Neocons shaken, but not deterred

Almost exactly five years after it reached its zenith with the invasion of Iraq, the influence of neo-conservatives has waned sharply in Washington, as their nemeses, the “realists” in the national security bureaucracy, have increasingly asserted control over US foreign policy.

While battered, however, neo-conservatives have not yet been forced from the field. And while their hopes that President George W Bush would “take out” Iran’s nuclear programme before leaving office appear to have diminished substantially, their hawkish voice is still heard loud and clear both in the White House — courtesy of Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and Deputy National Security adviser Elliott Abrams — and in this year’s Republican presidential race, where neo-conservative favourites include former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain, and, until earlier this week, Fred Thompson.

Indeed, as pointed out in Jacob Heilbrunn’s new book They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, the neocons, despite the fiasco in Iraq, are already trying to detach themselves from both Bush and the Mesopotamian adventure they so avidly championed and entrench themselves ever more deeply into institutional Washington.

“Whether it’s the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies or the National Endowment for Democracy, the Weekly Standard or the New York Sun, the neoconservatives are battle-hardened fighters who have created a permanent base for themselves. They will not disappear,” according to Heilbrunn, a former neo-conservative himself and senior editor at the Nixon Centre’s The National Interest journal.

Heilbrunn’s much-anticipated book, which coincides with the publication of a not entirely unsympathetic biography entitled Prince of Darkness of the movement’s most influential hard-liner, Richard Perle, affirms a number of central truths about neo-conservatism that are generally ignored in mainstream discussion of what he correctly calls a “mind-set” rather than an “ideology.”

First, neo-conservatism “is in a decisive respect a Jewish phenomenon,” even if many adherents — albeit a minority — are not Jewish and even if, it should be added, most US Jews are not neo-conservatives. Moreover, neo-conservatives, both Jew and gentile, are bound by a “shared commitment to the largest, most important Jewish cause: the survival of Israel.”

Second, its substance is largely determined by the lessons its followers draw from what they see as causes of the Nazi Holocaust: the alleged failures of German “liberals” in the Weimar Republic to stand up to the twin challenges of Nazism and Communism; and the necessity of having overwhelming military power to crush any new Hitler.

Third, the movement’s Trotskyist roots — incarnated by its “founding father”, Max Shachtman — among the Jews from Central and Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century not only imbued its members with a distrust, even a hatred, of liberalism.

Heilbrunn’s descriptions of liberal or left-wing foes, from the New Left and the Black Power movement to Democratic politicians, such as George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, echo those of the most radical neo-cons. Heilbrunn is critical of the neoconservatives, but he accepts much of their worldview. — IPS