When 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 50-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
By 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 that 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.
Dependent 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
Even 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."
It was, as critics left and right rightly recognized, a prescription for endless
After the fall of Iraq in 2003, they seemed remarkably 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
told little of what the Iraq invasion would become: 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.
Neocons are the heirs of Woodrow Wilson, not because of his ill-formed fantasies
of world peace through war, but because he's the man who invaded Mexico, took
the country into WWI, gave dissenters such as Eugene V. Debs with brutal prison
sentences and who viewed blacks as inferior – and had a 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 anticipated his
spiritual heirs in the Weekly Standard, New York Post, Fox TV, Pentagon
civilian corps and the White House.
It 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 find time to attend a ceremony
for our Iraqi war dead and then pray for forgiveness.