06.22.09 6:51 AM ET
Death of the Neocons
Paul Wolfowitz, Robert Kagan and the same old crew of discredited neoconservatives who pushed America into Iraq have returned again to chastise President Obama for not force-feeding Iran their democracy. That not even other Republicans are biting might spell the end of an era.
One characteristics that ideologues of both the left and right share is a commitment to what might be termed the “Great Leap Forward.” In the Marxist case, the GLF always implied a transformation in the fundamental character of humankind. Just as soon as we get rid of capitalist exploitation by virtue of a communist revolution and a “new man” would emerge who would cease the selfish, self-destructive behavior that had characterized every state’s behavior since the end of feudalism.
Revolutions notwithstanding, the right wing’s version of the GLF is not so different, except that it is much easier to put in place. What is needed to transform tyranny into freedom, according to the arguments of its most esteemed ideologues, is the American-inspired overthrow of this or that Islamic regime, usually, it turns out, whose country’s name begins with letters “Ira…”.
Perhaps I’m an inveterate optimist, but I think we are finally seeing the neocons pass into history just as the Marxists did.
Remember when Paul Wolfowitz suggested that, following a short, sweet U.S. invasion, Iraq would become “the first Arab democracy” and would “cast a very large shadow, starting with Syria and Iran but across the whole Arab world?” If you need your memory jarred a bit, it came around the same time that Richard Perle assured us that a U.S. invasion of Iraq enjoyed “the potential to transform the thinking of people around the world about the potential for democracy, even in Arab countries where people have been disparaging of their potential.” This too, occurred around the same moment that William Kristol suggested that a U.S. invasion would inspire “the principles of liberty and justice in the Islamic world” generally.
OK, so that didn’t work out so well. Never mind that. The point is, it’s apparently time again. What would be the likely consequences of a victory for Iran’s reformers? Charles Krauthammer apparently dusted off one of those old neocon columns from 2003 and changed the “q” into an “n” and decided to run with it: “Imagine the repercussions,” he fantasized. “It would mark a decisive blow to Islamist radicalism, of which Iran today is not just standard-bearer and model, but financier and arms supplier. It would do to Islamism what the collapse of the Soviet Union did to communism— leave it forever spent and discredited. In the region, it would launch a second Arab Spring.”
And what would it take to do away with this “the tyrannical, misogynist, corrupt theocracy?” Well, if I read the neocons correctly, just a few nasty words from President Obama. “The demonstrators are fighting on their own, but they await just a word that America is on their side.,” Krauthammer assures us. “It would be a cruel irony if, in an effort to avoid imposing democracy, the United States were to tip the scale toward dictators who impose their will on people struggling for freedom,” insists Paul Wolfowitz.
Obama’s “strategy toward Iran places him objectively on the side of the government's efforts to return to normalcy as quickly as possible, not in league with the opposition's efforts to prolong the crisis,” pipes up Robert Kagan.
“In President Obama's snail-mail response to Iran's Twitter revolution, he has tended toward the chicken Kiev model,” observes Michael Gerson, adding, “Perhaps the most realistic alternative in Iran is also the most idealistic: Freedom now.”
“Even if we cannot know or control the outcome, we have a responsibility, through our actions as a nation, to answer clearly the question: Whose side are we on?” demand Dan Senor and Christian Whiton.
Back in 2003, the neocons had the wind at their back. They had 9/11; they had Bush and Cheney, and Don Rumsfeld; they had WMDs—or so almost everybody thought—and they had the Democrats, the media, and much of America scared shitless. So they had next to no evidence for most of their claims. So they couldn’t support any number of their assertions. So their theories didn’t make a whole of sense, even then. So what? Even thinking in terms of evidence, logic, and the like, that was so old-fashioned. “Pre-9/11 thinking.” It was a new world, they told us. Get with the program or the next attack would be a “mushroom cloud.”
Perhaps I’m an inveterate optimist, but I think we are finally seeing the neocons pass into history just as the Marxists did. After all, do you know anyone who does not have a regular column in The Washington Post or Wall Street Journal editorial page—not including crazy cable hosts—who is clamoring for American intervention in Iran? Can they really expect us to believe that a) the Iranian protesters don’t know that America supports them and b) that our president’s saying so would not provide the Iranian regime with exactly the excuse they need to stamp the opposition as disloyal pawns of enemies and infidels? Do these people really not know the difference between words and deeds?
Again, on this score, the answer is not so clear. George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq as if saying so made it so. Trillions of dollars and thousands of lives later, Americans have learned the hard way that this is not the case. It’s hard to believe that the neocons actually believe that the right words from Barack Obama would somehow tip the balance toward “Freedom Now,” much less “a second Arab Spring.” Do they think presidential rhetoric is made of fairy dust?
More likely is the belief that the more the U.S. involves itself in the Iranian standoff, the greater the momentum will be for an American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, something these same neocons have been advocating for nearly a decade. Whatever the argument, almost nobody’s buying. They have not even sold Peggy Noonan, George Will, or Henry Kissinger on their argument this time around. (It is an iron law of American politics that you cannot go to war if Henry Kissinger does not want to.)
Barack Obama is not George W. Bush. He does not have a daddy complex or a religious obsession to rid the world of “evildoers.” He has genuine missions to accomplish, and none of them require the kind of bar-room boasting that is the basis of neocon ideology. Americans have been to that movie, thank you very much, and have no interest whatever in being dragged to its sequel.
Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.