Neo-Conspiracy Theories

Neo-Conspiracy Theories

Mini Teaser: There is much room for debate on the soundness of neoconservative policies. But a serious assessment of neocons and their role in the Bush Administration is a necessary starting point.

by Author(s): Gerard Baker

James Mann, The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet (New York: Penguin, 2004), 426 pp., $16.

Patrick Buchanan, Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2004), 272 pp., $24.95.

Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, American Alone: The Neonconservatives and the Global Order (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 382 pp., $28.

A few days before the U.S. presidential election, the BBC, a once renowned television network dedicated to the enlightenment of the uninformed around the world, aired a documentary called "The Power of Nightmares." The program's central thesis was that the notion of a global threat from Islamist terrorism was largely a chimera, dreamed up by the powers-that-be to scare people into supporting wars of oppression by America and its dwindling band of allies. This illusion, the documentary said, was the work of a tightly knit group of conspirators in Washington known by now to all as "the neoconservatives"--a group of warmongering fanatics morally equivalent to the Islamic fundamentalists they claim to be fighting. As the producers noted, both are organized groups of religious bigots who use deception and terror to engender fear in credulous peoples in the hope of furthering their own goals of global domination. What was most remarkable about this steadily ascending fantasy of calumnies was in the end how unremarkable it was. For the neocons, such allegations are now merely routine.

Few groups of otherwise inconspicuous individuals can have been more maligned, loathed, feared and ridiculed than America's neoconservatives. In academia, in the media and in the steadily growing piles of political polemics that stack bookstore shelves, they have been demonized as, at very best, na‹fs espousing a dangerously unrealistic fantasy of American foreign policy as a mission civilatrice--or at worst as neo-fascists, consumed by a Dr. Strangelove-like fixation on the transformative effect of American military power.

The standard critical narrative of the last four years runs as follows: An intellectually lightweight and suggestible president, unschooled in foreign affairs, was led by a highly motivated cabal of foreign policy advisors and mysteriously connected outsiders into an embrace of their controversial doctrines. These revolutionaries held a number of core beliefs way beyond the bounds of the mainstream of America's foreign policy debate. They are committed to an explicit policy of eliminating regimes they don't like, especially in the Middle East, and to their replacement with governments friendly to America and Israel. Their faith in America's moral superiority and military supremacy is so great that they see it as the country's responsibility to wage something like permanent war, both pre-emptively and unilaterally.

These views would obviously never pass muster with public opinion, so like all coups d'etat, this one was achieved through deception, opportunism and manipulation. The neocons exploited the September 11 attacks to leverage their narrow worldview into the official national security strategy of the United States. They lied about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq to justify their longed-for invasion of the country.

This immorality tale has come mostly from the Left, especially overseas. But many of the neocons' political enemies, especially those at home, are on the Right. Many who consider themselves true conservatives are, if anything, even more aghast at what they see as the usurpation of their governing philosophy for such nefarious ends. Patrick Buchanan, the paleoconservative polemicist, and Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, who describe themselves as firm believers in Reaganite foreign policy, are in this conservative vanguard in the struggle against the neocons. Their critiques of the neocons, though divergent in important respects, share many central allegations.

The main substantive objection is that the apparently one-dimensional neoconservative approach to foreign policy is deeply inadequate to the challenges of a complex world. They believe their adversaries are not only a radical departure from traditional conservative thinking, but knaves who have laid a false claim to the Reagan legacy.

Buchanan's charge comes from a now familiar populist-conservative perspective. He says neoconservatives are at odds with the finest traditions of American foreign policy. Developing themes he first outlined in another of his books, A Republic, Not An Empire, he says those traditions, from George Washington's valedictory address to Ronald Reagan's pullout of U.S. forces in Lebanon, are essentially isolationist. Buchanan does not repeat his earlier claim that U.S. involvement in World War II was both immoral and politically mistaken, but he decries foreign policy under George W. Bush as deeply misguided and redolent of the imperial overreach of past superpowers such as 19th-century Great Britain and 17th-century Spain. You do not have to look hard, however, to get the gist of Buchanan's populist drift. The United States, he says, should abandon neoconservative pipe dreams and, in addition to isolationism, should adopt policies that are openly protectionist, anti-immigrant and anti-Zionist.

Halper and Clarke, in a less lurid and more lucid but no less polemical account, argue that the neocons and the policies they have forced on the United States these past four years have been a terrible aberration that has caused only barely reparable damage to America at home and abroad. They trace the history of neoconservatism, and in doing so distinguish between the original neocons who helped guide American foreign policy in the Reagan years, for whom they have evident regard, and the current crowd, for whom they are seething with derision and contempt. They regard today's neocons as intellectually inferior, apparently lacking the cultural range and philosophical reach of their forefathers.

Halper and Clarke are not unsympathetic to the basic goals of the neocons, and they do not repeat the more fanciful critiques popular in the European press about the power lust of this shadowy group. As Reagan enthusiasts, they acknowledge the beneficial transformative power of U.S. foreign policy, and they do not disdain the value of a bit of American moral clarity in a dangerously relativistic world.

But they do assert that the neocons in and around the Bush Administration failed to learn the basic lessons of Ronald Reagan's successful Cold War approach: Know the limitations of direct U.S. action, and secure the support of allies in any endeavor to promote the ideals of freedom. Their simplistic assumptions about the universal appeal of democracy are as ill matched to the realities of politics as was their misplaced faith in the power of the U.S. military to effect and sustain regime change.

Given the evident intellectual shortcomings of the neocons in these accounts, how on earth did they manage to drive U.S. foreign policy in their direction in the Bush Administration? According to Halper and Clarke, the secret of the neocons' success was the use of the levers that all powerful Washington special interest groups control--access through influential think tanks to the key policymaking positions of the administration and above all control of the mass media. With the help of powerful friends and fellow-travelers in television and the press--Fox News, the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal's editorial page--the neocons were able to shift the terms of public debate in their direction.

There is a whiff of McCarthyism at times in some of this. But the question of how the neocons grabbed control of the reins of policy in the Bush term is worth focusing on in detail, because it highlights the weakness in all these accounts of the neocon ascendancy. Not a single senior member of the Bush Administration can be described as a member of the fraternity. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice are better thought of as assertive nationalists. They may share the neocons' faith in American power, but they are highly skeptical about using that power for the risky business of establishing democracies of questionable value to U.S. interests. How then did they come to embrace the principal neocon cause, the invasion of Iraq and the attempt to remake the political map of the Middle East?

The answer, which Buchanan ignores, and Halper and Clarke only allude to, is that the circumstances in which U.S. foreign policy was being made by 2001 had changed completely--not just in the obvious sense by the events of September 11, but more importantly by the transformed conditions of U.S. military and political strength in the world at the turn of the millennium. That transformation changed minds in a foreign policy field far broader than the neocon cabal.

Pinning down neoconservatism is not as easy as its detractors claim. Its roots are complex. Indeed, the notion that there is, as in Marxism, a single neoconservative philosophical approach is surely a myth.

Some early neocons hailed from mid-20th-century political philosophy departments in a few select universities. Men such as Leo Strauss, Albert Wohlstetter, Allan Bloom and Irving Kristol were dismayed by the grip of moral relativism on America's institutions of learning. Others, such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer, came at the subject from a more practical angle: disillusionment in the power of social and economic progressivism and egalitarianism in the 1960s. Still others, like Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-WA) gravitated to the cause as the Democratic party turned its back on America's Cold War challenges after Vietnam.

Essay Types: Book Review