, in 2001, they finally had leaders whose arrogance matched their vision.

And so they remain in the good graces of Bush and Cheney, despite the tatters they have all made of American foreign policy. As long as Cheney remains the dominant force in the administration, the neocons can survive the political implosion of the White House. In fact, the president risked substantial political fallout to short-circuit the legal process and keep Cheney’s aide Libby out of jail.