Dealing with the Challenge of Militant Idealism on the Right and the Left: Book Salon Today


The Neocons -- An Illustrated Progression small.jpg
(The Neocons: An Illustrated Progression; Graphic by Peter and Maria Hoey)
In today’s Washington Post, neoconservative movement chronicler Jacob Heilbrunn outlines “5 Myths About Those Nefarious Neocons“. It’s a great short piece and makes the point that many really don’t understand — that the neocon support of Israel is actually often destructive of Israel’s own interests. Daniel Levy wrote of this general divergence once in an excellent article, “So Pro-Israel it Hurts” — and I brought up Israel’s diaspora challenge here when the Deputy Director General for Public Affairs of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs once told me that he wished “our American friends and family” would settle down a bit.
Heilbrunn is author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons,” for which I will be hosting a live book salon today between 5 and 7 pm EST with the author at the well-known progressive political blog, FireDogLake.
The last myth that Heilbrunn commented on today in his Post is the most worrisome:

5 The Iraq debacle has discredited the neocons.
This could be the biggest whopper of them all. Now that the “surge” in Iraq has brought levels of violence down somewhat, the neocons are already claiming vindication. As Iraq fades from the front pages, the neocons’ hero, Arizona Sen. John McCain, is poised to become the Republican standard-bearer in 2008. (The neocons also would have happily flocked around Rudolph W. Giuliani, who recruited Norman “World War IV” Podhoretz as a senior adviser.)
The truth is that the neocons have been repeatedly declared dead before — and, to the chagrin of their enemies on the left and the right, bounced back.
At the end of the Cold War, the arch-realist George H.W. Bush relegated them to the sidelines; then the triangulating Bill Clinton seemed to deprive them of their biggest foreign and domestic policy issues. If they came back from that, they can come back from anything.
Now that Robert Kagan, William Kristol (who seems not to be discredited in the eyes of the New York Times, which just made him a columnist) and a host of other neocons have hitched their fortunes to McCain, the neocons are poised for a fresh comeback. If they make a hash of foreign policy by 2011, perhaps the familiar cycle of public scorn and rebirth might even start all over again.

In Heilbrunn’s postscript in his book, he outlines the seeming exodus of many neoconservatives from government positions — like Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser, Scooter Libby, and others — but then notes that they “remained unrepentant” and “seemed relatively unaffected by the obloquy they had endured during the Bush years.” He quotes me saying “They’re gone, but they’re not gone.”
And many are now joining John McCain’s machine.
To some degree, Heilbrunn’s profile of the deep roots of neoconservatism and the school’s journey is as much a story of the decline of the realist and liberal internationalist schools of foreign policy as an earnest story of neocon influence.
And the damage that has been done both by realist decline and the robustness of neoconservative zealousness in reshaping the internal guts of other nations through armed drones, bunker busters, and tanks has also resulted in the rise of a leftish-form of neoconservatism in democratic ranks. This movement on the left like the neocons embraces empbire, is values driven, hawkish, and considers the calculation of basic interests served or gambled as largely immoral.
Brown University John Carter Brown Library Director Ted Widmer (who is also a colleague and Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program with me) wrote a penetrating review of Heilbrunn’s book in the Washington Post recently, titled “What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been.”
In the review, Widmer challenges Heilbrunn for taking on some of the Clinton clan, particularly Madeleine Albright:

. . .At other times, Heilbrunn seems defensive, as if a trace of the [neocon] virus remains in his bloodstream. He suggests that the United States should have overthrown Egyptian president Gamal Nasser in 1956 to let democracy bloom, an act that would have been illegal and insane.
He is very severe on Democratic foreign policy, targeting George McGovern (who inflicted more harm on Nazis than any neocons did), ridiculing Jimmy Carter and launching the usual tired attacks on Bill Clinton, whom he finds both too slow (to combat terrorism) and too eager (to conduct humanitarian interventions). He excoriates Madeleine Albright for daring to express the “hubristic belief” that the United States is indispensable to the world. More hubristic than the neocons?

Read Widmer’s entire piece — as it’s a very good retelling of the longer Heilbrunn book about the origins and rise of neoconservatism.
But what my colleague Ted Widmer doesn’t seem to get is that there is a thin line dividing liberal interventionism and neocoservatism — both versions of a militant idealism that has done serious damage to American prestige abroad.
While President Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke and others can count the take-down of Slobodan Milosevic and the containment of Serbia as a victory today — it nonetheless is increasingly being referred to by some Dems as “regime change done right”.
This ethic is gaining real traction in Democratic circles — and has a bunch of chairs at the foreign policy advisory tables of both Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
To me, the neoconservative movement that got its chance to operate the machinery of the foreign policy/national security establishment during the George W. Bush administration seemed a lot like the Borg in the latter day Star Trek films. The Borg wanted to assimilate other cultures to “wire them” to converge with their own characteristics and operating systems. And those they couldn’t re-wire or assimilate, they’d wipe out — without concern for interests, costs, and consequences.
The neoconservative story is one that is very important to understand — because America will relive it, and we need to know next time what strategies work to curtail the ideologically seductive bravado of militant utopians on either side of the aisle.
Hope you can join us today for a discussion with Jacob Heilbrunn between 5 and 7 pm EST at this site.

— Steve Clemons


8 comments on “Dealing with the Challenge of Militant Idealism on the Right and the Left: Book Salon Today

  1. Lee says:

    remind me, who are the militant utopians threatening to take over the Democratic party, and which major foreign policy blunders are they responsible for?
    I realize we want to seem nuetral and fair, but this is really a one sided situation. Let’s avoid the false equivalencies.


  2. David N says:

    I just finished the Heilbrunn book, and came away with some remarkable insights.
    One is that the reader has to search long and hard for ANYBODY who has been in the right on foreign policy issues since the Eisenhower administration. Of coures, the neocons are idiots who have been failing upward for the last twenty years based on nothing other that mutual admiration. But their criticisms of the realist and other schools of policy have, in fact, often been well deserved.
    We know that the neocons have gotten it wrong just about every time they’ve had the chance — and that their latest contribution to the world is the utter disaster we’re enjoying right now. But the real tragedy is that we could easily see how they could get anywhere, because their enemies within the U.S. policy establishment have been as arrogant, muddled, dumb, and disorganized as the neocons, only without the circle-jerk support network that allows the neocons to keep up the illusion of infallibility.
    I found Heilbrunn’s dismissal of Carter — whose major mistake was listening to Kissinger — and Clinton — who in fact did go after bin Laden, and was lambasted for “Wagging the Dog” every time — to be as facile and misdirected as just about everything else anyone has published in any major media outlet in the last twenty years. One can hardly blame the man for being unable to resist the herd, but, then, one ought to.
    You guys are getting paid — a lot of money — to think. It is more than dismaying that most of that money goes to people who do not think, but rather parrot the conventional wisdom no matter how vacuous in may be.
    Of course, the prime example is Fukuyama, who has built a reputation as a deep thinker by writing about ideas that were effective shown to be driveling nonsense forty years before.
    But, then, this is another example of the phenomenon that ignorance has always been the handmaiden of hubris.
    Which would make a fitting motto for the entire neocon enterprise.


  3. Cee says:

    This made me think about the following article
    Why The Middle East Conflict Continues To Exist
    The hatred between the two peoples doesn’t come from the hearts of Middle Eastern Arabs and Jews; it is created and stoked from abroad. Arabs and Jews must see through the propaganda and understand that this conflict is being created for them. Every time it looks like it is coming to an end, foreigners breathe new life into it by insisting that they have a “new peace initiative” which they claim will bring peace. It never does.


  4. John Robert BEHRMAN says:

    Notice that SIMES used circumelocutions at the very end to call the neo-cons Trotskyites. This is my summation and I think Michael LIND’s epithet, as well.


  5. John Robert BEHRMAN says:

    Saw you dealing with this on C-Span this morning. Very enlightening.


  6. janinsanfran says:

    Where’s the left in this? All I see is several flavors of imperialists?


  7. DonS says:

    When you get back to your other desk, Steve, I want to say that to me the crux of the ME matter came up in the FDL salon:
    — the policy thing re Israel as highlighted by this comment on the salon (the false choice between Israel and the Arab world)
    “Well, in case you drop back in let me say that I’d love to hear why it’s a false choice. Every poll I have ever seen on the subject shows that the biggest problem the US has in the Middle East amongst the population (which the non-democratic elites occasionally have to bow down to) is US support for Israel.
    “I’d also like to hear what the US’s shared interests are with Israel. Because most of the ones I hear always seem rather forced to me.
    “US strong support for Israel is one of those things that players of the game can’t admit is wrong, because it’s an unforgivable sin. But it makes no sense in Realpolitik terms that I can determine and on moral terms let’s just say that the case is at very best mixed.”
    — And my concern for the way the “anti-Semitic” accusation cuts psychologically in the US, albeit I acknowledge Heilbrunn’s statements of its (anti-Semitism’s) roots in reality. [to reiterate, for you and all, my family was decimated in the holocaust]
    IMHO, we don’t have a strategic interest in Israel, or at least its not the big deal that its made out to be. It’s an emotional interest. As far as the neocons, my hunch is it’s a financial interest as well, for them.
    I really enjoyed Amb Wilson’s analysis of the neo-con ascendency, and the need to pursue them when they go to ground. If I had a couple of million extra and had an eleemosynary bent, I would set up just such a foundation, to rout them out, expose them and, where appropriate, prosecute.


  8. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “In Heilbrunn’s postscript in his book, he outlines the seeming exodus of many neoconservatives from government positions — like Paul Wolfowitz”…yadayadayada…
    That musta been before the infamous Steve Clemons’ “lets ignore Wolfowitz’s new position” movement.


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