Since the breed is now being ripely abused as the sponsors of the US debacle in Iraq, we had better be clear about its political bloodlines. What exactly is a neo-con? The label was first stuck on those Democrats classed as liberals in the early 1970s who thought George McGovern, the anti-war Democratic nominee in 1972 crushed by Nixon, represented an unacceptable swerve to the left by their party, and who moved sharply to the right,advocating a tough coldwar posture, reassertion of imperial confidence after Vietnam, increased military spending and, above all, uncritical US backing for Israeli intransigeance. They flocked to Ronald Reagan.
Beating up on neo-cons used to be a specialized sport without wide appeal. With all due false modesty I offer myself as an early practitioner. Back in the mid-to-late 70s, when I had a weekly column in the Village Voice I used to have rich sport with that apex neo-con, Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, published by the American Jewish Committee. I nick-named him Norman the Frother and freighted him with so many gibes that he made the mistake of publicly denouncing me in Commentary, exclaiming that “Cockburn’s weekly pieces have set a new standard of gutter journalism in this country”, a testimonial I still proudly feature on the back of my books.
The neo-cons’ political hero in those days was US Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, much venerated in Israel and the corporate offices of Being for his ardor and constancy in sluicing the US taxpayers’ money into their treasuries. The neo-cons’ great hope was Scoop for President but he failed to impress the voters in the Democratic primaries in 1976. To the neo-cons’ chagrin the new occupant of the Oval Office was Jimmy Carter, whom they construed to be soft on Communism and an Israel-hater. Carter threw plenty of money at the Pentagon and stoked up the cold war, but on a couple of occasions he was downright rude to Menachem Begin so the neo-cons abandoned the Democrats and threw in their lot with Ronald Reagan. For them a hard-line Israel has always been the bottom line.
Now here we are on the downslope of 2003 and George Bush is learning, way too late for his own good, that the neo-cons have been matchlessly wrong about everything. One can burrow through the archives of historical folly in search of comparisons and still come up empty-handed. The neo-cons told Bush that eviction of Saddam would rearrange the chairs in the Middle East, to America’s advantage. Wrong. They told him it would unlock the door to a peaceful settlement in Israel.Wrong. They told him (I’m talking about Wolfowitz’s team of mad Straussians at DoD) that there was irrefutable proof of the existence of weapons of mass destruction inside Iraq. Wrong. They told him the prime Iraqi exile group, headed by Ahmad Chalabi, had street cred in Iraq. Wrong. They told him it would be easy to install a US regime in Baghdad and make the place hum quietly along, like Lebanon in the 1950s. Wrong.
And of course the neo-cons, who have never forgiven the UN for Resolutions 242 and 338,(bad for Israel) told Bush that he should tell the UN to take its charter and shove it. Bush, who appreciates simple words and simple thoughts, took their advice, and last Sunday night had it served up to him by his speechwriters as crow, which he methodically ate in his 18-minute speech, saying the UN has an important role in Iraq.
Now many are gloating at the neo-cons’ discomfiture and waiting for their downfall. Click go Madam Defarge’s knitting needles as she waits beside the guillotine. Here come the tumbrils, inching their way slowly through the rotting cabbages and vulgar ribaldry of Republican isolationists. Here’s a pale-faced Douglas Feith. Up goes the fatal blade, and down it flashes. Behold, the head of a neo-con! The next tumbril carries a weightier cargo: Richard Perle and Elliott Abrams. Still not enough. Madam Defarge knits on and her patience is soon rewarded. Here come Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, the latter defiantly jotting a coda to Rumsfeld’s Rules. They are cleanly dispatched and the crowd moves off to torch the Weekly Standard and string up its editor, Bill Kristol.
Maybe not all of them, but some neo-con will surely pay the price for dropping President Bush’s approval rating into the low 50s. But will the basic neo-con political line, dominant for so long in Washington, suffer a dent? Not in any fundamental way. To appreciate this one only has to look at the current posture of prominent Democrats. Are they glorying in Bush’s political embarrassment and the humiliating and costly disaster for the US consequent upon its attack on Iraq? Take US Senator Joe Biden. His immediate reaction to Bush’s speech last Sunday was to insist that the President would need, and should get, more money than the $87 billion requested by the White House.
Then Biden gave the neo-cons a lesson in how to pay lip service to internationalism and “our allies”: “What we need isn’t the death of internationalism or the denial of our stark national interest. What I want to talk about today is a more enlightened nationalism that understands the value of international institutions but supports the use of military force–without apology or hesitation–when we must. An enlightened nationalism that does not allow us to be so blinded by our overwhelming military power that we fail to see the benefit, indeed the need, of working with othersTo begin moving this nation in the right direction I believe we need to embrace a foreign policy of enlightened nationalismFirst, we need to correct the imbalance between projecting power and staying power. America’s military is second to none. It must and will remain second to none.”
Study the zig-zag rhetoric of Governor Howard Dean and you find the same essential approach, though Dean has just outraged the neo-cons by calling for an “even-handed” US role in any resolving of the Palestinian issue. (A posture he arrived at, please note, after taking heavy fire from the left, including this writer, for being a whore for AIPAC. On Feb. 20, this supposedly antiwar candidate told Salon.com that “if the U.N. in the end chooses not to enforce its own resolutions, then the U.S. should give Saddam 30 to 60 days to disarm, and if he doesn’t, unilateral action is a regrettable, but unavoidable, choice.” The next day he said he said the UN had to do it. In June, at the Council for Foreign Relations Dean said, “I would add at least 50,000 foreign troops to the force in Iraq. It is imperative that we bring the international community in to help stabilize Iraq. If I were President, I would reach out to NATO, to Arab and Islamic countries, to other friends to share the burden and the risks.” He’s made trenchant criticisms of Bush’s rationale for the attack and of how it has been conducted, but he still proclaims, “Failure in Iraq is not an option.”
With the exception of Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton and Carol
Mosely Brown no Democratic candidate is calling for anything other than that the US to “stay the course” in Iraq, with more money, more troops and if possible the political cover of the UN. Senator Kerry, who favored the US attack last spring, won’t commit to supporting the request for $87 billion but adds carefully, “I believe we must do what we need to do” to bring peace to Iraq. Edwards still justifies his support for Bush’s war. Don’t even ask about Lieberman. A few neo-con heads may roll, but the policy won’t change. It’s fun to demonize the neo-cons and rejoice in their discomfiture, but don’t make the mistake of thinking US foreign policy was set by Norman Podhoretz or William Kristol. They’re the clowns capering about in front of the donkey and the elephant. The donkey says the UN should clean up after them, and the elephant now says the donkey may have a point. Somebody has come out with a dustpan and broom.