How the Neo-Cons Operate

James Zogby’s Column

A number of articles have appeared in recent weeks shedding new light on the thinking of the neo-conservatives who have, until now, appeared to have the upper hand in shaping the foreign policy of the Bush Administration.

It is only in the past few years that attention has been paid to this small but important group of ideologues. But now, several publications have featured stories and analyses of the group, their intellectual roots and their modus operandi.  It may well be that the neo-conservatives singular success-the march to war with Iraq-is what finally brought them out of the shadows into the public eye. 

Attention is being given to their earlier successes in dominating several conservative think-tanks and magazines and key positions in the Bush Administration’s foreign policy apparatus and their small but influential network of columnists and commentators that have allowed them to shape the policy debate both inside and outside of government.

What has also come to light are the political roots of these neo-conservatives.  They were, in the main, once liberal Democrats who sprang, as it were, out of the womb of Commentary Magazine (a publication subsidized by the American Jewish Committee) and the offices of the late Henry “Scoop” Jackson (a Democratic Senator known for his hawkish views on foreign policy).  It was this still fledgling neo-conservative movement that broke with President Carter’s human rights-based foreign policy and working with, a then little-known Israeli politician, Benjamin Netanyahu, helped to spur the Reagan Administration’s shift to a foreign policy based on opposition to ‘Soviet-sponsored terrorism.’  They embraced Ronald Reagan and were, in turn, embraced by his Administration.

These same neo-conservatives, however, were largely rebuffed by Bush Senior who pursued a more traditional foreign policy agenda, and were relentless foes of the Clinton Administration whose foreign policy was based on multilateral engagement, promotion of trade and the pursuit of negotiated settlements to conflict.

Their late 1990s treatise on American foreign and military policy “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century”, has now been adopted by the new Bush Administration as “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America.”

The hallmark of the neo-conservatives thinking has been their belief that the U.S. should project both political and military dominance in the post-Cold War world.  It was this that led them to advocate U.S. abandonment of several international agreements and conferences and to press for the largely unilateral war with Iraq. 

While much of this has been known, what is new, has been found in articles that explore the intellectual underpinnings of this movement providing insights into their political thinking. 

Since a number of key neo-conservatives have studied with the political philosopher Leo Strauss, several researchers have probed the writings of Strauss and other Strauss disciples for clues into the ideas that have shaped the operational side of neo-conservative practice.

From the articles that have appeared, three central notions emerge:

The role of elites

William Pfaff writing in the International Herald Tribune describes Strauss’ followers as a “cult” noting that Strauss believed that “essential truth about human society and history should be held by an elite and withheld from others who lack the fortitude to deal with truth.”

Another Strauss critic quoted in a lengthy New Yorker piece observes, “Strauss believed that good statesmen…must rely on an inner circle,” and notes that this is how the neo-conservatives have come to see themselves.             

Deceit as diplomacy

Connected to the important role played by elites as the protectors of truth is the notion that “philosophers need to tell noble lies not only to the people at large also to powerful politicians [whom they serve].”

Pfaff writes that in their view “it has been necessary to tell lies to people about the nature of political reality…The elite keeps the truth to itself… This gives it insight and …power that others do not possess.”

In this same context, the New Yorker article quotes one neo-conservative who has been in charge of the Defense Department’s special intelligence unit who wrote that “deception is the norm in political life.”

The need to have an external threat

A few recent articles have also quoted Shadia Drury’s book Leo Strauss and the American Right in which she wrote “Strauss thinks that the political order can only be stable if it is united by an external threat.  Following Machiavelli, he maintains that if no external threat exists, then one has to be manufactured….in Strauss’ view you have to fight all the time… [this leads to an] ‘aggressive belligerent foreign policy.'”

Putting all this together, Joshua Jonah Marshall, writing in The Washington Monthly, describes neo-conservative political practice by providing a lesson from their Regan Administration days:

“The willingness to deceive-both themselves and others-expanded as neo-cons grew more comfortable with power. Many spent the Reagan years orchestrating bloody wars against Soviet proxies in the Third World, portraying things like the Nicaraguan Contras and plain murderers like Jonas Savimbi of Angola as “freedom fighters.  The nadir of this deceit was their Iran-Contra scandal…

“But the neo-cons did not dwell on what they got wrong.  Rather, the experience of having played a hand in the downfall of so great an evil (as the Soviet Union) led them to the opposite belief: that it’s okay to be spectacularly wrong, even brazenly deceptive about the details, so long as you have a moral vision and a willingness to use force.”

So much of this resonates with the events that have just unfolded leading up to the Iraq war.  What is intriguing is that while that war may have been the neo-conservatives big victory, their deceits may also contribute to their undoing.  For example, before the war, the U.S.’s uniformed military argued that the battle plans and post-war scenarios drawn up by the neo-conservative ideologues were inadequate, it now appears that the generals were right.  The entire justification for unilateral preemption was based on the “immediate threat” provided by the neo-cons intelligence sources”.   Even if signs of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are found, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain “immediacy of the threat” posed by the Iraqi regime.  And, before the war, the neo-conservatives portrayed the war as the beginning of a “permanent revolution” that in domino-like fashion would democratize and transform the entire Middle East.  They may continue to threaten Syria and Iran, but continued chaos in Iraq appears to have dampened the rest of the Bush Administration’s appetite for the neo-conservatives’ broader regional agenda. 

It may be to soon to write off the neo-conservatives as having been eclipsed, as some traditional conservatives are now suggesting.  But, there are signs that the Bush Administration is tilting in a slightly different direction.  President Bush, after all, did endorse the Road Map which many neo-conservatives opposed and the State Department appears to be back in the drivers’ seat in managing the peace process, such as it is.  Secretary Powell did help to diffuse the situation with Syria.  And when some neo-conservatives attacked Powell and the entire State Department for this effort, the White House was quick to come to Powell’s defense.

With the Bush Administration’s political strategists now planning for the President’s reelection bid, one analyst notes, “there is a lot less enthusiasm for the neo-con crowd.”  Some in the White House are blaming the “neo conservatives and certain figures in the Pentagon for their “inadequate post-war planning” and their drive “to impose a Pax-Americana on the world”. 

At this time it may be too early to predict how this battle within the Bush Administration will be resolved.  But the lessons about neo-conservative thinking and practices learned from the last round are invaluable and should be remembered as we go forward.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.