The War God That Failed

It had to happen – the faithless neocons, who value loyalty only to their own ambitions, have taken to denouncing the president for carrying out their wishes, albeit "incompetently." As predicted here, here, and here years ago, they’re turning on George W. Bush with a vengeance.

The war they wanted has gone badly – very badly – and now they’re looking for someone to blame other than its intellectual authors, i.e., themselves. For the past six months or so their chosen scapegoat has been Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, subject of a hagiography by Midge Decter, now the target of Bill Kristol and Andrew Sullivan for not endorsing the neocons’ demand to escalate the war. These former supporters of the Rumsfeldian "transformation" of the U.S. military into a lean, mean, imperialist machine – centered around light deployments of highly trained and very high-tech warriors, rather than the massive Powellesque strategy of overwhelming the enemy with sheer numbers – are perfectly willing to turn on their old friend and supporter in order to escape slings and arrows rightly directed at them.

That hasn’t worked out too well, however: the president has vowed to keep Rummy around for the duration, and the American public is about to issue a resounding rebuke to the War Party in an election widely viewed [.pdf] as a referendum on American foreign policy.

What to do? Do what a chameleon does, and change your spots: blend in with the mood, and ride the wave to the next host, where you implant yourself and work to drag us into yet another war. Imagine spores of evil floating in the political atmosphere, willing and able to attach themselves to any host – and very quick to pack up and leave once they’ve turned their victim into a dry, empty husk – and you’ve painted a pretty accurate picture of the neocons and how they operate.

They did it with Rumsfeld, and now they’re turning on their formal leader and commander in chief, George W. Bush. At least that’s what this preview of a forthcoming Vanity Fair piece – released just a few days before the election – seems to indicate. "Neo Culpa," by David Rose, cites a number of top neocons on their disillusionment with The War God That Failed, with Richard Perle, the Dark Prince of the group, executing the most stunning if-I-knew-then-what-I know-now reversal:

"Perle goes so far as to say that, if he had his time over, he would not have advocated an invasion of Iraq: ‘I think if I had been delphic, and had seen where we are today, and people had said, "Should we go into Iraq?," I think now I probably would have said, "No, let’s consider other strategies for dealing with the thing that concerns us most, which is Saddam supplying weapons of mass destruction to terrorists." … I don’t say that because I no longer believe that Saddam had the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction, or that he was not in contact with terrorists. I believe those two premises were both correct. Could we have managed that threat by means other than a direct military intervention? Well, maybe we could have.’"

Coming from Perle, this mea culpa is breathtaking. After all, Perle argued that taking out Saddam was absolutely imperative, otherwise we would be guilty of "appeasement," of abandoning the Iraqi people to perpetual tyranny. Failure to go to war meant facing the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iraq in the very near future. I would note, however, that there is no remorse, no apology, no taking of responsibility on Perle’s part. Just an implication that the revolution was betrayed from within by mysterious forces of "disloyalty" who undermined the war effort, a fifth column, as it were. The same theme pops up in comments from others:

"To David Frum, the former White House speechwriter who co-wrote Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address that accused Iraq of being part of an ‘axis of evil,’ it now looks as if defeat may be inescapable, because ‘the insurgency has proven it can kill anyone who cooperates, and the United States and its friends have failed to prove that it can protect them.’ This situation, he says, must ultimately be blamed on ‘failure at the center’ – starting with President Bush."

Frum disputes this rendition of his views, and claims his comments were taken out of context. Regardless, the theme song of this neocon chorus remains pretty constant: it is the old Trotskyist refrain of the Revolution Betrayed. Ken "Cakewalk" Adelman avers,

“I just presumed that what I considered to be the most competent national-security team since Truman was indeed going to be competent. They turned out to be among the most incompetent teams in the postwar era. Not only did each of them, individually, have enormous flaws, but together they were deadly, dysfunctional.”

The leaders were "flawed," the principles were distorted and bent to individual aims and ambitions that undermined the original – and still worthy – goal. It all sounds so familiar. If you’ll recall, the Trotskyists blamed Stalin for all the ills produced by Communism, from the gulag to the bread lines, and this allowed them to claim – with increasing lack of credibility – that the "real" communism, the pure, undiluted version upheld by Trotsky and his followers, had yet to be tried. Yet the implosion of the Soviet empire, long foretold by Trotsky, did not produce any mass audience for Trotskyism. Quite the contrary, the fall of Stalin’s heirs confirmed the death of communism as a moral and political ideal, and marginalized the Trotskyists to the point of near-extinction.

The neocons face a similar situation. Their grand project is imploding; the "global democratic revolution" that was supposed to have been sparked by the "liberation" of Iraq has instead set off a global tsunami of anti-Americanism. On the home front, they face the wrath of the voters, as well as several investigations into their activities that could end in more than a few jail terms being handed out. Adelman says the neocons’ goose is cooked:

"Fearing that worse is still to come, Adelman believes that neoconservatism itself – what he defines as ‘the idea of a tough foreign policy on behalf of morality, the idea of using our power for moral good in the world’ – is dead, at least for a generation. After Iraq, he says, ‘it’s not going to sell.’ And if he, too, had his time over, Adelman says, ‘I would write an article that would be skeptical over whether there would be a performance that would be good enough to implement our policy. The policy can be absolutely right, and noble, beneficial, but if you can’t execute it, it’s useless, just useless. I guess that’s what I would have said: that Bush’s arguments are absolutely right, but you know what, you just have to put them in the drawer marked can’t do. And that’s very different from let’s go.’"

Neoconservatism, R.I.P.? If only it were so. I’m afraid, however, that reports of the neocons’ death as a political force in Washington are greatly exaggerated. Surely the credibility – and salability – of such pro-war pundits as Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan has taken a well-deserved dive – e.g., in this clip, Sullivan declares that Bush and Rumsfeld must be "held accountable." What about holding Sullivan accountable for his own vehement insistence that the invasion of Iraq was a moral imperative? In their eagerness to walk away from the real-world consequences of their views, Hitchens and Sullivan only underscore their moral culpability – and, of course, their own moral cowardice.

Yet the stock of the neoconservative movement has not quite hit rock bottom, and if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t sell them short. These guys are nothing if not resourceful. They survived the end of the Cold War, then consolidated their hold over the conservative movement. With the return of Republicans to the White House in 2001, they took their war agenda with them to Washington: 9/11 gave them a new lease on life. They are down, now, but they are skillfully trying to escape responsibility for the disaster they authored. And they may yet succeed. In abandoning Bush, they aren’t necessarily abandoning the GOP: there’s always John McCain, a willing instrument. McCain’s chief adviser and promoter was Marshall Wittmann, the former Republican who switched to the Democrats and is now ensconced at the Democratic Leadership Council and its think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, both pro-war and avidly interventionist.

The neocons have no party loyalty: their allegiance is to power and whoever holds it. In switching to the Democratic Party, not a few of them could claim to be returning to the party of their youth, the party of Roosevelt and Truman – and, of course, Scoop Jackson. The Democrats have no unified policy on Iraq, and many are vehemently pro-war. A minority in the leadership wants to get out – but even this group confines itself to saying that we must withdraw "over the horizon," to bases surrounding the region. After all, we must always be ready to reenter the fray if necessary. The Democratic base supports unconditional withdrawal, but, as usual, the leadership is bucking the trend, tirelessly working to derail the antiwar majority from having a decisive influence.

The problem with the conquest and occupation of Iraq is not that it was executed incompetently, but that it was executed at all. No strategy could have achieved a "victory," since the goal of establishing a liberal democracy in Iraq was never possible – and was never the real objective to begin with. The actual purpose of the war was to set us up for the next war. And in this the neocons have been successful. This is true not just because we are a border incident or two away from a regional war in the Middle East, but also because leading Democrats such as Hillary Clinton accuse the Bush administration of appeasing Iran. Their critique of the Iraq war has been over means, not ends: Democrats dutifully echo the neocon talking point that the failure of the war policy lies in the "incompetence" of this administration.

As a longtime student of the habits and rituals of the species Neoconservatismus americanus, I am hardly shocked at the spectacle of this very public back-stabbing. If only Bush or anyone on his staff had the wit to utter "Et tu, Richard?" I’m told Dick Cheney looked "shell-shocked" when George Stephanopoulos asked him about some of the neocons’ criticisms. Yet anyone who knows anything about their long history as a coherent political force is hardly surprised by their sudden turnabout, or their treachery. Over the years, their domestic politics have been all over the map, but one principle has remained constant: their lust for war as a good in itself, quite apart from the pursuit of American interests. The core of neocon ideology is what has been called "the Ledeen Doctrine," the idea that waging war abroad is constantly necessary to remind the world that America is Number One, and intends to remain so. (By the way, leave it to neocon guru Michael Ledeen, of Iran-Contra fame, to tell the most outrageous cover story: he claims he never supported the Iraq war to begin with! Now that’s a real whopper!)

Evil knows no party. Remember that as you vote. The Democrats are just another wing of the War Party: once they are in power, the war becomes their war. They have pledged to be more competent managers, not radical reformers: their goal is to "win" a war that cannot be won. Once they become responsible for a failed policy, they will defend it just as stubbornly as their Republican predecessors. Just you wait and see.

A Democratic victory in both the House and the Senate would do much to unleash the investigative power of Congress and reveal the inner machinations that made it possible for the president to take us into war against all credible evidence, and against the advice of his intelligence agencies and the military. Just don’t expect too much – and don’t invest your hopes in any politician. Without a mass movement from below – that is, an informed and active public opposition to the interventionist policies advocated by both parties – we will never take back our foreign policy from the small group of ideologues who seem to have hijacked it.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].