Knight Ridder Newspapers
WASHINGTON – For seven long years, Bill Kristol agitated for a U.S. coup against Saddam Hussein, and argued that America should remake the world to serve its own interests. Few bothered to listen at the time. So how does he feel now?
In his office the other day, he grinned without smirking. That’s how most of the hawkish defense intellectuals – better known as neoconservatives – are behaving these days. Although they’re sitting pretty in wartime Washington, they’re trying not to preen.
Kristol refuses to strut his stuff, because he knows how fast the high and mighty can be brought low in this town; after all, he was once Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief of staff. Still, he can’t resist contending that Sept. 11 made all the “neocons” look like prophets.
“We saw, earlier than most people, that the world was very dangerous, that America’s drift during the `90s was very dangerous,” he said Wednesday at the Weekly Standard, the Rupert Murdoch-financed magazine he edits that promotes the neocon credo. “We were alarmed; we tried to call attention to all that. So I don’t want to say we feel vindicated, but we do feel our analysis was right.”
The neocons – think-tank warriors and commentators, all of whom cite Ronald Reagan’s moral clarity – are hot these days because they emerged from the political wilderness to alter the course of American foreign policy. And Iraq is just the beginning, as Kristol cheerily contended: “President Bush is committed, pretty far down the road. The logic of events says you can’t go halfway. You can’t liberate Iraq, then quit.”
The neocons care little about domestic policy; they think globally. They don’t believe in peaceful coexistence with hostile, undemocratic states; rather, they want an “unapologetic, idealistic, assertive” America (in Kristol’s words) that will foment pro-democratic revolutions around the world, if necessary at the point of a gun.
The neocon assumption – that the American way is best for everybody, whether foreigners know it or not – is not shared by their numerous critics. Establishment Republicans, many of whom worked for Bush’s father, worry that the fomenting of new “regime changes” will sow more global terrorism against Americans. Liberals simply say that the neocons have captured Bush’s brain.
Historian Allan Lichtman said that regardless of whether one agrees with the neocons, “they are historically important, because, in the post-Cold War world, they are providing an intellectual justification for the continuation of the national security state.”
Others talk darkly about a “neocon cabal” that includes a media empire (Murdoch also owns Fox News), policy shops (notably the American Enterprise Institute, home to many neocon scholars and Kristol’s Project for a New American Century), and revenue sources (particularly the Bradley Foundation, which has helped finance the policy shops).
In a sense, it is tight-knit. The institute, Kristol’s Project for a New American Century, and the Weekly Standard are all housed in the same Washington office building, a square slab of concrete 12 stories high. During Gulf War II, it was the place to be; every Tuesday morning, the institute hosted public “black-coffee briefings” led by Tom Donnelly, an institute scholar who once worked for the Project for a New American Century.
The neocons move between these groups and Bush’s government. In 1998, the Project for a New American Century sent an open letter to President Bill Clinton, urging that he overthrow Saddam; 10 of the signatories now work for Bush. And when Bush spoke in February at the institute (Lynne Cheney, the vice president’s wife, is a board member), he said that his team had borrowed 20 of its scholars.
Neocon Richard Perle, a Pentagon adviser, was an institute scholar; so was John Bolton, who now has a key undersecretary post in the State Department. Today, the institute still has hawks who were hawks before the neocon label became hip; witness ex-Reagan Pentagon adviser Michael Ledeen, who, while puffing on a fat cigar the other day, said: “Americans believe that peace is normal, but that’s not true. Life isn’t like that. Peace is abnormal.”
But is this a cabal? Networking is a way of life in Washington; Democrats do it, too. Max Boot, another prominent neocon (and a think-tank scholar who writes for Kristol’s magazine), said: “The liberals have plenty of well-organized and well-funded groups. The problem is that they don’t have any good ideas to sell, at least not on foreign policy. To judge from their recent antiwar invective, a large part of the party is still in cloud cuckoo land.”
Marshall Wittmann, a close observer of the neocons and a friend of Kristol’s, said: “The neocons are all about ideas. They understand how to promote those ideas. They get a lot of bang for the buck. It’s the way they frame their arguments, and into whose hands they put those arguments. Also, while a fair number of conservatives shun the mainstream press, Bill participates in it.”
In the `90s, the neocons were also relentless. Paul Wolfowitz, now the deputy defense secretary, was a Pentagon underling in 1992 under Dick Cheney when he drafted a document declaring that America should move against potential rivals, even if forced to act alone: “The United States should be postured to act independently when collective action cannot be orchestrated.”
The document was deemed too radical; it was watered down. But four years later, in a foreign-policy journal, Kristol and colleague Robert Kagan tried again, writing that America, in pursuit of “benevolent global hegemony,” should be willing to confront hostile countries and “bring about a change of regime.”
But, as Kristol now recalls, “that article was pretty much ignored.” So was his magazine’s special issue of Dec. 1, 1997, titled Saddam Must Go. In fact, most Republicans didn’t care; on Capitol Hill, they were talking about a lower U.S. profile in the world. And Bush, during his 2000 campaign, talked of showing “humility” abroad.
It was Sept. 11 that put the neocons in play; until that day, they had been castigating Bush for not being tough enough overseas. And now, looking back, they freely admit that Bush embraced their national-security strategy only because he had been jolted by events.
Gary Schmitt, a former Reagan administration intelligence expert who now runs Kristol’s think tank, said: “Without 9-11, Bush might have been off wandering in the desert, in terms of foreign policy. He might have been looking for a minimal foreign-policy voice so that he could concentrate on domestic matters. So we (neocons) might not have been in a good position at all.
“Even now, do we feel triumphant? No. We’ve been around this town too long. Our job is to continue to push.”
The neocon crusade for a democratic Middle East, abetted by American might, has just begun. Last week, Kristol’s magazine rebuked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for refusing to commit himself to building a military base in Iraq, and tweaked Bush for being “too hasty” in praising Syria for its vow to expel Saddam’s henchmen. The neocons, fearing that monetary constraints could hamper their vision, also want a defense budget much bigger than what the Bush team has proposed.
And if people overseas don’t like the more imperious America, the neocon response is basically: So what? Boot said: “Being number one will always elicit a certain amount of resentment; lots of people outside New York hate the Yankees, just as lots of people outside Dallas have always hated the Cowboys. That doesn’t mean the Yankees and Cowboys can’t go on winning.”
Kristol shrugged, “We’re going to get criticized for being an imperial power anyway, so you might as well make sure that the good guys win.
“But there will be obstacles, and I’m worried about them. Iraq is going to be messy, there’s no easy solution to North Korea, and there are risks in confronting Iran. Some things can go wrong. But it’s always better to err on the side of strength. The pressures will be great, but this is what it means to live in a genuinely historic moment.”