Neo-Cons: Genesis to Ascendancy - II
by Michael Brenner on 18 Jul 2022 0 Comment

The Prophet Paul W. 


Not all shared this vision of a Brave New World. They weren’t content to ride the historic wave of liberal teleology – with just a nudge here and a little coup there. These self-declared realists, in truth, thought more like Machtpolitik Europeans than idealistic Americans. The pivot of their thoughts and feelings were power constellations and any devils (real or imagined) who might arise to undermine Western supremacy – not a visionary liberal ideal of any sort. They saw a unique opportunity to establish the United States’ dominance as the master-builder and overseer of a global order than would ensconce American paramountcy for the foreseeable future.


Without rival, without countervailing force, they felt that we were free to shape the international system as a potter shapes clay. The leading figures in this campaign were not neo-cons in the historical sense – albeit some of them emerged from that milieu. They were a self-conscious elite cadre of hyper-nationalists (Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, John Bolton), true believers in America’s Manifest Destiny, bureaucratic empire builders devoted to restoring the glory of the Pentagon and the Intelligence agencies, and those naïve souls who wanted the entire world to serve as their playground without adjusting any of their “Americanism.” A powerful impetus was added by Israel sympathizers and the Zionist lobby. 


They were further emboldened by the stunning success of Operation Desert Storm where American forces employed the first generation of “Smart” weapons to crush Saddam’s army. ‘It could be done’ was the lesson drawn. 


The Apostles were extremely well-organized, well-funded, experienced navigators in Washington’s corridors of power, and wilful. Their aims and purposes were no secret. A declaration of faith was authored by Paul Wolfowitz in February 1992 from his post in the Pentagon as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.  It took the form of a draft strategy blueprint for a New American Century: Defense Planning Guidance for the 1994–99 fiscal years (February 18, 1992). That phrase was adopted as the name for a foundation created the next year to propagate the creed during the Clinton interregnum. The paper leaked – causing embarrassment (temporary) for Bush the Elder’s administration where neither the President, Secretary James Baker, nor NSC Advisor Brent Scowcroft were prepared to sign on to so audacious a scheme. Wolfowitz’s plan, nonetheless, was inspired Gospel for its coterie of adherents whose proselytizing was pursued relentlessly – and effectively. 


 The Wolfowitz Grand Strategy was guided by these postulates: 

 1. The United States’ long-term national interest dictates that it prevent the emergence of any rival to its global supremacy, or any regional power who could challenge its friends (Israel) and interests. 

2. The United States should marshal all of its resources, including military forces, to enforce this strategy. 

3. The United States should be prepared to intervene in ‘failed’ or ‘rogue’ countries who harbour enemies of the United States. 

4. The United States should aggressively back friendly political forces (preferably but not necessarily democratic) abroad by helping to install and maintain them in office. 

5. The United States should expand NATO eastwards to embrace most of the former Soviet Union so as to ensure that Russia could not regain the position of a great power. 




It is sobering to remind ourselves that Wolfowitz’s more radical ideas were marginal to the mainstream discourse within the country at large during the 1990s. Yes, Americans had shed the shroud of Vietnam in the first war against Saddam. Yes, they had restored their confidence in the prowess of American arms. However, they were not at all eager for another demonstration. Moreover, there were neither devils to slay nor a cause that could rouse the country’s latent moralizing impulses. Too, the hegemonists lacked the “idealism’ essential to make a strategic “sell” to the American people; just as there was no evil enemy to stir fear and anxiety as the prelude to making such drastic commitments. 


Hence, Wolfowitz’s Gospel evoked only a faint echo in political circles – even as its indefatigable apostles were roaming the land; proselytizing, founding cells and recruiting believers. There was nothing preordained about their ascendancy. It was the fear and dread sown by the horrific experience of 9/11 that allowed the plan’s authors to mobilize the public in support of actions that set it into motion. (Roughly comparable in a much-compressed time-frame - to the impact on Rome of the barbarian incursions of the 3rd century that prepared the ground for Christianity’s historic triumph). 


At no time were ultimate objectives revealed to the country at large. Only oblique remarks hinted at the dimensions of the project. The convenient, all-justifying ‘war on terror’ was the ideal cover. Enraged, vengeful Americans found satisfaction in the war’s imagery and initial actions. They grafted their passions onto the unheroic person of George Bush. Every great cause must have a chief, however improbable the beneficiary of this transference. So it was. It was an easy passage for a people who, victimized as never before in their collective lives, were stirred by righteous faith in a cause whose necessity was sanctified by truth and justice.  Moreover, America’s intrinsic virtue provided the assurance that none of its actions could be heinous.  


When opportunity presented itself, the blueprint was in hand. A pliable, indolent George Bush would be their instrument; 9/11 the God-given occasion. That was provided by al-Qaeda, Osama bin-Laden and the Twin Towers. The world was transformed. So, too, was American politics. Islamo-Fascism was slotted perfectly and painlessly into the place previously occupied by Soviet-led Communism. Thanks to a handful of fanatics, and the ineptitude of America’s security services, the country was experiencing a new night of fear and anxiety. It was reaching out to grasp the ready hand of the so-called ‘neo-cons’ who, in fact, were practitioners of old-fashioned power politics. 


It is true that a majority of Americans opposed the invasion of Iraq – unlike Afghanistan. Let’s remember the mass demonstrations that filled the streets of every American city. However, the Bush people and the ‘war party’ understood something crucial about public opinion in the 21st century. It is unorganized, ephemeral and liable to manipulation. Once the video game got underway with those incredible pyrotechnics, opposition dissolved like frost on a sunny morning. Lots of whiz-bang visuals, censorship of pictures showing the gruesomeness of combat, easy victories, a celebratory media, and universal political opportunism when the flag is waved vigorously and the patriotic drums are beaten. Moreover, the volunteer Army meant that only a tiny fraction of the population was affected directly by the invasion and occupation. Racial and religious bigotry also played its role. 


By the time that the unsavoury side of things – Abu Ghraib, IEDS, guerrilla war, sectarian strife, the birth of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia under our noses, massive corruption - began to slip into the collective consciousness, the entire country had signed onto the GWOT: the politicos, the think-tankers, the MSM, the elites generally. They had a tight monopoly on patriotism at a moment when Americans’ self-confidence had been shaken as never before and its vulnerability felt most acutely. There was nobody able and ready to challenge it – intellectually, politically or morally. 


Moreover, successive government leaders exploited those emotions to mask their failures and their poor judgements. They kept the thirst for revenge at a fever pitch by fabricating threats, sponsoring FBI contrived plots, and encouraging Hollywood to go whole hog in promoting Cold War vintage terrorist porn of every variety. Military imagery and symbolism are now omnipresent - pervading every corner of American public life. As a result, there exists a de facto prohibition on public criticism of the Pentagon.




Witness its total absolution from responsibility for the fiasco of the evacuation from Afghanistan. It was the Army and the Air Force together that made a complete mess of things: the premature, dead-of-night evacuation of Bagram; the absence of contingency plans - despite the deadline being extended 3 months by Biden; the random deployment of manpower; the panicked shooting of Afghan civilians after the bombing by undisciplined guards in the observation towers - despite Biden’s augmentation of the forces assigned to cover the evacuation, etc. Of course, the CIA made their predictable contribution to the botched operation by their off-base forecasts about the staying power of the Ghani government - thereby, extending their Guinness record of getting wrong just about everything of consequence over the past 20 years. Private wars by private armies and coups are their thing - not Intelligence.


In this environment, did ascendance of this ‘neo-con’ mutation deprive the Classic neo-cons of a distinct identity? Were the former just a variant of the genus ‘hawk’ whose coloration is an adaptation to clime and terrain? At the level of ideology, each has kept some of the original plumage; at the level of behaviour, they blend into each other. The discrepancy can be explained by noting an independent variable: careerism. If power corrupts, careerism corrupts totally.


In order make it to the top in America’s foreign policy establishment, you have to demonstrate two contradictory traits: to present yourself as an idealist while acting as realist. You demonstrate your idealism via high-sounding verbiage. You demonstrate your realism through actions – like a mafia recruit making his bones. Since American foreign policy is all about acting tough these days, it is well-nigh impossible to elude the test – unless you’re content to pass your days in a university classroom or padding your resume of publications as a marginal think tanker on the free sandwich seminar circuit.


That situational logic helps to explain Obama’s strenuous efforts to appear tough even though he didn’t have the stomach for doing the truly macho things like starting full-blown wars (Syria) or launching massive bombing campaigns (Iran). It is not that Obama loved Democracy less; Rather, he loved America more – hegemonic America, Number One America. 


Within the foreign policy community more broadly, the ambitious no longer are content with being pen-pushers – especially in an age when the path into the inner sanctums of power seems open to anyone with a purchasable EZ-Pass. Example: Ben Rhodes - the failed novelist whose uber-rich brother leveraged a big campaign donation into a make-work job for Ben that soon placed him at the elbow of the Leader of the Free World.


Certifiable neo-cons with a veneer of the original idealist complexion have survived – indeed, thrived. Let’s name some names: Anthony Blinken and Jake Sullivan lead the pack; then Samantha Power, Strobe Talbott, Michele Flournoy, Derek Chollet, Ann-Marie Slaughter, Rhodes, Victoria Nuland, Susan Rice, Wendy Sherman with Thomas Friedman, David Ignatius, Timothy Garten Ash, and the NYT editorial board as high-profile cheerleaders. Yes – many are women. Most shared Madeleine Albright as godmother. Gender opens some doors, Hillary put Reserved signs on a plethora of State Department offices – as did Obama in the White House. It serves as effective camouflage, and it plays well among the party’s intelligentsia. 


(To be concluded …)

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