Being a Neocon Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
These guys were wrong about every aspect of Iraq. Why do we still have to listen to them?
From 2001 until sometime around 2006, the United States followed the core neoconservative foreign-policy program. The disastrous results of this vast social science experiment could not be clearer. The neoconservative program cost the United States several trillion dollars and thousands dead and wounded American soldiers, and it sowed carnage and chaos in Iraq and elsewhere.
One would think that these devastating results would have discredited the neoconservatives forever, just as isolationists like Charles Lindbergh or Robert McCormick were discredited by World War II, and men like former Secretary of State Dean Rusk were largely marginalized after Vietnam. Even if the neoconservative architects of folly are undaunted by failure and continue to stick to their guns, one might expect a reasonably rational society would pay them scant attention.
Yet to the dismay of many commentators — including Andrew Bacevich, Juan Cole, Paul Waldman, Andrew Sullivan, Simon Jenkins, and James Fallows — neoconservative punditry is alive and well today. Casual viewers of CNN and other news channels are being treated to the vacuous analysis of Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, and Bill Kristol.
More worrisome still: It seems to be having some impact, insofar as President Barack Obama appears to have bowed to pressure and dispatched 300 U.S. military advisors to help the incompetent and beleaguered Maliki government in Iraq. As usual, Obama seems wary of a new quagmire and seeking to limit U.S. involvement, but he’s taken the first step onto the slippery slope and will face additional pressure to do more if this initial move does not succeed.
What’s going on here? Others have eviscerated the logic of the neocons’ latest campaign for war, and you can read any of the commentaries listed above for powerful rejoinders to the neocons’ latest spate of bad advice. Or you could take a quick look at Barry Posen’s recent piece in Politico, which provides a useful caution to the neocons’ all-too-familiar saber-rattling.
But given their past failures, what explains neoconservatism’s apparent immunity from any degree of accountability? How can a group of people be so wrong so often and at such high cost, yet still retain considerable respect and influence in high circles? For America to pay the slightest heed to neoconservatives is like asking Wile E. Coyote how to catch the Road Runner, seeking marital advice from the late Mickey Rooney, or letting Bernie Madoff handle your retirement portfolio.
As near as I can tell, the strange mind-boggling persistence of neoconservatism is due to four interrelated factors.
No. 1: Shamelessness
One reason neoconservatism survives is that its members don’t care how wrong they’ve been, or even about right and wrong itself. True to their Trotskyite and Straussian roots, neoconservatives have always been willing to play fast and loose with the truth in order to advance political goals. We know that they were willing to cook the books on intelligence and make outrageously false claims in order to sell the Iraq war, for example, and today they construct equally false narratives that deny their own responsibility for the current mess in Iraq and portray their war as a great success that was squandered by Obama. And the entire movement seems congenitally incapable of admitting error, or apologizing to the thousands of people whose lives they have squandered or damaged irreparably.
Like Richard Nixon or Silvio Berlusconi, in short, the neoconservatives keep staging comebacks because they simply don’t care how often they have been wrong, and because they remain willing to do or say anything to stay in the public eye. They also appear utterly indifferent to the tragic human consequences of their repeated policy failures. Being a neoconservative, it seems, means never having to say you’re sorry.
No. 2: Financial Support
The second source of neoconservative survival is money. In America’s wide-open policy arena, almost anyone can be a player, provided they have the resources to keep people employed and give them platforms and institutions from which to operate. Instead of becoming marginalized within the Beltway scene, the neocons who drove America over the brink in 2003 continue to be supported by an array of well-funded think tanks, magazines, and letterhead organizations, including the Weekly Standard, American Enterprise Institute, Carnegie Endowment, Council on Foreign Relations, Institute for the Study of War, Hudson Institute, and several others. If someone can screw up as repeatedly as Elliott Abrams and still land a well-funded senior fellowship at CFR — then bad advice will continue to enjoy a prominent place in American policy discourse.
No. 3: A Receptive and Sympathetic Media
Neoconservatives would have much less influence if mainstream media didn’t continue to pay attention to them. They could publish their own journals and appear on Fox News, but the big force multiplier is their continued prominence in places like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and other outlets. Neocons continue to have frequent access to op-ed pages, and are commonly quoted by reporters on a range of foreign-policy issues.
This tendency is partly because some important members of the mainstream media are themselves neoconservatives or strongly sympathetic to its basic worldview. David Brooks of the New York Times, Charles Krauthammer and Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post, and Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal are all card-carrying neoconservatives and were, of course, prominent voices in the original pro-war camp. The Times even hired Kristol to write an op-ed column back in 2005 — after Iraq had already gone south — and he might still be doing that today if his columns hadn’t been so dull and sloppy.
But it’s not just the neoconservatives’ continued presence in the mainstream press.
Neoconservatives continue to exercise influence because the rest of the U.S. media is obsessed with “balance,” and because lackadaisical reporters know they can always get a hawkish neoconservative quote to balance whatever they are being told by the Obama administration or by more dovish voices. As long as reporters think balance matters more than accuracy, neoconservatives will still find plenty of places to peddle their particular version of foreign-policy snake oil.
No. 4: Liberal Allies
The final source of neoconservative persistence is the continued support they get from their close cousins: the liberal interventionists. Neoconservatives may have cooked up the whole idea of invading Iraq, but they got a lot of support from a diverse array of liberal hawks. As I’ve noted before, the only major issue on which these two groups disagree is the role of international institutions, which liberals view as a useful tool and neoconservatives see as a dangerous constraint on U.S. freedom of action. Neoconservatives, in short, are liberal imperialists on steroids, and liberal hawks are really just kinder, gentler neocons.
The liberal interventionists’ complicity in the neoconservative project makes them reluctant to criticize the neoconservatives very much, because to do so draws attention to their own culpability in the disastrous neoconservative program. It is no surprise, therefore, that recovering liberal hawks like Peter Beinart and Jonathan Chait — who both backed the Iraq war themselves — have recently defended neoconservative participation in the new debate over Iraq, while taking sharp issue with some of the neocons’ position.
The neoconservative-liberal alliance in effect re-legitimates the neoconservative world view, and makes their continued enthusiasm for U.S.-led wars look “normal.” When the Obama administration is staffed by enthusiastic proponents of intervention like Samantha Power or Susan Rice, and when former Obama officials like Anne-Marie Slaughter are making neocon-like arguments about the need to send arms to Syria, it makes neoconservatives sound like a perfectly respectable faction within the broad U.S. policy community, instead of underscoring just how extreme and discredited their views really are.
The zombie-like ability to maintain influence and status in the face of overwhelming evidence tells you that F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong: There are in fact an infinite number of “second chances” in American life and little or no accountability in the U.S. political system. The neocons’ staying power also reminds us that the United States can get away with irresponsible public discourse because it is very, very secure. Iraq was a disaster, and it helped pave the way to defeat in Afghanistan, but at the end of the day the United States will come home and probably be just fine. True, thousands of our fellow citizens would be alive and well today had we never listened to the neoconservatives’ fantasies, and Americans would be more popular abroad and more prosperous at home if their prescriptions from 1993 forward had been ritually ignored. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would be alive too, and the Middle East would probably be in somewhat better condition (it could hardly be worse).
What, if anything, might reduce the neoconservative influence to its proper dimension (that is to say, almost nil)? I wish I knew, for if the past ten years haven’t discredited them, it’s not obvious what would. No doubt leaders in Moscow and Beijing derive great comfort from that fact: For what better way to ensure that the United States continues to lurch from crisis to crisis, and from quagmire to quagmire? Until our society gets better at listening to those who are consistently right instead of those who are reliably wrong, we will repeat the same mistakes and achieve the same dismal results. Not that the neoconservatives will care.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.