Deconstructing the Neocons

The war in Iraq is coming to resemble the War on Drugs in this narrow sense: if it were simply a matter of having enough persuasive, well-written, well-researched and responsible books out there critiquing the war from different perspectives, the war would have been ended some time ago. Unfortunately, while whatever intellectually defensible justifications for both wars might once have existed have long since crumbled, emotional support is still fairly strong. And certain deeply entrenched interests still see themselves as benefiting from both.

One of the more persuasive critiques of the war from a generally conservative perspective is America Alone: The Neoconservatives and the Global Order (Cambridge University Press, 369 pp.) by Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke. The authors are both veteran cold warriors with long-term diplomatic experience. Stefan Halper, now a fellow of Magdalene College at Cambridge, was a White House and State Department official in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations, and is a contributing editor at the American Spectator. Jonathan Clarke, now at the Cato Institute, served in the British Foreign Service, with assignments in Germany, Zimbabwe and the United States.

The two argue that part of the reason the West prevailed in the Cold War was that the United States, for the most part, retained superior moral authority vis-à-vis the Soviet empire. In the post-Soviet era, however, "its moral authority is at risk. That is because the policies adopted in response to the catastrophic horror of Sept. 11, 2001 have rested on a series of critically flawed premises, namely that the challenges we face are essentially military in character and that military power alone can deliver victory. And while that may be true when barbarian fights barbarian for strips of territory, it is a profound mistake when civilization hopes to emerge triumphant."

The Militarization of Politics

Noting the profound changes that have taken place in American society since 9/11 – "troops in combat fatigues patrolling public places … concrete barriers around government buildings and synagogues; the drastic changes to air travel; flashing highway signs urging drivers to report suspicious behavior;" the conversion of global sympathy after 9/11 to widespread anti-Americanism, not to mention the rising federal and state deficits and clogging of international intercourse in people, goods, services and capital – they see the most remarkable change in the insertion of the military front-and-center into more aspects of American life:

"A decade ago, it was a proud Washington boast that well-fashioned American policy toward Latin America had moderated that region’s love affair with its generals and returned the military to its barracks. Today, the trend in America is in the opposite direction. Few political rallies or speeches are complete without a military accent. The only extraordinary aspect of this is how ordinary it now seems to us, persuaded as we have been to forget that one of the unifying threads of our political culture, exemplified by Washington’s resignation of his commission in 1783, has been an avoidance of military intrusion into politics. But now times have changed so that we observe passively when, in defiance of the underlying grain of the American political ethos, movement is in the direction of tighter central control. …

"The greatest change is psychological. Today we have convinced ourselves (with a massive assist from cable news and talk radio) that, as Americans, our natural state is war – war that has no dimensions, with elusive enemies who may be equally residents of Damascus or Detroit and with no definition of what constitutes victory and thus with no end in sight. Having absorbed a siege mentality, we live our lives in crisis mode. ‘It’s the terror, stupid,’ is the defining political slogan. Yet we are left with a stark paradox. Despite the massive application of American firepower overseas and an equally massive diversion of resources toward homeland security, Americans feel not a whit more secure – quite the opposite. Poll after poll shows Americans feeling more personally threatened than at any time in their history."

The Neoconservative Contribution

How did this country come to such a pretty pass? I resist the temptation simply to say that American foreign policy has been hijacked by a cabal of neoconservatives, for Halper and Clarke’s analysis is much more subtle, fair-minded and balanced than that. Nonetheless, they do argue that "the neoconservatives have taken American international relations on an unfortunate detour, veering away from the balanced, consensus-building, and resource-husbanding approach that has characterized traditional Republican internationalism – exemplified today by Secretary of State Colin Powell – and acted more as a special interest focused on its particular agenda."

The two go back to the origins of the neoconservative movement or persuasion in the 1960s, when various often left-leaning intellectuals – Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Daniel Bell, Daniel Moynihan, Midge Decter, Michael Novak, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Peter Berger and others – struggled to come to terms with the cultural revolution of the 1960s twinned with a willingness to apologize for communism verging sometimes on knee-jerk anti-Americanism that characterized many sectors of American intellectual life. Many of these writers did important work in a variety of fields, from criticizing the shortcomings of the welfare state to trying to define the role of religion in an essentially secular society that continued to value religious freedom.

Over time, perhaps driven by a conviction that protection of the state of Israel is a preeminent concern, neoconservatives narrowed their range of interests, coming to focus on foreign policy. However, "Even on foreign policy, modern neoconservatism focuses narrowly. It pays scant attention to the world beyond defense budgets and select areas of the world where its ideology is applicable." What began as a relatively intellectually adventurous and sometimes even transgressive – at least in terms of the U.S. academy persuasion – has yielded to a situation where today’s exemplars "give the appearance of having been born intellectually middle-aged."

Halper and Clarke devote careful attention to Albert Wohlstetter, who taught political science at the University of Chicago, was quietly but deeply influential in developing the U.S. strategic approach to the Soviet Union (especially the importance of high technology) and was something of a mentor to Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. Wohlstetter and Allan Bloom were in turn influenced by the German-born political scientist Leo Strauss, whose advocacy of classical political thought and the importance of religion to maintaining virtue in a decent society led to profound disillusionment with modernism and secularism (although having read his book on natural rights I’m not sure just how personally religious he was or whether he cherished religion mainly for its utility in advancing what he saw as the good society). Strauss, of course, also influenced Claremont‘s Harry Jaffa and the school of thought idealizing Lincoln as the preeminent American statesman and democratic exemplar.

All of this discussion bears no resemblance to the gotcha sometimes out-of-context quote-mongering that sometimes characterizes dissections of neoconservatism. It is sober and intellectually responsible, but more than forthright about the areas where the authors have disagreements, especially with the modern, foreign-policy-focused and perhaps surprisingly military-fascinated version of neoconservatism

Neoconservatives and Reagan

When Ronald Reagan died recently, inspiring a rather surprising and widespread effusion of affection and perhaps nostalgia, today’s neoconservatives were among those in the forefront of trying to claim the mantle of Reagan to bless their current policy preferences. It is therefore useful that this book includes a chapter, tellingly titled "The False History," that details Reagan’s actual policies and the often troubled relationship between the Reagan administration and the neocons, and between the neocons and other elements of the traditional conservative coalition.

It is true that Reagan appointed prominent neoconservatives like William Bennett, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, Eugene Rostow, Carnes Lord, Elliott Abrams and others to positions of prominence, "but they never joined the inner sanctum." Our authors note that for all his rhetorical flourish about the "evil empire" and his unabashedly conservative approach to the world, "Reagan’s approach to the world may, in its basic philosophical instincts, have had something in common with neoconservatism, but the pragmatism of its execution set it a universe away from today’s inflexible neoconservative designs. The severe neoconservative critique of Reagan’s foreign policy that emerged from the early 1980s made this clear."

As Halper and Clarke note, an early honeymoon with Reagan was quickly followed by neoconservative disenchantment. "Within four years, [Norman] Podhoretz had published articles with such titles as ‘The Reagan Road to Détente,’ ‘The Neoconservative Anguish over Reagan’s Foreign Policy,’ and ‘Mistaken Identity.’ Irving Kristol had written, ‘The Muddle in Foreign Policy,’ and Robert Tucker had published ‘The Middle East: Carterism without Carter.’ These articles made clear that the president had fallen out of favor with the neoconservatives."

Essentially, while Reagan talked tough about the Soviets, when the circumstances seemed to warrant it he acted with relative moderation. His three acts of foreign intervention, in Beirut in 1982, in Grenada in 1983, and bombing Libya in 1986, were of limited goals and duration, and calculated not to create a confrontation with the Soviet Union. This disappointed the neocons, as did his relatively limited response to the imposition of martial law in Poland and the banning of Solidarity in 1981.

As for Israel, while supporting Israel as "an accomplished fact," he rejected the idea of Israel incorporating Gaza and the West Bank and called for a freeze on Israeli West Bank settlements. He supported the UN declaration denouncing the de facto annexation of the Golan Heights as illegal. Commentary magazine complained that the administration "becomes ever more accustomed to playing the role of supplicant to the rulers of Arabia." And Norman Podhoretz claimed to see a "continuing tilt in American policy toward the enemies of Israel in the Middle East."

The neocons also saw Reagan as soft on mainland China.

Halper and Clarke say that, "Although Reagan’s approach to the world was undoubtedly based on challenging Soviet expansionism and the decline of American influence, it was never predicated – in the neoconservative manner – on the unilateral deployment of U.S. military power. Consequently, Norman Podhoretz spoke for many neoconservatives, when he wrote, ‘the President’s warmest friends and his most virulent enemies imagined that they had found in him a champion of the old conservative dream of going beyond the containment of Communism to the "rollback" of Communist influence and power and the "liberation" of the Soviet empire. The truth, however, is that Mr. Reagan as President has never shown the slightest inclination to pursue such an ambitious strategy.’"

Perhaps the most important distinction between Reagan and the neoconservatives is in psychology or temperament. Reagan was an optimist, generally appealing to the best in people and confident that freedom would triumph eventually. The neoconservative impulse, by contrast, is deeply pessimistic, "centered around Hobbes’s doomsday vision of man in his primitive state," and seeing dire threats wherever they turn, whether from Woodstock, multiculturalism, a nation under siege from jihadists, and American young people hopelessly lax and inclined toward being corrupted, all of which must be met with firm action by the powerful state they see as the only hope for preserving even a modest semblance of civilized life.

The Iraq Deception

America Alone includes an excellent chapter on how neoconservatives captured the public discourse in the wake of the 9/11 attack to conjure a connection between that attack by a non-state organization based in Afghanistan and cyberspace and the perceived need to invade the nation-state of Iraq. Among their advantages were the fact that neocons had been making the case for invading Iraq since 1992, with the Wolfowitz-Cheney-Libby draft defense posture paper, and the Project for the New American Century position paper in 1997. So they didn’t have to develop a position; it was already formed, and ready to be sold to the Bush administration, which was already salted with neocons in influential positions.

They also cite a study, based on seven different polls between January and September 2003 that showed significant numbers of Americans believed in three misconceptions crucial to selling the Iraq war: that Iraq had played a role in the 9/11 attack and that Iraq and al-Qaeda were closely, even operationally linked; that weapons of mass destruction had actually been found after the war; and that world opinion in general approved of America’s going to war. Interestingly (although on reflection perhaps not surprisingly), these attitudes arose not from paying too little attention to the news but from paying too much attention to certain news outlets. In sum, "those who principally watched Fox News were far more likely to have these misperceptions than those who did not." At a more detailed level, "Fox News watchers were by far the most likely to hold these [three mistaken] views and were three times more likely to hold all three." How significant is it, however, that while 80 percent of Fox viewers held at least one of these mistaken notions, fully 71 percent of CBS viewers also did, compared to 55 percent for NBC and CNN?

Halper and Clarke are understated: "That those with higher exposure to Fox News and CBS News were more likely to misperceive and support the war in Iraq is a telling commentary on how little these networks concentrated on the objective provision of information."

If this book has a shortcoming, it is a failure to offer much more of a policy framework for the future than a return to traditional conservative internationalism, with a proper balance among diplomacy, trade, alliances, multilateral or unilateral actions as appropriate, and military action as a last resort, only when all other means have clearly failed. The authors also believe that "the neoconservatives have had their moment" and their influence is bound to fade as the tragic results of their policy preferences become increasingly clear. I suspect they are more persistent and the American media and public less attentive than that.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).