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Mock on, Maureen Dowd: Why She’s Right About the Neo-cons

In the twilight years of the New Left, revolutionaries would regularly parse their adversaries’ statements for indications of “objective racism.” Even the slightest irregularity—calling someone’s thoughts “dark”—could unleash a volley of accusations. I was reminded of this in reading the responses to Maureen Dowd’s recent column, “Neocons Slither Back,” about the neo-conservative influence on Mitt Romney’s foreign policy.

A host of people have accused Dowd of anti-Semitism for using a term “puppet master” to describe Romney’s advisor Dan Senor and for implying that Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan are “foreign policy neophytes” who have received their current ideas about the world from neo-conservative intellectuals who previously prodded “an insecure and uninformed president into invading Iraq.”

In singling out this single phrase, Dowd’s critics accuse her of using a metaphor dating from the Nazis and Mein Kampf. While the phrase’s nasty origin still sometimes resonates—when, for example, Glenn Beck calls George Soros a “puppet master” seeking world domination—it’s also widely used in the way Dowd did to simply suggest an individual or individuals controlling other individuals. What really seems to bothers many of Dowd’s critics is not the term, but the thesis of neo-conservative control that underlies it.

Let’s take the historical point first. Did neo-conservatives play a central role in prodding George W. Bush to invade Iraq? Dowd’s critics, including liberals as well as conservatives,  say no. Dowd’s charge, Jeffrey Goldberg, a liberal supporter of the Iraq war, writes, “relegated George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Stephen Hadley and the other Christians who actually set policy to the status of puppets.”

There is an immediate problem with this assertion. Dowd doesn’t identify neoconservatives with Jews and contrast them with Christians. And saying someone is a “Christian” does not imply that he or she is not neo-conservative. There have always been prominent non-Jewish neo-conservatives, beginning with Jeane Kirkpatrick. But I think Goldberg is himself using a columnists’ license—as Dowd does in her use of metaphor—to make a different point: that Cheney, Rice et al. were responsible for the Iraq war and were not neo-conservatives. This is an arguable point, but misses the central role that neo-conservatives played.

American history does not have tightly organized parties that set policy. Policies sometimes emerge out of informal networks. And key foreign policy decisions have often come about in exactly that manner. In the 1890s, a group of intellectuals that included Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Brooks Adams met on Lafayette Square to discuss, among other things, the need to abandon America’s insular foreign policy and to join the global struggle for empire. They urged the McKinley administration to invade Cuba and the Philippines to replace Spanish with American rule. They had connections to the important magazines and newspapers of the day. And when Roosevelt became McKinley’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy, they had a crucial voice within the administration. McKinley, like George W. Bush, was a foreign policy neophyte who was pushed, prodded and even (in the case of Roosevelt) manipulated into becoming a champion of American imperialism.

The neo-conservatives of the mid-1990s played  a very similar role in the events leading up to the invasion of Iraq. They were different from the first generation of neocons: they were more focused on foreign than domestic policy; they embraced a quasi-Trotskyist strategy of transforming the world in America’s image through hard as well as soft power; they saw Israel and to some extent Taiwan as irreproachable outposts of American power and idealism; and they were obsessed with overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

These neo-conservatives established a network of intellectuals, publications (led by William Kristol’s Weekly Standard) and policy groups (including the Project for the New American Century, which later spawned the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq). They promoted resolutions in Congress, and when Bush was elected, got people in key second-level positions in the Pentagon and Vice President’s office.  Bush himself ran as an anti-interventionist, but taken aback after September 11, became a convert to the neo-conservative view of the world.  He made the final decisions, but he made them within a strategic framework that the neo-conservatives had developed. If you want this story in detail —along with the analogy with the 1890s—I wrote about it in The Folly of Empire.

Now to the present. What about Romney? After the disaster in Iraq, many of the key neo-conservatives, including Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, left the administration, but neo-conservatives have remained at the center of Republican foreign policy. Randy Scheunemann (the former head of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq) was John McCain’s foreign policy aide in 2008, and after McCain’s defeat, Kristol and Robert Kagan, along with Senor and Eric Edelman, a former Pentagon official and aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, founded the Foreign Policy Initiative. Like the Project for the New American Century, it publishes open letters and holds forums and is better funded and organized than its predecessor. FPI’s very first forum in September 2009 featured a conversation between Senor and an aspiring presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. Senor, of course, became one of Romney’s key people, and now travels with Ryan, and Edelman is one of his foreign policy advisors.

Romney has other notable links to the neo-conservative network. Romney cites Kagan and Senor in the acknowledgments to his 2010 campaign book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. The position that Romney takes in that book echo those developed by the neo-conservative network around PNAC and the Foreign Policy Initiative. Neo-conservative Eliot Cohen, an original PNAC signatory, wrote the preface to White Paper and is now a top advisor to the presidential candidate. Romney, of course, has appointed advisors of different persuasions, including foreign policy transition head Robert Zoellick, but he has relied on the neo-conservatives for his ideology.

There are, of course, thoughtful, interesting neo-conservatives just as there are similarly thoughtful liberals. I’d single out Bob Kagan. But there are also hacks who appear to have learned nothing from the last decade. Senor didn’t impress during Romney’s tour of Israel. And Kristol, evidenced in his defense of Romney’s statements about Libya—remains more propagandist than theorist. But that’s not the point. The point is that their strategic framework has already been tried and found wanting—cataclysmically so. That’s exactly what Maureen Dowd was getting at and what her critics want us to ignore.