Home / What the heck is a neocon? – Part I

What the heck is a neocon? – Part I

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Neoconservatives have been asking that very question. I was asked once too
often so I thought I’d take a bit more time with an answer.

I’ll start with a neocon who was in the
news last Thursday: Richard Perle, known as "the Prince of Darkness" in
some circles.

Adviser resigns: Richard Perle, one of the most outspoken
advocates for invading Iraq, has quietly resigned from the Defense Policy
Board, an influential bipartisan Pentagon advisory group. [Detroit
Free Press

This is the same Richard Perle who resigned
his Chairmanship of the same Defense Policy Board
March, 2003, when
questions were raised about his dealings with bankrupt Global Crossing.

He’s also the same Richard Perle who, on the
day after the infamous "Mission
Accomplished Gung-Ho Flyboy photo op on a carrier" episode, gushed:

"Relax, Celebrate Victory," By Richard Perle May 2, 2003

"From start to finish, President
Bush has led the United States and its coalition partners to the most
important military victory
since World War II.
And like the allied victory over the axis powers,
the liberation of Iraq is
the end
of a
the foundation for a decent, humane government that will represent all
the people of Iraq.

"This was a war worth fighting.
It ended quickly with few civilian casualties and with little damage
to Iraq’s cities, towns
or infrastructure. It ended without the Arab world rising up against
as the war’s critics feared, without the quagmire they predicted, without
the heavy losses
in house-to-house fighting they warned us to expect."

Perle, American Enterprise Institute site
or on the official
State Department site
] [Clearly this indicates that Perle understood
Bush to say the war was over the day before.]

He didn’t do so well with that, and things don’t seem to have
gone a lot better since. A few months later, Salon told us:

"D.C.’s ‘Prince of Darkness’ has prospered in the shadows between
the Beltway and big business — but the latest scandal threatens to bring
him down…

"… more ominous for Perle than
questions about his foreign policy meddling are those regarding his
business dealings, as he
suddenly finds himself at the center of a boardroom scandal [and his dealings
with] Hollinger International …

"Perle’s Hollinger woes come on
the heels of other public missteps. For instance, last summer he embarrassed
the Pentagon when he
invited Laurent Murawiec, a former follower of political extremist Lyndon
LaRouche, to brief the Defense Policy Board about Saudi Arabia…

"Earlier this year when the New Yorker’s Sy Hersh detailed
Perle’s possible conflicts of interest, Perle went on CNN and labeled the
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist a ‘terrorist’ and threatened
to sue for libel. (Perle has yet to take any legal action.)

"This summer the Nation magazine
reported Perle often charged foreign TV news organizations up to $900
for on-camera interviews
with him.

"On Nov. 6, the New York Times reported
Perle had met for two hours at a London hotel with a mysterious Lebanese
who, allegedly on behalf of the Baathist regime, was offering to hold monitored
elections and allow U.S. troops to search for WMDs, in exchange for leaving
Saddam in power. In the end, the offer was essentially dismissed by the
CIA and the Pentagon. Perle told the Guardian newspaper that he had been

told by the CIA not to pursue the contacts.

"Most recently, while Bush was visiting
Britain last week, Perle conceded to a London lecture crowd that the
war with Iraq,
based on international law, was likely illegal. ‘I think in this case international
law stood in the way of doing the right thing,’ he said." [The
Gathering Storm Around Richard Perle
Salon 11/26/2003]

Earlier, he was involved with Israeli foreign policy. In 1996,
then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked an Israeli think tank to come
up with a foreign policy statement for him. Here are some excerpts from it:

[Introduced the idea of getting rid of Saddam:] "Israel can
shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan,
by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can
focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq — an important
Israeli strategic objective in its own right …"

[And the idea of having the Hashemites control Iraq,
which James Woolsey raised again last year in the Wall Street Journal:]
the Hashemites to control Iraq, they could use their influence over Najf
to help Israel wean the south Lebanese Shia away from Hizballah, Iran,
and Syria. Shia retain strong ties to the Hashemites: the Shia venerate
foremost the Prophet’s family, the direct descendants of which — and
in whose veins the blood of the Prophet flows — is King Hussein."

The report was produced by Richard Perle, Douglas Feith
[now Undersecretary of Defense] and others [A
Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm

A few days after the report was prepared, Prime Minister Netanyahu
presented the paper virtually verbatim to the US congress, looking for help
from the US to get rid of Saddam.

Congress didn’t buy it, so in early 1998
a few right-wing partisans in the
Project for a New American Century presented an "Open
Letter to the President
(Clinton)," once again asking for an attack
on Iraq ("In the near term, this means a willingness to undertake
military action as diplomacy is clearly failing")
. An amazing number
of signatories to that letter have since become part of the Bush administration
and clearly had a big hand in the invasion of Iraq. Here are a few whose
names you’ll probably recognize:

Donald Rumsfeld   (Secretary of Defense)
Paul Wolfowitz (Deputy Secretary of Defense),
John R. Bolton (Undersecretary of State)
William Schneider, Jr. (Chairman of the Defense Science Board in the U.S. Department
of Defense)
Elliott Abrams (National Security Council, Middle East and North Africa portfolio)
Zalmay Khalilzad (Bush’s ambassador to Afghanistan)
R. James Woolsey (not in the
current administration)
William Kristol
William Bennett
Vin Weber
Richard Perle

A good view of where Richard Perle came from
intellectually can be found in "Richard
Perle: The Making of a Neoconservative
," an interview with Ben

And so: That’s a neocon.

[But why are the neos asking the question?]


Further reading (authors’ opinions are theirs not mine):

* The
rise of the neocons
Once-over-lightly briefing mentioning
the neocon Marxist roots in The Week Magazine 05/23/2003
* Among
the Neocons
foot soldier in the ideological wars relates what went wrong
with neoconservatism." By Scott McConnell, ex-neoconservative
founder of The American Conservative Magazine 04/21/2003
* Neoconservatives
Spawned Right Here in N.Y.C.
Includes quotes from William Kristol,
lists some neo media, money men, "clubs
and scene-makers," and more. 04/28/2003

on my site]

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About Hal

  • Shark

    Great stuff, Hal. I’m still digesting, and more confused than ever.

    I have to admit I’m ambivalent about the neo-con approach to foreign policy. The threat of Islamic fundamentalism is, for me, the big unknown fly in the international oitment. I fluctuate daily between strict isolationism vs nuking the entire middle east.

    Any thoughts?

  • I hear them saying things like that they want to “promote American ideals abroad.”

    But the full statement is: “Neoconservatives believe in using American might to promote American ideals abroad.” (from the first Max Boot link).

    To me that sounds an awful lot like echoes of Trotsky’s desire to “export revolution.”

    Personlly, I don’t believe that using guns to enforce beliefs is an “American ideal.”

    I could be wrong.

  • Wait – that link was in a different piece (and in Part II). You can find it here:

    What the heck is a “neocon”? by Max Boot, Wall Street Journal 12/29/2002

  • Since we are already discussing anti-Semitism, we might as well be clear on this: To many Christian conservatives, “neo-conservative” has become an analogue for Jewish conservative. Furthermore, anti-Semitism is why some of said Christian conservatives oppose the war in Iraq. (Others support it bcause they believe Israel is the key to Armageddon, which can be another form of anti-Semitism.) Since I don’t have a fighter in either corner, I just look on with bemusement. However, I don’t think the definition of ‘neo-conservative’ can be complete without considering this aspect.

  • It also seems to me that one has to ask if poster boy Perle is the essence of what it means to be a neocon. Are his characteristics — megalomania, greed, disregard for truth telling, a general shamelessness — coming from him or from his politics? Hal?

  • You left out the Carlysle group: see Carlyle Group exposed (if you watch the video, note that the first minute and 48 seconds are in Dutch–then the rest is in English, mostly). If Perle resigned because of a conflict of interest and shady business dealings, then why don’t Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld resign? And the rest of the Neocons for that matter?

  • Shark

    Hal: “To me that sounds an awful lot like echoes of Trotsky’s desire to “export revolution.”

    The Islamic nuts are exporting “revolution” by the boatload, er, um, planeload. Except their goal is not ‘change’ but the death of western people/culture altogether.

    So how should America respond?

    This is the big strength of the neocons, and where every other political philosophy of the 21st century is lacking.

    When the question becomes:
    “What do the Dems, or for that matter, traditional Conservatives — recommend for dealing with Islam’s war declaration against the west?” —they win hands down.


  • Shark

    BTW: Despite the neo-cons (and Bush’s) public “tolerance” of Islam, I’ll guarantee you that behind closed doors, *they see Islam as Satan Incarnate, a new ‘institution’ to replace the old communism/socialism target.

    Many top neo-con philosophers are Jewish: coincidence?

    *I’m not implying a conspiracy or passing judgement; they could be right.

  • As in the case of Richard Perle, the one is not the many and the correlation of Jew and neocon is not applicable to everyone. My experience, and that of friends of various faiths, is different – neoconservatives are defined by what they believe and do. I would think that most people in the country would see it that way, Pat Buchanan or Lyndon LaRouche notwithstanding.

    My example could have been someone else, but I was asked the “what’s a neocon” question about a week ago and Perle re-surfaced about the same time. He struck me as a good example of a neocon because he has had a very large, even dominating, influence on what this administration has done. He has been pushing for the invasion of Iraq for a long time, and 9/11 became a good excuse.

    Perle was also a good example because he and Wolfowitz have been double-teaming in the neocon groves since the old Scoop Jackson days, as mentioned in the Wattenburg interview. Wolfowitz, besides being Deputy Secretary of Defense, also came up with the policy of preemptive strikes back in 1992 when he was working under then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. The Wattenburg interview also offers a view of Perle from a sympathetic perspective, and I wanted to include that.

    As far as “megalomania, greed, disregard for truth telling, a general shamelessness” go, this example is only this example.

    If you call the desire to dominate the world and “spread American ideals” through military power as being megalomania, that is neoconservative.

    I’ll even say that a lot of the most prominent neocons have shown a “disregard for truth telling” and a “general shamelessness.” Some of that has been from those who may not be bred-in-the-blood neocons but are at least “fellow-travelers” like Dick Cheney. Reading National Review Online and writings by David Frum can be instructive, too.

    I don’t know enough about the top neocons to address the issue of greed. Many of the prominent neocons, however, are in fact very wealthy, with investments in the defense industry and with close ties to members of this administration. It would be instructive to learn more about the financial dealings of those who signed the letter to Clinton, for instance, or the members of the Project for a New American Century, or those associated with the American Enterprise Institute. They could all be as pure as the driven snow, though.

  • “If Perle resigned because of a conflict of interest and shady business dealings, then why don’t Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld resign? And the rest of the Neocons for that matter?”

    Sounds good to me – got a sign-up sheet?

  • Shark:

    Exporting beliefs at the point of a gun by America was part of the neocon agenda long before 9/11, and is not the moral high ground.

    Responding to terrorism is a different matter.

    The invasion of Iraq was not part of that response; it used the terrorist act as an excuse to get rid of Saddam, part of the neocon agenda from years before.

    And it has been singularly counter-productive.

    First, to invade Iraq the U. S. had to essentially abandon Afghanistan. Today Karzai is cowering in Kabul (to see him you go through three checkpoints and he is hardly ever seen in public, much less in other parts of the country). There’s more in the current issue of Time Magazine.

    Second, the invasion of Iraq created more terrorism and is creating more terrorists.

    A news story last week indicates that Iraqis are responsible for many of the suicide bombings. It’s difficult to identify a bomber who has been blown to smithereens, but that supports the contention that the stories about bombers coming in from outside the country had little if any factual basis. A face survived a recent bombing and it belonged to a young Iraqi who had no ties to terrorists and was not a Baathist but decided on his own to make a statement about the foreign occupation.

    This adminstration is doing a poor job in the War on Terrorism, increasing it rather than reducing it.

    In this case, the neocons lost, hands down, by putting their political agenda ahead of security.

  • Eric Olsen

    As always, that’s one version: I buy the neocon foreign policy other than the emphasis on unilateralism. We live in a world that isn’t going away, and the main rationale behind the assertive use of American force to achieve American ideals and American security IS the very interconnectness of the modern world: moats don’t work anymore as evidenced by 9/11. Therefore the very strongest rationale for usinf force is contradicted by a unilateral approach.

    I am cool with us being the hammer and our allies being the glove in approaching common problems – ie Islamofascism and nuclear proliferation – but the glove is almost as important as the hammer and this cannot be ignored, as it appears Perle in particular advocates.

    As far as Afghanistan goes, let’s seee where we are in a few months after the campaign kicking in right now has a chance to work – clearly our attention has returned to the area.

  • “Many top neo-con philosophers are Jewish: coincidence?”

    Yes, although I’m not sure the question means a lot. Who cares, besides some wing-nuts? The policy issues are what matter.

    If you read the history back to the 1930s, you’ll see that everything started for socio-political reasons.

    Trotskyism was socialism based on anti-Stalism, and arose because as Stalin’s power increased so did his anti-Semitism. Trotsky’s movement gathered many Jews in the U. S. but it was not a Jewish movement, it was socialist/Marxist/Communist. You can get the details from the book “The New York Intellectuals” but that should be read with your bias-detector on high.

    The entire story is an interesting trail from Trotskyists to liberals to Democrats to Scoop Jackson Democrats to (largely) Republicans.

    Scoop Jackson is a name that a lot of people haven’t heard, but he was a major influence on the neocons. His former staff members include:

    • Richard Perle is an adviser to the Defense Department and considered a major influence on Bush administration foreign policy.
    • Doug Feith is undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon.
    • Elliott Abrams, special assistant to the president focusing on Middle East affairs, worked as special counsel to Jackson.
    Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense and one of Bush’s Iraq policy experts, never served directly under Jackson. But they had a long relationship…
    [ Scoop Jackson’s protégés shaping Bush’s foreign policy 1/12/200]

  • ERic: “the assertive use of American force to achieve American ideals”

    Sorry, but that should read “to impose” and I object because it’s definitely an un-American view of “democracy” and “freedom.”

    Security is one issue; imposing beliefs through military power is what Communism was about.

  • Shark

    Hal, I totally agree relative to Iraq; if we really wanted to fight terrorism, the first country we should have invaded was Saudi Arabia, but according to Bush, they’re still ‘our friends’. (One wonders how they can maintain a straight face when they say they’re fighting terrorism while ignoring the Saudi support!)

    And we should have focused on finishing the job in Afghanistan.

    BTW: I think the neo-cons hidden agenda IS related to their ties to the Defense industry! Their resumes are all entwined with defense contractors and/or lobbyists.

    The plan: Kill three birds with one stone: spread American ‘ideals’ while boosting the economy through military spending.

  • Hal, I know the ‘Jews are neo-cons’ claim is not completely true. But, I also believe there is enough truth to it to explain why some on the far Right spit the word ‘neo-con.’ I wrote about that in regard to ‘libertarian’ Clyde Wilson not so long ago. The connection is even more clear if you read the source material. The strange bedfellow arrangement between liberals and some on the far Right regarding the invasion of Iraq is occurring because of antipathy toward the neo-cons — in part because ‘too many’ of them are Jews.