excerpted from the book
The New American Militarism
How Americans Are Seduced By War
by Andrew J. Bacevich
Oxford University Press, 2005,
In the wake of the sixties, contrarian intellectuals ... mounted
a counterrevolution. Their aim was nothing if not ambitious: to
reverse the verdict of the 1960s, to repair the political and
cultural damage done by that decade, and mutatis mutandis to restore
American power and assertiveness on the world stage.
"What rules the world is ideas,"
observed Irving Kristol, one leader of this insurgency, "because
ideas define the way reality is perceived." Contesting the
perception of reality prevailing among elites defined the insurgents'
Observers soon dubbed this insurgency
"neoconservatism," a singularly inapt label that suggests
an ideological rigor that neocons have never demonstrated nor
perhaps even sought. Irving Kristol is surely correct in observing
that neoconservatism is best understood not as a political movement
or school of thought but as a "persuasion.
From the outset, the neoconservative project had no more resolute
and vigorous advocate than Norman Podhoretz. The self-declared
embodiment of the New York intellectual, Podhoretz achieved notable
success as critic, writer, provocateur, and above all as editor
of the influential monthly magazine Commentary during the years
from 1960 to 1995. Without Commentary, it seems fair to say, neoconservatism
would have been stillborn.
In a series of books and essays, Podhoretz
has rendered a lushly detailed account of his life as a literary
intellectual: his rise to prominence as the son of immigrants
crossing the East River-"one of the longest journeys in the
world"-to find success in Manhattan; his discovery of the
"dirty little secret" that a thirst for money, fame,
power, and social standing, rather than a passion for truth or
beauty, motivated "the well-educated American soul,"
beginning with his own; his brief flirtation with but eventual
rejection of the radical enthusiasms to which the New York literati
fell victim during the course of the 1960s; and the ruptured friendships
that ensued as Podhoretz broke away and took it upon himself to
expose those enthusiasms as puerile and pernicious.'
Once his own fling with sixties radicalism
ended, Podhoretz launched a "scorched-earth campaign against
the New Left and counterculture." From his editorial command
post at Commentary (and through organizations such as the Committee
on the Present Danger, in which he figured prominently), Podhoretz
did much to create and refine the fiercely combative neoconservative
style. That style emphasized not balance (viewed as evidence of
timidity) or the careful sifting of evidence (suggesting scholasticism)
but the ruthless demolition of any point of view inconsistent
with the neoconservative version of truth, typically portrayed
as self-evident and beyond dispute.
Six propositions summarize the essence
of the neoconservative persuasion. All six feature prominently
among the themes to which Commentary paid particular attention
from the 1970s until the end of Podhoretz's tenure as editor.
The first and most fundamental proposition
is a theory of history. That theory finds its point of origin
in the depression decade of the 1930s, a decade that for Podhoretz
and other neoconservatives serves as a parable. That parable conveys
two large truths, applicable in all circumstances and for all
time. The first truth is that evil is real. The second is that
for evil to prevail requires only one thing: for those confronted
by it to flinch from duty.
In the 1930s, with the callow governments
of Great Britain and France bent on appeasing Hitler and with
an isolationist America studiously refusing to exert itself, evil
had its way. The result was horrific savagery, culminating in
the Holocaust. Perhaps worst of all, that catastrophe was an avoidable
one, directly attributable to the pusillanimous behavior of the
Podhoretz and other neoconservatives believed
that the cataclysm that befell Europe in the 1930s could easily
happen again. It was precisely because the sixties recalled the
worst features of the thirties, leaving the United States weak
and demoralized, vulnerable to Soviet aggression from abroad,
and susceptible to a "kind of spiritual surrender" within,
that Podhoretz found the latter decade so disconcerting. A recurrence
of the 1940s was the nightmare that the neoconservatives in the
1970s were determined to avert. Time and again, writes John Ehrman
in his history of the neoconservative movement, essays by Podhoretz
and his compatriots "evoked the memory of French and British
behavior in the 1930s, with the refusal to face up to the growing
totalitarian threat, the reluctance to shore up the democracies'
defenses, failed attempts at appeasement and, worst of all, the
slide into a disastrous war.
The remaining five propositions defining
the neoconservative persuasion offer variations on that theme
of World War II as a preventable disaster, but all bear the imprint
of the first.
The second proposition relates to power.
Diplomacy, bribes, accommodation, sweet reason, appeals to decency,
fairness, or a larger community of interests: none of these deflected
Nazi Germany from the path of aggression on which it had embarked.
Just as it eventually required armed might to destroy the Nazi
regime, so too only the possession of-and willingness to employ-armed
might could possibly have deterred Adolf Hitler. The lesson was
clear: at the end of the day, in international politics there
was no substitute for power, especially military power.
On this issue Podhoretz did not permit dissent America had a mission
and must never "come home." This was the third proposition
that defined the neoconservative position. Alternatives to or
substitutes for American global leadership simply did not exist.
For all that Vietnam may have been "an act of imprudent idealism,"
a challenge that had exceeded "our intellectual and moral
capabilities," the United States simply could not allow failure
there to become an excuse for turning its back on the world. History
had singled out the United States to play a unique role as the
chief instrument for securing the advance of freedom, which found
its highest expression in democratic capitalism. American ideals
defined America's purpose, to be achieved through the exercise
of superior American power.
Those unable to grasp that imperative-most
notably, President Jimmy Carter who in acknowledging the nation's
post-Vietnam "malaise" seemingly accepted it as irreversible-Podhoretz
held in particularly low regard. "The survival not only of
the United States but of free institutions everywhere in the world,"
he wrote in 1982, "depends on a resurgence of American power."
In such circumstances, pessimism or self-doubt could have no place;
indeed, they verged on the treasonous.
Podhoretz, along with many of the foreign
policy writers identified with Commentary in the 19705 and 1980s,
such as Walter Laqueur, Michael Ledeen, and Joshua Muravchik,
were staunch patriots and impassioned nationalists. They were
also devout Wilsonians, dedicated to the proposition that American
values are by definition universal values. But they did not suffer
from the delusions to which they believed Wilson had been prone,
rejecting, for example, the proposition that any "covenant"
of nations might secure America's safety and the world's freedom.
Creating a peaceful world required power, not parchment.
Heirs to the tradition of American Exceptionalism,
neoconservatives did not doubt that theirs was a nation set apart.
That fulfilling America's providential mission might entail great
exertions and sacrifice was a prospect that they were perfectly
willing to accept. America's "ruling elites," wrote
Midge Decter shortly after the fall of Saigon, had become "spoiled
rotten and cosmetically greedy." They had "forgotten
what evil is." But millions of ordinary Americans, Decter
continued, knew better and were "still willing to pay something,
maybe even quite a lot, to see to it that they have companions
in the world, preferring... not to live in a small and weak country
in a mean and narrow world."" Toughness, daring, and
resolve: in American political life after Vietnam these had become
scarce commodities; Podhoretz and his fellow neoconservatives
were determined to bring them back into fashion.
The fourth proposition defining the neoconservative
persuasion concerns the relationship between politics at home,
especially cultural politics, and America's purpose abroad. At
the center of that relationship is an appreciation for authority.
... part of the task that Podhoretz set for himself was to discredit
what he saw as the various forms of nonsense to which the sixties
had given rise-prominent among them multiculturalism, affirmative
action, radical feminism, and the gay rights movement. By extension
he and other neoconservatives cast themselves as forceful proponents
of what came to be called "traditional values." Commentary's
agenda included not only support for a muscular foreign policy,
but also the defense of beleaguered institutions such as marriage
and the nuclear family, the advocacy of law and order, and respect
for organized religion. In this sense alone did Podhoretz's cultural
interests intersect with those of the established Right. Only
by ensuring order and stability at home and restoring confidence
in basic institutions, he believed, could the United States fend
off the Communist threat and fulfill the historical mission for
which it had been created.
As an antidote to the cultural disaster
of the 1960s, Podhoretz and Commentary promoted what he called
"a new nationalism." Americans needed to revive their
belief in the American enterprise. According to Podhoretz, only
by urgently committing themselves to a great project of national
rejuvenation could Americans avoid confronting a choice between
war against the Soviet Union and the "Finlandization that
an unimpeded culture of appeasement is certain in the end to yield.
This sentiment captures the essence of
the fifth proposition defining the neoconservative persuasion:
the United States after Vietnam confronted a dire crisis; absent
decisive action to resolve that crisis, unspeakable consequences
Particulars might change, but for neoconservatives
crisis is a permanent condition. The situation is always urgent,
the alternatives stark, the need for action compelling, and the
implications of delay or inaction certain to be severe.
... According to Podhoretz-according to
neoconservatives generally-the antidote to crisis is leadership.
This is the sixth and last component that defines the neoconservative
Among neoconservatives it is an article
of faith that men, not impersonal forces, determine the course
of history. Curbing the isolationist tendencies of the American
people, steeling the nation against the lure of appeasement, summoning
it to pursue its destiny: these become impossible without flinty
determination, moral clarity, and inspiration at the very top.
Americans, neoconservatives believe, hunger for and respond to
heroic-even Churchillian-leadership. In a sort of weird homegrown
variant of the Fuehrer Principle, neoconservatives themselves
share that hunger.
Many neoconservatives are Jewish, many
are not. Some are personally religious, others not at all. For
all of them, however, America is the one true universal church,
the declaration of 1776 tantamount to sacred scripture, and the
District of Columbia the Holy See. In this secular faith, the
occupant of the Oval Office enjoys a status comparable to that
of supreme pontiff.
In neoconservative lore, 1980 stands out
not only as a year of crisis but as the year when the nation decisively
turned things around. For the first time in a half century Americans
elevated to the presidency a man who gave every sign of sharing
the neocon sense of deepening peril requiring drastic remedial
action. During the campaign that year, neoconservatives had thrown
their support behind Ronald Reagan, seeing him as a kindred spirit
who shared their passionate anti-Communism and their distaste
for the cultural detritus of the 1960s. In Reagan, Podhoretz and
other neocons believed that they had found their man, a leader
able to lift the United States out of its slough of post-Vietnam
When Reagan succeeded in ousting Jimmy
Carter from office, neoconservatives were quick to claim a share
of the credit. A quarter of a century later, the Reagan era remains
for neoconservatives a golden moment, at least cording to the
mythic version of Reagan's foreign policy.
The fall of the Berlin Wall left Podhoretz by his own admission
"unable to make up my mind as to what... America's purpose
should be now that the threat of Communism... had been decisively
eliminated .1116 At one point, he even pronounced the neoconservative
His eulogy proved premature. During the
course of the 1990s, neoconservatism enjoyed a remarkable rebirth.
The movement retooled itself, applying the propositions that had
defined neoconservatism in the 19705 and 1980s to a vastly more
ambitious agenda. A new second generation of neocons rose to prominence,
a constellation in which William Kristol, Irving's son, supplanted
Podhoretz as the most luminous star.
The aim of this second generation was
to prod the United States into seizing the strategic offensive.
In 1979, Podhoretz had written disparagingly that the "fondest
wish" of the New Left had "been to turn the United States
around altogether-from a counterrevolutionary power into an active
sponsor" of revolution." Within a decade, that became
the fondest wish of neoconservatives - soon enough including Podhoretz
himself. Neocons aimed to convert the United States into an instrument
for fulfilling their own revolutionary dreams.
... in 1995 ... Norman Podhoretz stepped down as editor of Commentary.
That same year, William Kristol founded a new journal, the Weekly
Standard, which in short order established itself as the flagship
publication of second-generation neoconservatives. Although keeping
faith with neoconservative principles that Commentary had staked
out over the previous two decades-and for a time even employing
Norman's son John Podhoretz in a senior editorial position-the
Standard was from the outset an altogether different publication.
From its founding, Commentary had been published by the American
Jewish Committee, an august and distinctly nonpartisan entity.
The Weekly Standard relied for its existence on the largesse of
Rupert Murdoch, the notorious media mogul. Unlike Commentary,
which had self-consciously catered to an intellectual elite, the
Standard-printed on glossy paper, replete with cartoons, caricatures,
and political gossip-had a palpably less lofty look and feel.
It was by design smart rather than stuffy. Whereas Commentary
had evolved into a self-consciously right-wing version of the
self-consciously progressive Dissent, the Standard came into existence
as a neoconservative counterpart to the neoliberal New Republic.
Throughout Norman Podhoretz's long editorial reign, Commentary
had remained an urbane and sophisticated journal of ideas, aspiring
to shape the terms of political debate even as it remained above
the muck and mire of politics as such. Beginning with volume 1,
number 1, the editors of the Standard did not disguise the fact
that they sought to have a direct and immediate impact on policy;
not ideas as such but political agitation defined the purpose
of this new enterprise.
... the neoconservatives who gravitated to the Weekly Standard
showed themselves to be the most perceptive of all of Woodrow
Wilson's disciples. For the real Wilson (in contrast to either
the idealized or the demonized Wilson) had also seen military
power as an instrument for transforming the international system
and cementing American primacy.
Efforts to promote "a neo-Reaganite
foreign policy of military supremacy and moral confidence"
found expression in five convictions that together form the foundation
of second-generation neoconservative thinking about American statecraft.
First was the certainty that American
global dominion is, in fact, benign and that other nations necessarily
see it as such. Thus, according to Charles Krauthammer, a frequent
contributor to the Weekly Standard, "we are not just any
hegemon. We run a uniquely benign imperium. This is not mere self-congratulation;
it is a fact manifest in the way others welcome our power."
However much they might grumble, the baby-boomer
neocons believed, other nations actually yearned for the United
States to lead and, indeed, to sustain its position as sole superpower,
seeing American dominance as both compatible with their own interests
and preferable to any remotely plausible alternative. Despite
"all the bleating about hegemony, no nation really wants
genuine multipolarity," Robert Kagan observed in this regard.
"Not only do countries such as France and Russia shy away
from the expense of creating and preserving a multipolar world;
they rightly fear the geopolitical consequences of destroying
American hegemony." According to Kagan, the cold, hard reality
of U.S. supremacy was sure to have "a calming effect on the
international environment, inducing other powers to focus their
energies and resources elsewhere." Joshua Muravchik concurred;
rather than eliciting resistance, American dominance could be
counted on to "have a soothing effect on the rest of the
world." With the passing of the Cold War, wrote Charles Krauthammer,
"an ideologically pacified North seeks security and order
by aligning its foreign policy behind that of the United States.
[This] is the shape of things to come."
Failure on the part of the United States
to sustain its imperium would inevitably result in global disorder,
bloody, bitter, and protracted: this emerged as the second conviction
animating neoconservatives after the Cold War. As a result, proposals
for organizing the world around anything other than American power
elicited derision for being woolly-headed and fatuous. Nothing,
therefore, could be allowed to inhibit the United States in the
use of that power.
On this point no one was more emphatic
than Krauthammer. "Collective security is a mirage,"
he wrote." For its part, "the international community
is a fiction." "The allies' is a smaller version of
'the international community'-and equally fictional." "The
United Nations is guarantor of nothing. Except in a formal sense,
it can hardly be said to exist." As a result, when serious
threats arise to American national interests... unilateralism
is the only alternative to retreat. "
Or more extreme still, "The alternative
to unipolarity is chaos." For Krauthammer the incontrovertible
fact of unipolarity demanded that the United States face up to
its obligations, "unashamedly laying down the rules of world
order and being prepared to enforce them."" The point
was one to which younger neoconservatives returned time and again.
For Kristol and Robert Kagan, the choice facing Americans was
clear-cut. On the one hand loomed the prospect of "a decline
in U.S. power, a rise in world chaos, and a dangerous twenty-first
century"; on the other hand was the promise of safety, achieved
through "a Reaganite reassertion of American power and moral
leadership." There existed "no middle ground."
The third conviction animating second-generation
neoconservatives related to military power and its uses. In a
nutshell, they concluded that nothing works like force.
The operative principle was not to husband power but to put it
work-to take a proactive approach. "Military strength alone
will not avail," cautioned Kagan, "if we do not use
it actively to maintain a world order which both supports and
rests upon American hegemony. "61 For neoconservatives like
Kagan, the purpose of the Defense Department was no longer to
defend the United States or to deter would-be aggressors but to
transform the international order by transforming its constituent
parts. Norman Podhoretz had opposed U.S. intervention in Vietnam
"as a piece of arrogant stupidity" and had criticized
in particular the liberal architects of the war for being "only
too willing to tell other countries exactly how to organize their
political and economic institutions. "61 For the younger
generation of neoconservatives, instructing others as to how to
organize their countries-employing coercion if need be-was not
evidence of arrogant stupidity; it was America's job.
By implication, neoconservatives were
no longer inclined to employ force only after having exhausted
all other alternatives. In the 1970s and 1980s, the proximate
threat posed by the Soviet Union had obliged the United States
to exercise a certain self-restraint. Now, with the absence of
any counterweight to American power, the need for self-restraint
fell away. Indeed, far from being a scourge for humankind, war
itself-even, or perhaps especially, preventive war-became in neoconservative
eyes an efficacious means to serve idealistic ends. The problem
with Bill Clinton in the 1990S was not that he was reluctant to
use force but that he was insufficiently bloody-minded. "In
Haiti, in Somalia, and elsewhere" where the United States
intervened, lamented Robert Kagan, "Clinton and his advisers
had the stomach only to be halfway imperialists. When the heat
was on, they tended to look for the exits."" Such halfheartedness
suggested a defective appreciation of what power could accomplish.
Neoconservatives knew better. "Military conquest," enthused
Muravchik, "has often proved to be an effective means of
implanting democracy." Michael Ledeen went even further,
declaring that "the best democracy program ever invented
is the U.S. Army. "66 "Peace in this world," Ledeen
added, "only follows victory in war."
Using force to advance the prospects of peace and democracy implied
that the United States ought to possess military power to spare.
The fourth conviction animating second-generation neoconservatives
was a commitment to sustaining and even enhancing American military
... With the Cold War now history, it
seemed, the world was becoming even more dangerous, and the United
States therefore needed more military power than ever before."
Whether or not a proximate threat existed, it was incumbent upon
the Pentagon to maintain the capability "to intervene decisively
in every critical region" of the world.
To alarmists, the prospect of conflict
without end beckoned. Surveying the world, Frederick W. Kagan,
brother of Robert, concluded in 1999 that "America must be
able to fight Iraq and North Korea, and also be able to fight
genocide in the Balkans and elsewhere without compromising its
ability to fight two major regional conflicts. And it must be
able to contemplate war with China or Russia some considerable
(but not infinite) time from now." The peace that followed
victory was to be a long time coming.
The fifth and final conviction that imparted
a distinctive twist to the views of second-generation neoconservatives
was their hostility toward realism, whether manifesting itself
as a deficit of ideals (as in the case of Henry Kissinger) or
an excess of caution (as in the case of Cohn Powell). As long
as the Cold War had persisted, neoconservatives and realists had
maintained an uneasy alliance, based on their common antipathy
for the Soviet Union. But once the Cold War ended, so too did
any basis for cooperation between the two groups. From the neoconservative
perspective, realism constituted a problem. Realism was about
defending national interests, not transforming the global order.
Realists had a marked aversion to crusades and a marked respect
for limits. In the neoconservative lexicon, the very notion of
"limits" was anathema .
As the 1990s unfolded, neoconservatives pressed their case for
"a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity,"
emphasizing the use of armed force to promulgate American values
and perpetuate American primacy. Most persistently, even obsessively,
neoconservatives throughout the Clinton years lobbied for decisive
U.S. action to rid the world of Saddam Hussein. From a neoconservative
perspective, the Iraqi dictator's survival after Desert Storm
exposed as nothing else the cynicism and shortsightedness of the
realists who had dominated the administration of George H. W.
Bush and who had prevented the American army from completing its
proper mission-pursuing the defeated Iraqi army all the way to
Baghdad. Topping the agenda of the second-generation neoconservatives
was a determination to correct that error, preferably by mobilizing
America's armed might to destroy the Baathist regime. "Bombing
Iraq Isn't Enough," declared the title of one representative
op-ed published by William Kristol and Robert Kagan in January
1998. It was time for the gloves to come off, they argued, "and
that means using air power and ground forces, and finishing the
job left undone in 1991."
Neocons yearned to liberate Iraq, as an
end in itself but also as a means to an eminently larger end.
"A successful intervention in Iraq," wrote Kagan in
February 1998, "would revolutionize the strategic situation
in the Middle East, in ways both tangible and intangible, and
all to the benefit of American interests. " A march on Baghdad
was certain to have a huge demonstration effect. It would put
dictators around the world on notice either to mend their ways
or share Saddam's fate. It would silence doubters who questioned
America's ability to export its values. It would discredit skeptics
who claimed to see lurking behind neoconservative schemes the
temptations of empire, the dangers of militarism, and the prospect
of exhaustion and overstretch.
Above all, forcibly overthrowing Saddam
Hussein would affirm the irresistibility of American military
might. As such, the armed liberation of Iraq would transform U.S.
foreign policy; not preserving the status quo but promoting revolutionary
change would thereafter define the main purpose of American statecraft.
After all, wrote Michael Ledeen well before 9/Il, stability was
for "tired old Europeans and nervous Asians." The United
States was "the most revolutionary force on earth,"
its "inescapable mission to fight for the spread of democracy.
The operative word was fight. According to Ledeen, Mao was precisely
correct: revolution sprang "from the barrel of a gun"
By the end of that decade [1990s], neoconservatives were no longer
insurgents; they had transformed themselves into establishment
figures. Their views entered the mainstream of public discourse
and became less controversial. Through house organs like the Standard,
in essays published by influential magazines such as Foreign Affairs,
through regular appearances on TV talk shows and at conferences
sponsored by the fellow-traveling American Enterprise Institute,
and via the agitprop of the Project for the New American Century,
they warned of the ever-present dangers of isolationism and appeasement,
called for ever more munificent levels of defense spending, and
advocated stern measures to isolate, punish, or overthrow ne'er-do-wells
around the world. As a mark of the growing respectability of such
views, each of the three leading general-interest daily newspapers
in the United States had at least one offering regular foreign
policy commentary-Max Boot writing for the Los Angeles Times,
David Brooks for the New York Times, and both Charles Krauthammer
and Robert Kagan for the Washington Post." Neoconservative
views also dominated the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal.
As a direct consequence of this determined rabble-rousing, neocon
views about the efficacy of American military power and the legitimacy
of its use gained wide currency. On issues ranging from ethnic
cleansing in Bosnia to the "rise" of China to the proper
response to terror, neoconservatives recast the public policy
debate about the obligations imposed upon and prerogatives to
be claimed by the sole superpower. They kept the focus on the
issues that they believed mattered most: an America that was strong,
engaged, and even pugnacious.
Ideas that even a decade earlier might
have seemed reckless or preposterous now came to seem perfectly
reasonable. A good example was the issue of regime change in Iraq.
On January 26, 1998, William Kristol and Robert Kagan along with
more than a dozen other neoconservative luminaries sent a public
letter to President Bill Clinton denouncing the policy of containing
Iraq as a failure and calling for the United States to overthrow
Saddam Hussein. To persist in the existing "course of weakness
and drift," the signatories warned ominously, was to "put
our interests and our future at risk." Nine months later,
Clinton duly signed into law the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998,
passed by large majorities in both houses of Congress. That legislation
declared that it had now become the policy of the United States
government to "remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein,"
with legislators authorizing the expenditure of $99 million for
that purpose." Clinton showed little enthusiasm for actually
implementing the measure, and most of the money remained unspent.
But neoconservative efforts had done much to create a climate
in which it had become impolitic to suggest aloud that publicly
declaring the intent to overthrow regimes not to the liking of
the United States might be ill-advised.
Writing in 2000, Robert Kagan and William Kristol, echoing Podhoretz
twenty years earlier at the end of the Carter presidency, proclaimed
that a great crisis was at hand. Although Americans no longer
faced a great-power adversary comparable to the Soviet Union,
"there is today a present danger."
The present danger is that the United
States will shrink from its responsibilities as the world's dominant
power and-in a fit of absentmindedness, or parsimony or indifference-will
allow the international order that it sustains to collapse. The
present danger is one of declining strength, flagging will and
confusion about our role in the world.
... the grand vision entertained by second-generation neoconservatives
demanded that the United States shatter the status quo. New conditions,
they argued, absolved Americans from any further requirement to
adhere to the norms that had defined the postwar international
order. Osama bin Laden and the events of 9/11 provided the tailor-made
opportunity to break free of the fetters restricting the exercise
of American power.
The moment of decision was now at hand.
"Either we act aggressively to shape the world and change
regimes where necessary," wrote William Kristol and Gary
Schmitt, "or we accept living in a world in which our existence
is contingent on the whims of unstable tyrants."" According
to Kristol and Lawrence Kaplan, "The alternative to American
leadership is a chaotic, Hobbesian world." In such a world,
"there is no authority to thwart aggression, ensure peace
and security or enforce international norms."
Immediately after the attacks of September
11, 2001, and despite the dearth of persuasive evidence linking
Saddam Hussein's regime to the attacks on the World Trade Center
and the Pentagon, neoconservatives in and out of government began
pressing insistently for an all-out invasion of Iraq. The key
to ultimate victory in the war on terror, neoconservatives believed,
lay in Iraq. "The road that leads to real security and peace,"
argued William Kristol and Robert Kagan, was "the road that
runs through Baghdad."
If neoconservatives harbored any lingering doubts about the ability
of U.S. military power to carry off such a bold scheme, those
doubts vanished with the first skirmish of the global war on terror-the
nominally successful U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Victory over
the Taliban in the fall of 2001 convinced Krauthammer for example,
that "the way to tame the Arab street is not with easement
and sweet sensitivity but with raw power and victory ... . The
elementary truth that seems to elude the experts again and again...
is that power is its own reward. Victory changes everything, psychology
above all. The psychology in the [Middle East] is now one of fear
and deep respect for American power. Now is the time to use it."
But Afghanistan was hardly more than a
preliminary bout. The main event-the contest that promised to
determine the future of the international order-was Iraq. "Either
it will be a world order conducive to our liberal democratic principles
and our safety," argued Robert Kagan and William Kristol,
"or it will be one where brutal, well-armed tyrants are allowed
to hold democracy and international security hostage. Not to take
on Saddam would insure that regimes implicated in terror and developing
weapons of mass destruction will be a constant-and growing-feature
of our world. " Thus, Saddam had to go; the imperative of
liberating and remaking Iraq demanded immediate attention.
The "political, strategic and moral
rewards" of doing so promised to be enormous, according to
Kristol. "A friendly, free, and oil-producing Iraq would
leave Iran isolated and Syria cowed; the Palestinians more willing
to negotiate seriously with Israel; and Saudi Arabia with less
leverage over policymakers here and in Europe," he told the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 2002. "Removing
Saddam Hussein and his henchmen from power presents a genuine
opportunity," Kristol emphasized, "to transform the
political landscape of the Middle East."
Soon enough, this line of reasoning found
favor with President George W. Bush. Viewing the global war on
terrorism through a religious rather than an ideological lens,
Bush nonetheless found much to like about the neoconservative
prescription for U.S. policy, both as it applied to Iraq and more
As a result, the period between the summer
of 2002 and the spring 2003-bounded on the one side by Bush's
speech to graduating cadets at West Point and on the other by
the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, but with its true centerpiece
the publication of the Bush administration's U.S. National Security
Strategy-became for neoconservatives something like a dream come
true. During this interval, the doctrines of preventive war and
permanent military supremacy were officially enshrined as U.S.
policy, with Operation Iraqi Freedom removing all doubts as to
whether President Bush meant what he said. The fall of Baghdad
in April 2003 presented to the United States, in the words of
one neoconservative, the opportunity "to create a landscape
for real revolution in the Middle East-a reordering that might
prevent a future clash of civilizations."
As a consequence of these developments,
the younger Bush, a born-again Christian, was reborn yet again
in neoconservative eyes. He became what Reagan ought to have been,
not only expressing all the correct sentiments but also (unlike
the real Reagan) backing up words with action. Thanks to President
Bush, noted an approving William Kristol just months after 9/It,
"American foreign policy can be said to be at war with tyranny
in general." Buoyed by the shift in policy inaugurated by
the Bush Doctrine, the neoconservative writers David Frum and
Richard Perle declared with confidence that with the United States
having "become the greatest of all powers in world history,
its triumph has shown that freedom is irresistible." Looking
beyond Iraq, they glimpsed a world of universal peace Land freedom,
"brought into being by American armed might and defended
by American might."
No one applauded this prospect with greater
enthusiasm than did Norman Podhoretz, who saw in these developments
the fulfillment of longstanding neoconservative hopes and expectations.
According to Podhoretz, .the sheer audacity" of the attack
that Osama bin Laden had orchestrated on September 11 could have
only one explanation: the weakness displayed by Bush's immediate
predecessors during the 1990s had bred "contempt for American
When James Burnham had argued in the 1940s that the only alternative
to the communist World Empire is an American Empire which will
be... capable of exercising decisive world control," critics
had denounced him as unhinged. But with 9/11, neoconservatives
had come fully to embrace this imperial vision. Waging preventive
war to overthrow recalcitrant regimes and free the oppressed-this
had become the definitive expression of America's calling.
As a bonus, the prosecution of this war
also held out the prospect of renewal at home. "Beyond revenge"
for the attacks of 9/11, Podhoretz rhapsodized, Americans "crave
'a new birth' of the confidence we used to have in ourselves and
in 'America the Beautiful."
But there is only one road to this lovely
condition of the spirit, [he continued,] and it runs through what
Roosevelt and Churchill called the 'unconditional surrender' of
the enemy. If we go on dithering, our lives will remain at permanent
risk. So, too, will something deeper than the desire for physical
security that has been stirred and agitated by the ferocious wound
we received on September II: a wound that is still suppurating
and sore for lack of the healing balm that only a more coherent
and wholehearted approach to the war will bring.
What I mean is that nothing less than
the soul of this country is at stake, and that nothing less than
an unambiguous victory will save us from yet another disappointment
in ourselves and another despairing disillusion with our leaders.
Only this time the disappointment and the despair might well possess
enough force to topple us over just as surely as those hijacked
planes did to the twin towers of the World Trade Center.