Norm Ornstein’s Neocon Problem


ornstein clemons.jpg
(photo credit: Jay Westcott, Washington Examiner)
I’m going to out myself. I have friends — lots of them — inside the American Enterprise Institute. Some of them I can’t mention here as they used to work at AEI and then went to work for political players that this blog has been at cross-purposes with. Need to protect those folks.
But I have worked well and collaboratively with Norm Ornstein, James Glassman, Claude Barfield and others there — even Jeffrey Gedmin and Radek Sikorski, both who would be in the neoconservative camp, but both of whom I respect and get along well with personally. (Though I just couldn’t remain quiet during an effort by John Bolton to hire Jeffrey Gedmin as his deputy at the United Nations.)
The American Enterprise Institute is a success story in many ways that other institutions should study. But there are some real tensions inside AEI that should be noted.
Norm Ornstein does this for me in large part in an interesting essay, “My Neocon Problem,” he has just published in the September 10 edition of the New Republic’s Washington Diarist.
Ornstein has wrongly been labeled a neocon because of his AEI affiliation. He writes:

A blog called WurstWisdom, railing against the neoconservative domination of the planet, recently contained the following passage: “There are other Neocons or Neocon facilitators you may not have heard of because they are seldom in the public eye, the better to wield behind-the-scenes power. These include Grover Norquist, Richard Viguerie, John Bolton, Elliot Abrams, Norman Ornstein. . .”

This is rich — and unfortunately wrong (as the blog itself is interesting) — because Grover Norquist is about as anti-neocon a right-winger as you can get, to paraphrase Tucker Carlson the other day who admitted to being the most “pro-gay right winger you can imagine.” Norquist is a libertarian realist who sees big government and high taxes as the results of the neocon agenda.
Elliott Abrams is a neocon for sure.
John Bolton is not. Bolton has allied with the neocons and often is not distinguishable from the movement, but he’s a Jesse Helms-revering, pugnacious nationalist. Bolton, in many ways is admirable in his consistency, if not for his irascible nature, but he’s patriotic without awareness that his brand of patriotism is highly damaging to the country.
Norm Ornstein is a dedicated moderate who understands the ins-and-outs of the American political system as well as anyone. He’s empirical and not ideological. He’ll probably be punished at AEI for this (well, he says in his piece that he’s never pressured), but his pal around buddies are often the center-left Brookings guru on good governance Tom Mann and liberal-with-lots-of-conscience (much more than AEI would prefer) E.J. Dionne.
Ornstein continues:

It was extremely disappointing to have my cover blown in this fashion. I had considered my weekly columns in Roll Call inveighing on behalf of campaign finance reform an excellent camouflage for my nefarious stealth machinations. But, alas, my identification with the neocon conspiracy has now become a commonplace “fact” in certain quarters — many of them, strangely, in Iowa.
A blogger for The Des Moines Register, for instance, has declared me “a neoconservative Washington Insider.” An Iowan novelist with a blog called Is this Heaven? recently referred to me as a “far-right … flak.” This is quite a turnabout for my reputation. My career as a congressional analyst has steadfastly avoided partisan politics.
In fact, I’m one of those Jurassic-era Washingtonians who believes in the virtues of centrism and bipartisanship. I have worked closely with both John McCain and Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform and with Barack Obama and Fred Thompson on congressional and civil service reform. As for my enemies, they span the spectrum: My writings have enraged Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert, as well as the chairmen of the black and Hispanic congressional caucuses.
So why am I now somehow a dangerous neocon? Without a doubt, it is because of my perch as a scholar at the now infamous American Enterprise Institute (AEI). I joined AEI as an adjunct in 1978, while I was teaching political science at Washington’s Catholic University, before converting to a full time think-tanker six years later. It is true that AEI is a bastion of conservative thought, having a long relationship with the self-proclaimed godfather of the neoconservative movement, Irving Kristol.
And it is also true that some of my AEI colleagues were early and enthusiastic supporters of war with Iraq. They helped provide the intellectual framework for it and contributed to the crafting of the surge strategy. Of course, this recent history accounts for the think tank’s popular image — not to mention the urge of various blogging naifs and ignoramuses to cram me into the wrong ideological box.

But Ornstein’s dilemma should raise some red flags for AEI. If its staff members are getting tagged for the work and keep-us-in-permanent-war campaigns of Bill Kristol and friends, then not only bloggers will confuse the players but “funders” may begin asking questions about how their money is being directed — and whether they are the financial lifeline paying for the chief ideologues of the Iraq War. Jim Lobe has been getting at this in a series of articles at his LobeLog. See in particular Lobe’s “AEI: Caught Between Its Likudist Heart and Its Corporate Head.”
In a different arena with relevance to the subject, I won’t soon forget being a guest of Intel Corporation at AEI’s gargantuan annual black tie dinner. Michael Novak was honored — and during his speech, if my memory serves me well, he railed on a bit against abortion and a woman’s right to choose. He actually said “A house cannot remain half-slave, half-free (and I must add today, half pro-life, half pro-death). Either it will go all for slavery, or all for liberty. No man can properly will slavery (or abortion) for himself; hence, not for any other.”
This was strange because there were hundreds of professional, corporate women at this dinner. The wife of a prominent national print and television journalist and then senior telecom exec sitting near me but at a different table, just inhaled and held her breath and looked as if she were biting her lip when Novak was speaking.
Around the room were the blue chip firms of industrial America as well as the new high flyers then, like AOL, Cisco, Intel, and many others. All of these multinationals are light years ahead of AEI’s Novak on issues of abortion and tolerant workplaces that include benefits for same sex partners and all that. And yet they continue to give to AEI (I’ve asked them) because they respect what Norm Ornstein calls “an intellectual openness and lack of orthodoxy at AEI exceeds what I have seen on any college campus.”
Ornstein’s prose on this needs to be replayed here, as its zesty and probably true:

I’m not, by nature, an outspoken company man. But the fusillades lobbed at AEI have got me thinking about my long-time intellectual home. And here’s what I can tell you: I spent 13 years teaching full-time in university settings. Since then, I have regularly visited campuses. I can say flatly that the intellectual openness and lack of orthodoxy at AEI exceeds what I have seen on any college campus — and without faculty meetings.
I have many pro-choice colleagues, along with a number of pro-life ones. There are many libertarians on issues like same-sex relationships. And, even though my writings have frequently ticked off conservative ideologues and business interests — especially my deep involvement in campaign finance reform — I have never once been told, “You can’t say that” or “You better be careful.”
I have been able to pursue my interests in a completely unfettered way. I know that this is hard for people to understand, especially given the widespread desire to believe that a tight-knit cabal that convenes in a mysterious think tank is driving Bush administration policy. And I know that this flies in the face of a widespread desire to characterize all conservatives as intellectually intransigent. But life in Washington, thank goodness, is more complicated than that. I have many colleagues with strong opinions who are willing to listen to the opinions of those who disagree with them. And that fact gives me a sliver of hope.
With many urgent issues, from global warming to subprime mortgage loans to health policy to pensions, there is plenty of sensible middle ground.

There is sensible middle ground, but Norm’s problem is that while AEI is diverse, it is best known today as being the headquarters for those who laid the intellectual and political groundwork for the invasion of Iraq which has had devastating consequences for the country in my view. They are again doing all that they can to instigate a war with Iran.
I used to wonder when pictures would pop up of the coffins of American soldiers who have been on the front-line of this massive military and foreign policy debacle by the Bush/Cheney administration and its neoconservative fellow-travelers, if someone would put a logo of Intel over the flag-draped coffin graphic titled “Intel Inside?” to raise concerns about Intel’s funding the public policy institution that gave sanctuary to the architects of this damaging war.
It hasn’t happened yet — and just for the record, I have no idea whether Intel is a major funder of AEI or not. I just sat at an Intel sponsored table at a fundraising dinner for AEI. Intel, or any of these firms, might think that they are helping to fund what Chris DeMuth, AEI’s President, was famous for — deregulation policy work. But over time, people connect dots, even if it’s unfair in the eyes of Ornstein or his moderate colleagues.
That seems to be happening to the neocons as well — as it is nearly impossible to fathom an AEI foreign policy department article arguing against sanctions against Iran appearing in the Washington Post. But one did, by Danielle Pletka. I take her at her word that she may believe what she has written, but I think that she’d have to agree that the piece is not “continuous” with much of her other writing. It’s rather a remarkable article on many levels.
Did some donors get self-interested and indicate to AEI — even informally — that pushing on sanctions damaging to their interests was over the line? I have no idea but some speculate that’s the case. If this did occur, it’s too bad these firms had to wait for a clear financial hit before communicating their concerns and didn’t make that call either when moral calls were being made from AEI that were at serious odds with their liberal political culture — or when they saw the bodies of soldiers coming home and thought through AEI’s unique role with the Bush administration and the set of wars we are engaged in.
But the bottom line of this essay is that I can attest fully that Norman Ornstein is NOT a neoconservative and is a great guy who works with a diverse set of public intellectuals at AEI. I just wish they got more bandwidth than the neocons there.
— Steve Clemons


30 comments on “Norm Ornstein’s Neocon Problem

Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *