The Neocon Rehabilitation Project

THE NEOCON REHABILITATION PROJECT….David Rose’s Vanity Fair interview with the neocon elite is getting plenty of well-deserved attention this weekend. For one thing, it’s fun to play the “which quote is the most damning?” game. Is it Michael Ledeen (the most powerful people in the White House are “women who are in love with the president”)? Kenneth Adelman (“They turned out to be among the most incompetent teams in the post-war era”)? David Frum (George Bush “just did not absorb the ideas”)?

But that can wait. A few months ago I noted in passing that it was only a matter of time before the neocon hawks began claiming, like old-time Trotskyists, that there was nothing wrong with their ideas, only with the fools who had bungled their execution. Richard Perle states this the most directly:

Huge mistakes were made, and I want to be very clear on this: They were not made by neoconservatives, who had almost no voice in what happened, and certainly almost no voice in what happened after the downfall of the regime in Baghdad. I’m getting damn tired of being described as an architect of the war. I was in favor of bringing down Saddam. Nobody said, ‘Go design the campaign to do that.’ I had no responsibility for that.

It’s worth saying very plainly what’s going on here: the neocons are using these interviews to make the case that neoconservatism is in no way to blame for the disaster in Iraq. If they had been in charge things would have been different.

This baby needs to be strangled in its crib. The 1997 “Statement of Principles” of the Project for a New American Century, the neocon Bible, was signed by, among others, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalilzad, Scooter Libby, and Elliot Abrams. All of these men were deeply involved in the formulation, planning, and execution of the Iraq war. The neocon creed was part and parcel of every move they made.

What’s more, despite their conveniently-timed hand wringing about incompetent execution, there’s little evidence that the apologists would have done anything very different ? in fact, little evidence that they cared very much about anything beyond “bringing down Saddam.” Rather, neocons have always been focused on conventional military power, and plenty of it, primarily aimed at potential enemies like China. (Despite the revisionist history spit out now and again by their supporters, terrorism simply wasn’t a major neocon focus prior to 9/11.) But conventional military power wasn’t the problem in Iraq. The problem was in the occupation, an area that neocons have never cared a fig about. Peacekeeping forces? Nation building? Multilateral legitimacy? Language and cultural training? Counterinsurgency? Economic engagement?

It’s easy to cherry-pick the neocon archives to find bits and pieces where they talked up some of this stuff. But their overall focus has always been on the use of overwhelming force and intimidation, with a sideline in democracy promotion rooted more in fantasy than in a hard look at what it takes to actually make democracy take root in a region with none of the economic or institutional infrastructure to support it. Anybody with ground-level experience in nation building could have explained the problems, but they didn’t want to listen. A sufficient show of force was supposed to be enough to make democracy flower.

The neocons have always been idealists, and their ideals saw full flower in the Iraq war. A show of force in one country, plenty of threats against its neighbors, a disdain for multilateral action, and an occupation designed to be a showpiece of conservative ideology rather than a serious attempt at reconstructing a society. That’s what the neocons wanted, and that’s what they got. The rest is details.

The failure of Iraq is inherent in the naive idealism and fixated ideology of neoconservatism, and shame on us if we let them get away with suggesting otherwise. This is one rehabilitation project that needs to be stopped dead in its tracks.