October 15, 2003
With the revelation that the chief suspect in the outing of CIA analyst Valerie Plame is I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Dick Cheney's Chief of Staff, aptly described by Antiwar.com's Justin Raimondo as "the nexus of the neocon network in Washington," the neocon empire is now unmistakably under siege – and, in Libby's case at least, possibly on the way to jail.
The war in Iraq has failed to crush definitively those who rattle the neocons, either in the Middle East or here. Their recent urgent calls, for example in the New York Post, to raise new armies and revenues to finish "the war against terrorism" face rising public resistance. The British Guardian may be exaggerating (September 23), when it depicts the neocons hunkered down in the AEI's "fortress-like building," and arguing, "counterintutively," that continued Iraqi sniping is a "good thing" because it steels American resolve. But the "ultra-hawks" might be in over their heads. And, before long, they may be fading from the Bush Administration—if the President's advisors convince him to junk the war issue to get re-elected.
Of course, the neocons are not giving up. For example, Ralph Peters, on the New York Post's opinion page, keeps rubbing salt into wounded international relations (September 22), referring to the French, for not endorsing the current American policy in Iraq, as "the parasites in Paris" and to France as a "garbage-dump Carthage" full of moral pygmies and Eurotrash. FrontPageMag.com's (September 23) Peter Brookes has raised the ante for neocon hawks by calling for the isolation (and more, at least implicitly) against the Syrian regime. Strong action, we are told, befits the U.S. Syria's alleged efforts to build WMD, willingness to allow our Iraqi enemies to cross its borders, and support for Palestinian terrorists, has made it a "roadblock on all three fronts; we need to clear the way.." In NRO, Larry Kudlow has even opposed any attempt to make Chinese stop artificially depressing their currency, which is cheapening their exports and undercutting American manufacturing, on the extraordinary grounds that the Chinese are using their export earnings to buy U.S. Treasury debt – and are thus "effectively…financing the Iraq War."
All of this points to a certain rigidity among the neocons, which is bound to affect their fortunes. Far from being pragmatists, as Irving Kristol describes them, they are dogmatic, even fanatical, about their key issues, e.g., global democracy neocon-style; Israel as the touchstone of democratic pluralism; revulsion for Europeans, American Southerners, and other groups whom they grew despising up in their parochial world.
It was only because of lucky accidents – for example, the implosion of William F. Buckley—that the neocons were able to take over the American Right and became advisors to what Sam Francis appropriately calls "the stupid party." In my view, it is doubtful that they will go on ruling the Right as firmly much longer.
The neocons' empire is not about to fall quickly, given their journalistic and financial power. But while the neocons confront a Left that is skeptical of their war policies, an even more determined adversary is pestering them on the right. Respectable conservative critics in Establishment print journals now swing away freely at one or all aspects of their global-democratic, pro-immigration line: e.g., Robert Novak, Paul Craig Roberts, Taki, Charley Reese, Michelle Malkin.
Moreover (and, I must admit, to my surprise) the internet is making it possible for the real Right get round the exclusion engineered by the neocons and their liberal friends. Paleoconservatives as a rule are kept off Fox News and out of the Wall Street Journal. But they swarm night and day on the web, on sites like www.LewRockwell.com and www.Antiwar.com, where they reach hundreds of thousands of readers each month. Paleolibertarians and the rest of the anti-immigration Right do have fundamental differences. But far more important is their agreement on their neocon enemies, whom they blast simultaneously.
Furthermore, the neocon attempt to tar conservative opponents as anti-Semitic may be yielding fewer and fewer dividends. During their campaign for the invasion of Iraq, neocons happily applied the A-word to their opponents on the left as well as on the right. But Jewish liberals, and most conspicuously Richard Cohen and Michael Kinsley, flew into a rage over this practice. Because the neocons' Jewish liberal friends have denounced the tactic, it may be harder to use indiscriminately.
Finally it would seem that the neocons, who were never traditional conservatives to start with, have let go of conservative social and political issues in order to gain support for their foreign policy. (See my forthcoming article "The Neoconservative Sixties" in the next - mid-October - issue of The American Conservative.)
Inevitably, this will weaken their grip on the conservative coalition.
Particularly on gay rights, NR Online and the New York Post have recently shown breathtaking flexibility (if that's the word). Larry Auster on his website recently noted that the latest symposium on affirmative action in Commentary suggests that the neocons may be caving here as well. In contrast, the failure of paleos to rally to neocon Middle Eastern policies has earned them condemnation as "conservative no more" and "extremists"—despite their unfailingly conservative views on other domestic issues. But such blatantly perverse litmus tests of who is a "conservative" will likely prove unsustainable—and all the more rapidly if the neocons do not carry the day in Iraq.
What may happen, if I read the tea leaves correctly: neocons will attempt a slight feint to the right, a process that may already have begun. Thus Front Page, a neocon website that is relatively interesting in contrast to NROnline, now features essays that are critical of immigration. Rich Lowry, the painfully-scripted editor of National Review, has also been raising critical questions about immigration. So far, apparently, Norm and Midge have not asked for his head. At this point the neocon mandarins seem willing to tolerate and occasionally sponsor those who, like Robert Locke, are immigration critics and traditional conservatives—but who fully accept neocon positions on the Middle East.
Pragmatically speaking, this tacking does make sense. What remains to be seen is whether it will continue, or whether the neocon intolerance of the Right poses too great an obstacle.
Alternatively, or quite possibly simultaneously, there may be a decision by neocon leaders to rally behind a Democratic presidential candidate. Remember Ben ("Universal Nation") Wattenberg endorsed Bill Clinton in 1992. This will happen if and when Bush gets tired of them – and certainly if he shows signs of losing his bid for reelection.
The neocons' preferred candidate would be Lieberman, whom they've been talking up for years. The fact that Lieberman favors affirmative action and partial birth abortion obviously counts far less than how he stands on Iraq and the Palestinians. (See my essay "Is Lieberman Worthy of Conservative Kudos?" in Insight, September 11, 2000.) But neocons are simultaneously building other bridges to the left. Thus in August and September, Christopher Caldwell in the Weekly Standard had several articles presenting Howard Dean as a spirited, intelligent presidential candidate who could be "Bush's worst nightmare." It is hard to read such stuff without perceiving the presence of an extended olive branch.
Recently, I even heard Cal Thomas, putatively Evangelical but a predictable neocon lickspittle, interviewing on his Fox News talkshow Tom Lantos, the leftist Democratic Congressman from the San Francisco Bay area. Particularly striking was Thomas's deferential attitude toward someone he would not be expected to agree with—except on one issue (guess which one?). Lantos, who is Jewish, is an open-borders, multicultural leftist – but he and the neocons agree about the Middle East.
If Dean or some other Democratic candidate can be brought around on two critical issues – namely (1) the Middle East and (2) giving neocons prestigious jobs in a Democratic administration – the neocons would likely sign on. This in turn would require them to tilt leftward on domestic issues, something they would do on a moment's notice.
As late as September, 2000, as the neocons reluctantly accepted the GOP Establishment's anointing of W, they were playing up what Ben Wattenberg called the "Lieberman choice." This was in combination with courting Senator McCain, a media-approved Republican the neocons thought they could groom.
Now, they are certainly preparing for new maneuvers—whether or not their dimmer hangers-on are able to grasp them.
Paul Gottfried is Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, PA. He is the author of After Liberalism, Carl Schmitt: Politics and Theory, and Multiculturalism And The Politics of Guilt: Toward A Secular Theocracy.