A conservative look at neocons

Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of "Liberal Racism" and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York."

As prominent conservatives -- diplomats, retired generals, commentators such as George Will -- are breaking with the Bush administration over the military, constitutional and budgetary consequences of its foreign policy, two of them have published a solemn remonstrance assailing President Bush’s capitulation to a “small group of neoconservative policy makers,” whom they accuse of driving our national misadventures in regime change and nation-building even at the price of endless war and the loss of America’s “moral authority.”

Their jeremiad, “America Alone,” is the more telling because Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke are not left-wing populists or even Democrats. Halper, a White House and State Department official in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations, and Clarke, a former counselor in the British Diplomatic Service now at Washington’s libertarian Cato Institute, mean to save a moderate, worldly conservatism that they say has been replaced by the neoconservative “special interest,” with its “endless mantra of ‘Munich’ ” -- referring to the 1938 agreement -- and obsession with the Middle East.

Neoconservatism is less a conspiracy than a powerful mind-set, modulated a bit in the varied styles of, among others, neocon godfathers Irving Kristol, Richard Pipes and Donald Kagan; polemicists Norman Podhoretz, his son John, Daniel Pipes (son of Richard and director of the pro-war Campus Watch) and columnist Charles Krauthammer; State and Defense department infighters Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith; foreign policy strategists Jeane Kirkpatrick and Robert Kagan (son of Donald and co-founder of the neocon Project for the New American Century); and genial pundits William Kristol (son of Irving and PNAC’s other founder) and David Brooks.


In what they see as a Hobbesian dog-eat-dog world, the neocons demand what Halper and Clarke call a “values-based” foreign policy, grounded in classical virtues. They dismiss as hopelessly ineffectual not only most liberal internationalist thinking but also the traditional conservative “realist” approach taken by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. In the authors’ telling, older neocons began on the left and carried their penchant for ideological warfare rightward without actually embracing conservative economics or the “great melody” of Edmund Burke’s conservative social thought.

Halper and Clarke show that even as world communism disintegrated, the neocons’ obsession with it kept them oddly captive to its combative ways. Neocons miss the Cold War (“World War III”), which seemed to them to justify their demands for greater ideological clarity and aggression in U.S. foreign policy. They thrilled to Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric but were disoriented as he drew Mikhail Gorbachev into dismantling that empire peacefully; they scrambled to reproduce the Cold War’s good-versus-evil coordinates in the public mind and the corridors of power, working through the Project for the New American Century and the American Enterprise Institute.

After a decade of post-Cold War scheming and bombast, their opportunity arrived on Sept. 11, 2001, which overwhelmed a naive president and, Halper and Clarke write, enabled the neocons to impose an “artificial clarity of their own invention on the highly complex network of interactions that constitute America’s relations with the rest of the world.... A preexisting ideological agenda was taken off the shelf, dusted off, and relabelled as the response to terror.” Nine days after Sept. 11, Bush got a letter from leading neocons applauding his “commitment to ‘lead the world to victory’ in the war against terrorism” and, remarkably, putting Iraq front and center. Neocons championed the now-discredited Ahmad Chalabi as a credible informant and likely leader for a U.S.-liberated Iraq. America’s post-Sept. 11 foreign policy was “conceptualized and promoted” preeminently by the neocons, “first by their advocacy of war against Iraq a decade before 9/11 and, second, by their embrace of the concept of an endless, ongoing ‘World War IV.’ ” (The elder Podhoretz is writing a book tentatively titled “World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have to Win.”) The authors’ assessment of the costs includes doomed military and political strategies employed against the terrorists and a homeland-security patriotism that has turned the neocons’ idea of loyalty into a loveless lock step and their democratic creed into Orwellian sloganeering.

As foreign policy veterans, Halper and Clarke are acute on the collapse of multilateralism (we now treat allies “much as though they were Soviet-style satellites”) and the rise of a state-driven “war on terror” that by targeting “senior leaders” misconstrues terrorist organizations so badly that it ends by empowering them. They also protest the disruption of America’s always problematic balance of liberty and security, noting that “[a]s advocates of limited-government conservatism, we are dismayed at the flow of power toward the center” and that “terrorism can be better addressed if we resist the temptation to cut constitutional corners.”

They expose the neocons’ use of journalism to spread disinformation and create “a climate of fear.” The more that people watched Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News cable network, the authors point out, the more likely they were to believe that Iraq and Al Qaeda were linked, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that world public opinion supported the war. Administration officials “circumvented the usual ... channels” to provide pro-war analysis to “sympathetic media outlets,” including the neocons’ Weekly Standard, which sometimes availed itself of “actual wording from allegedly classified documents.” William Kristol, its editor, asserted that the war’s aftermath would require only 75,000 U.S. troops and $16 billion a year. “Using ridicule and ostracism to attack dissenters,” Halper and Clarke write, “neo-conservative strongholds such as the Weekly Standard, the New York Post, the Fox Network, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page effectively stilled the debate. Those questioning ... the neo-conservative rationale for war faced personal attacks on their integrity laced with allegations of disloyalty.”

If journalism is the first draft of history, neocons attacked the second draft too, rewriting Reagan’s foreign policy record to make it seem their own. Halper and Clarke describe William Kristol’s and Robert Kagan’s 1996 Foreign Affairs essay, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy,” as a “muddying of the historical record,” arguing that Reagan’s outreach to China and the Soviets and cautionary standards for American intervention abroad reflected his belief that America could win more ground by setting an example than by aggression.


Conservative moderation in foreign policy does have a long pedigree. But Halper and Clarke are reticent about conservatism’s decidedly mixed record: Conservatives did oppose most American interventions abroad, but often in racist or isolationist disdain. Their McCarthyism at home prefigured the current neocon obsession with national security. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, William Rehnquist, John Ashcroft and the congressional hawks, whom the authors also condemn, are all longtime card-carrying conservatives. (The authors label Cheney and Rumsfeld “nationalists,” as if reluctant to acknowledge this.) What in American conservatism predisposed it to be so misled? No reckoning with that here.

The authors are not only protective of presidents Nixon and Reagan but also seem hesitant to slam a sitting president who may yet take their advice. Were they journalists, they might tell us more about why George W. Bush didn’t keep the neocons in check. They do show how reluctant he was, as a candidate and as president before Sept. 11, to project American military might abroad, repeatedly abjuring “nation-building” and seeming more “humble” than aggressive in foreign policy.

But why was he that way, and why did he change? Having observed him as an undergraduate (he was my neighbor in a Yale college and president of my roommate’s fraternity) and observing classmates who are raising money for him now, I recognize in Bush and his club an insularity along with the impish, frat-boy streak we saw in his stagy flight-deck landing and his Thanksgiving Day descent into Baghdad. The frat boys had, of course, a dim awareness of a harder, bigger world beyond the one that had always been their oyster. But Bush (unlike his father, who saw combat) contrived neither to fight in the Vietnam War nor to oppose it. Small wonder that the rude shock of Sept. 11 made him susceptible to the neocons’ “artificial clarity.”

Now that the shocks of the war in Iraq and its aftermath have been almost as rude, might he replace them with wiser advisors? He awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Norman Podhoretz on June 23, but Lyndon Johnson gave the same medal to his departing Defense secretary, Robert McNamara, when America’s failing war in Vietnam drove them apart. It was a send-off whose grandiosity masked its bitterness.

Most conservatives and liberals now agree that McNamara saw the light about Vietnam while LBJ was still marching deeper into the tunnel. If Halper and Clarke are striking a conservative nerve, might it be Bush who is inching toward the light, leaving Podhoretz & Co. behind in the darkness? Even if so, it may be too late for them all. *