Exit neocons, stage left
David Frum tells us that “[w]ar is a great clarifier” because it “forces people to choose sides.”
It certainly does. For example, it forced us to team up with Joe Stalin in 1941. War forced the U.S. to side with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and the Saudi royal family in the 1990s. Let’s not forget that great clarifying moment when the Cold War forced us to fund Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.
In the same way, our war against Iraq created political alliances domestically that may have been unnatural, and which now may be falling apart. Specifically, some moderate-to-liberal hawks temporarily rose to the forefront of the American right and started calling the shots–in some cases declaring who was and who wasn’t fit to be part of the conservative movement.
But it is only in these post-war days (although many object to the claim that the war is over) that the real clarifying happens.
Many of these hawks, called neocons, spent the aftermath of 9/11 and the run-up to the Iraq war denouncing the conservatives who voiced opposition to Bush’s planned wars. But now, after the war, with some of the dust settled, their differences with the right are becoming clearer, and their continued alliance with conservatives comes into question.
While neocons have reputations as esoteric Straussians, they have been straightforward in recent months in clarifying their worldview.
Frum: “I Am not Pro-Life”
In his April 7, 2003 cover story for National Review, Frum declared it unimaginable that Bob Novak (my boss), Pat Buchanan, Scott McConnell and other anti-war writers “would call themselves ‘conservatives.'”
These “unpatriotic conservatives” were engaged in “a war against America.” Frum accused Novak of “terror denial” for saying al-Qaeda is more dangerous than Hezbollah. Novak was guilty of “espousing defeatism” for writing, “The CIA, in its present state, is viewed by its Capitol Hill overseers as incapable of targeting bin Laden.”
First, how is saying one Islamic terrorist organization is a bigger threat than another “denying” anything? On the second charge, Novak is called unpatriotic for quoting sources who judge that the CIA is in bad shape and will have trouble catching bin Laden (both judgments are evidently true and now universally embraced in the Republican Party).
But Frum went on and declared that these “paleocons” “are thinking about defeat and wishing for it, and they will take pleasure in it if it should happen.”
“They began by hating the neoconservatives. They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished by hating their country.”
These declarations amounted to an attempted purge. David Frum was setting the bounds of permissible dissent and declaring this odd grouping, which included free-traders, protectionists, left-coast anarchists and Latin-Mass Catholics, to be a faction beyond the pale.
It was an interesting role for Frum to assume, considering that the Canadian-born writer is not what one would call a typical conservative. As one clear example of his distance from the American right, he began a November 6, 2003 post in his Diary blog on NRO by declaring: “Now let me say right off: I am not pro-life.”
Frum ended his paragraph with “I have thought about this issue just as hard as you have, and I’m not going to change my mind.”
The Frum situation is thick with irony on two counts: first is the odd spectacle of a devout pro-choicer saying who is not a conservative; and, second, his charges against the paleos last year could be judged today to ring at least as true against the neos.
Kristol: “Common Cause”
A year after the Iraq war and after Frum’s attempted purge, the New York Times went to William Kristol to ask him his thoughts on Iraq now that things weren’t moving as smoothly as he had hoped.
Kristol told the Times that John Kerry had the real answer to the problems there: we need to send more troops. Kristol explained that this agreement between the neocons and the Democrats should surprise no one:
I will take Bush over Kerry, but Kerry over Buchanan or any of the lesser Buchananites on the right. If you read the last few issues of The Weekly Standard, it has as much or more in common with the liberal hawks than with traditional conservatives.
Kristol continued, “If we have to make common cause with the more hawkish liberals and fight the conservatives, that is fine with me, too.”
Making “common cause” with the antiwar left was the first charge in Frum’s indictment that Buchanan and Novak had gone “far, far beyond” the bounds of permissible dissent.
Lest the White House not understand the implicit threat, Kristol added more; summed up in the Times‘ closing paragraph:
Recalling a famous saying of his father, the neoconservative pioneer Irving Kristol, that a neoconservative was “a liberal who has been mugged by reality,” the younger Mr. Kristol joked that now they might end up as neoliberals–defined as “neoconservatives who had been mugged by reality in Iraq.”
In short, Kristol was saying to the GOP, “if you don’t continue your Wilsonian march, we will find a party (maybe Wilson’s) that will.”
Again, no one should have been surprised. Kristol’s close ally, columnist Charles Krauthammer, never hid his admiration for Wilson, FDR and Truman, who he recently called “three giants of the twentieth century.” Neocon publisher Lord Conrad Black wrote a paean to FDR. Kristol has given LBJ the A-Okay.
The neocons–and they admit this–are hawks first, and Republicans or conservatives second.
Boot: “Virtually Inevitable Defeat”
Another unpardonable sin of Frum’s targets was “espous[ing] a potentially self-fulfilling defeatism.” This charge is an odd one coming from a neocon, considering their success as a group is tied to their pragmatism. Neocons, it is said, are just conservatives who understand how the real world works.
So, it is certainly odd for neocons to tell the rest of the right to be more idealistic.
Their standard operating procedure is to criticize cultural conservatives for tilting at windmills in a dream world and trying to repeal modernity.
As a case in point, take Max Boot’s Los Angeles Times article on homosexual marriage headlined: “The Right Can’t Win This Fight.” Boot contends that while we are not “in cultural decline,” our society has irrevocably embraced the entire sexual revolution and more. The legitimacy of homosexual marriage is the inevitable next step and we are fools if we try to fight it.
Boot advises conservatives to surrender:
Faced with virtually inevitable defeat, Republicans would be wise not to expend too much political capital pushing for a gay marriage amendment to the Constitution.
What happened to Frum’s demand that conservatism must now be “an optimistic conservatism”? For the neocons, this marching order is for foreign policy, not for culture wars.
Krauthammer: “Human Rights and Social Justice”
After we failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz explained to Vanity Fair that that didn’t mean the war was fought for no good reason. There were many other reasons to overthrow Hussein, he explained, but the war cabinet settled on WMD because it was the one everyone could agree on.
Into this void came Krauthammer, perhaps the most eloquent and prolific pro-war writer on the right. In a May 16, 2003 article headlined, “Iraq: A Moral Reckoning,” Krauthammer listed the virtues of the war.
His three bullet points were “Human rights,” “Economic equity and social justice,” and “The environment.” We were also reminded at this time that the war had been authorized–indeed compelled–by UN resolution 1441.
So a war most conservatives had backed as a preemptive and unapologetic defense of our homeland and our allies from killer weapons was being explained to us after the fact as a humanitarian mission and an enforcement of UN resolutions.
In other words, the war had become a liberal war. Liberal not just as a social justice or UN mission, but liberal as part of an ambitious plan to use the state to remake society.
Many neocons after Baghdad fell immediately called for going onto Syria. Today it is Iran. The Palestinians and the Saudis, we are told, should also be on our list.
Just reading the Krauthammer headlines and the Kristol covers, we begin to see the bigger picture that is the neocons’ vision. Iraq was just one piece in the puzzle of reshaping the entire Middle East and spreading Democracy to every corner of the world–an undertaking many conservatives (not just the paleos) would judge more fitting for the left’s utopianists than the right’s conservatives.
After Hussein has fallen, the neocons, tireless soldiers, march on. They tell us to abandon the culture wars at home and instead to find more overseas battles. And they let us know that if we balk as the battle moves to fronts we never imagined, they will have no trouble finding a new movement, and even a new president, to march beneath their flag.
Tim Carney is a reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report.