I’m old enough to remember when there was no such creature as a neocon: we knew that because Jonah Goldberg told us so. So did this writer for Commentary magazine, who suggested that to even form the word on one’s lips was the equivalent of favorably citing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And while Max Boot finally let the cat out of the bag and acknowledged that, yes, neocons really do exist, he waved away all talk of their Trotskyite and Straussian roots by claiming they’re just "hard Wilsonians," as American as apple pie and Agent Orange.
The closeted era of neoconservatism soon passed, however, and a number of them "came out," so to speak. Indeed, their brief moment of "neocon pride" had David Brooks exulting "We’re all neoconservatives now!" As US troops moved on Baghdad at the outset of the Iraq war, the triumphant neocons demanded that the "left" retract their predictions of doom and acknowledge the liberating energy of American military power as a Good Thing. And while they still muttered about "conspiracy theories," and steadfastly denied their own history – although some owned up to it – the neocons stopped denying their own existence.
When the Iraq war went sour, however, these worthies ran for cover, denying they had ever been neocons, denying their ideas had ever been put into practice, and generally staying out of the public eye. (Has anyone heard from Richard Perle lately?) By the time it became apparent Saddam’s fabled "weapons of mass destruction" were nowhere to be found, there wasn’t a single neocon in sight – they had all fled to the tall grass, where they lay in wait for their next victim to stroll by.
Now that the Iraq war has been relegated to the Dead Past, however, and the heat is off, various neocon stragglers are coming out of the bushes, like those Japanese soldiers who never knew the war was over and were still ensconced in the jungles of Borneo. The latest is one Reihan Salam, co-author with Ross Douthet of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream(2011), which sought to reinvigorate the "national greatness" theme of early 1990s neoconservatism by proposing more government benefits to the Republicans’ lower-middle class constituency. (One example of his "family friendly" agenda: he wants to tax non-breeders at a higher rate).
"We neocons have fallen out of favor," whines Salam, "not just on the left, where ‘neocon’ is routinely used as a term of abuse, but also on the right, where libertarian-minded conservatives who favor a smaller (and cheaper) military have seized the initiative." He drops Rand Paul’s name as "just one of many Tea Party conservatives who has defined his foreign policy views in opposition to the neocons,” sadly concluding "and it’s easy to see why."
Salam goes into a mournful disquisition on the less-than-salutary effects of the Iraq war – not on the country, or on Iraq, but on "the reputations of Bush, Tony Blair, and other leaders who sought regime change in Iraq." The loss of half a million Iraqis is mentioned in passing only after the damage to Bush and Blair is brought up. The big problem with the war was that it didn’t lead to a "democratic Iraq in which the rights of ethnic and religious minorities" are "respected" and by the way it’s too bad Iraq isn’t "more closely aligned with the US." In what has got to be the understatement of the season, Salam avers that "The new Iraq fails on both these counts." Although he said nothing about Donald Rumsfeld’s "stuff happens" response to the looting of Baghdad at the time, in retrospect he is appalled – but not enough to refrain from wondering if things might’ve turned out worse if we hadn’t intervened. Oh well, "we can’t know what the world would have looked like" if Bush refrained from invading even though he himself finds it "hard to imagine that the benefits outweighed the costs." It’s hard, but not impossible, at least if you’re Richard Perle, Danielle Pletka, or Dov Zakheim.
Unlike those dead-enders – to turn a Rumsfeldian phrase on its perpetrators – Salam is properly contrite when it comes to Iraq, but he’s still holding high the banner of a thoroughly discredited neoconservatism:
"Given all of this, why am I still a neocon? Why do I still believe that the U.S. should maintain an overwhelming military edge over all potential rivals, and that we as a country ought to be willing to use our military power in defense of our ideals as well as our interests narrowly defined? There are two reasons: The first is that American strength is the linchpin of a peaceful, economically integrating world; and the second is that we know what it looks like when America embraces amoral realpolitik, and it’s not pretty."
The idea that the world economy is dependent on American military power – that if not for the 82nd Airborne, there’d be no such thing as world commerce – is one of the biggest conceits of the political class. It’s an updated version of the White Man’s Burden, de-colorized and sanitized into purely economic terms, but we know what Salam really means: the US military is the instrument of the allegedly civilizing influence of Anglo-American hegemony. Without the British Empire, averred Salam’s intellectual forebears, world civilization would sink into a morass of brownish-yellowish confusion and chaos. According to this faith, America inherited this sacred mission from our British forebears.
Economics was never the neocons’ strong point, but this is really laughable: the world economy preexisted the American empire, and will endure long after our imperial delusions are only an extended footnote in the history of folly. What Salam really means is that American guns are the linchpin of a world order that benefits particular American interests.
It is entirely possible to imagine an alternate world in which other interests are served, or even one in which the mechanisms of world order are neutral. The assumption behind Salam’s argument is that this particular world order – one dominated by the US and its allies – is best for all humankind, but he doesn’t even begin to make such an argument.
And it isn’t just the world economy that would fall apart in mere seconds if us evil "isolationists" had our way. Indeed, at that point the world would descend into anarchy:
"Like it or not, America’s failure in Iraq does not change the fact that global stability depends on American global leadership, and American global leadership costs money. The United States is at the heart of a dense web of alliances. We extend formal security guarantees to more than 50 countries. Some see these alliances and guarantees as little more than a burden the US can no longer afford. Yet what they actually do is dampen security competition."
"Security competition" is the strange idea other countries have that they can contest American military hegemony in any significant way. It is, in short, something to be prevented, and the way to do this, avers Salam, is by taking more countries under our military umbrella – in effect making it unnecessary for them to provide for their own defense.
This supposedly sets off a cascading effect, what Salam somewhat neoconnishly dubs "the virtuous cycle," in which we "reassure partner countries that they needn’t build up their militaries to defend themselves against their neighbors, which then reassures their neighbors that they needn’t build up their militaries."
He attributes all sorts of miracles to this Virtuous Cycle, including the reemergence of postwar Germany and Japan and the easing of global poverty "around the world," but there is a fatal flaw or two in this otherwise ingenious theory. As noted in Salam’s piece, we spend more on the military than the top ten defense budgets on earth combined – so that, say, Japan, doesn’t feel like it has to rearm to counter China. But Japan is rearming anyway, and this is only just the beginning of the grave problems with Salam’s facile schematic.
More importantly, even if this "virtuous cycle" theory holds true, then what are the American people getting out of it? While we foot the bill for the "defense" of an ever-encroaching Europe against the newly-reincarnated Russian "threat," the French take four-month long vacations and the Brits are all on the dole Aside from which, while this Virtuous Cycle applies to other countries, it doesn’t apply to us: so we not only have to keep ramping up our military spending but we also become the target of every troublemaker on earth. As the Great Protector of all, we become the target of choice.
Salam is careful not to talk in terms of specifics: Ukraine, the Middle East, Syria, none of these show up in his reiteration of the true neocon faith. Instead we are treated to sweeping generalities couched in mellifluous catchphrases:
"For this virtuous cycle to be maintained, however, US security guarantees must be considered credible. It must be clear that when the US makes a security commitment to another country, that commitment will be met. This in turn means that the US military must have the power and the reach to defend countries far from our borders."
Sure, it’s expensive policing the world, he admits, referring to that by now famous chart comparing US military spending to the rest of the world, partly because personnel costs are higher in the West than in say, China. He leaves out the developed countries like Britain, France, etc., but in any case he makes no extended argument for our currently huge "defense" expenditures except for the following:
"Liberals who want to raid the defense budget to finance social programs and libertarians who want to slash it to finance tax cuts need to wake up. A weaker US military will mean a more dangerous world, and that will jeopardize everything that matters."
Everything that matters – i.e., everything, and nothing in particular.
The neocons, like the Bourbons, have learned nothing and regret nothing. In spite of their rhetoric, they don’t understand how dangerous the world is today – and refuse to acknowledge their own key role in making it so. The decade-long American rampage through much of the Middle East, championed by Salam and his neocon co-thinkers, has resulted in the empowerment of the very forces we supposedly set out to destroy. Tens of thousands of lives and a trillion dollars later, are we any safer than we were on September 11, 2001? Apparently our own government doesn’t think so, which is why they’ve instituted an all-pervasive surveillance system so they can spy on Americans, Angela Merkel, and anyone else they damn well please.
Finally, Salam gets to the real nitty gritty when he gets personal:
"Of course, all of these arguments could be true and one could nevertheless believe that the US should avoid doing anything more than narrowly fulfill its security commitments. Why insist on moralistic crusades, as neocons are wont to do? I suppose I have a personal reason for doing so."
He then goes into a soliloquy about how his uncle was killed when Pakistan’s military went on a rampage against the Bengalis, slaughtering thousands. The bloodless Realpolitik of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, Salam says, was responsible for his uncle’s death:
"Had President Nixon decided to lift a finger, he could have forced Pakistan to stay its hand. Yet it seems that humanitarian considerations never entered the picture for Nixon and Kissinger. They were apparently too taken with treating the world as a chessboard to bother reckoning with the monstrous crimes they were aiding and abetting. Though Pakistan was unable to prevent the emergence of an independent Bangladesh, thanks in large part to India’s decision to intervene, the country remains scarred by the bloodletting. Imagine if a different president hadn’t cheered on Pakistan’s military rulers but rather threatened to use US power in defense of Bengali civilians."
The cheering on of Pakistan’s military rulers as they went into Bangladesh was part and parcel of a larger interventionist strategy, one fulsomely upheld by the neocons at the time, to win the "war on communism": Nixon and Kissinger were playing a global chess game in which the stakes were the very survival of our way of life. Or so we were told by the first generation of neocons. And they were very clear about the rules of that game: allying with autocrats, whether with Pakistan’s military or some South American caudillo, was not only allowed but positively smiled upon. Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s famous defense of pro-American autocracies as useful instruments in the war on totalitarian communism isn’t so easily forgotten. The biggest cheerleaders for Ollie North and the Nicaraguan contras – supporters of the former dictator Anastasio Somoza – were none other than the neocons, some of whom were personally involved in the subsequent "arms for hostages" scandal.
"The neocon impulse proved badly misguided in Iraq," Salam admits, "where it contributed to a moral calamity." However, that doesn’t mean he and his fellow dead-enders have learned anything from the tragic history of the past decade or so – least of all humility – because "there are other cases, in South Asia in 1971 and in Bosnia in the early 1990s, to name two examples among many, where it might very well have prevented one."
Ah yes, "the neocon impulse" – what, exactly, are we talking about here? Because that impulse is pretty, well … impulsive. Quick to exaggerate any alleged threat, neocons are beset by so many imaginary bogeyman that it really ought to be considered a pathology rather than an ideological tendency. First it was communism that was going to take over the world unless it was "rolled back" militarily: when that racket collapsed, they were at a loss for years until 9/11 came along, and then it was "radical Islam" that was the threat. Now we’re told the sum total of all human evil emanates from the person of Vladimir Putin, the latest selection of the Hitler-of-the-month club.
In short, the "neocon impulse" is a frantic paranoia married to a megalomaniac’s belief in his own omnipotence – and the grandiose idea that only he stands between the world and the end of "everything that matters." The idea that power has limits is alien to individuals afflicted with this pathology – which is why they have to be kept as far away from power as possible.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.