As George W. Bush heads into his last, lame-duck year as president, the postmortems have already begun. And in the eyes of most of the pundits who have already begun shoveling dirt on the legacy of the 43rd president, there's little doubt about the chief culprits for the disasters of the last years: the neoconservatives.
Regardless of its origins, the term is now an all-purpose term of art to describe a group of advocates of an aggressive policy against Islamist terrorism and support for the State of Israel. Their supposedly nefarious influence on the Bush administration is an article of faith for those who see them as authors of all that is wrong about American foreign policy.
Indeed, the dust jacket of Jacob Heilbrunn's recent book on them, They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, screams that they are "the most feared and reviled intellectual movement in American history" and a "tight-knit cabal that ensnared the Bush administration."
The text of Heilbrunn's scathing tome doesn't quite live up to that level of hysteria, but the fact that the publishers felt free to throw such words around show how widely reviled anyone who can be labeled a "neocon" is these days.
Repeating the Past
Indeed, a founding father of neoconservatism who is still an active force on the scene, former Commentary magazine editor Norman Podhoretz, has gotten a full measure of scorn from most of the chattering classes for his recent book World War IV. In the view of his many critics, Podhoretz merely follows the logic of past neocon blunders in the Middle East and calls for an all-out Western effort to combat "Islamofascism."
But the chorus of neocon-bashers see the attempt on the part of Podhoretz to confront Iran and to pre-empt its effort to attain nuclear weapons as nothing short of insane. The recent release of the government's dubious National Intelligence Estimate, which appeared to debunk the idea that Iran is pursuing nukes merely adds to the sense among those who write about the movement that the obsessions of the neocons are based on fantasies.
Heilbrunn goes into great detail about the Jewish intellectual origins of the movement. The fact that many of the most famous and most influential neocons, such as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick or William Bennett, were not Jewish is merely a detail.
For the author, as well as other even more extreme commentators on the subject, neoconservatism is an idea rooted in Jewish insecurity left over from the Holocaust, which seeks to impose a moral clarity on a world more aptly illustrated in shades of gray than in the stark black-and-white of the neocons.
Indeed, for writers like Slate. com's Timothy Noah, who wrote in The New York Times recently that "to be neoconservative is to bear almost daily witness to the resurrection of Adolf Hitler," the obsession with avoiding a repeat of Munich is an absurdity.
Thus, even Heilbrunn cannot escape from an obsession with America's Israel policy. While he concedes that neoconservatives, like the overwhelming majority of Americans, see the interests of the two democracies as largely congruent, their devotion to Israel's survival is, in his view, a fatal flaw that's leading us astray. As Heilbrunn writes, "none of the Democratic candidates [for president in 2008] have uttered even a mild word of criticism of Israel." He adds ruefully that "this, too, must be counted as neoconservative success."
The point of the anti-neocon narrative is that the verdict of history, as written in the dust of the quagmire in Iraq, is that the neocons were wrong — wrong about Iraq; wrong about Iran; wrong about the nature of the threat from the Islamists; wrong about identifying Israel's interests with those of America; wrong even about their earlier warnings about the Soviets.
Yet even when we discard the allegations of conspiracies that have been put about by foes of Israel, such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the authors of The Israel Lobby, the problem with these critiques is that the verdict of history is by no means as definitive as the neocon critics would have us believe.
After all, neoconservatism gained notice in the 1970s specifically because the neocon rejection of the notion that appeasement of Soviet communism was either effective or sensible in the long run was entirely correct. Neocon intellectuals helped rouse an America mired in memories of Vietnam to reject the détentist policies of the "realists" of that era.
Similarly, are the neocons today wrong about the threat from the Islamists, and the need to spread support for democracy in the Arab and Islamic world? If some perceive would-be Hitlers — like Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Palestinian Hamas allies, as well as Al Qaeda operatives in Iraq and elsewhere — as being a clear and present danger to the West, can it be credibly asserted that this characterization is false?
It is a fact that the execution of Bush's goals in Iraq was often as incompetent as its response to Hurricane Katrina. The goal of transforming the region via democracy was surely too ambitious. But that didn't mean the stakes there were not worth fighting for. Indeed, the recent improvement in Iraq — once better military leadership and strategies were substituted for faulty ones — shows that defeat is nowhere near as certain as some thought a few months ago.
Moreover, what exactly do the critics of the neocons offer as an alternative to dealing with the threat of the Islamists? Their answer is a combination of a return to the old "realism" that dominated the failed policies of previous administrations, which left America stuck backing unpopular authoritarian Arab regimes, appeasing Iran, and trying to force a peace between Israel and the Palestinians that the Arabs don't want.
With the "realists" now taking back control of foreign policy in Bush's last months, does anyone really believe that more pressure on the Israelis or a rapprochement with the mullahs in Iran would yield peace or security for anyone?
More Resolve Needed
Bush's successors may well continue this shift. But they won't be able to avoid the conflict with Islamism that neocons worry about. Nor can any of them chart a course that will not require the sort of U.S. resolve that the neocons have preached.
Podhoretz ends his latest call to arms by asking whether Americans are capable of "beating back the 'implacable challenge' of Islamofascism" as their forebears defeated Nazism. Writing at a time when he conceded the prospects for victory were "bleak," his answer was still yes.
In that sense, Jacob Heilbrunn's right when he concludes by warning that the neoconservatives are far from done. Podhoretz's optimism will ultimately be vindicated, if only because the alternatives to his views are simply implausible.
Like it or not — and notwithstanding the mistakes that were made in the last eight years — America is still locked in a worldwide struggle with Islamists that can't be wished away by blaming it all on the neocons.