They’re coming out of the closet, so to speak, faster than David Brooks can deny their very existence: I’m talking about neocons, of course, that dreaded sub-species of right-wing ideologues whose fabulous history has become the stuff of legend. Brooks says that to even breathe the n-word is to flirt with Hitlerian tendencies, and Joel Mowbray agrees. So, too, does Jonah Goldberg, and that seems to finalize the verdict of the jury. Except that it doesn’t.
Max Boot dissents, for one, acknowledging, in a Wall Street Journal piece entitled “What the Heck is a Neocon?“, that they do, indeed, exist, but that us neocon-watchers a very small group, at least up until now have it all wrong. They aren’t going to let neocon-phobes define who and what they are, no sirree! Neocon Pride is here, and it’s mighty queer but we’re just gonna have to get used to it! That is the scintillating theme of Boot’s latest screed, in the January-February issue of Foreign Policy magazine (not online yet), which complains that “critics have twisted the neocons’ identities and thinking on U.S. foreign policy into an unrecognizable caricature.”
Oh, the poor little babies! Misunderstood, laughed at, persecuted, hated yes, they’re victims, alright. Victims of their own success, which Boot goes to great lengths to deny. The idea that “the Bush administration is pursuing a neoconservative foreign policy” is the first myth he seeks to debunk: “If only it were true!” While acknowledging that neocons he names Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, and Lewis “Scooter” Libby occupy key second-tier positions in this administration, where, he asks, are their representatives in the top tier? Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, “not a neocon among them,” Boot triumphantly avers.
But this completely obscures the real role of the neoconservative policy intellectuals, not as representatives of some kind of mass movement but as a faction of the policymaking elite. These avid students of Machiavelli see themselves as advisors to the Prince, and it is there, as the Italian master of intrigue and power politics knew, that the power very often lies.
It is hardly necessary for the neoconservative policy intellectual to hold the highest office in order to exert a controlling influence: to expect this is to misconceive their role, and miss the point of neoconservatism, which is an ideology of power, expressed as advice to the powerful. Their audience is not Joe Sixpack, but the ruling elite in government, and opinion-makers in academia and the media.
Between these two tiers of power there is a natural division of labor, with the second tier producing the grand theory and the first tier charged with selling it to the public.
There is also, as I have pointed out earlier, yet another aspect to this division of labor:
“The neoconservative intellectuals, like Wolfowitz, expend millions of words to prove and reprove the necessity of their policies, of the inevitability of perpetual war for perpetual peace, while second-and-third tier activists like William Kristol proclaim the virtues of a ‘benevolent world hegemony.’ But in the end it boils down to such vulgar matters as Halliburton’s profit margins and the price of oil. In an era in which wars are fought in the name of vague and improbable ideals, such as ‘human rights’ and ‘multiculturalism,’ it is a safe bet to follow the money. It works almost every time.”
But these lines of division in the War Party are by no means impassable: in the case of Richard Perle, that Renaissance man of the neocons, we have someone who combines the entrepreneurial instincts of a vulture with the intellectual ferocity of a shrike. Both war profiteer and neoconservative policy wonk, Perle combines the two characteristics most typical of the War Party greed and bloodlust in a single persona.
Bush was converted on the road to Damascus by the events of 9/11, and has since abjured his support for a more “humble” foreign policy but why Iraq? Of course, there’s always Laurie Mylroie‘s conspiracy theories, which point to Saddam as the source not only of the 9/11 attacks, but of virtually every disaster, both natural and unnatural, for the past decade or so, including the Oklahoma City bombings and the first attack on the WTC. But the American Enterprise Institute’s very own version of Lyndon LaRouche is really not taken seriously, and for good reasons. Neither are the other alleged links between Al Qaeda and Saddam proffered by any of the Usual Suspects. Perhaps the best explanation of “Why Iraq?” was the brutally honest one, courtesy of Wolfowitz, who told Bob Woodward: “Because it was doable.”
Boot’s argument that Team Bush may have embraced the neocon line in Iraq, but not elsewhere Iran, and North Korea makes no mention of Syria, and/or Lebanon, the next logical steps in the neocons’ rampage through the Middle East.
He also points to the “road map” as evidence of Bush’s failure to toe the neocon party line: but the administration never did anything to punish the Israelis for defying its chief benefactor and going ahead with the Wall of Separation. Settlements continue to go up, and are expanded, even as the muted protests of the U.S. which is footing the bill for all this are ignored.
Contra Boot, the U.S. still refuses to negotiate, one on one, with the North Koreans, who have the power to incinerate Japan as well as South Korea and the 30,000 American troops stationed there. As for “cooling the axis of evil talk,” as Boot puts it, there is a rhythm to this kind of rhetoric, and now (right before an election) is the logical time for a natural pause, an ingathering of breath, before a fresh outburst precedes the next war. Having swallowed Iraq whole, the world-encircling python of American power is presently engorged. It must have time to digest before hunger and bloodlust drive it to devour the next small animal that crosses its path.
I will concede, however, that Bush’s policy of détente with China hardly coincides with the neocon position, which is always and everywhere an unrestrained belligerence. It is a case of the exception proving the rule. China is hardly in the neocons’ sights right now: the center of their focus is Iraq and the Middle East, the first steps on the road to empire. They can forgive Bush this one deviation, at least for the moment, while the “transformation” of the Middle East proceeds apace.
Okay, then, let’s move on to the really good stuff, the part where Boot tries to bury the leftist origins of neoconservative ideology behind a chador of multiple veils. The old line about neocons being “liberals who have been mugged by reality” is “no longer true,” according to Boot. Only a few old fogies like Irving Kristol and Sidney Hook flirted with socialism and the more exotic varieties of Trotskyism, but today a whole new generation of Bright Young Things, including Kristol the Younger and Carnegie Endowment analyst Robert Kagan, “have never gone through a leftist phase.”
That it is possible to be influenced by ideas that originated on the far left without being a card-carrying Trotskyist is too subtle a point for the neocons to absorb. Besides that, there are plenty of second-generation neocons who did go through a leftist “phase,” and in many cases one is not entirely sure that this “phase” has entirely passed.
Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, author of Exporting Democracy, and Heaven on Earth, a history of the failure of the socialist idea in America, and one of the chief members of the neocons’ defense team. Muravchik got the ball rolling with this whole “neocon = Jew” meme with his recent fulminating piece in Commentary. He is a former national chairman of the Young Peoples Socialist League, then the youth section of the old Socialist Party/Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA). This group was the last ideological resting place of Max Shachtman, Leon Trotsky’s former right-hand man in America.
In addition to Muravchik, Penn Kemble and Carl Gershman constitute a "second generation" of Trotskyists-cum-neocons: included in the first generation are such founding figures as Nathan Glazer, Sidney Hook, and Albert Wohlstetter, who, as John Judis points out, "were either members of or close to the Trotskyist left in the late 1930s and early 1940s."
Marshall Wittman, a former official of the Christian Coalition who became a top advisor to John McCain during his presidential bid, opened his address to a meeting sponsored by SDUSA with these words:
“When I see this distinguished panel and all the distinguished people in the crowd, I’m thinking that we haven’t had so many clear-thinking people in one room since Max Schachtman dined alone. We are all Schachtmanites now, in one way or another.
“It’s funny I have a completely different memory of the YPSL and the social democrats than Josh[ua Muravchik] does. He was my national chairman, I was a young YPSL at NYU in 1971. The reason I joined the social democratic movement and the YPSL was to support George Meany and the Israeli Labor Party and Israel on my campus. All these notions expressed in the Internationale and so forth were thought to be a little bit nonsensical. We really didn’t take it seriously.
“I think that’s important, because when we talked about socialism, I don’t think we were suffering from too many utopian illusions. Essentially, we wanted to fight those on the left who were disparaging America and Israel and seeking their destruction. It seems that some things haven’t changed over the years, after all.”
No, some things never change. The neocons have been around since the damn 1930s, fer chrissake, in one form or another, first as schismatic Trotskyists, then as schismatic Democrats, and now as occasionally schismatic Republicans. Their ideological colors changed over the years, but the core principle at the heart of their faction remained the same. Always they pushed for war: class war, world war, perpetual war. Will we never be rid of them?
You want more names? I have in my hands a list a long one! of ex-Commies of one sort or another who have since enlisted with the new Jacobinism of the Right: Christopher Hitchens (a former editor of the Socialist Worker, newspaper of the International Socialist Organization), Stephen Schwartz, David Horowitz, Ronald Radosh, Arnold Beichman, Arch Puddington, and Greg Yardley, to name just a few of the most well-known as well as the obscure. (This is entirely apart from the “New York Intellectuals,” who, over the years, veered from anti-Stalinist leftism to LBJ-“Great Society” liberalism). An article by Schwartz defending Trotsky’s legacy was posted on National Review Online, and the National Post did a feature on how Trotsky’s ghost seems to be stalking the Pentagon, with quotes from Schwartz assuring us that Wolfowitz and other insiders are all very aware of the Trotskyist origins of neoconservatism.
Liberals mugged by reality? More like Commies who merely switched sides.
“It seems that some things haven’t changed over the years, after all.”
How true! Even much of the leftist vocabulary has survived the neocons’ migration to the right. When you conquer and subjugate a country, call it “liberation.” David Horowitz continually refers to the antiwar movement as a “fifth column” as if he were fighting the Spanish Civil War on the Commie “Loyalist” side. The loyalists invented the phrase as a rationale to slaughter priests and purge other “bourgeois” elements. Whether or not Horowitz has in mind a similar fate for antiwar activists, his tone certainly suggests they would deserve it. We are told that critics of the war are “anti-American” in the same tone of voice as the Kremlin once denounced “anti-Soviet elements.”
Like Muravchik, Joel Mowbray, Jonah Goldberg, and a host of other minor neoocn pundits and publicits, Boot plays the “anti-Semite” card, formulating a popular misconception about neoconservatism as follows:
“Neocons are Jews who serve the interests of Israel” this a headline, set in 30-point type, as if the size of the font gives weight to the words. But all the fancy formatting really does is underscore the brutal idiocy of a proposition that precisely no one of any consequence holds.
Boot mentions Lyndon LaRouche in the same breath as Le Monde, and the BBC. Yes, it’s true, as Boot says, that all three mention the names of prominent policymakers who also happen to be Jewish but not, I’m sure, with the same emphasis on ethnicity. Nor can the same emphasis be attributed to Pat Buchanan, whose magazine, The American Conservative, has attacked neocons of all ethnicities. According to this latest modification of the unwritten laws of political correctness, one is not allowed to utter a Jewish-sounding name in tandem with any discussion of neoconservatism or in connection with the conduct of American foreign policy. That’s one rule they’re going to have an awfully hard time enforcing.
Boot’s argument is self-refuting in many places, but certainly in this section, wherein he lists a whole platoon of non-Jewish neocons, and then goes on to claim that “the charge that neocons are concerned above all with the welfare of Israel is patently false.” Yet each and every one of the aforementioned non-Jewish neocons Bill Bennett, James Woolsey, John Newhaus, Michael Novak, and Jeane Kirkpatrick are slavish supporters of whatever line the Israeli government happens to be putting out. You don’t have to be Jewish to be a full-fledged member of Israel’s amen corner in America, and nobody important ever said any different.
The defense of Israel has always been a foundation stone of the neoconservative approach to U.S. policy in the Middle East, but aside from that, the links of individual neocons now in government, such as Douglas Feith, to Israel’s extremist Likud party, and to the “settler” movement, are no secret.
Boot mentions that the U.S. helped the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo, but this hardly contradicts the pro-Israel bias of U.S. policymakers. Certainly the “liberation” of the Balkans did much to pave the way for future interventions, such as in the Middle East. The Bosnian and Kosovo interventions also advanced the interests and extended the influence of Turkey, Israel’s key ally in the region.
“If the neocons were agents of Likud,” writes Boot, “they would have advocated an invasion not of Iraq or Afghanistan but of Iran, which Israel considers to be the biggest threat to its own security.” Michael Ledeen, of Iran-Contra fame and a leading neocon, has certainly been advocating just that in the pages of National Review, and the recent publication of the neocons’ latest manifesto, grandiosely entitled An End to Evil, includes Iran on a very long list of proposed targets slated for “regime change.”
C’mon, you guys! What kind of cabal are you running, anyway? Get your line straight, willya please?
I won’t bother with Boot’s denial that “neocons are a well-funded, well-organized cabal.” If nearly $70 million isn’t well-funded, then nothing is: comparing this to the largely non-ideological charity engaged in by the Rockefeller and MacArthur foundations hardly diminishes the neocons’ financial advantage over nearly every other intellectual tendency on the right as well as the left. Since there are only a few hundred neocons, at most not counting fellow-travelers and other dupes the money goes a long way in maintaining a veritable labyrinth of thinktanks, academic chairs, seminars, conferences, publishing projects, and other activities on behalf of spreading the neoconservative gospel.
Boot mentions the five-person “Project for a New American Century,” a kind of interface between the world of neoconservative scholarship and Washington politics, more like the old “Committee on the Present Danger” than a full-fledged thinktank. For some reason, however, he neglects to note the existence of "Neocon Central," otherwise known as the American Enterprise Institute, with its $25 million yearly budget, far overshadowing the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, which is widely perceived as having abdicated its position as the leading conservative thinktank with the rise of AEI.
Boot claims that the leading neocon publications have lower circulations than other ideological magazines, but this merely underscores how wrong he is when he says that “neocons have been relatively influential because of the strength of their arguments, not their connections.” Aside from their huge subsidies from the Olin, Scaife, Bradley, and Smith-Richardson foundations, they got where they are through their connections to the media barons who subsidize their money-losing pamphleteering. Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black together employ, publish, or otherwise subsidize a good two-thirds of the neoconservative journalists in existence.
Boot’s next point is that neocons aren’t exactly “Wilsonian idealists.” Oh, we’ve got the Wilsonian part right, but there are “hard” Wilsonians, you see, and “soft” Wilsonians, and the neocons are the former. This is news? Boot confesses that the popular idea that the neocons’ next targets are Iran and North Korea is true, which just confirms me in my belief that Syria and Lebanon are up next.
I’ll pass over Boot’s complaint about the charge of “unilateralism,” since I am, myself, a unilateralist that is, one who believes we ought to unilaterally and immediately end this business of empire-building and global do-good-ism. What’s interesting, though, is Boot’s answer to the charge that neocons are followers of Leo Strauss, the philosopher of the “noble lie,” or that Trotskyism played a major role in the intellectual evolution of neoconservatism.
The influence of Leo Strauss on leading figures within this administration, and certainly on the neoconservative movement, is not a matter of opinion: it is a matter of public record, Boot’s denials to the contrary notwithstanding. Boot claims that Strauss did not advocate lying to the public, but the import of his philosophy his separation of “esoteric” and “exoteric” knowledge, with the former reserved for the intellectual elite is clear.
Boot also disputes the influence of Leon Trotsky, and this, insofar as it goes, is technically correct. It wasn’t Trotsky so much as his apostates, chief among them Max Shachtman, who had such an impact on the “New York Intellectuals.” This group gradually moved right-ward, and eventually morphed into the neocons. Shachtman and his followers who, today, are organized in the Social Democrats, USA did not abandon socialism, but put it on the back-burner until global “democracy” could be achieved. Oblivious to this history, Boot writes:
“As neocon author Joshua Muravchik has pointed out, Trotsky would not have supported a democratic war of liberation in Iraq: his sympathies would have been with Saddam.”
Yes, but the point is that Shachtman certainly would have supported the “liberation” of Iraq by the U.S. He would have cheered the sentiments expressed by President George W. Bush in his speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, hailing the conquest of Iraq as just the first phase of “the global democratic revolution.”
Now we get to the last “myth” about the neocons that Boot wants to deflate, and this is really the whole point of his essay, which is to deny that “failure in Iraq has discredited the neocons.” It is, he says, “too early to say.” Whatever went wrong in Iraq is Rumsfeld’s fault, not the neocons’, who wanted to engage in the “nation-building” efforts disdained by the Defense Secretary. Oh, boo hoo hoo, the poor victimized little neocons. Life just isn’t fair when policymakers have to answer for the consequences of their policies! “Fairly or not,” wails Boot,
“Neocons will doubtless be held responsible for the outcome in both countries [Iraq and Afghanistan]; their numerous enemies, on both the left and the right, will see to that.”
You bet we will.