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August 5, 2004

Attacking Neo-Cons From the Right

by Jim Lobe

Why did the Bush administration invade Iraq?

Most left-wing critics – epitomized perhaps by Michael Moore's blockbuster documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11– have rather reflexively argued that the economic factor, particularly the interests of Big Oil or "the ruling class," must have been decisive.

But many right-wing critics, who know the ruling class from the inside, lean to a different explanation, in part by pointing out that Big Oil, to the extent it took any position at all on the war, opposed it. As evidence, they cite the unusual public opposition to a unilateral invasion voiced quite publicly by such eminent, oil and ruling class-related influentials as the national security adviser under former President George H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, and his secretary of state, James Baker.

While they do not deny that some economic interests – construction giants, like Halliburton and Bechtel, and high-tech arms companies – might have given the push to war some momentum, the decisive factor in their view was ideological, and the ideology, neoconservative."

Powered by both Jewish and non-Jewish neoconservatives centered in the offices of Pentagon Chief Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney and by White House deference to the solidly pro-Zionist Christian Right, the neoconservative worldview – dedicated to the security of Israel and the primacy of military power in a world of good and evil – emerged after 9/11 as the driving force in the foreign policy of current President George W Bush, as well as the dominant narrative in a cowed and complacent mass media.

Neoconservatives – their worldview, history, networks, strategic alliances, and their role in moving Washington to war in Iraq, as well as the dangerous consequences of their policy prescriptions – are the subject of America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order (Cambridge University Press), by far the best study of the neoconservative movement and its relevance to Bush's "war on terror" in the flood of critical books that have poured forth in the aftermath of the Iraq War.

The two authors, Stefan Halper, a U.S. policy-maker under past Republican administrations who teaches at Cambridge, and Jonathan Clarke, a retired British diplomat currently based at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank here, describe their political perspective as "center-right." The fortuitous combination of their nationalities and politics helps make their critique particularly compelling in light of the neoconservatives' exaltation of the special "Anglo-American" alliance as the great redemptive force in the world, as it was under British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in World War II.

"We set out to demystify the neoconservatives," the authors write at the outset of the book, and over the following 369 pages, including some 1,300 footnotes, they largely succeed. Their motivation is clear from the outset: while consistently measured and reasoned in their tone, Halper and Clarke are clearly outraged that the neoconservative foreign policy pursued by this administration has put Washington's greatest strategic asset – its "moral authority" – at risk.

The book includes well-told, if somewhat familiar, accounts of how the neoconservatives used their many institutional bases, such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board (DPB), their formidable political savvy in Congress; their bureaucratic skills within the administration; their ties to the mainstream media, particularly those outlets – such as Rupert Murdoch's media empire led by Fox News and the Weekly Standard, right-wing radio talk shows, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page – that eagerly recycled their ideas; and their longstanding alliance with the Christian Right to create an "echo chamber" that succeeded in moving public debate after the 9/11 attacks toward the threats allegedly posed by Iraq and the necessity of war against it.

Where the book breaks new ground, however, is in its efforts to describe the origins of the neoconservative movement, its ups and downs over the course of the past 40 years, its core beliefs and why it poses serious threats to both U.S. interests as traditionally defined by conservatives and to the health of U.S. democracy itself.

To Halper and Clarke, the neoconservative worldview revolves around three basic themes: that "the human condition is defined as a choice between good and evil"; that military power and the willingness to use it are the fundamental determinants in relations between states; and that the Middle East and "'global Islam" should be the primary focus in U.S. foreign policy.

These core beliefs create certain predispositions: analyzing foreign policy in terms of "black-and-white, absolute moral categories"; espousing the "unipolar" power of the U.S. and disdaining conventional diplomacy, multilateral institutions or international law; seeing international criticism as evidence of "American virtue"; regarding the use of military power as the first, rather than last, resort in dealing with the enemy, particularly when anything less might be considered "appeasement"; and harking back to the administration of former President Ronald Reagan as the exemplar of "moral clarity" in foreign policy.

This last tendency particularly galls the authors, not only because it ignores the fact that neoconservatives expressed bitter and well-documented disenchantment with Reagan, known as the "Great Communicator," over his distancing the United States from Israel after the Lebanon invasion in the early 1980s and his eager grasp after 1985 of the outstretched hand of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, but also because they see Reagan as a fundamentally optimistic leader who, in the words of his secretary of state, George Shultz, "appealed to people's best hopes, not their fears."

By contrast, according to Halper and Clarke, "the neoconservative vision is one of fear cantered around (Thomas) Hobbes' doomsday vision of man in his primitive state" and "extreme pessimism" reflected in the political philosophy of Leo Strauss, whose thought exercised a strong influence on the neoconservative movement through its godfather Irving Kristol and assorted disciples, some of whom have risen to prominence within and around the Bush administration, particularly in the national-security arena.

Indeed, the authors join a number of other critics, particularly on the right, in rejecting the notion that neoconservatives can really be considered "conservative" at all. Not only are they reckless in favoring the use of military power, but their advocacy of "nation-building" or "transforming the Middle East" belies an arrogance that is entirely foreign to the core conservative conviction that free or democratic societies are the product of centuries of organic development, the basis for which can neither be imposed from outside nor built overnight.

Similarly, and consistent with their view of the world as a moral battleground, neoconservatives pay little attention to such notions as "stability" and "normalcy," or even, the "economic implications of their policies." This should be of particular concern to U.S. corporations, a traditional conservative political constituency, the authors argue, because the "U.S. business world – multi-polar, multilateral, cooperative, interdependent, consumer-driven and rule-based ... is as different from the neoconservative world as night from day."

As for neoconservative claims to be "idealists" and driven by the desire to spread democracy and freedom to the countries – claims far too readily accepted as genuine in mainstream foreign-policy circles – the authors dismiss them as "little more than window-dressing" designed to rally public support behind them and put their foes on the defensive.

Their early history – as arch-foes of the anti-Vietnam War faction of the Democratic Party and later of President Jimmy Carter's human rights policies, as well as their selective indignation with regard to the human rights performance of allies and enemies in the "war on terrorism," makes a mockery of their democratic pretensions.

So why did neoconservatives want to take the United States to war in Iraq?

On this question, the authors tend to be frustratingly elusive (despite an early promise "not ... to pull any punches"), at one point suggesting an "unspoken agenda" that is focused on "the Middle East and military power, most of all military power in the Middle East" related to both Israel's security and access to the region's energy resources.

While it is difficult to argue with these two answers, one wishes the authors had been more direct about which factor they believed was more important in the neoconservative worldview and the drive to war, particularly in light of the abundant evidence they present – especially in relation to neoconservative ties to the Christian Zionists and the focus of their own networks of think tanks and foundations – that Israel's fate has been the central passion of all those who identify themselves as "neoconservative."

In that respect, the authors did indeed pull their punches in order no doubt to avoid being labeled "anti-Semitic," a common neoconservative tactic against their critics, and to avoid fueling stereotypes that are both incorrect and dangerously anti-Semitic, such as the notion that "Jews" control the media, if not the world.

While predominantly Jewish, the neoconservative movement is by no means exclusively so, and most U.S. Jews, it is important to point out, are not neoconservatives. As the authors themselves write, "Today, it should not be considered legitimate to imply that any criticism of neo-conservatism is necessarily tainted by anti-Semitism."

That said, the horrific experience of European Jewry in the 20th century, culminating as it did with the Nazi Holocaust, is critical to understanding the neoconservative mindset.

It is that experience – and the failure of the "international community" to do anything about it – that helps explain the good-and-evil moral categories, the obsession with military force, the disdain for multilateral institutions and international law and, ultimately, the necessity for the United States to be permanently engaged against foreign enemies lest it withdraw into isolationism which, like appeasement, helped pave the way for Hitler and the Holocaust, that make up the neoconservative worldview.

(Inter Press Service)


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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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