Twilight of the Neocons?

History, Ismael Reed once said, is the story of warfare between secret societies. I’m not ready to go that far, but I think it’s fair to say the history of U.S. foreign policy over the past forty years has been the story of the war between two not-so-secret societies: the neoconservatives and the realists. And it now seems the realists have won another battle – although perhaps not the war.

It’s been a peculiar war, to be sure: bureaucratic in-fighting with a hefty dose of emotional psychodrama, at times more closely resembling the obscure squabbles of an old married couple than a clearly defined struggle between opposing political factions. Think of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as the middle-aged combatants in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

“In both the play and the film, Martha and George are outwardly rational figures with a troubled and compulsive bent toward emotional sadism.”

Like most domestic disputes, much of the fighting has been done behind locked doors, leaving us to interpret the results based on the muffled sound of screaming voices and the occasional smash of broken porcelain. But the signs that the neocons are on the losing end of the battle have become fairly evident in recent weeks:

  • The administration has welcomed Libya back into the community of “civilized” nations, on terms that can only help solidify Col. Ghadafi’s dictatorial regime. The deal is about as textbook a case of realpolitik as you will find outside the archives of the Kissinger NSC.

  • Jim Baker has returned to the diplomatic circuit, with the speculation being that his assignment is to liquidate not only Iraq’s debt but also the neocon illusion of remaking the Middle East into the Community of Israel-Recognizing Nations.

  • The rumor mill also has uber-neocon Paul Wolfowitz departing the Pentagon in February. Can Doug Feith – the other half of the neocon Laural & Hardy act, be far behind?

  • Bush rolled out the red carpet – with a 19-gun salute no less – for Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao, then explicitly warned Taiwan not to ditch its allegiance to the increasingly fictional notion of “one China.” So doing, he completely ignored the howls of protest from neocon punditry that he was selling Taiwanese democracy down the river.

  • The public sniping at the administration by said punditry has become distinctly more direct, with both Newt Gringrich and Bill Kristol harshly criticizing the White House – if not yet the president who lives and sometimes even works there..

For the moment, the “we got Saddam!” propaganda orgasm has temporarily silenced the quarreling – in the same way an interlude of passionate sex can briefly patch up a disfunctional marriage. But the differences are still irreconcilable, and are likely to re-emerge in even stronger form if Bush wins reelection next year, eliminating the need to maintain the pretense of a united front.

The neocons may be down, but they’re not out – and aren’t likely to be, not as long they continue to enjoy the support of the ultras: the Christian conservatives, Sunbelt demagogues, Arab haters and hyperpatriots that constitute the Republican Party’s popular base. The realists may be the ones who have a clue about how to run a foreign policy, but the neocons are still the ones with the political juice.


To anyone who covered the Reagan Administration, it’s a familiar story. The ideological and bureaucratic tensions evident, but controlled, during Reagan’s first term, exploded after his 1984 landslide, leading, among other things, to the Iran-Contra debacle. A fiasco so complete it should have led to the eternal banishment of the neocons from the corridors of power. But it didn’t, and couldn’t, because by then the neocons were already too tightly wired to the GOP’s ascendant conservative wing to be cut loose.

They did, however, go into eclipse, both because the GOP desperately needed to sweep the Iran-Contra affair under the carpet, and because the dawn of perestroika era and then the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived them of their political raison d’etre – a menacing threat they could claim the realists were either ignoring or underestimating, or both.

September 11 fixed that problem, even if it didn’t correct the neocons’ propensity for making truly enormous blunders. But to understand how the neocons were able to grab control of American foreign policy in the wake of 9/11 – and why their influence is so hard to dislodge now – it’s important to go back and look at how they achieved their influence in the first place.

The Emigrants

The story begins in the early ’70s, when the neocons finally left the arms of the Democratic Party for the more ideologically friendly embrace of the GOP. The most important biographical detail about these refugees wasn’t the fact that they were Jewish (many were; some weren’t) or that they started their political journey on the far left (some did; most didn’t). The essential point is that they were Democrats, strangers in the strange land of the GOP. They had no popular base of their own, and thus no leverage inside the party’s political machinery. Their views on domestic issues – civil rights, social spending, the separation of church and state – but them at odds with prevailing sentiment within their adopted party, especially its Goldwater wing.

To be sure, there were some commonalities – intense hatred for the Vietnam protestors and everything they represented being the most deeply felt. But the cultural gulf between the neocons and their new allies on the right was still immense. Like turncoats throughout history, they were in danger of ending up distrusted by both sides.

To make matters worse, the neocons had competition. In ecological terms, they were trying to invade a niche that had already been filled by an earlier generation of intellectuals (Kissinger being the most notorious) who had established themselves as the foreign policy brains of the Republican Party. Add the fact that most of these thinkers were non-Jewish (Kissinger being the most notorious exception) and tended to see the Arabs, not the Israelis, as America’s most important clients in the Middle East, and you had all the makings of an intellectual version of West Side Story: Sharks versus Jets.

The GOP itself, however, was in upheaval. Control was passing from the East Coast internationalists (the long-time patrons of the realists) to the Goldwater conservatives – a group whose intellectual approach to U.S. foreign policy could best be described as one long howl of rage. By the mid-’70s, the party was deep in the throes of an unfinished revolution, with the Ford Administration caught squarely in the middle.

As Kissinger’s sun began to set, power passed to a group of administration officials who had their feet planted firmly in both ideological camps – men such as Donald Rumsfeld, the once and future Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, Ford’s Chief of Staff, and George Bush, the CIA Director. They became the neocons’ original sponsors within the GOP.

To generalize, this group (with the exception of Bush) tended to be Midwestern and middle class – heirs to the older Main Street conservatism of Bob Taft and Everett Dirksen, although also sympathetic to the newer Sunbelt conservatism of Goldwater and Reagan. They were corporate/bureaucratic rather than conservative/activist, hardline where issues of American power and prestige were involved, but much less doctrainaire (at least at the time) about economic policy and what would later be called the “social issues” – affirmative action, abortion, etc. They were, in effect, the center of gravity of a Republican Party in transition.

They were not (again, with the exception of Bush) particularly knowledgeable about foreign policy. Like the Goldwater Republicans, their roots were in the party’s pre-World War II isolationist wing, not the internationalist wing of the Rockefeller and Dulles brothers. They were in the market, you might say, for a foreign policy world view – and a set of policy advisors to fill in the details of that world view. This the neocons were in a position to provide.

On the B Team

Ironically (in light of later events) it was Bush who gave the neocons their first big break. Frustrated by the CIA’s relatively dovish views about Soviet capabilities and intentions (or, to the conspiratorially inclined, itching to undermine Kissinger’s detente policy) Bush created the infamous Team B – a group of outside analysts (including Wolfowitz) who were called in to second guess the CIA’s own intelligence estimates. (Sound familiar?)

Team B, to no one’s surprise, concluded the CIA was drastically underestimating the Soviet threat. This then became the wedge issue for the conservative attack on Kissinger, and the first great organizing vehicle for the neocons, who essentially took over an existing hardline lobbying group called the Committee on the Present Danger and began to agitate against detente.

The resulting fratricidal struggle might have grown even bloodier if the Democrats hadn’t had the temerity to win the 1976 election. But Carter’s initial swing to the dovish left – his “inordinate fear of communism” stage – alarmed the realists as much as it did the neocons. Old grudges, if not forgotten, were put aside in the battle against the common enemy.

The collapse of detente following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, coupled with the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis, set the stage for Carter’s defeat and the triumph of the Goldwater wing (now the Reagan wing) of the Republican Party. But Reagan’s election wasn’t quite the foreign policy revolution the neocons might have hoped it would be. In part, this was a reflection of geographic politics. As a Californian, Reagan inherited some key advisors from fellow Californian and hyper realist Richard Nixon. These included Casper Weinberger at Defense, and, later, George Shultz at State. So while the neocons moved into some key second-tier positions – Richard Perle at the Pentagon, Wolfowitz at State, Jeanne Kirkpatrick at the UN – power ultimately remained in the hands of the realist establishment.

The one major exception – and the one that gave the neocons their first opportunity to actually drive American foreign policy off a cliff – was the CIA, which went to Bill Casey. Given his previous ties to the Committee on the Present Danger, and his fascination with the covert exercise of American power, it was probably inevitable that Casey would emerge as the neocons’ primary ally and patron among the Reagan foreign policy principals.

East of Suez

The ideological and bureaucratic competition between the realists and the neocons made little difference when it came to policy towards the Soviets. By this point, deep into the second Cold War, the hardline consensus within the GOP foreign policy establishment was universal. The only limits on the administration’s willingness to confront the Soviets – in Europe, in Central America, in space, wherever – were external and political. The Vietnam syndrome wasn’t quite dead, even if it was coughing up blood. When it came to the direct use of American troops, the administration still felt itself to be on a short leash.

In the Middle East, on the other hand, the policy differences between the neocons and the realists were vast, and the personal animosities intense. To the realists, the Middle East was simply another theatre in the Cold War, in which the moderate Arab regimes were necessary evils and the state of Israel an unwelcome distraction. America, they believed, had little choice but to rely on its “deputy sheriffs” in the region – Iran and Saudi Arabia – to keep the Soviets out and the oil flowing.

But the collapse of the Shah knocked that policy into crisis. Saudi Arabia, everybody understood, simply wasn’t strong enough to be America’s sole watchdog in the Persian Gulf. The Iranian revolution was a match poised over the dynamite dump of Shi’a aspirations throughout the region. The Soviets were watching closely. What was to be done?

It’s an interesting coincidence that at this particular moment in history, in September 1980, Saddam Hussein launched his war of aggression against Iran. The war presented a irresistable opportunity for the realists: By tilting towards Saddam, they could contain Iran, protect Saudia Arabia and – just perhaps – wean Baathist Iraq away from its Soviet arms supplier.

The neocons despised this policy, which ran exactly counter to their own desire to turn Israel into America’s primary ally and deputy sheriff in the Middle East. By cuddling up to Iraq, the realists were actually strengthening one of the Jewish state’s most powerful enemies. This was intolerable.

The neocons, however, were in a weak position. Their own initial effort to forge a U.S.-Israeli alliance – by dragging American forces into Arial Sharon’s disastrous adventure in Lebanon – had ended with the Marine barracks bombing in Beruit. To most rational analysts, it was obvious that Israel by itself could not be America’s primary proxy in the Middle East. But Israel and a newly moderated and benign Iran … well, the possibilities were intriguing.

The rest, as they say, is history: TOW missiles, a cake backed in the shape of a key, Ollie North and his shredder, congressional investigations, criminal indictments, etc. The neocons were discredited, the realists vindicated. Bill Casey was dead. Reagan rode off into the Altzheimer’s sunset. The new president, once the neocons’ patron, abandoned them The tilt towards Iraq increased. So did U.S. pressure on Israel to freeze settlement activity and come to the negotiating table with the Palestinians.

The realist policy, however, also ended in a disaster. Having been fed a few crumbs, Saddam decided he might as well take the whole cake. But as Keynes once remarked, failing conventionally is often less harmful to a professional reputation than succeeding conventionally. Bush could make good his mistakes by kicking Saddam out of Kuwait. The neocons could gripe about Bush’s failure to finish Saddam off, but few were listening.

The Return from Exile

With the Gulf War won, Saddam contained, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process launched and the Soviet Union resting in the dustbin of history, you might have thought the neocons would have been put out of business for good. The Iran-Contra affair should have been their swan song. But they actually emerged stronger from that debacle – even though it wasn’t obvious at the time.

Whatever damage the neocons suffered in as a result of the scandal was more than offset by the bonding that took place between them and the conservative populists during the heat of the partisan battle. The cultural gap was bridged. The neocons, who had been moving steadily to the right on domestic and social issues, finally shed their outsider status. At the same time, support for Israel emerged a litmus test issue for the religious right. For the first time, the neocons had a popular base.

If not for 9/11, however, none of this might have mattered much. The prevailing popular sentiment within the Republican Party during the 1990s was crudely nationalistic, if not neo-isolationist. Nation building was one of those silly liberal fantasies. So was peacekeeping. The conservative populists were happy to cheer when the neocons bashed Clinton, and they agreed on the need for fatter military budgets. But they had absolutely no desire to embrace the neocon vision of an activist foreign policy – much less to remake the map of the Middle East.

When the second Bush administration took office in 2001, it seemed like a case of deja vu all over again. As in Reagan’s first term, the neocons were well represented in the second tier jobs. But it looked like the key posts had all been reserved for Ford administration veterans, who would take their advice from the realists. It appeared the neocons were going to be kept on a tight leash – even by their original patrons, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld. This wasn’t too surprising: the neocons, after all, generally had leaned towards John McCain in the GOP primary race. To the victor goes the foreign policy spoils.

The administration’s first major foreign policy crisis – the forced landing of a Naval spy plane in China – only seemed to confirm this impression. As much as the neocons might want to set China up as the new evil empire, senior management wasn’t buying it. It seemed like the neocons had finally been domesticated.

A Whole New Ballgame

So how they did they end up in a position to ram an invasion of Iraq down the collective throat of the realists? I’m going to speculate that their abrupt rise to control of the war on terror was the result of something close to panic on the parts of the Messrs. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.

In the aftermath of 9/11, senior management was forced to confront the many things it didn’t know about the Islamic world, as well as the things it thought it knew that turned out to be flat wrong – like the idea that Saudi Arabia was a friendly country firmly controlled by a friendly dynasty. Or the idea that Afghanistan could be ignored, because it was no longer a battleground against the Soviets. Or the idea that they could rely on Pakistan’s security service to keep tabs on Talaban. Or the quaint notion that Osama bin Laden played the terrorism game according to certain rules – one of them being that the U.S. homeland was off limits.

Invading Afghanistan, destroying the Taliban and uprooting Al Qaeda were the obvious immediate responses to 9/11. But what then? The policy options must have seemed almost infinite.

Once again, badly in need of a world view, senior management turned to the neocons – who again seemed to have all the answers. They, at least, had been thinking about the threat of terrorism while the Republican establishment was still dreaming about endless tax cuts. Saddam was a familiar enemy; invading Iraq was a familiar military problem – one that could be solved using familiar tactics. And there was the oil, which offered the prospect of a self-financing occupation, plus a nice dividend for the invader.

The hardest sell must have been the post-Saddam succession – the same problem that had deterred the Bush I team from marching to Baghdad. Somehow the neocons were able to convince senior management that Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress could fill the void. Or maybe that was simply a smoke screen all along, and the real plan was for a prolonged U.S. military occupation. Who knows?

But once the decision was made, the neocons used all their old tricks to steamroller the bureaucracy and keep the realists on the defensive. The Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans played the role of the old “Team B” – second guessing the CIA and creating the desired sense of urgency about the WMD “threat.” Policy planning was privatized, ala Iran-Contra, with key decisions being farmed out to ideologically correct think tank analysts while the State Department was cut out of the loop whenever possible. Military planners were excluded from grand strategy, and strictly confined to the operational aspects of the invasion – and even there was subjected to neocon meddling. And so on.

The neocons didn’t win every battle – the decision to seek a UN Security Council resolution in support of the invasion being the most glaring example. But it’s hard to argue that the grand design behind the policy wasn’t theirs, or that the ultimate responsibility for its success or failure doesn’t lie with them. And that’s true no matter how vigorously their ideological soulmates in the conservative media try to obscure it now.

Fall from Grace

It’s fairly easy to pinpoint when the neocons began to lose their grip. It was immediately after the suicide bombing that destroyed the UN headquarters in Baghdad and killed Sergio Viera de Mello in August. The bombing, followed shortly later by the one in Najaf that killed the Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim, prompted Bush to return to the U.N. Security Council for a resolution endorsing the occupation, and to put Condi Rice in direct charge of Iraq policy.

Since then, the neocon decline has proceeded in accelerating stages. Bush’s September request for $189 billion in military and reconstruction funding (an admission that the neocon fantasy of a cheap occupation had died) was one milestone. Proconsul Bremer’s abrupt recall to Washington in November, which was followed by the decision to move towards a provisional government on an accelerated timetable, was another. Now they’re passing in rapid succession.

But if the neocons no longer control Iraq policy – or have much say in foreign policy in general – who does? Figuring out who’s minding the store is always a problem with an administration this secretive, especially since it never admits to a mistake and rarely tosses people overboard. Or, as General Zinni told the Washington Post:

“What I don’t understand is that the bill of goods the neocons sold him has been proven false, yet heads haven’t rolled,” he says. “Where is the accountability? I think some fairly senior people at the Pentagon ought to go.” Who? “That’s up to the president.”

The problem, I think, is that while the neocons may be in the dog house, it’s very much in the administration’s interests to obscure that fact. Firing them would draw too much attention to the people who allowed them to crap all over the carpet – again.

Since that group includes the President, the Vice President and the Secretary of Defense, and since the investigative machinery of Congress is safely in Republican hands, accountability can be avoided, at least for now. The neocons can be permitted to slip away quietly – to academia, the think tanks, or, in Richard Perle’s case, perhaps to a federal penitentiary.

But I wouldn’t bid them a final farewell just yet. In the 1970s and ’80s, and even into the ’90s, the neocons were totally dependent on the GOP’s foreign policy grandees – men like Bush I, Cheney and Rumsfeld – for their access to power. They could be brought into the policymaking circle when needed, and dismissed when they became a liability.

But now the neocons have a political power base of their own. Or, to be more accurate: They’ve acquired a new set of patrons on the populist right – supremely ignorant men like Tom Delay and even (God help us) Rush Limbaugh, who need a foreign policy world view to go with their crude notions of American supremacy, their loathing of Islam, and their Bible-based support for Israel.

Providing ideological world views to the ignorant is how the neocons have made their way in the world. And their new customers are the modern center of gravity of the Republican Party. They’re the leaders of The Base – that mystical block of true believers the Bush II administration feels it cannot afford to offend in any way.

Which suggests to me the neocons won’t remain in the twilight for long. The realists are the ones who don’t seem to have much of a future in the GOP. Who knows? Maybe in time they’ll defect to the Democratic Party, to become the intellectual mentors to a rising generation of moderately hawkish Democrats, in search of a world view.

After all, it’s happened before.