As the ugly reality of what we had gotten ourselves into in Iraq settled on the national consciousness, like a viral infection settling on the lungs, the conventional wisdom was that the authors of this war the political tendency known as the neoconservatives were utterly and completely discredited. Where were the "weapons of mass destruction"? Where were the crowds of Iraqis throwing rose petals in our wake? Where was the cakewalk? And most of all where were the friggin’ neocons, anyway? Most were in hiding, having resigned and slunk back to academia or some neocon "think tank"; very few were in the line of fire. They left that one for the troops.
Suddenly, once-ubiquitous figures such as Richard Perle, James Woolsey, and Kenneth Adelman, who had made the television talking-heads circuit pretty regularly in the run-up to war, were nowhere to be seen. The neocons vanished from the corridors of power or else took cover in unlighted alcoves. Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Perle, and a large number of their retainers left government or like Scooter Libby and Larry Franklin were indicted.
The neocons, we were told, had been "marginalized," and their dreams of "benevolent global hegemony" were pronounced dead. Yet, not much more than a year later, the beast has reawakened; the corpse is animate. Frankenstein lives! As Jacob Heilbrunn, a senior editor at The National Interest, a former neocon himself, and author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, put it the other day, the idea that the neoconservatives are finished "could be the biggest whopper of them all."
With the "surge" in place, its ostensible success having placated the mainstream media (if not the American public), "the neocons are already claiming vindication," avers Heilbrunn. And they’re flocking to John McCain’s presidential bid, which seems to have escaped any opprobrium on account of his pro-war position simply because the mainstream media have resumed their love affair with the conductor of the "Straight Talk Express." And so have the neocons: Heilbrunn refers to McCain as "the neocons’ hero," as well he ought to be. He is, after all, the perfect exemplar of militarism, American-style. With McCain in the White House, it will be just like old times again, only better. Don’t forget that McCain was one of Ahmed Chalabi’s biggest backers and openly campaigned, during the Clinton administration, to put the Iraqi fraudster on the American payroll.
During the 1990s, when most Republican politicians were against nation-building and extravagant interventionism perhaps in reaction to the Clinton administration’s taste for both McCain, in the words of John Judis, sought "to differentiate his views from those of other Republican presidential aspirants and from the growing isolationism of House Republicans" from "within a larger ideological framework. That ideological framework was neoconservatism."
The Weekly Standard became McCain’s Pravda, and he began consulting regularly with Bill Kristol, who soon became a close adviser. Neocons Marshall Wittmann and Daniel McKivergan two close friends of Kristol’s were hired by McCain, and the former became one of his top advisers during the presidential campaign.
The neocons, having destroyed the presidency of George W. Bush, have already found another willing host, and they are primed and ready for another go. As Heilbrunn knowingly, and somewhat wearily, puts it:
"The truth is that the neocons have been repeatedly declared dead before and, to the chagrin of their enemies on the left and the right, bounced back. At the end of the Cold War, the arch-realist George H.W. Bush relegated them to the sidelines; then the triangulating Bill Clinton seemed to deprive them of their biggest foreign and domestic policy issues. If they came back from that, they can come back from anything. Now that Robert Kagan, William Kristol (who seems not to be discredited in the eyes of the New York Times, which just made him a columnist) and a host of other neocons have hitched their fortunes to McCain, the neocons are poised for a fresh comeback. If they make a hash of foreign policy by 2011, perhaps the familiar cycle of public scorn and rebirth might even start all over again."
Ah yes, the familiar cycle of public scorn and rebirth: like the panorama of the seasons winter, spring, summer, and fall. Heilbrunn makes it all sound so natural. Yet there is something unnatural and downright creepy about this tale of eternal recurrence: how could it be that a political sect that has wreaked such damage on America’s national interests, and taken so many lives, manages to get off not only scot-free, but lives to fight another day?
Two reasons, in my opinion: oodles of money, and an apparent ability to quash investigations that might have put a few more besides Libby and Franklin behind bars.
The financial factor is a major plus for the neocons. Paul Gottfried and others have already documented how Irving Kristol, Bill’s father, made the necessary contacts with old conservative money and transformed relatively staid philanthropists of a right-wing disposition into ATM machines for the exclusive use of neoconservative ideologues. By driving out all their ideological competition on the Right, monopolizing the institutions of the contemporary conservative movement, and transforming those institutions to suit their own purposes, the neocons pulled off a coup d’etat that eventually gave them near total hegemony over the American Right. A nationwide network of neocon operatives in the media, academia, and government was created by this burgeoning apparatus and soon took on a political dimension, with McCain being one of the most prominent Republican politicians Kristol & Co. acquired during the 1990s.
The immunity factor is harder to explain, yet there it is, staring us in the face. Of course, this is nothing new: the neocons have always veered toward criminality, as the Iran-Contra scandal showed. But they mostly managed to stay out of the Big House. How Michael Ledeen, for example, avoided a jail term for his activities in setting up the arms-for-hostages deal, in clear contravention of American law, is not known. Equally murky are the more recent shenanigans of this troublesome sect. To take just one example: the neocons’ Che Guevara, Chalabi, is known to have passed vital U.S. secrets to the Iranians, most probably with the active collaboration of his American fan club, yet neither Chalabi nor his neocon handlers seem to have suffered any consequences, legal or otherwise, other than some initial embarrassment. The whole thing soon blew over, as the "investigation" by the FBI into Chalabi’s activities was quietly killed.
Don’t imagine for a moment that a changing of the guard in Washington will keep the neocon foxes out of the proverbial hen-house. You’ll recall that back when the Republicans controlled Congress, the then-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pat Roberts, was blamed for stalling the famous "phase two" of the committee’s investigation into the intelligence that told us Saddam Hussein was harboring "weapons of mass destruction." This investigation was supposed to tell us if the administration had deliberately misled Congress and the American people into believing what turned out to be a pack of lies but the Democrats could always point to GOP control of the process and throw their hands up in despair. However, now that the Democrats control Congress, has the much-vaunted "phase two" been launched? No way, José.
If and when the Democrats take the White House, you can bet your bottom dollar the neocons will have some kind of presence, whether it’s in the form of a few mid-level bureaucrats placed in sensitive positions or in top spots close to President Hillary or Obama. They’re already crawling all over the DLC, and they’ll find their way into a Democratic White House via the interstices between pure politics and policy wonkery.
If the Republicans manage to overcome the odds, and McCain winds up in the White House, the neocons will be back and with a vengeance.
Like vampires risen from the dead each night, these creatures who shun the light and feast on pain and suffering, are refreshed and ready to take wing again. What they seek is what makes them feel alive and energizes them to want more, and that is war. They are the War Party, and they are Democrats and Republicans. They are columnists and publishers and academics, as well as politicians and publicists. They don’t have much of a mass base: they prefer to work in the shadows, manipulating rather than inspiring. By such Machiavellian means have they managed to stay viable, in spite of the disasters they have wrought through the years giving them more scope for fresh disasters yet to be imagined.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
Please, please, please say it ain’t so! What am I talking about? I’m talking about our current fundraising campaign, which is now in full-swing although "full" and "swing" are not exactly descriptive of what is actually happening on that score. After two full days of "pledge week," we’ve got something like $10,000 in contributions an indication that, just like last time, we’ll be forced to extend the fundraising campaign for another full week.
Please, please, puh-leeeze don’t make us do this, or, rather, don’t make me do this: we hate the interruption, you hate the interruption, and it means a whole lot of extra work for poor little old me, who has been locked up in his office banging away at fundraising copy for a week, and sick as a dog with the worst winter cold in memory. I have now completely lost my ability to speak yes, I can hear certain people laughing! You know who you are! and I am literally swooning and covered in sweat even as I write this. If I have to endure much more of this, they’ll be carrying me away on a stretcher.
So, c’mon, you guys: stop throwing your money at useless political campaigns that aren’t going to stop the neocons from carrying out their rotten warmongering agenda in any event, and send some cash our way. Otherwise, we’ll be hectoring you for weeks on end, and it isn’t going to be pretty.