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,
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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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