Being a Neocon Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

These guys were wrong about every aspect of Iraq. Why do we still have to listen to them?

From 2001 until sometime around 2006, the United States followed the core neoconservative foreign-policy program. The disastrous results of this vast social science experiment could not be clearer. The neoconservative program cost the United States several trillion dollars and thousands dead and wounded American soldiers, and it sowed carnage and chaos in Iraq and elsewhere. 

One would think that these devastating results would have discredited the neoconservatives forever, just as isolationists like Charles Lindbergh or Robert McCormick were discredited by World War II, and men like former Secretary of State Dean Rusk were largely marginalized after Vietnam. Even if the neoconservative architects of folly are undaunted by failure and continue to stick to their guns, one might expect a reasonably rational society would pay them scant attention. 

Yet to the dismay of many commentators -- including Andrew Bacevich, Juan Cole, Paul Waldman, Andrew Sullivan, Simon Jenkins, and James Fallows -- neoconservative punditry is alive and well today. Casual viewers of CNN and other news channels are being treated to the vacuous analysis of Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, and Bill Kristol.

More worrisome still: It seems to be having some impact, insofar as President Barack Obama appears to have bowed to pressure and dispatched 300 U.S. military advisors to help the incompetent and beleaguered Maliki government in Iraq. As usual, Obama seems wary of a new quagmire and seeking to limit U.S. involvement, but he's taken the first step onto the slippery slope and will face additional pressure to do more if this initial move does not succeed.

What's going on here? Others have eviscerated the logic of the neocons' latest campaign for war, and you can read any of the commentaries listed above for powerful rejoinders to the neocons' latest spate of bad advice. Or you could take a quick look at Barry Posen's recent piece in Politico, which provides a useful caution to the neocons' all-too-familiar saber-rattling.  

But given their past failures, what explains neoconservatism's apparent immunity from any degree of accountability? How can a group of people be so wrong so often and at such high cost, yet still retain considerable respect and influence in high circles? For America to pay the slightest heed to neoconservatives is like asking Wile E. Coyote how to catch the Road Runner, seeking marital advice from the late Mickey Rooney, or letting Bernie Madoff handle your retirement portfolio.

As near as I can tell, the strange mind-boggling persistence of neoconservatism is due to four interrelated factors.

No. 1: Shamelessness

One reason neoconservatism survives is that its members don't care how wrong they've been, or even about right and wrong itself. True to their Trotskyite and Straussian roots, neoconservatives have always been willing to play fast and loose with the truth in order to advance political goals. We know that they were willing to cook the books on intelligence and make outrageously false claims in order to sell the Iraq war, for example, and today they construct equally false narratives that deny their own responsibility for the current mess in Iraq and portray their war as a great success that was squandered by Obama. And the entire movement seems congenitally incapable of admitting error, or apologizing to the thousands of people whose lives they have squandered or damaged irreparably.

Like Richard Nixon or Silvio Berlusconi, in short, the neoconservatives keep staging comebacks because they simply don't care how often they have been wrong, and because they remain willing to do or say anything to stay in the public eye. They also appear utterly indifferent to the tragic human consequences of their repeated policy failures. Being a neoconservative, it seems, means never having to say you're sorry. 

No. 2: Financial Support

The second source of neoconservative survival is money. In America's wide-open policy arena, almost anyone can be a player, provided they have the resources to keep people employed and give them platforms and institutions from which to operate. Instead of becoming marginalized within the Beltway scene, the neocons who drove America over the brink in 2003 continue to be supported by an array of well-funded think tanks, magazines, and letterhead organizations, including the Weekly Standard, American Enterprise Institute, Carnegie Endowment, Council on Foreign Relations, Institute for the Study of War, Hudson Institute, and several others. If someone can screw up as repeatedly as Elliott Abrams and still land a well-funded senior fellowship at CFR -- then bad advice will continue to enjoy a prominent place in American policy discourse.

No. 3: A Receptive and Sympathetic Media 

Neoconservatives would have much less influence if mainstream media didn't continue to pay attention to them. They could publish their own journals and appear on Fox News, but the big force multiplier is their continued prominence in places like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and other outlets. Neocons continue to have frequent access to op-ed pages, and are commonly quoted by reporters on a range of foreign-policy issues.

This tendency is partly because some important members of the mainstream media are themselves neoconservatives or strongly sympathetic to its basic worldview. David Brooks of the New York Times, Charles Krauthammer and Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post, and Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal are all card-carrying neoconservatives and were, of course, prominent voices in the original pro-war camp. The Times even hired Kristol to write an op-ed column back in 2005 -- after Iraq had already gone south -- and he might still be doing that today if his columns hadn't been so dull and sloppy. 

But it's not just the neoconservatives' continued presence in the mainstream press.

Neoconservatives continue to exercise influence because the rest of the U.S. media is obsessed with "balance," and because lackadaisical reporters know they can always get a hawkish neoconservative quote to balance whatever they are being told by the Obama administration or by more dovish voices. As long as reporters think balance matters more than accuracy, neoconservatives will still find plenty of places to peddle their particular version of foreign-policy snake oil. 

No. 4: Liberal Allies

The final source of neoconservative persistence is the continued support they get from their close cousins: the liberal interventionists. Neoconservatives may have cooked up the whole idea of invading Iraq, but they got a lot of support from a diverse array of liberal hawks. As I've noted before, the only major issue on which these two groups disagree is the role of international institutions, which liberals view as a useful tool and neoconservatives see as a dangerous constraint on U.S. freedom of action. Neoconservatives, in short, are liberal imperialists on steroids, and liberal hawks are really just kinder, gentler neocons.

The liberal interventionists' complicity in the neoconservative project makes them reluctant to criticize the neoconservatives very much, because to do so draws attention to their own culpability in the disastrous neoconservative program. It is no surprise, therefore, that recovering liberal hawks like Peter Beinart and Jonathan Chait -- who both backed the Iraq war themselves -- have recently defended neoconservative participation in the new debate over Iraq, while taking sharp issue with some of the neocons' position. 

The neoconservative-liberal alliance in effect re-legitimates the neoconservative world view, and makes their continued enthusiasm for U.S.-led wars look "normal." When the Obama administration is staffed by enthusiastic proponents of intervention like Samantha Power or Susan Rice, and when former Obama officials like Anne-Marie Slaughter are making neocon-like arguments about the need to send arms to Syria, it makes neoconservatives sound like a perfectly respectable faction within the broad U.S. policy community, instead of underscoring just how extreme and discredited their views really are.

The zombie-like ability to maintain influence and status in the face of overwhelming evidence tells you that F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong: There are in fact an infinite number of "second chances" in American life and little or no accountability in the U.S. political system. The neocons' staying power also reminds us that the United States can get away with irresponsible public discourse because it is very, very secure. Iraq was a disaster, and it helped pave the way to defeat in Afghanistan, but at the end of the day the United States will come home and probably be just fine. True, thousands of our fellow citizens would be alive and well today had we never listened to the neoconservatives' fantasies, and Americans would be more popular abroad and more prosperous at home if their prescriptions from 1993 forward had been ritually ignored. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would be alive too, and the Middle East would probably be in somewhat better condition (it could hardly be worse).

What, if anything, might reduce the neoconservative influence to its proper dimension (that is to say, almost nil)? I wish I knew, for if the past ten years haven't discredited them, it's not obvious what would. No doubt leaders in Moscow and Beijing derive great comfort from that fact: For what better way to ensure that the United States continues to lurch from crisis to crisis, and from quagmire to quagmire? Until our society gets better at listening to those who are consistently right instead of those who are reliably wrong, we will repeat the same mistakes and achieve the same dismal results. Not that the neoconservatives will care.

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Between Assad and a Hard Place

The people of the Middle East don't want extremists or Syria's president either. But they want Western meddling even less.

The Obama administration's concern about extremists prevailing in the Syrian civil war and its desire to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gone are views that are widely shared in the Middle East. But the administration's ideas for how to deal with the Syrian situation are not, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. As Barack Obama's administration decides what to do about Syria, the White House must be careful not to confuse the region's support for its ends -- removing Assad and preventing extremists from taking power -- with Middle Eastern approval for its means -- that is, stepping in to provide support for the Syrian opposition.

In his West Point commencement speech in late May, Obama made an argument about the state of the Middle East -- one that, poll results show, many in the region would agree with: "As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases," he said. But then, he offered up his policy plans: He promised to work with Congress "to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators." And this is where Obama and the larger Middle Eastern public differ.

A Pew Research Center poll of 7,001 people conducted April 10 to May 16, 2014, across seven Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Tunisia, and Turkey, found that most of Syria's neighbors strongly share Obama's worry that al Qaeda or other extremist groups could take control of that war-torn land. At the same time, while Assad may claim a renewed mandate in the wake of his recent, much-disputed, "re-election," publics in other Middle Eastern countries, according to the Pew findings, want Assad to step down. But there is mounting regional opposition to a measure that many see as a necessary step in persuading Assad to go: the West or Arab nations supplying arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria.

Concern that extremist groups could take control of Syria is widely shared by Syria's neighbors. Nearly seven in 10 -- or an even higher proportion -- of Egyptians (69 percent), Jordanians (76 percent), Lebanese (86 percent), and Israelis (82 percent) have such fears. Fully 58 percent of Lebanese and about four in 10 Tunisians (42 percent), Jordanians (41 percent), and Israelis (41 percent) are very concerned, possibly a reflection of their own internal vulnerability to extremist elements in the Arab countries and Israelis' fears of what spreading extremism could mean for Israel's security.

The findings show some variation along sectarian lines. In Lebanon, Christians are the most worried about extremism next door -- likely because they have seen Christians become the victims of extremist violence in Syria. Roughly two-thirds of Lebanese Christians (65 percent) but only about half of Sunnis (51 percent) and Shiites (50 percent) are very concerned about al Qaeda or similar groups gaining control in Syria.

In Israel, Jews are somewhat more worried about extremists in Syria than are Arabs (84 percent to 75 percent). Nevertheless, this still shows three in four Israeli Arabs voicing concern about an al Qaeda-type takeover in Syria -- greater unease than that expressed by Turks (49 percent), Palestinians (62 percent), or Egyptians (69 percent).

Strong majorities in most of Syria's neighboring countries would also prefer Assad to step down. This includes roughly nine in 10 Egyptians and nearly as many in Jordan. About seven in 10 Palestinians (72 percent) and Turks (70 percent) also want Assad to leave. More than half of Israeli Arabs (53 percent) voice a desire for Assad to step down.



Only in Lebanon, where Syrian refugees now make up almost a quarter of Lebanon's population and where Shiites -- who as a community have leaned toward supporting Assad -- make up about a third of the country, is the public divided over Assad's continued tenure. Eight in 10, or 81 percent, of Lebanese Sunnis want Assad to step down, while 92 percent of Shiites would prefer for him to stay. (And Pew did not, of course, conduct polling in largely closed-off and mostly Shiite Iran, where the regime has been one of Assad's main sources of support.)

Nevertheless, despite their fear of extremism spreading and their distaste for Assad, Middle Eastern publics voice no support for aiding those attempting to oust the Assad government. People in the region have seen the results of Western intervention in Iraq. And they may not relish the idea of other Arab states acquiring a taste for interfering in the domestic affairs of their neighbors. There was little support for aid to anti-government forces battling the Damascus regime in 2013, and there is even less backing in 2014.

Roughly three-quarters of Lebanese (78 percent), Tunisians (77 percent), and Turks (73 percent) are against Western nations sending arms and military supplies to the insurgents. (Respondents were not asked to differentiate between rebel groups.) And about two-thirds of Palestinians (68 percent), Egyptians (67 percent), and Jordanians (66 percent) agree.



Even half of Israelis do not want the West to get involved. But these national survey findings mask ethnic and generational divides within Israeli society. Roughly eight in 10 Israeli Arabs oppose aid to the rebels, but only 44 percent of Israeli Jews are against Western help. And in terms of the generation gap, more than half (53 percent) of Israelis 50 years or older oppose Western assistance to anti-government groups in Syria, compared with 43 percent of Israelis ages 18 to 29.

There is only slightly less regional opposition to Arab nations bolstering the anti-government forces with arms and supplies (which Arab countries would be doing the intervention wasn't specified). Nearly three-quarters of the public in Turkey (73 percent) and in Tunisia (73 percent) disagree with such help, as do about six in 10 in the Palestinian territories (61 percent) and Egypt (60 percent). Around half or more in Lebanon (56 percent), Jordan (52 percent), and Israel (51 percent) also are against such aid.

Hostility to supplying the Syrian insurgents with arms and supplies is on the rise throughout the region. Jordanian opposition to both the West and other Arab states providing military assistance is up 22 percentage points since 2013. Tunisian disapproval of Arab aid is up 18 points, and disapproval of Western aid is up 17 points.

Assisting the Syrian opposition is a particularly divisive issue in Lebanon, splitting the public along sectarian lines. Fully 89 percent of Lebanese Shiites are against other Arab nations sending arms and military supplies to the rebels (many of whom are Sunni). Over half of Lebanese Sunni (55 percent) back aid to the insurgents. Christians are divided on such assistance, meaning there was no statistically significant difference between the percentage that opposed and the percentage that supported such measures. But all three of Lebanon's main groups are united against intervention by the West: 93 percent of Lebanese Shiites, 74 percent of Christians, and 67 percent of Lebanese Sunnis oppose Western nations helping anti-government groups (though the 26 percentage point Shiite-Sunni difference on this issue highlights deep sectarian differences over the Syrian civil war).

Syria's neighbors fear an extremist Syria, and they want Assad to go. But there is no support among publics in the Middle East for either Western or Arab intervention to achieve those ends. As the civil war continues in Syria and spreads to Iraq, there are likely to be growing calls by pundits and politicians in the region, in Europe, and in the United States that "someone should do something." But any intervention may be met with opposition from the very people in the region whom interventionists think they would be helping.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images