an off-Broadway show opened a few seasons ago with the deliciously
relevant title, "Now That Communism is Dead My Life Feels Empty,"
it made me think of the bright, clever neoconservatives I have known.
Looking back, many of their prominent publications and groups were
far too inflexible to accept that the USSR was no longer an invincible
fifty-foot military monster incapable of change. By then many neoconservatives
(though the term was and remains somewhat imprecise) "were
no longer an adequate guide for interpreting a changing reality,"
as Richard Ehrman aptly put it in his book The
Rise of Neoconservatism (Yale, 1995). The sad fact is they
haven’t changed much.
the time George W. Bush entered the White House, younger second-string,
and too often second-rate, neocons had already arrived, courtesy
of well-funded ubiquitous think tanks, articles, books, TV spots,
and subsidized magazines and newspapers. Typically, their writings
were the sort of essays which might merit an A– or B+ in class,
well written but drowning in speculation, guesswork, and supposedly
definitive judgments too often fashioned out of whole cloth. They
didn’t appear to have much of a sense of the past, given their subsequent
misjudgments and given the fact that so many of them are rigid ideologues,
utopians in a menacing and chaotic world. After 9/11 they helped
spread rumors about Iraqi WMDs, Saddam’s close ties to the 9/11
attacks, dismissed the United Nations and European roles and wholeheartedly
backed the Patriot Act, parts of which represent a danger to future
dissenters, right and left. Like Vice President Cheney and others
in the Bush White House, they were exalters of an American imperium,
proud as punch that despite his modest anti-nation building campaign
speeches, President Bush quickly came to mirror their thinking.
on and beholden to wealthy foundations and individuals with their
own agendas, the neocons, well schooled in Washington’s Byzantine
political climate, savvy about popularizing their points of view;
had captured the presidency. Along the way they found new mantras
and embraced vague, untested shibboleths such as "national
greatness" and "benevolent global hegemony." Perhaps
their greatest weakness has been their refusal to test critically
the fundamental axiom on which they concocted a fantasy of democracies
springing up in the Muslim Middle East following a walkover military
victory and joyous reception in Iraq. Democracy is admirable, of
course, but their theoreticians and polemicists never bothered explaining
how establishing a democratic state in Iraq, a nation which had
never known democracy, could stimulate the spread of democracy to
other Arab states which also had no experience with it. Nor were
they ever skeptical that voting equated automatically with democracy.
Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, anyone? True believers, they listened to and
promoted the views of Iraqi exiles who lacked believability.
more ominous was the Paul Wolfowitz-neocon doctrine of preemptive
war, "a program breathtaking in its ambition," wisely
observed George Szamuely, former editorial writer for the Times
(London), the Spectator and the Times Literary Supplement,
a genuine and thoughtful conservative. "Wolfowitz," he
wrote, "was advocating total global supremacy by the United
States. In every single region of the world the United States was
to ensure that no power or coalition of powers could emerge that
would challenge the rule of the United States in that region….
Any power seeking to challenge this order could expect a vigorous
and forceful U.S. response."
was as critics left and right rightly recognized, a prescription
for endless war.
the fall of Iraq in 2003, they seemed remarkable prescient. They
had won! But had they? Now we know they were painfully wrong. The
callow generalizations of living-room warriors without military
or significant political experience had no idea what their invasion
of Iraq would come to mean: no flowers and kisses from ebullient
crowds, savage guerilla resistance, the ever-present possibility
of religious civil war, and the birth of new terrorists. Nor have
they expressed any regret, sorrow or shame about the many Americans,
allies and Iraqi dead, wounded, tortured and terrorized in Iraq.
are the heirs of Woodrow Wilson, not because of his ill-formed fantasies
of world peace through war, but rather the man who invaded Mexico,
took the country into WWI, treated dissenters such as Eugene V.
Debs with brutal prison sentences and who viewed blacks as inferior
– along with his failed and confusing vision of newly created and
artificial rump states in a League of Nations. But neocons have
yet another American imperial ancestor: Senator Albert Beveridge,
a passionate supporter of American imperialism during the Spanish-American
War and the subsequent bloody invasion of the Philippines, which
cost 4,000 American lives and 250,000 Filipino deaths. When Beveridge
pontificated, "We are the trustees of the world’s progress,
guardians of its righteous peace…. His chosen nation to finally
lead in the regeneration of the world" he echoes his spiritual
heirs in the Weekly Standard, New York Post, Fox TV, Pentagon
civilian corps and the White House.
will take a long time before this generation of neocons will be
able to atone for their profound blunders. Nor will they be able
to satisfy millions of us who still have never heard an honest explanation
of why we invaded Iraq instead of going after Osama, which has caused
problems that may take generations to resolve. I hope that some
day the neocons can even find time to attend a ceremony for our
Iraqi war dead and then pray for forgiveness.
him mail] most recent book was
a biography of Daniel and Philip Berrigan, co-written with Jim O'Grady.
He has appeared in the New
York Times, Washington Monthly, Commonweal,
Antiwar.com, LewRockwell.com and many religious and secular publication.