Friday, January 26, 2007

The Neoconservative President

In the summer of 2005 I was talking to a long-time Washington journalist who argued that Condolezza Rice had fundamentally shifted foreign policy. "She's gotten all of the necons out of the way," he said--citing the resignations of Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith and the shift of John Bolton to the U.N. When I brought up Rice's NSC successor Stephen Hadley, he denied that he was a neoconservative.

He was wrong.

Neoconservatism, in essence, is the view that the proper deployment of American force should solve all the world's problems. It originated, as Judith Klinghoffer showed, after the 1967 Middle East War, when Israel had to defend itself (albeit through a preventive strike) without any help from anyone but the U.S.--and with little enough of that. A number of prominent American Jews, many of them previously Democrats, concluded that since the United States was now Israel's only friend, it had to act forcefully and boldly around the world. That led them into alliances with leading anti-Communists such as Senator Henry Jackson. They opposed detente, supported Reagan's arms build-up, and, in some cases, argued that that build-up had somehow "defeated" the Soviet Union. In the 1990s a new generation of neocons began arguing for the overthrow of Iraq.

My informant evidently misinterpreted the changes early in the second Bush term. Wolfowitz and Feith did step down, perhaps because their boss Donald Rumsfeld had soured on the war they had plugged, perhaps, in Wolfowitz's case, because he wanted to get out of the line of fire now that the war had gone sour and no further attacks on Iran and North Korea were on the horizon, and perhaps, in Feith's case, for other reasons. Until about the middle of 2006, moreover, Rice and certain people around her--such as, perhaps, Phillip Zelikow--fed a lot of stories to the press that she had rehabilitated diplomacy as an alternative to force. But since at least the Lebanon war last summer, all that talk has seemed completely hollow, and with the President's unilateral decision to send 20,000 more men to Iraq, it has become farcical. The President, after disposing of Donald Rumsfeld (who felt the Iraqis had to do the job themselves), ignoring the Baker Commission, and finding his own generals lacking in vigor, decided more American force would solve the problem. Virtually the only two voices in favor of this step were second-generation neoconservatives, William Kristol of the Weekly Standard and Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. There really can be only one reason for the President's (and Vice-President's) decision: they agree, in their gut, with the idea that the United States has the right, the duty and the capability to impose its views upon the world, and that any other course of action spells disastrous weakness.

Because virtually no one else (except John McCain) now shares these views, we face a political and constitutional as well as a military and diplomatic crisis. The President and Vice President have set their judgment and that of a few ideologues against their own bureaucracy, a bipartisan majority of the Congress, and the American people, who registered their views in the election and continue to do so in polls. Because we have a conservative volunteer Army, the President--as he well knows and has actually remarked to friends--can get away with this without a national revolt. That cannot, however, make the policy a success.

The most appalling aspect of this ideology, to me, is not simply its rejection of any ideas of international consensus or international law--the ideas that were the foundation of our victories in the Second World War and in the Cold War--but its utter irresponsibility. Like so many Boomers over the last forty years, the purveyors of this policy assume they can have anything they want without paying for it. If they really feel American troops had to root out Middle Eastern extremism, they should be calling for a draft and the doubling, at least of our ground forces. But a draft would never pass, and might even affect their own children if it did--so a draft must not be mentioned. That contradiction alone should rule their ideas out of court, but the President of the United States appears to share the same view.

The 20,00 troops, in my opinion, cannot have a decisive effect on what is happening in Iraq, where, as I have mentioned several times, our casualty figures show that the insurgency is stronger than ever. It will be extremely difficult, as it was in Vietnam, to change strategy at this point. (The argument of Lewis Sorley, that General Creighton Abrams in 1969 turned US strategy into a success, has become popular for obvious reasons, but Sorley's own source--the transcripts of Abrams's conferences with his commanders--show how overstated it was. Abrams talked about possible alterations in strategy, but he did not even try to impose them on his commanders.) But the announcement, tragically, has shifted attention from what is actually happening on the ground--more and more ethnic cleansing and refugees--to the controversy in Washington. It will quite possibly tide the Administration over for another year, and after that, the election will take over the news, and the neoconservatives can start preparing their new stab-in-the-back legend about Iraq.

For all that, I see some reason to hope in the Congress's refusal to go along. It would behoove us all to study 1931-32 more closely; I have the distinct impression (as I suggested a couple of weeks ago) that by 1931 everyone understood Hoover's policies weren't working, but they didn't know what to do instead, and couldn't, anyway, with Hoover at the helm. That more or less describes where our foreign policy is today. The time has come, however, for the opposition to articulate a truly different vision of what America might stand for in the world and how it might conduct itself. I hope to take a crack at that myself in the next couple of weeks.


Anonymous said...

Excellent piece - with v. interesting historical parallels. Cheney seems to me, more and more, the chief problem.

Anonymous said...

There is so much insightful, original, and important thinking in Dr. Kaiser's January 26 post but I perceive a serious flaw. While I don't think it's the intent of Professor Kaiser to strike an anti-semitic tone in his post, writing "A number of prominent American Jews, many of them previously Democrats, concluded that since the United States was now Israel's only friend, it had to act forcefully and boldly around the world" certainly will give aid and comfort to those who belive in Jewish conspiracies. His list of the Jewish "neocons" is chilling. It is also, for one as sophisticated as Dr. Kaiser, simplistic. There are plenty of "neocons" and others of similar belief who are not Jewish. I need only mention Francis Fukuyama. I don't believe the movement is necessarily Jewish, nor do I accept that it was solely related to Israel's situation. The 'neocon" movement was also, like everything else that happened afterwards in our country, a reaction to our defeat in Vietnam. Certainly there was a feeling by many like John McCain that if only we had used enough force and will we could have prevailed in Vietnam. Few in the Bush administration are Jewish - are they all being led by their noses? Was Rumsfeld? Who could have led such an egotist by the nose? Cheney? Hardly. One can read startingly bellicose statements from the likes of Hilary Clinton who is certainly not a "neocon" by any stretch of the imagination. There are also important Jewish writers in publications like the "New York Times" who are vehemently opposed to the "neocon" theories. I long for the simpler days of "Hawks" and "Doves;" at least there were no religious labels in those terms.

David Kaiser said...

Well, here we go.
1. The poster of the comment did not actually dispute the statement that I made, following Klinghoffer, about the origins of neoconservatism. I think it's a true statement and I'm not going to shy away from making it.
2. That being said, I don't see how anyone could read the piece as saying that Jewish eoconservatives are solely or even mainly to blame for the predicament in which we find ourselves. The point of the piece is that the President himself believes in the unrestrained exercise of American power as the solution to all the evil in the world, and the last time I looked, he was very much a Christian. So is Cheney, so is Rice, so are many of the others. I never suggested otherwise.
3. More to the point--most American Jews are still Democrats, liberals, and strongly opposed to the Bush Administration. An attack on neoconservatives, both Jewish and otherwise, is hardly an attack on Jews. In fact, I find it rather scandalous that neoconservative Jews have the gall to claim that attacks on themselves are somehow anti-Semitic, since they certainly do not represent most American Jews. Neoconservativism now means a set of extraordinarily influential beliefs (at the moment) held by some Christians, some Jews, and, presumably, some agnostics and atheists, who have adopted those views for a variety of reasons. But the fact remains--the origins of the movement did have a lot to do with the 1967 war.

RoseCovered Glasses said...

Please see the following post at "The Dissident", blog site for the real policy drivers in where we are today:

Mary said...

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Nick Beeching said...


There's no reason why you should remember me but we exchanged some posts a few years back on the Fourth Turning Web Sites about the British Generations.

I wondered if you had any thoughts on our British Boomer PM. He and I are exact contemporaries but he seems to me to embody some of the worst traits of our generation (and I guess it is typically Boomer of me to be so annoyed by him).

I also have to say how much I enjoyed reading your 'American Tragedy'. The best book on the unfolding of the Vietnam War. I've read.

Nick Beeching