heilbrunnbook.jpg(Please welcome in the comments Jacob Heilbrunn and Steve Clemons. As is our practice, please be polite to our guests and take off topic conversations to the previous thread. – chs)

In today’s Washington Post, Jacob Heilbrunn outlines "5 Myths About Those Nefarious Neocons". It’s a great short piece and makes the point that many really don’t understand — that neoconservative support of Israel is actually destructive of Israel’s own interests.

Former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy has written similarly about this divergence of interests in an excellent article, "So Pro-Israel it Hurts" — and I have also brought up Israel’s diaspora challenge after then Deputy Director General for Public Affairs of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told me that he wished "our Jewish-American friends and family" would settle down a bit.

Heilbrunn is author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons," for which I will be hosting this Book Salon with the author.

But back to the neocon essay, the last myth that Heilbrunn commented on is the most worrisome:

5 The Iraq debacle has discredited the neocons.

This could be the biggest whopper of them all. Now that the "surge" in Iraq has brought levels of violence down somewhat, the neocons are already claiming vindication. As Iraq fades from the front pages, the neocons’ hero, Arizona Sen. John McCain, is poised to become the Republican standard-bearer in 2008. (The neocons also would have happily flocked around Rudolph W. Giuliani, who recruited Norman "World War IV" Podhoretz as a senior adviser.)

The truth is that the neocons have been repeatedly declared dead before — and, to the chagrin of their enemies on the left and the right, bounced back.

At the end of the Cold War, the arch-realist George H.W. Bush relegated them to the sidelines; then the triangulating Bill Clinton seemed to deprive them of their biggest foreign and domestic policy issues. If they came back from that, they can come back from anything.

Now that Robert Kagan, William Kristol (who seems not to be discredited in the eyes of the New York Times, which just made him a columnist) and a host of other neocons have hitched their fortunes to McCain, the neocons are poised for a fresh comeback. If they make a hash of foreign policy by 2011, perhaps the familiar cycle of public scorn and rebirth might even start all over again.

In Heilbrunn’s postscript in his book, he outlines the seeming exodus of many neoconservatives from government positions — like Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser, Scooter Libby, and others — but then notes that they "remained unrepentant" and "seemed relatively unaffected by the obloquy they had endured during the Bush years." He quotes me saying "They’re gone, but they’re not gone."

And many are now joining John McCain’s machine.

To some degree, Heilbrunn’s profile of the deep roots of neoconservatism and the school’s journey is as much a story of the decline of the realist and liberal internationalist schools of foreign policy as an earnest story of neocon influence.

And the damage that has been done both by realist decline and the robustness of neoconservative zealousness in reshaping the internal guts of other nations through armed drones, bunker busters, and tanks has also resulted in the rise of a leftish-form of neoconservatism in democratic ranks. This movement on the left like the neocons embraces empbire, is values driven, hawkish, and considers the calculation of basic interests served or gambled as largely immoral.

Brown University John Carter Brown Library Director Ted Widmer (who is also a colleague and Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program with me) wrote a penetrating review of Heilbrunn’s book in the Washington Post recently, titled "What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been."

In the review, Widmer challenges Heilbrunn for taking on some of the Clinton clan, particularly Madeleine Albright:

. . .At other times, Heilbrunn seems defensive, as if a trace of the [neocon] virus remains in his bloodstream. He suggests that the United States should have overthrown Egyptian president Gamal Nasser in 1956 to let democracy bloom, an act that would have been illegal and insane.

He is very severe on Democratic foreign policy, targeting George McGovern (who inflicted more harm on Nazis than any neocons did), ridiculing Jimmy Carter and launching the usual tired attacks on Bill Clinton, whom he finds both too slow (to combat terrorism) and too eager (to conduct humanitarian interventions). He excoriates Madeleine Albright for daring to express the "hubristic belief" that the United States is indispensable to the world. More hubristic than the neocons?

Read Widmer’s entire piece — as it’s a very good retelling of the longer Heilbrunn book about the origins and rise of neoconservatism.

But what my colleague Ted Widmer doesn’t seem to get is that there is a thin line dividing liberal interventionism and neocoservatism — both versions of a militant idealism that has done serious damage to American prestige abroad.

While President Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke and others can count the take-down of Slobodan Milosevic and the containment of Serbia as a victory today — it nonetheless is increasingly being referred to by some Dems as "regime change done right".

This ethic is gaining real traction in Democratic circles — and has a bunch of chairs at the foreign policy advisory tables of both Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

To me, the neoconservative movement that got its chance to operate the machinery of the foreign policy/national security establishment during the George W. Bush administration seemed a lot like the Borg in the latter day Star Trek films. The Borg wanted to assimilate other cultures to "wire them" to converge with their own characteristics and operating systems. And those they couldn’t re-wire or assimilate, they’d wipe out — without concern for interests, costs, and consequences.

The neoconservative story is one that is very important to understand — because America will relive it, and we need to know next time what strategies work to curtail the ideologically seductive bravado of militant utopians on either side of the aisle.

I look forward to a lively and constructive discussion today about the role and influence of neoconservatives not only in Bush’s foreign policy and the Iraq debacle — but also in America’s future.

— Steve Clemons

Steve Clemons

Steve Clemons

Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note, and is a long-term policy practitioner and entrepreneur in Washington, D.C. He is currently Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, where he previously served as Executive Vice President.
Clemons specializes in U.S. foreign policy matters, with significant experience both in Asia-Pacific and transatlantic policy matters, as well as broad international economic and security affairs.

Prior to his current position, Steve Clemons served as Executive Vice President of the Economic Strategy Institute. He has also served as Senior Policy Advisor on Economic and International Affairs to Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and was the first Executive Director of the Nixon Center and established it in Washington, D.C.
Prior to moving to Washington, Clemons served for seven years as Executive Director of the Japan America Society of Southern California and co-founded with Chalmers Johnson the Japan Policy Research Institute, of which he is still Director.

Steve Clemons is a Member of the Board of the Clarke Center at Dickinson College, a liberal arts college in Carlisle, Pennsylvania as well as a Board Member of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland.

He also writes frequently on matters of foreign policy, defense, and international economic policy. His work has appeared in most of the major leading op-ed pages, journal, and magazines around the world.