THEY KNEW THEY WERE RIGHT: THE RISE OF THE NEOCONS
By Jacob Heilbrunn
Doubleday, 319 pages, $26
The wizards of modern brand management have nothing on the obstreperous group of warrior intellectuals known as the neoconservatives. After all, the neocon movement is closing in on its fifth decade (its precise date of origin, like many of its core doctrines and streams of influence, remains maddeningly elusive)—but it still retains a prefix that signifies novelty. And like a good viral marketing campaign, the brand seems to have a knack for being simultaneously everywhere and nowhere: Here inveighing against the excesses of 60’s-era black nationalism and student radicalism, there cozying up to the culture-war broadsides of the Christian right—and of course, most notoriously, stage-managing the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, in smug defiance of reliable intelligence reports, international law and coherent policy making.
Jacob Heilbrunn, who began his own political odyssey as a neocon sympathizer and continues to work as an editor at the influential neoconservative foreign policy journal The National Interest, has sharply chronicled the movement’s curious saga in They Knew They Were Right. Unlike many overheated critiques, Mr. Heilbrunn’s study takes a long, nuanced measure of the neocon policy revolution. Which is not by any means to say his assessment of its political reflexes and disastrous legacies is subdued: “The neoconservatives have quite possibly not only destroyed conservatism as a political force for years to come,” he writes, “but also created an Iraq syndrome that tarnishes the idea of intervention for several decades”—much as an earlier circle of policy makers found their plans to project U.S. power abroad hamstrung by the “Vietnam syndrome,” a skittishness that the neocons of the Reagan era, ironically enough, did much to repeal.
This story abounds with ironies, beginning with the fact that many of the founding fathers of neoconservatism started out as fire-breathing Trotskyists, schooled in ideological brawling at New York’s City College in the 1930’s and 40’s. Both of the lions of the movement—National Interest founder Irving Kristol and former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz—share that birthright, as do many further-flung acolytes, from National Interest editor emeritus Owen Harries (a Welsh socialist back in the day), right up through the most celebrated recent recruit, former Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens.
The Trotskyist back story is one of the hoariest tales in modern American intellectual history—thanks in part to the self-admiring labors of Messrs. Podhoretz and Kristol. But as Mr. Heilbrunn rightly notes, the staying power of the neoconservative tendency arises from something deeper than the formative beliefs of its leading ideologues. At bottom, he argues, the neocon persuasion is less about ideology than mindset—“a mindset,” he writes, “that has been decisively shaped by the Jewish immigrant experience, by the Holocaust, and the twentieth-century struggle against totalitarianism.”
With this broader cultural outlook in mind, Mr. Heilbrunn relates the neocons’ erratic trek in and out of power as a variation on “the ancient biblical narrative: exodus, the wilderness years, and redemption, followed by a return to exile.” It’s an incisive approach, less steeped than previous studies in the prevailing terms of political combat (See Peter Steinfels’ The Neoconservatives and Sidney Blumenthal’s The Rise of the Counter-Establishment.)
Mr. Heilbrunn’s approach also allows him to engage directly one of the more incendiary questions about neoconservatism: its predominately Jewish identity, and its hard-line support of Israel. Conspiracy-mongers from Patrick Buchanan to Lyndon LaRouche have made much of this connection, which makes sober discussion of the Jewishness of neocon circles nearly impossible. Indeed, it’s an issue that neocon propagandists such as David Frum, Richard Perle and David Brooks have shamelessly exploited to tout their victimhood—particularly, Mr. Heilbrunn notes, as the messianic errand in Iraq grew evermore chaotic and deadly: “The neoconservatives tried to turn the anti-Semitic charge into a general brief on behalf of their cause. Like good prophets, they wanted to confirm their ‘rightness.’”
The Jewish profile of the neoconservative movement is significant, according to Mr. Heilbrunn, because it stokes fierce “status anxiety” as well as “ethnic resentment.” From the outset, when Podhoretz, Kristol & Co. stormed the battlements of WASP institutions such as the Ivy League and the Washington foreign policy elite, the neocons have been animated by a “sense of embattlement and loneliness, of foes and enemies everywhere,” directly fueling “the stridency and militancy” of movement rhetoric, Mr. Heilbrunn observes. At the same time, though, this confrontational style masks “a seething rage at the government bureaucracy and social elites.” It is, Mr. Heilbrunn argues, a Jewish intellectual “version of the anxiety of influence—or rather, the lack of it.”
It’s true you never have to look far in the sprawling neocon corpus to find this mind-set on belligerent display, from Mr. Podhoretz’s landmark memoir Making It (1967) to such unhinged war apologias as William Kristol and Lawrence F. Kaplan’s The War Over Iraq (2003). The idea that they’re a prophetic remnant is also clearly part of what makes them so tenacious: Neocons view defeat and marginalization as virtual confirmation of their fidelity to the movement’s founding wisdom. What prophet, after all, is honored in his own country?
That founding wisdom proves fungible in changing circumstances. Neocon apparatchiks in the Ford and Reagan White Houses (Paul Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams, among others) were able to harness the broad outlines of the neocon case for Israel—an embattled U.S. ally surrounded by enemies bent on its destruction—to the analysis of the Soviet threat (in the Ford White House’s so-called “Team B” effort to collect intelligence outside the channels of the CIA, a clear forerunner to similar Bush White House efforts to document a phantom Iraqi WMD stockpile) and to the illicit funding of anticommunist counterinsurgencies in Central America (which cost then Under Secretary of State Abrams a felony conviction for lying to Congress). A corollary of the victim-centric neoconservative worldview, it seems, is that movement adherents are always presumed to be more or less justified in making up the rules as they go along. Consider the career of Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, “the Oliver North of the second Bush administration.”
In the run-up to the Iraq war, all the trademark neocon convictions converged: belief in a special saving understanding of history’s true course; a utopian foreign policy “idealism”; a sweeping (though paradoxical) sense of privileged victimhood; and a reflex branding of dissenters as appeasers and worse. As post-9/11 chronicles show, internal White House debate over the Iraq invasion—promoted most conspicuously by Mr. Cheney and his many neocon henchmen—was cursory-to-nonexistent. Iraq had to be the next looming threat on the horizon, just as 70’s-era intelligence demonstrating a manageable Soviet arms threat had to be mistaken.
And so the neocon infrastruc
ture swung fatally into gear. Mr. Libby helped choreograph the Office of Special Plans and its fanciful efforts to end-run intelligence reports indicating no imminent WMD threat in Iraq. Douglas Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy, captained a similarly delusional unit, called the Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group, which uncritically rubber-stamped the ravings of the Chalabi-sponsored “Curveball” informant (who turned out to be a preposterous fake). Irving Kristol’s son William, at the helm of the influential Murdoch-published Weekly Standard, gave this hokum the imprimatur of journalistic fact, thanks to the endlessly credulous reporting of staff writer Stephen Hayes, who to this day insists that Saddam Hussein was complicit in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
After a decade of hunting for credible new enemies in the wake of the Soviet empire’s collapse (China had been the lackluster candidate throughout the 90’s), having acceded to its apex of power in the Bush White House, the neocon movement produced a fraudulent war, in the grand tradition of James Knox Polk and William Randolph Hearst.
Which, in Mr. Heilbrunn’s telling, has produced a crowning irony: Now that they have won the day, they’ve engineered their own political disgrace, the “return to exile.” Except that the movement being what it is—and Washington being what it is—the neocons’ fate is something less than biblical.
Indeed, Mr. Heilbrunn finds the absence of accountability “astonishing.” He ticks off the many careers that sail on unsullied through the open sewers of Bush-era Washington: Robert Kagan, one of the loudest cheerleaders for the war in Iraq, still columnizes in The Washington Post; Eliot Cohen, champion of the “World War IV” case for an attack on Iran, now serves as an adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Several of Mr. Heilbrunn’s subjects have recently failed even further upward: William Kristol, despite his deranged and truth-challenged track record as an editor and commentator, is now firmly atop the opinion-making food chain as a New York Times Op-Ed columnist; Norman Podhoretz, who has been perhaps more egregiously mistaken about a wider range of policy issues than any pundit in our time, is now in the terrifying foreign-policy brain trust of presidential hopeful Rudolph Giuliani; and John Podhoretz, Norman’s son, has his dad’s old post at the helm of Commentary. “Unlike the Vietnam-era generation of Democrats,” Mr. Heilbrunn marvels, “the necons show no signs of remorse for the disaster they’ve created.”
The great virtue of They Knew They Were Right is that Jacob Heilbrunn shows, in a persuasive, wide-ranging analysis, how this surreal brand of conservative self-deception has become the conventional wisdom of our political world. Now it’s up to us to heed Mr. Heilbrunn’s message, and ensure there are consequences when we know we’ve been lied to.
Chris Lehmann is a regular contributor to The Observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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