AFTER 9/11, THERE WAS SO MUCH ANGER AND DEMAND FOR REVENGE that raising questions about how and why a group of highly educated, middle class mostly Saudis would be willing to sacrifice their lives and inflict such horrific damage on America was considered to be unpatriotic. The lemming-like, group think of Washington public policy intellectuals following bin Laden’s attack was a time of shame for the approximately 1,500 think tanks in Washington. These policy institutions receive tax exempt status for serving the public good in their role as idea incubators and as the collective conscience of policy debate in the nation’s capitol; but our industry mostly failed during this time.
The climate of fear that existed then, the sense that asking the “root cause” question would label one an apologist for bin Laden, kept many sensible voices quiet during a time when the Bush administration was planning its war against Saddam Hussein.
To some degree, the same is now happening among those at odds with the administration. There is such anger today at George Bush and the neocons who guided America into a troubling war with and occupation of Iraq, that there is a recklessness that has pervaded a lot of the left’s commentary on what neoconservatism is and who the neocons are. Many wrongly think that all of Bush’s advisors, except Colin Powell, are neocons; or they add to the roster of known neocons people who are clearly not neocons.
Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleeza Rice are not card-carrying members of the neoconservative movement. In my view, they are realists who have been outfoxed, outrun, and co-opted by a movement that they did not take seriously.
Rumsfeld really brings out the worst in my progressive, centrist, and even reasonably conservative friends; they just see a pre-enlightened Robert McNamara-like defense secretary taking a ‘total systems’ approach to war, like we tragically attempted in Vietnam. I subscribe to many of Rumsfeld’s pre-9/11 efforts to reform the Pentagon and feel that one of the great tragedies of this so-called war on terror is that Pentagon reform has been preempted. Stalwarts of the Democratic Party and the Project for the New American Century seem mutually committed to greater defense budgets for an already bloated defense bureaucracy that has failed to generate the security deliverables that the nation deserves.
And to be clear about my views of Rumsfeld, I think that the Abu Ghraib disaster so completely undermined America’s ability to wage a hearts and minds campaign that Bush’s failure to demonstrate the importance of accountability and fire Rumsfeld, as well as Rumsfeld’s reluctance to accept responsibility by resigning, multiplied this disaster by an order of magnitude. But Rumsfeld is not a neocon. Neither is Condi Rice — who I think is taking loyalty to her president and this administration to perverse levels that I would have hoped her character and intellect would not have allowed.
The trigger for my thinking today is a superb review of an interesting book in the Washington Post‘s Book World by Stanley Kutler titled “On How Neocons Grabbed the Opportunity to Create a New World Order.” Kutler is reviewing America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and The Global Order by Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke. I recommend reading the review for its own merits, as well as the book.
Stanley Kutler writes:
In America Alone, they document the neoconservative capture of American (and British) foreign policy, under the guise of a War on Terror, to reorder Middle East politics and initiate a newly proclaimed doctrine of preemptive war. . .
He continues in his review:
Today neocons are the key players in the Bush administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney; his chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; and his assistant Paul Wolfowitz. They are seconded by National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice and influential academic intellectuals and writers who preach warnings and celebrate their alleged triumphs. Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute has somberly described the French as a “strategic enemy.” Max Boot, author of a book celebrating the United States’ “splendid little wars,” said that the American sweep through Iraq made “Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian seem positively incompetent by comparison”. . .Boot loves war so much that he envisions a United States like the British Empire of old, always fighting some war, somewhere, against someone.
Kutler and the two book authors get a lot right in their book and this review — but they cast the net too broadly when it comes to defining who the neocons are. This is important because what neoconservatives achieved after 9/11 was a successful coup against realists and liberal internationalists who had both commanded the helm and key staff positions of foreign policy making for democratic and republican administrations for decades. But by painting those who don’t share the creed of neoconservatism as part of this group, I think that orchestrating an effort to displace their influence becomes muddled.
On March 19, 2001, then New America Foundation Senior Fellow and colleague Robert Kaplan, author of such books as The Coming Anarchy, Balkan Ghosts, and Warrior Politics; spent a little more than an hour with President George W. Bush, Condoleeza Rice, and Andrew Card. Bob Kaplan was scheduled to depart that Monday morning for Europe for a book tour for his recently released Eastward to Tartary, which President Bush had apparently spent the weekend reading at Camp David. The President even had his own copy, highlighted and sections underlined, some pages dog-eared, when he met Kaplan. Suffice it to say that Eastward to Tartary is one of Kaplan’s more complex books — and despite Bush’s self-proclaimed ignorance of daily newspapers, his reading this book impressed me as I’m sure it did Bob Kaplan.
But what was most interesting about this meeting was the language used when Bush greeted Kaplan personally in the Oval Office. Kaplan was awed and a bit intimidated by the surroundings and Bush reportedly said “relax, we are all realists here.” In fact, what Condi Rice was doing by orchestrating this meeting with Robert Kaplan was to set up tutorials for Bush on what ‘modern realism’ or neo-realism would look like. In contrast to Nixonian/Kissingerian realism when America was perceived to be in relative global decline, this was a time of perceived American ascension in the world. But that did not mean that institutions of the past or basing strategies or our system of old alliances were organized to meet the new breed of threats and challenges brewing in this post-Cold War period.
Kaplan, more than any other thinker or writer, is a modern day Machiavelli — and I mean in the good sense — trying to advise the prince on how best to conduct affairs of state in the broad self interest of the nation. I don’t know about the number or frequency of other meetings between Bush and Kaplan, but I do know that there were other such sessions.
The reason that this pre-9/11 meeting matters is that Robert Kaplan is detested by neoconservatives. I didn’t know this until I debated Richard Perle and Tucker Carlson on the tv show, Crossfire, on the impact of the EP-3 spy plane incident on U.S.-China relations. When I was trying to make nice with Perle after the show and before an internet chat session that CNN organizes between show watchers and show panelists, I mentioned that Kaplan was one of the stars at New America.
Perle pretty much exploded, at Kaplan rather than me. He felt Kaplan was amoral and responsible for many deaths because of his book Balkan Ghosts which delved into the historical and cultural enmity that had existed in the Balkans for dozens of generations. To be fair to Perle, others like Richard Holbrooke have made similar comments about Bob Kaplan and this book.
When I reported this to Kaplan, I had my first lesson from him on what he called the “Wilsonian right wing.”
Thus, well before 9/11, it was apparent that there were three schools of thought — really two schools and one individual — competing in the administration. Perle, William Kristol, Robert Kagan and some other prominent neocons served as co-Chief Ideology Officers of the movement. But allies and long-term fellow travelers Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and others were the government-embedded neocons.
Condi Rice, in contrast, was trying to teach Bush to be a realist — using Kaplan and probably others to educate him. Rumsfeld, from my perspective, was a defense reformer, a technocrat, and a realist who never bought into the “democratizing agenda” of the neoconservatives. Clearly, both Rice and Rumsfeld got coopted as time went on — but only because Rice, particularly, lost the battle with neocons.
Colin Powell seems neither a realist nor a neocon, but is rather the cautious general in the room, who matters when he is there and not when he is absent. There is a huge Colin Powell fan club that has emerged in recent years — but no one knows Powell’s world view or can articulate anything other than his low risk views toward conflict.
The EP-3 incident was the first attempt by neocons to take over the foreign policy helm, but ultimately Wolfowitz — leading the charge — was rebuffed by President Bush who was himself counseled about his early rashness in this China incident by his father and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. Wolfowitz gave an impressive speech in 1998 in Arizona before what was termed the Congress of Phoenix of AEI’s New Atlantic Initiative in which he basically argued that the most important foreign policy decisions ahead — from supporting the expansion of NATO and potentially embracing common cause with Russia — would deal with either containing or engaging China’s growing influence in the world. Wolfowitz clearly tilted towards the containment part of the equation in his remarks — but they were as important in my view as Wolfowitz’s and Perle’s articulations on returning to Iraq to rid the world of Saddam.
On Friday, March 23rd, 2001, the same week that Kaplan met Bush, the Washington Post ran an article by Steven Mufson noting the administration’s language about new realism. Mufson pondered before most whether the sprinking of the word, “realism,” in commentary by Ari Fleischer and Condi Rice indicated the direction Bush foreign policy would go.
But what Condi Rice never did is to tend to the next generation of thinkers and writers that would follow her views. She basically arranged a one-on-one meeting between Kaplan and Bush (as I heard that Rice and Card stayed silent during the entire meeting). Bill Clinton, in contrast, used to arrange big think fests drawing in many from his administration to meet with intellectuals — as a strategy in part to get his administration to share an understanding of his own world view and to draw together perspectives rather than to have them diverge in completely different directions.
The neocons took personnel staffing seriously and got lots of people appointed to important positions throughout the administration. The above list just includes the stars. What is truly impressive about their movement is that many lesser known acolytes populate Bush’s government today. No such cultivation of a next generation of realists seems evident.
Rice lost the battle with the neocons, and perhaps has been co-opted by them. But her early instincts were driving Bush a different direction. Perhaps someone else needs to pick up where she dropped the ball.
— Steve Clemons