When an off-Broadway show opened a few seasons ago with the deliciously relevant title, Now That Communism is Dead My Life Feels Empty, it made me think of the bright, clever neoconservatives I have known. Looking back, many of their prominent publications and groups were far too inflexible to accept that the USSR was no longer an invincible 50-foot military monster incapable of change. By then many neoconservatives (though the term was and remains somewhat imprecise) “were no longer an adequate guide for interpreting a changing reality,” as Richard Ehrman aptly put it in his book The Rise of Neoconservatism (Yale, 1995). The sad fact is they haven’t changed much.
By the time George W. Bush entered the White House, younger second-string, and too often second-rate, neocons had already arrived, courtesy of well-funded ubiquitous think tanks, articles, books, TV spots, and subsidized magazines and newspapers. Typically, their writings were the sort of essays that might merit an A or B+ in class, well written but drowning in speculation, guesswork, and supposedly definitive judgments too often fashioned out of whole cloth. They didn’t appear to have much of a sense of the past, given their subsequent misjudgments and given the fact that so many of them are rigid ideologues, utopians in a menacing and chaotic world. After 9/11 they helped spread rumors about Iraqi WMDs, Saddam’s close ties to the 9/11 attacks, dismissed the United Nations and European roles and wholeheartedly backed the Patriot Act, parts of which represent a danger to future dissenters, right and left. Like Vice President Cheney and others in the Bush White House, they were exalters of an American imperium, proud as punch that despite his modest anti-nation-building campaign speeches, President Bush quickly came to mirror their thinking.
Dependent on and beholden to wealthy foundations and individuals with their own agendas, the neocons, well schooled in Washington’s Byzantine political climate, savvy about popularizing their points of view; had captured the presidency. Along the way they found new mantras and embraced vague, untested shibboleths such as “national greatness” and “benevolent global hegemony.” Perhaps their greatest weakness has been their refusal to test critically the fundamental axiom on which they concocted a fantasy of democracies springing up in the Muslim Middle East following a walkover military victory and joyous reception in Iraq. Democracy is admirable, of course, but their theoreticians and polemicists never bothered explaining how establishing a democratic state in Iraq, a nation which had never known democracy, could stimulate the spread of democracy to other Arab states which also had no experience with it. Nor were they ever skeptical that voting equated automatically with democracy. Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, anyone? True believers, they listened to and promoted the views of Iraqi exiles who lacked believability.
Even more ominous was the Paul Wolfowitz-neocon doctrine of preemptive war, “a program breathtaking in its ambition,” wisely observed George Szamuely, former editorial writer for the Times (London), the Spectator and the Times Literary Supplement, a genuine and thoughtful conservative. “Wolfowitz,” he wrote, “was advocating total global supremacy by the United States. In every single region of the world the United States was to ensure that no power or coalition of powers could emerge that would challenge the rule of the United States in that region. Any power seeking to challenge this order could expect a vigorous and forceful U.S. response.”
It was, as critics left and right rightly recognized, a prescription for endless war.
After the fall of Iraq in 2003, they seemed remarkably prescient. They had won! But had they? Now we know they were painfully wrong. The callow generalizations of living-room warriors without military or significant political experience told little of what the Iraq invasion would become: no flowers and kisses from ebullient crowds, savage guerilla resistance, the ever-present possibility of religious civil war, and the birth of new terrorists. Nor have they expressed any regret, sorrow or shame about the many Americans, allies and Iraqi dead, wounded, tortured and terrorized in Iraq.
Neocons are the heirs of Woodrow Wilson, not because of his ill-formed fantasies of world peace through war, but because he’s the man who invaded Mexico, took the country into WWI, gave dissenters such as Eugene V. Debs with brutal prison sentences and who viewed blacks as inferior and had a failed and confusing vision of newly created and artificial rump states in a League of Nations. But neocons have yet another American imperial ancestor: Senator Albert Beveridge, a passionate supporter of American imperialism during the Spanish-American War and the subsequent bloody invasion of the Philippines, which cost 4,000 American lives and 250,000 Filipino deaths. When Beveridge pontificated, “We are the trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace. His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world,” he anticipated his spiritual heirs in the Weekly Standard, New York Post, Fox TV, Pentagon civilian corps and the White House.
It will take a long time before this generation of neocons will be able to atone for their profound blunders. Nor will they be able to satisfy millions of us who still have never heard an honest explanation of why we invaded Iraq instead of going after Osama, which has caused problems that may take generations to resolve. I hope that some day the neocons can find time to attend a ceremony for our Iraqi war dead and then pray for forgiveness.