Thursday, March 15, 2007

Jacob Weisberg on neocons and Cheney in the Financial Times

Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate, has this piece in the March 14, 2007 Financial Times, "Are Neocons History?" - on neoconservativism and Dick Cheney. In it he recounts attending the annual dinner at the American Enterprise Institute last week:

The term “neo-conservative” has many usages, including “former liberal” and “Jewish conservative”. In recent years, however, it has taken on clearer definition as a philosophy of aggressive unilateralism and the attempt to impose democratic ideas on the Arab world. The neo-conservatives also constitute a distinct group around George W. Bush, the US president. They pushed for the invasion of Iraq and remain identified with hardline positions on Iran, Syria and North Korea.

Outside the administration, the chief fulcrum of neo-conservatism is the American Enterprise Institute. The day after vice-president Dick Cheney’s former aide Scooter Libby was convicted of perjury, AEI held its annual black-tie gala. I did not go expecting contrition, but under the circumstances it seemed possible that self-examination might feature on the menu. Once a lazy pasture for moderate Republicans hurtled into the private sector by Gerald Ford’s 1976 defeat, AEI has turned in recent years into a kind of Cheney family think-tank. It had not been a good week, year, or second term for any of these people and I thought a few cocktails might cause them to consider their predicament. ***

But whether or not the neo-cons are prepared to face it, there are increasing signs that their moment is finally over. At the Defence department, Donald Rumsfeld has been replaced by Robert Gates, a member of the Iraq Study Group and an affiliate of the realist school associated with the previous President Bush. Paul Wolfowitz, the architect who wanted to build a new Middle East on Saddam’s rubble, has been moved to the World Bank, where he observes a Robert McNamara-like silence on the failure of his war. Another former Pentagon official, Douglas Feith, is under investigation for misrepresenting intelligence data to make the case for the invasion.

At the State department, Condoleezza Rice is returning to her realist roots and now actually seems to direct policy. She has embraced shuttle diplomacy in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, is considering conversation with Syria and Iran and even made a nuclear deal with North Korea. These steps signify a broader shift away from what the neo-con defector Francis Fukuyama calls “hard Wilsonian” ideas and back towards the less principled, more effective pragmatism of Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser, and James Baker, former secretary of state.

The most important sign of all is the fading influence of Mr Cheney, who for six years dominated foreign policy in a way no previous vice-president ever has. Mr Cheney is discredited, unwell and facing various congressional investigations.

I don't question that neoconservativism is dead, and indeed wrote exactly that in a review of Francis Fukuyama's After the Neocons, free download, here. And just today, I received the reprints of a much longer version of the same general thesis, in a long review essay of Fukuyama's book together with Peter Beinart's The Good Fight, in the American University International Law Review, downloadable free in final form, here. (The working paper form is also still up on SSRN, but you want the final form with the American University Vol. 22 citation - accept no substitutes!) I'll write more about the long AUILR piece later; for a while I didn't think I liked it, but I've changed my mind and like it quite a lot.

That said, I don't think Weisberg gets Cheney right in representing him as a neocon. Neocons are a certain species of foreign policy idealist. But Dick Cheney has never been an idealist or a neocon in foreign policy, so far as I can tell. He has always been a realist, always concerned about power. There were people - Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, among others, who really saw the issue as democracy. Not Cheney. Cheney is not precisely a classical American realist, either, in the school of Baker and Scowcroft - two realists whose policies of accommodation to dictators under earlier administrations including Bush pere, the neocons were right to say, are part of what got us to 9-11, despite the disaster in Iraq and despite the current liberal swoon for nasty realism of the kind that they used to disdain on grounds of higher Wilsonianism. Cheney, like Rumsfeld, is closer to what Fukuyama (drawing on Walter Russell Meade) calls a "Jacksonian nationalist" - sort of a realist, tending to a "narrow, security related view of American national interests [and] distrust of multilateralism." (Fukuyama, After the Neocons, at 7).

The traditional realists - the Bakers, Scowcrofts - did not buy into the neocon project of the Iraq war, believing instead in accommodation and containment. But the Jacksonian nationalists did - believing not in the democracy project but in the security risks posed by a dictator who, they were convinced - on the very good grounds that everyone else was, too - that Saddam had WMD, and at some point might well be inclined to pass it along to terrorists. No doubt it also had to do with a very Jacksonian nationalist calculation that it was probably the only moment in which the US would muster the will to go to war and ignore the rest of world - the moment would only come once, and they took it. But although they linked arms and joined forces with the neocons, the Jacksonian nationalists were never idealists, and their rationales for the Iraq war had very little to do with democracy and all that - it was a security calculation about, really, the limits of realist containment and accommodation or, in other words, an argument between themselves and, not the neocon idealists, but the traditional realists.

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