The Magazine

The Referendum on Neoconservatism

From the November 1 / November 8, 2004 issue: It's already over, and the neocons won.

Nov 1, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 08 • By TOD LINDBERG
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RARELY HAVE THE HOLDERS of any set of political views and policy preferences been so thoroughly caricatured as the "neoconservatives" of the Bush years. To critics, this group of policymakers (preeminently, in the Defense Department and the Office of the Vice President), along with their allies on the outside (preeminently, in the pages of THE WEEKLY STANDARD), is responsible for a kind of hijacking of U.S. foreign policy in the wake of 9/11. Intoxicated by American power and blinded by a utopian vision, the neoconservatives (in the critics' telling) set the country on a disastrous and unnecessary attempt to remake the world in the image of the United States.

And for this, come November 2004, the neoconservatives must pay. The defeat of George W. Bush by his Democratic opponent--and for purposes of the critics' argument, any Democratic opponent would do--would mean a repudiation of this neoconservative view of the world. Many Bush critics saw in Iraq a comprehensive discrediting of neoconservative policy prescriptions, including the doctrine of preemptive or preventive war, belief in the efficacy of military power in general, faith in democratization, and unilateralism. It merely remained for voters to administer the coup de grâce at the polls and the neoconservatives would be discredited once and for all.

Neocon-bashing runs the gamut from right to left and from vaguely ill-informed well-meaners to the lunatic fringe. Let it be said that there is certainly an intellectually responsible critique of neoconservative policy positions to be made, and that some have offered measured criticisms from the left (broadly speaking, from a "neoliberal" internationalist position) and from the right (broadly speaking, from the "neorealist" perspective). But what's more striking is an overwhelming continuity of tone and in many cases substance between, say, the Lyndon LaRouche websites and the George Soros empire or the anonymous sources Seymour Hersh relies on in his New Yorker articles.

This continuity begins with a sense of "neoconservatism" as a doctrine offering comprehensive policy guidance to which all "neoconservatives" adhere. The next element is the imputation to neoconservatives of a kind of cabalism, according to which they surround their true doctrine with a bodyguard of lies designed to conceal it. From this point, it is but a short step to the view that the neoconservatives are monsters, both menacing and incorrigible. And, of course, the only thing to do with a monster is to destroy it or lock it up before it destroys you.

I won't waste the time of readers of this publication with a genealogy of this nonsense or a rebuttal. I will, however, offer fellow neoconservatives a suggestion that contains a criticism. One not uncommon neoconservative response to such demonization has been to suggest that neoconservatives are not really as influential as all that: Who, me? This won't do. In point of fact, neoconservatives have sought influence for their views and have obtained it.

Partly as a result, American security strategy has undergone two major changes since the Clinton years. The first was the Bush administration's initial adoption of a sort of unilateralism that led the administration to spurn, somewhat flamboyantly, the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto accords, and the ABM treaty, among other things. This species of American self-assertiveness, which Charles Krauthammer dubbed the "Bush Doctrine" in these pages months before 9/11, was in part the product of an emerging post-Cold War consciousness of the global power position and security responsibilities of the United States. Though a doctrine of unilateralism does not follow from this understanding--other approaches are possible, and even this administration's unilateralist impulses have diminished--the underlying insight was correct and transformational. And neoconservatives certainly had a hand in its emergence, beginning a decade before (but hardly ending) with the notorious leaked study of U.S. hegemony Paul Wolfowitz produced from his Pentagon office at the end of the first Bush administration.

The second turn came after 9/11. Culminating in the promulgation of the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States, it built on previous insights--many, as noted, from neoconservatives--into the scale of U.S. power and responsibility and outlined measures the United States would take to preserve its position and counter threats of the sort suggested by the 9/11 attack. Once again, neoconservatives were at the forefront of the new thinking. They shouldn't shrink from this fact. They should be proud of it.