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Neoconservatism Bulletin, 2004

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[Sept 24, 2004] The Washington Dispatch by Martin Kelly

With apologies for my bad Russian, it's time they followed their mentor's advice and consigned themselves to the dustbin of history. Dosvedanye, Tovarischi.

There are few studies more likely to induce deep sleep than trying to follow the doings of Communists. The core of their beliefs is the rejection of God and the exaltation of man, but being human they cannot erase their spirituality completely, so they must find new gods, and the gods of Communism, Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Mao, have been the most unattractive, fractious and bloodthirsty divinities until the advent of Osama.

In such difficult times as these, for nobody should doubt that these are truly historic times, it's maybe pertinent to ask ourselves, what became of anti-Communism? Why has a movement that so energised society for decades withered on the vine? Did we really think that Communism died with the Soviet Union? It surely hasn't. Our difficult times are being directed and influenced by people who at some time in their lives have either been Communists or who have no compunction about using Communist language. Red Bolshevism is dead as a political force in sane societies. What has taken its place is equally dangerous – the Blue Bolshevism of neo-conservatism.

A useful essay outlining the Trotskyite roots of neo-conservatism is

Stephen Schwartz's Trotskycons, published in the June 11 2003 edition of National Review Online. Schwartz is a popular Internet pundit who has worn many hats during the course of his life, which have been duly recorded by his long-standing antagonist Srjda Trifkovic. As well as being a convert to Islam, something he doesn't usually tell his readers, he has admitted to involvement with the KLA in Kosovo. Therefore, when reading him, one must be careful to determine whether it is Stephen Schwartz, Suleyman Ahmed or Comrade Sandalio that's speaking. He's probably cultivating crossover appeal.

These aren't guys who queue at the job-window, waiting for some Johnny Friendly to shout 'Everybody works today!' Instead, they began life as Trotskyites in the '30's in the school advocated by the philosopher Max Shachtman – according to Schwartz, 'they belonged to or sympathized with a trend in radical leftism that followed the principle of opposition to the Soviet betrayal of the revolution to its logical end'. In layman's terms, this began as a house fight with the Stalinists.

According to Schwartz, the first individuals to formally break from Trotskyism were James Burnham, a founder of National Review, and Irving Kristol of Encounter. Described by the hatchet man David Frum as the only person willing to take the title of 'neo-conservative', Irving Kristol is the father of Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, along with National Review the main ideas-engine of neo-conservatism. The Weekly Standard is published by News Corporation, the ultimate owners of Fox News. No doubt in the interests of the ideological purity all Bolsheviks crave, Schwartz absolves Bill Kristol, Richard ('The Five Million Dollar Man') Perle and Paul Wolfowitz from any taint of Shachtmanism.

Having left Trotskyism, the neo-conservatives gravitated firstly to the Democrats. However, they still could not tame the fractious beasts within, and started to leave the Democrats in 1972, in opposition to the nomination of George McGovern. Using the classic Trotskyite tactic of 'entryism', they began to fill more and more positions of influence within the Republican Party, until now they have come to dominate it. Not bad for people who only started voting Republican in 1980.

For Schwartz, Trotsky is not an ambivalent figure. He lauds Burnham and the Elder Kristol for the fact that 'they did not apologize, did not grovel, did not crawl and beg forgiveness for having, at one time, been stirred by the figure of Trotsky.' That's nice. He's even more forthcoming on his own opinion of Trotsky as it stands at the moment, describing him a figure of 'moral consistency' who, 'if nothing else, took responsibility for the crimes of the early Bolshevik regime.'

... ... ...

For the life of me, I can't work out what voodoo Hitchens has worked on you guys over there. He once wrote a column on the subject of Churchill for The Atlantic Monthly called 'The medals of his defeats'. He made reference to his father's service as a naval officer on H.M.S. Jamaica and the role he played in helping sink the German destroyer Scharnhorst during the Battle of the Atlantic. He described it 'a far better day's work than any I have ever done'. I wouldn't disagree with that for a second.

However, because of a brilliant skill with words developed at an English public school and the University of Oxford, Hitchens has achieved a level of recognition that his beliefs or former beliefs do not merit. Like Stephen Schwartz, like David Horowitz, like all Bolsheviks Red or Blue, the natural flow of his temper is toward the extreme. It doesn't matter what extreme. In Horowitz's case the extreme can be reached after years of soul-searching and repenting what he believed before, his massive learning and energy then channelled into fighting his four noblest of fights, for academic freedom, for the defence of Israel, against the spread of radical Islam and the dirtiest one of all, against the people he once admired and associated with, but it's still extreme.

It's hardly surprising then that Hitchens should attach himself to the war against radical Islam with the gusto that he has – it's a competing ideology. To the mind of Hitchens, Osama is a threat to the hearts and minds of Muslims who would otherwise be attracted to the doctrine he has devoted his life to. Their insistence on the promotion of the rational at all costs means that when a crazy like Osama crosses their path, they can't get it into their heads that this guy can't be reasoned with. Many of them say they do get it, but they don't really. It's hardly surprising, then, that an extremist like Hitchens has been a lecturer at a White House that's full of them. It's hardly surprising that Horowitz has given him the airtime he's had on Front Page Magazine, which has also carried the thoughts of Comrade Sandalio on a regular basis.

Anyone who is still proud to call themselves a Dutch Reagan or Margaret Thatcher anti-Communist needs to oppose these people. These guys have nothing new or exciting to offer, only war, ideology and then some more of the same. The man whose coat tails many of them rode, Dutch Reagan, was a liberal New Deal Democrat who became the most committed anti-Communist of all time, ending it up largely smashing it. But Dutch never followed Trotsky. He didn't ever try to justify Kronstadt or sing 'The Internationale'. The 'Internationale', when sung in English to the tune of 'O Tannenbaum', ends with the phrase,

'When cowards flinch, and traitors sneer, we'll keep the Red Flag flying here' .

Neoconservatives called the Spanish people cowards after the Madrid bombing. David Frum calls conservatives who oppose his beliefs 'unpatriotic'. Is all of this familiar?

With apologies for my bad Russian, it's time they followed their mentor's advice and consigned themselves to the dustbin of history. Dosvedanye, Tovarischi.

[July 7, 2004] Neo-conservatism and the American future axis of disorder copy by Stefan Halper

The three chief tenets of neo-conservative ideology are:
In making these tenets active, neo-conservatives:

Neo-conservatism has created an "axis of disorder" within American governance. But it will not disappear even if its current champions fade from view. A former official in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations and a former British diplomat argue that neo-conservatism is a manifestation of a deeper syndrome that has structural roots in United States history and politics.

The stealth transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis on 28 June 2004 raises an intriguing question of whether a parallel transition will also take place at some future midnight in Washington - specifically whether the neo-conservative influence that did so much to instigate the Iraq war will also be bundled unceremoniously into retirement.

Those who have recently met privately with Paul Wolfowitz, the war's most ardent neo-conservative advocate, report that he is a subdued personality. If Wolfowitz and his colleagues depart the scene, what changes does this foreshadow for American foreign policy?

It is already possible to discern a more collegial tone in American discourse – on policy fronts as diverse as North Korea, Nato and the Group of Eight (G8). There is talk of Colin Powell, the bruised but still combative critic of neo-conservatism, remaining secretary of state after a Bush victory in November 2004.

Furthermore, within Republican circles in Washington there is a palpable backlash against policies that many party veterans fear may cost the election. Many current Republican gatherings reverberate to the sound of establishment internationalists, anti-empire sceptics, deficit hawks, or simple believers in good governance voicing their dismay at the damage they perceive the neo-conservative follies have inflicted on the nation and the party.

What is happening may be described as a new institutional syndrome in Washington – the "axis of disorder". It represents a lethal combination of underperformance in the executive, on Capitol Hill and within the opinion-leading elite.

Many observers would celebrate the eclipse of a neo-conservatism that has brought American governance to this pass. But a word of caution is in order. The neo-conservatives' demise has been predicted before. The post-cold war era of the 1990s, when Norman Podhoretz pronounced that neo-conservatism no longer existed as a distinctive phenomenon, was one such moment. John Judis in Foreign Affairs even described the neo-con journey as "a transition from Trotskyism to anachronism."

These predictions proved premature – but although "neo-conservatism" returned to the political lexicon after the Republican victory in 2000, this has proved more journalistic shorthand than shaping category of understanding. Now, if the term and the policies it has been used to connote are once more losing their potency, what exactly will be removed from American foreign-policy thinking?

The neo-conservative core

The three chief tenets of neo-conservative ideology are:

In making these tenets active, neo-conservatives:

The price of failure

The experience of George W. Bush's presidency has delivered a lengthy list of setbacks to this mindset and agenda – above all (though not exclusively) in Iraq. The pre-war neo-con confidence about the nature and extent of Iraqi resistance; the predicted warm welcome for American forces; the United States's capacity for peaceful reconstruction of vital infrastructure (especially electric and water services); even the expenditure of already approved project funds - all ended in bitter disappointment.

The cost of these miscalculations, now laid at the neo-cons' door, has arrested the nation's political discussion and emerged as a pivotal element in the November election.

For analysis and debate of neo-conservatism on openDemocracy:

Beyond the human and financial cost, the effect of sharply diminished American credibility has been felt in official Washington, and in the money centres of New York, Atlanta and Chicago. Most damaging for the neo-conservatives, however, has been the revelation that their utopian strategic plan for the Middle East is naive and unworkable. The limitations of American power have become a public spectacle; with each day, Americans have learned more about how the post-conflict plan for Iraq's reconstruction was developed without the benefit of Arabic-speakers or country experts, riven by bureaucratic and exile factions, and without addressing the critical tension in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moreover, the relentless focus on Iraq has allowed Afghanistan to fester, North Korea and Iran to continue along their nuclear paths and Saudi Arabia to stumble towards catastrophe. Perhaps the most ominous result of Iraq's seizure of the attention of top United States foreign policy and national security managers is the neglect of China, which already may have replaced the US as the leading power in East Asia.

In the corporate sector, failures of this magnitude would result in the speedy replacement of those responsible. This may yet happen. But even if November's election brings a change of administration, the question arises: will the neo-conservatives' influence on American foreign policy endure?

From Vietnam to Iraq

The implication of two 2004 studies broadly sympathetic to neo-conservatism – Surprise, Security and the American Experience by John Lewis Gaddis and Power, Terror, Peace and War by Walter Russell Mead – is that the unilateral exercise of American power draws on certain social and cultural themes, centring on an insular and aggressive nativism, that have animated America's interaction with the world from the earliest days of the republic. The implication is that, far from being an aberration, neo-conservatism is part of an established historical tradition.

There is even a case to be made that neo-conservatism has affinities with the missionary zeal (socially progressive as well as often militantly anti-communist) that animated the "best and the brightest" generation – George Ball, McGeorge and William Bundy, Robert MacNamara, Paul Nitze, Walt Rostow – who presided over America's engagement in Vietnam.

This generation came to political maturity during the Eisenhower years of the 1950s when, as today, the US enjoyed an unchallengeable global power projection capability. Its leading figures came to believe that military power could press against the evil represented by communism and install American-style democracy, bypassing the forces of local nationalism, in a region (south-east Asia) with a long and vibrant cultural history but without any democratic legacy. All this was done with little reference to rich, available resources of regional and linguistic expertise.

The recurrence of this pattern among the ostensibly very different group represented by President Bush's neo-conservative advisers in the aftermath of 9/11 suggests that the United States is indeed in the grip of a syndrome, a problem that is structural and not merely cyclical: an "axis of disorder" which at times of stress inhibits calm and deliberate decision-making.

At these stress-points, it appears that the combination of a crusading idealism, an assertion of the universal applicability of American values, and the willingness (indeed eagerness) to use force to back them can overwhelm the venerable "checks and balances" considered integral to the American political process. Some argue that Republican administrations may be more vulnerable to this process, since the party's driving spirit has shifted from cosmopolitan globalists towards America-first populists – a development accelerated by the increased influence of a conservative and fundamentalist talk-radio culture.

In the case of Iraq, a determined special interest was capable of leading a march to war without any effective counterweight to its seizure of the levers of power. The central failure was in the Condoleezza Rice-led National Security Council; despite her training in traditional statecraft and alliance management, Rice was unwilling or unable to highlight the imbalances in decision-making arising from the neo-conservative dynamics in the defense department and vice-president's office.

Beyond the executive, Congress abandoned real oversight in giving overwhelming, almost instinctual support to the war. Just as the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed the Senate unanimously and thus formalised US involvement in Vietnam, leaving two relatively obscure Democratic senators (Alaska's Ernest Greuning and Oregon's Wayne Morse) to ask the first tough questions, so it took two outsiders (the hoary senator with an independent streak, West Virginia's Robert Byrd, and former Vermont governor Howard Dean) to make opposition to the Iraq war respectable.

The media was also guilty of institutional failure in ways that echo the past. Just as in the early 1960s, establishment newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post had enthusiastically backed involvement in Vietnam, so in 2002-03 major media outlets were uncritical in the face of administration assertions about al-Qaida/Saddam links and the latter's possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Network and cable television businesses, from which most Americans now derive their news, compounded this failure. Their imprisonment by the competitive search for market share leads them to fear offending power; as a result, they are satisfied with recycling soft, compliant questions and stories. At least part of the media, notably the New York Times which (another Vietnam repeat) diverged earlier than the Washington Post from the official line, has conducted a self-critical post-mortem on its own coverage .

The present danger

The recurrent pattern of institutional weakness over Vietnam and Iraq suggests a systemic weakness – one that creates an ever-present danger of a neo-conservative special interest group turning a manageable, controllable challenge (as, in principle, was Iraq) into a major crisis. In the near term such a sequence could unfold over Iran; in the more distant future, it could develop as the United States and China compete for regional or global hegemony.

The warning-signs exist whenever unchecked special interests within an administration can act on their belief in American exceptionalism, demonise an opponent, and present his position in monolithic terms as a target for destruction.

Thus, the true legacy of the neo-conservatives may be to have revealed a systemic problem that must be addressed if the American foreign policy process is to recover its consistency and predictability. The current neo-conservative moment may be passing, like a comet that streaks through the skies at regular intervals before disappearing into space. The result, in the short- to medium-term, may be a more familiar, collegial and substantive, American foreign policy. This will provide opportunities for the United States's allies not just to agree with American policy but to influence it for the better.

But as comets return, so will the neo-conservatives' themes - especially the preference for unilateral military power as the option of first resort. Neo-conservatism offers a recurrently powerful ideological booster-rocket in support of America's military pre-eminence. If another "perfect storm" on the 9/11 model recurs, where fear and confusion suspend the political process, the American response is likely to be predominantly military rather than political, diplomatic or economic - irrespective of the party affiliation of the White House incumbent.

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