There is an element of Schadenfreude in the reaction of critics of Washington’s neoconservatives to the policy setbacks and ideological turbulence that their erstwhile bureaucratic rivals and ideological antagonists have been experiencing in recent weeks. With the humiliating “resignation” of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a day after the Democrats, carried by populist antiwar sentiment, won both the House and the Senate, the neocons have lost one of their two most powerful patrons in the George W. Bush administration.
Adding insult to injury, replacing Rumsfeld in the Pentagon will be Robert Gates, a leading member of the “realist” foreign policy establishment that dominated the George H.W. Bush administration. Many members of this old-school cadre, including former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and ex-Secretary of State James Baker, have disapproved of the neoconservative agenda adopted by the younger Bush, including the Iraq War and the ambitious Wilsonian campaign to “democratize” the Middle East.
In fact, in a sign that Bush père‘s advisers are on their way back to power in Washington, the city’s foreign policy elites-government officials, lawmakers, pundits, foreign diplomats-are now holding their breath as they wait for the report of Baker’s Iraq Study Group (ISG). The independent, congressionally-mandated panel, which Baker chairs with “realist” former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-IN), is set to issue recommendations on Iraq that could set the ball rolling for the United States to cut its losses and start withdrawing troops from Iraq. To put it bluntly, the same foreign policy types whom the neocons have traditionally accused of “appeasing” Mideast dictators and of “selling out” Israel have now been assigned by the Bush administration and Congress to show the way out of the Middle East mess into which the country was driven by neoconservative-inspired policies.
And according to news reports, the ISG is expected to call for rewriting the neoconservative script of establishing democracy in Iraq and to replace it with a plan to partition Iraq and/or bring the country under the rule of a friendly dictator, a user-friendly Saddam Hussein. The so-called Baker Commission may also recommend that Washington start negotiating with Iran and Syria to take steps to reenergize the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In short, from the perspective of the neocons, Baker and his gang of “pro-Arab appeasers” are drawing the outline of the anti-neocon foreign policy script.
Indeed, it seems that the neoconservatives are now engaged in rearguard battle to secure their remaining outposts in Washington, which include many media outlets, think tanks, and front organizations, including the Weekly Standard, FoxNews, and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). The neocons are also striving to ensure the allegiance of lawmakers, such as former Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), as well as media pundits, such as David Brooks of the New York Times and Ann Applebaum of the Washington Post.
But unfortunately for them, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice embracing what looks like a Realpolitik-lite foreign policy on Iran and North Korea, it seems that the neocons’ last bureaucratic bastion in the Bush administration is now the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, a stronghold from which neocons like David Wurmser will probably try to counter the rising power of the old realists. That task could be challenging, if only because Wurmser and his colleagues are likely to be required to testify before the congressional investigative committee that the Democrats are sure to launch in the coming months.
Though the neocons and their allies in the media have tried to spin the Democratic electoral victory as a reaction to the corruption and scandals that engulfed the Bush administration and the Republican Party, the fact is that most opinion polls suggest that opposition to the Iraq War was responsible for the anti-Republican, anti-Bush political backlash. Such sentiment made it possible for Democratic candidate Jim Webb (a former Republican and ex-Navy secretary) to advance his anti-war campaign and win the Senate race in Virginia, a conservative, Republican-leaning state.
It’s not surprising that in this new political environment, neoconservative pundits and thinkers are hoping to lead a bureaucratic and ideological counterinsurgency. As expected, many of them are now defending their support for the Iraq War by arguing that the plan they had envisioned-establishing a prosperous democracy in Iraq and using it as “model” to remake and reform the Middle East-was great, but those who carried it out-the Bush administration-screwed it up. Until recently, neoconservatives have pointed the finger mainly at Rumsfeld, the military, the CIA, and other allegedly incompetent and disloyal members of the Bush administration. But now they seem to be ganging up on Bush himself.
Richard Perle and Kenneth Adelman, who were both Pentagon advisers before the war (Adelman predicted that the invasion of Iraq would be a “cakewalk”), Michael Rubin, a former senior official in the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans (and a leading backer of Ahmed Chalabi), and David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter (credits include the phrase “axis of evil”), were among the neoconservatives who blasted the performance of the Bush administration in Iraq in pre-election interviews with Vanity Fair ‘s David Rose. Perle, who was a member of the Defense Policy Board, blamed “dysfunction” in the Bush administration for the present quagmire in Iraq. “The decisions did not get made that should have been. They didn’t get made in a timely fashion, and the differences were argued out endlessly,” Perle told Vanity Fair, according to published excerpts of the article. “At the end of the day, you have to hold the president responsible.”
Perle also told Rose that in retrospect, he would not have backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “I think if I had been Delphic, and had seen where we are today, and people had said, ‘Should we go into Iraq?’, I think now I probably would have said, ‘No, let’s consider other strategies for dealing with the thing that concerns us most, which is Saddam supplying weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.'” This reflects a new neocon attitude, since until recently most neoconservatives insisted that both Iraq and the United States were “better off” as a result of Saddam’s removal.
And Adelman’s excuse for his incredibly optimistic pre-war assessment? He hugely overestimated the abilities of the Bush team. “I just presumed that what I considered to be the most competent national security team since Truman was indeed going to be competent,” Adelman told Vanity Fair. “They turned out to be among the most incompetent teams in the postwar era. Not only did each of them, individually, have enormous flaws, but together they were deadly, dysfunctional.” About Rumsfeld, a close personal friend, Adelman remarked: “I’m crushed by his performance.” Adelman also expressed worry that the “idea of using our power for moral good in the world,” a tenet of neoconservative ideology, is not “going to sell” after Iraq.
Rubin and Frum also blast Bush on Iraq, suggesting that he had betrayed neoconservative principles. Bush’s actions in Iraq were “not much different from what his father did on February 15, 1991, when he called the Iraqi people to rise up and then had second thoughts and didn’t do anything once they did,” Rubin told Vanity Fair. Frum, who predicts now that the insurgents will win in Iraq, contends that the blame for the mess in Iraq lies with the “failure at the center,” starting with Bush. (For more, see David Rose, “Neo Culpa,” VanityFair.com, November 3, 2006.)
So how will the neoconservatives adjust to the new reality in which the foreign policy realists, backed by Democrats and Republicans, want to project U.S. power in the pragmatic work of diplomacy? Several former neoconservatives such as Francis Fukuyama have already abandoned the neocon ship, bailing on the movement altogether and perhaps hoping to join the ranks of Democratic and Republican “realist internationalists” in post-Bush era.
Of course, there is at least one neocon who is still bullish about his ideology. AEI scholar Joshua Muravchik, writing in the latest issue of Foreign Policy, exhorts his “fellow neoconservatives” to learn from-and admit-their mistakes. “The essential tenets of neoconservatism-belief that world peace is indivisible, that ideas are powerful, that freedom and democracy are universally valid, and that evil exists and must be confronted-are as valid today as when we first began,” Muravchik writes. Mistakes were made in Iraq, but mostly by those implementing the policies. “Could things have unfolded differently had our occupation force been large enough to provide security?” he asks, seeming to assign blame for the mismanagement of the occupation on Rumsfeld and the military. You see, Muravchik implies, the mess in Iraq is not neocons’ fault. Sure, the ideas might have come from neocons, but after all, “Our forte is political ideas”-not practical matters. Neocons, it seems, are not to be blamed for the poor job done carrying out their ideas.
What Muravchik seems to suggest is that the new generation of neocons should be in charge of a huge project to promote democracy in the Middle East and worldwide. “The Bush administration deserves criticism for its failure to repair America’s public diplomacy apparatus,” he writes. “No group other than neocons is likely to figure out how to do that. We are, after all, a movement whose raison d’être was combating anti-Americanism in the United States. Who better, then, to combat it abroad?”
And Muravchik, a former socialist and labor union activist, reached to the Cold War-era for an appropriate model for the neocons. “Today, no one in the U.S. Foreign Service is trained for this mission,” he writes in Foreign Policy. “The best model for such a program are the ‘Lovestonites’ of the 1940s and 50s, who, often employed as attachés in U.S. embassies, waged ideological warfare against communism in Europe and Russia. They learned their political skills back in the United States fighting commies in the labor unions. There is no way to reproduce the ideological mother’s milk on which Jay Lovestone nourished his acolytes, but we need to invent a synthetic formula. Some Foreign Service officers should be offered specialized training in the war of ideas, and a bunch of us neocons ought to volunteer to help teach it. There should be at least one graduate assigned to every major U.S. overseas post.” (For more, see “Operation Comeback,” Foreign Policy, November/December 2006.)
Muravchik has also one or two short- and mid-term “practical ideas” for the neoconservative strategy, including preparing to bomb Iran and recruiting Lieberman to run for president in 2008 . But it’s doubtful that his somewhat kooky program for the neocons-training foreign service officers to export democracy-is going to be adopted by the more ambitious and action-oriented neoconservatives. These neocons are hoping that, notwithstanding the current bureaucratic and ideological setbacks, they’ll be able to regain policymaking powers, as opposed to just dispensing propaganda. After all, they have suffered similar losses in the past, including in clashes with the Bush 41 realists, and eventually came out as at least temporary winners, living to advise another president and leading the way to the Iraq War. They are probably already outlining plans and generating goals for the next generation of neocons.
Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and contributor to Right Web (rightweb.irc-online.org), is author most recently of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (2006). He blogs at globalparadigms.blogspot.com.