Why the Neocons Get an "F" For Failure

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Mr. Polner wrote NO VICTORY PARADES: THE RETURN OF THE VIETNAM VETERAN; edited WHEN CAN I COME HOME? about deserters and exiles during the Vietnam War; and co-authored (with Jim O’Grady) DISARMED AND DANGEROUS, a dual biography of Daniel and Philip Berrigan.

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 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.

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 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 with questionable 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 necons, 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.

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 war.

After 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.

Neocons 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.

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 even find time to attend a ceremony for our Iraqi war dead and then pray for forgiveness.

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Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 6/26/2004

Professor Polner,
My sincere apologies if that was the impression. Your article merely opened up comments related to some other charges that have been leveled against neo-conservatives, charges that are often as inaccurate as they are anti-Semitic. However, by absolutely no means did your article make any such charges, or anything related to them.

My post, in response to another comment, was a mere acknowledgement that the term neo-con has been incorrectly overused and my concurrence that "dissenters of Iraq are using the term so vaguely and broadly that they rob criticisms of neocons of any real value." However, this is not a criticism leveled at you or the article. It is a more general problem that I have that this discussion simply provoked.

Again, sorry for the misunderstanding.

Murray xavier Polner - 6/26/2004

Have any of the readers dared suggest that I--a proud libertarian-progressive Jew who has worked for Jewish organizations and still writes for Jewish publications as well as edited one for 17years- referred to the neocns as as sort of Jewish cabal I hope not. A majority of Washington-based,ultra- rightwing funded neocons are Jewish but, yes, but that doesn't make tye Iraq war, etc. a Jewish consoiracy. Anyone who does that is guloty of outrageous anti-Semitism. What they are are living room warriors married to position papers and dangerous> My article referred to the Wolfowitz doctrine as championed by neocons.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 6/26/2004

Mr. Vinson,
Thank you for that post, it is about time someone tried to point out the sillyness of using the term "neocon" to mean, essentially, Jewish Hawks.

I am afraid the word will have to be thrown in the closet, next to "Hitler," "Nazi," "genocide," "war crime," and "pre-emptive" and all the other words use poor over-usage has robbed them of any real meaning.

Stephen Vinson - 6/26/2004

There's a specific definition of neocon.

This isn't it.

I'm really not sure what definition the author's using, but dissenters of Iraq are using the term so vaguely and broadly that they rob criticisms of neocons of any real value.

Irving kristol was a neocon.

The members of Alcove One at City College were largely neocons.

These were liberals, a lot of the original ones communists, who gradually became conservative. You can make the case people like Bill Bennett who became a conservative in the 60s/70s was one.

It gets pretty tenuous when Paul Wolfowitz's name is tossed in. Just about the only connection he has with neocons, at least as the term was used before 2003, is that he's Jewish. The way the phrase is being used now, about the only the conservative who wouldn't be called a neocon is Pat Buchanan. That's it.

Steven L. Frank - 6/25/2004

It's much too early to tell of the events of 2003 will be perceived by history. If the Middle East is is transformed into democratic states, the blood spilled will be worth it. You seem to think that Spanish Imperialism should have been allowed to run is Latin America?

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 6/21/2004

I am not really sure what you mean in your post. Whatever else they may be, neo-cons are American (at least the most prominant are, I can't speak for all of them). Hence I am not really sure what you mean when you say: "They don't like our form of government, they never understand its beauty. Anything they didn't bring from Europe or devise themselves could never be valid."

Also, I don't know of any attempt to change the form of government that the United States has, only to change the ideological component of the people in our government.

Ken Melvin - 6/21/2004

Straussians/Trotskys - neocons; they come to America and say, "This is all wrong, we have the answer". Else trying things their way, all is folly. Whenever their way is tried, it always fails miserably. Then, they say, "this, this here, is the answer for sure". Und so wiete. They don't like our form of government, they never understand its beauty. Anything they didn't bring from Europe or devise themselves could never be valid.

John H. Lederer - 6/21/2004

What I particularly liked was the part where they tore down the forest and angered the ents....

Michael Green - 6/20/2004

My subject line makes some reference to Theodore Roosevelt, who thought that the events of 1898 were a fine idea. Not to besmirch Teddy, who did so much and did it so well, but it is worth adding that the neoconservatives never had a war to fight that they could call their own--unless you want to count Vietnam, except that those who are old enough passed up that opportunity. Note that Theodore Roosevelt went to war. The neoconservatives merely like to shed other people's blood so that they can demonstrate what they consider their manhood.